Conversation: Frederick Wiseman, Director of ‘La Danse’

For more than 40 years and in nearly 40 films, director Frederick Wiseman has documented a wide range of people’s everyday routines and the goings-on inside institutions. He’s been a fly on the wall at a mental institution, a suburban high school, an urban hospital, and the Idaho State Legislature. A “big ballet fan,” and a sometimes-resident of Paris, Wiseman recently turned his camera to one of France’s most important cultural institutions: the Paris Opera Ballet. His new film, “La Danse,” is currently playing at the Film Forum in New York and will be broadcast later on PBS. He talked to me by phone from Boston.

Frederick Wiseman

JEFFREY BROWN: Frederick Wiseman, hello to you.


JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me how, first, how did this project come about? Why pick a ballet company? Why pick this company?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: I was living in Paris, as I have for much of the last 8 years and I’m a big ballet fan and in 1992, I’d made a movie about the American Ballet Theater and when I was in Paris, I went to the ballet a lot and I thought it was time to make another ballet movie.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you make something like this happen? I mean you famously look at all kinds of different institutions. How do you approach them? What do you offer? What kind of negotiations are there?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: In this case, I simply called up Brigitte Lefevre, who’s the head of the ballet company at the Paris Opera and asked if I could come see her. I went to see her. I told her what I wanted to do. She accepted the idea right away and she — her permission opened all the doors for me and then — then I, of course, had to get the money. (Laughter.)

I was able to get the money partially from PBS and partially from France. And I went ahead and made the film. My original conversation with her was in the spring of 2007 and I shot the film in the fall of 2007 because at that moment, the repertory included both modern and classical ballets. So I had a chance to show the full range and diversity of the choice of ballet and the talents of the dancers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I want to understand what doing a film like this entails. Before you shoot, I mean, how much prep or research goes into it? How much time do you spend there without the cameras?


JEFFREY BROWN: A day? That’s it?

[Full transcript after the jump]

FREDERICK WISEMAN: That’s it because I don’t like – I mean, the shooting of the film is the research because none of the events in the film are staged. I don’t ever ask anybody to do anything especially for me. And all I need to know in advance is the geography of the place and what the routines are. And in the case of the Paris Opera Ballet, that was quite simple because every week, they published a rehearsal and performance schedule.

The administrator told me to check with her secretary to find out what her appointments were. So it – all I had to do in advance was to walk around the building and get a sense of where the rehearsal rooms were, the meeting rooms and how to get around because it was in an enormous and complicated building, and quite beautiful. The interior’s quite lovely. So I did that for a day. Someone took me around; I made little maps. So I knew how to find the various places that I’d want to go. And then when I came back in the fall, I started shooting right away.

The only meetings I had with the dancers in advance was I had to talk to the dancers, which I did; I met separately with the corps and the principal dancers and would take all the etoiles, who were the star dancers. I met with them in separate meetings and explained what I wanted to do, and they all accepted the idea and I was ready to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: So but if the shooting of the film is the research and that has famous fly-on-the-wall aspect of all your films, it means that a good deal of this is — I mean, is it serendipity? Is that the right word or is it —

FREDERICK WISEMAN: Well, it’s a combination of judgment, instinct and luck.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much — how much of each? (Chuckles.)

FREDERICK WISEMAN: Well, you know, I don’t know that I could break it down into percentages; some of each is always present because every day that I was there, they were probably rehearsing at least three ballets. So it was a question of what rehearsal to go to at what point.

I had to inform myself with the meetings. And, of course, one of the things you have to do for this kind of movie is to shoot a lot of film. And for “La Danse,” I shot about 130 hours.

JEFFREY BROWN: 130 hours to get down to what is 2:40 (two hours, 40 minutes).

FREDERICK WISEMAN: It’s a very low ratio. I haven’t, you know, the math is about 35-to-1. But for this kind of filmmaking, you have to shoot a lot in order to have the choice in the editing room because the film is construct – you can have good rushes and screw them up in the editing, and you could have mediocre rushes and improve them in the editing. And since I have no idea in advance what the themes or the structure of the story is going to be, that’s all discovered in the editing. It’s the exact reverse of a fiction film.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me give you one example — a favorite moment of mine is this film is — it’s one of those meetings you’re talking about. A dancer is sitting with the director, the company’s director, explaining why she’d rather not dance in one of the dances in a new ballet, and she says this line, she says, “I’m not 25 anymore.” Something like that just came about — ?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: It came about because Brigitte Lefevre’s secretary told me that Brigitte was having a meeting with one of the dancers. So I said, well, you know, can we come along? And the answer was yes, and I had no idea in advance what the subject was or how the meeting was going to unfold. And we shot the meeting.

And you know, it went on a bit longer than that; they always do. But I mean, the core of the meeting was around the issue of the dancer wanting to cut back a bit on her performance time. That’s an example of all three! Of judgment, instinct and luck!

JEFFREY BROWN: (Chuckles.)

FREDERICK WISEMAN: I knew it was important to get meetings where the administrator talked to the dancers, and I was lucky that that was the subject. You know, I tried to edit in such a way that it fit in with the themes that I thought I was discovering in the material.

JEFFREY BROWN: So then, as you were saying, so much of the process then goes into putting it all together. Do you enjoy the shooting part or the editing part more, or — ?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: Well, I enjoy them both; they’re very different. I mean, the shooting is almost kind of a sport because you’re on your feet 12, 15 hours a day; you have to act very quickly because often, if you miss, you know — for example, in that meeting that you mentioned, if I’d missed the introduction to the idea of what the dancer wanted, the rest of it wouldn’t have made any sense. So you have to act very quickly, you have to be prepared to shoot right away and you have to know when to stop.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then the editing, I mean, you were starting to say how much you –

FREDERICK WISEMAN: But I enjoy the shooting because it’s instinctive, it’s hard work; the editing is much more contemplative because I have the chance — it usually takes me a year. It took me a year to edit “La Danse,” and I worked on it pretty much every day, and towards the end, seven days a week.

I mean, the first thing I’d have to do was review all the material and make sure that I know, in this case, all 130 hours — what I have on film. And I have elaborate notes and I have a log that records — where there’s a listing of each shot.

And then, I go through all the material and I — after I’ve made the first pass at all the material, I probably reject about 60 percent of it. And then from the remaining 40 percent, I edit those sequences that I think I might use in the final film into a form that’s close to the final form. And that takes me upwards of six or seven months to get all the candidate sequences into usable form.

And then, when I’ve done that, over the course of three or four days, I put together the first assembly of the structure of the film. And I can do it very quickly at that point because I know the material inside out. And I can make the changes very quickly because it’s all in close to final form — the individual sequences are in close to final form.

And then, when I’ve got that first structure, comes out to about 30 or 40 minutes longer than the final film. And then, I work on the rhythm, both the rhythm internally within the sequence and the external rhythm, the relationship between the sequences because at that point, I not only have to construct the story, I have to make a movie out of the material with a dramatic structure.

JEFFREY BROWN: That leads me to my last question. I mean, is the result — and this is sort of a way of asking you about how you see documentaries, or your style of documentaries – what is the result? Is it a result of a kind of report on, in this case, the institution of a dance company; you’re the author here but you’re an author of things, you know, that took place over there. How do you define what the result is?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: Well, I mean, I define the result of saying it’s a movie. But the editing of one of my movies is a lot like writing. It’s like writing a novel or a play except that a novelist is limited only by his imagination and his talent. A filmmaker is limited by the material you have in the rushes. But with 130 hours of rushes, I have a wide range of choice, so I have to study them and I have to figure out what I think material means. So in a literal sense the movie is a report on what I’ve found and what it’s like to run a ballet company.

But in an abstract sense, it’s a movie with a story — with a beginning, a middle and an end — which deals, at least in my mind, with complex ideas, ideas that I think are complicated about dance and movement and the nature of ballet and the passage of time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright. Very, very interesting. This film is called, “La Danse.” Frederick Wiseman, thanks for talking to us.

FREDERICK WISEMAN: Thank you very much.