Frederick Wiseman on Filmmaking

Watch EX LIBRIS - The New York Public Library excerpts, and read an interview in which director Frederick Wiseman discusses making the documentary.

You are well known for your work on American institutions, for which you were awarded an Honorary Oscar this year. What sparked your interest in The New York Public Library?

I’ve always loved and used public libraries for what I can learn and discover and for the surprises and stimulation they offer. I was not familiar, before I made the film, with the depth, scope and range of the New York Public Library and the wide range of services they provide to all classes, races and ethnicities in the main library and its 92 branches. I was also attracted by the immensity of the archives and collections, the diversity of the programming and the real and impassioned involvement of the staff in offering counseling in education, scholarship, languages and business, to name only a few categories, to everyone who came looking for help.


One of the people appearing in the film says that libraries are the “pillars of democracy”. Isn’t that a bit excessive?

No, I don’t think so. I was ignorant about the scope of the libraries activities before I started the film. As a consequence of spending 12 weeks at the library, I think it is a fair and accurate description. The NYPL is not only a place where one goes to look for books or consult archives, it is a key institution for the city’s inhabitants and citizens, and particularly in poor and immigrant neighborhoods where the library is more than a passive place where people take out books. The branches have become community and cultural centers where a wide variety of educational activities take place for adults and children. The staff of the library works to help others through language and computer courses, seminars in literature and history or how to establish a business as well as supplementing the school program with after school courses for children and adolescents. There are literally hundreds of educational programs for people of all ages and social classes. The film suggests the wide spectrum of opportunity offered by the library. The NYPL embodies the profoundly democratic idea of being open to everyone. All classes, races and ethnicities are connected to the library. For me, the New York Public Library is an illustration of democracy in action. And represents the best of America. For these reasons saying that libraries are “pillars of democracy” doesn’t seem excessive.

Libraries can have an austere image, but your film shows many joyous moments.

Yes, there is something joyous and the spirit is contagious. The staff at the NYPL is inventive and generous. The NYPL does not offer a solution for all that’s wrong in America, but it is magnificent that such an institution exists. The current president of the library has set as an objective to continue the traditional work of the library, but also to help immigrants and the poor. He is, like many Americans, from an immigrant family and knows the benefit of offering a wide variety of educational and cultural programs in poor and immigrant neighborhoods. At a time when the United States has elected a very Darwinian government, I think it may be useful to show people working in a passionate manner to help others.

In all your films, you show places and institutions by revealing as much how they function as how they malfunction. In the case of the NYPL, we have the impression that everything works. Why this choice?

I am not making the evaluation that everything works. I am a filmmaker not a management consultant. Some of my films are in part critical of the institutions that are the subject of the film. In any film I think it is just as important to show people working well and providing useful service to others, as it is to show malign, cruel and insensitive behavior. In each case the film presents what I find and I hope never represents a pre-conceived ideological position. There is almost always a combination of the kind, the cruel, the beneficent and the banal.

Why is Ex Libris three hours and seventeen minutes long, and not six hours or two hours and twenty minutes? Since the film proceeds in separate series of sequences that develop at their own speed, without interference, why wouldn’t it be possible to add or remove one?

My films have the length I think necessary for the subject. I feel a greater responsibility to the people who have given me permission to film them than I do to a television network. The final film needs to be a fair representation of the experience I had in spending 6 to 12 weeks at a place and then studying the rushes during the year of editing. Some subjects are more complex than others and I try not to simplify the film in the service of meeting the arbitrary needs of the television industry.

What do you mean by the “right” length?

The length I feel is right for the story I want to tell. I don’t decide the structure or telling position in advance. The structure and point of view emerge in the course of the editing. At the risk of sounding pretentious, all I can do is try to determine what I think and follow my own judgment. At what moment do you consider that the editing work is completed? The film is completed when I think I have done the best I can with the material I have. I have to be able to explain to myself why I have selected each shot and its function in the dramatic narrative I am trying to construct.

Do you still edit in analogue?

No, I’ve switched to digital, unfortunately. The first film I edited in digital was La Danse - Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, in 2009. But the film was shot in analogue. All my films have been shot and edited in digital since then.

Did that change the way you edit?

No, I think that a lot of what’s said about the differences between analogue and digital editing is bull----. It’s not the machine that makes the choices! It takes me exactly the same amount of time to edit a film in digital as it does in analogue. The work is done by the brain, not by the machine. The Avid digital system follows the model of the flat bed Steenbeck editing machine that I used for years. The only thing that goes faster is the possibility of recovering a specific shot. But that is not necessarily a good thing. When the reel was on the wall, I had to get up and get it, put it on the Steenbeck to look for the shot. This was not time lost. In looking for a shot or sequence, I also reviewed what was shot before and after it, and as a result often had ideas I found useful.

In Ex Libris, you don’t follow any one character more than another, one story more than another, whereas the NYPL president, who really has character, could have served as the film’s unifying thread. Is this choice because it’s the only way to fully take into account all the facets of an institution or collective entity?

If I made a film following the president of the NYPL, it wouldn’t be a film about the library. He would become the subject of the film. I’m not saying that you can’t make an interesting film focused on him. This is not the film I chose to make. My films are mosaics, the result of thousands of choices designed to giving an impression of the day-to-day activities of the place. That is the subject of the film. The final film is impressionistic, never definitive or comprehensive.

You are both the director and the sound recordist for your films. Is it what you hear that guides what you see?

No, it depends. It is completely variable depending on the sequence. Sometimes the images lead the words and sometimes it’s the words that lead the image. In the film At Berkeley, there are many meetings and sequences where words lead the images, but the contrary can also happen, as in La Danse – Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris.

Why the title, Ex Libris – The New York Public Library, which designates the inscription inside a book before the owner’s name and which sometimes is in the form of an image or a coat of arms?

It’s partly a private joke, because my father-in-law, in his library, added an ex libris with his name to all the books that he had acquired. But what I wanted to indicate above all is that this film does not reflect everything that goes on at the New York Public Library. I chose the titles of my films, At Berkeley and In Jackson Heights for the same reason, to suggest that the film does not pretend to show everything that goes on in these institutions. Rather than choosing From the Library for the title, I use the Latin expression to suggest the same idea.

As one of the persons appearing in your film points out, despite its name, the New York Public Library is not only a public institution, but a public-private partnership, since half its budget comes from private funds and foundations. In France, PPPs have primarily served to socialize losses and privatize profits and have rarely been the best choice for the public good. How is it that in the case of The New York Library this partnership appears to be working?

It is probably because of the difference in the history of the two countries, with the centralized French government allocating 1% of the national budget for culture. The $250 million budget of the national endowment for the arts (which is for all the art funding in the United States) is probably just a small portion of what the city of Paris receives each year from the French government. Because of the difference in the tax codes of each country, Americanfoundations replace thegovernment in making large grants for cultural activity. Andrew Carnegie founded libraries throughout America at the end of the 19th century. Even though he was a very tough businessman, he didn’t forget that he was a Scottish immigrant and wanted to give part of his fortune to the country that had made him rich. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet follow similar paths today. Private foundations make an important contribution to American culture and education.

Do libraries like the NYPL still have a future when the great digital library has become accessible from any computer connected to the Internet?

Even if they are in the process of digitizing and putting larger and larger sections of their gigantic holdings on line, I don’t think libraries will be less important in the future. The New York Public Library sponsors such a wide variety of important cultural and educational activities that it will continue to be a place where people want to go to learn, share ideas, become informed and develop their capacities. Those needs will enhance not diminish the importance of the NYPL and all libraries.