Frederick Wiseman

Richard Covington interviews Frederick Wiseman.


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Richard Covington
August 26, 1996 10:45PM (UTC)


nearly 30 years ago, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman shocked
audiences with an unflinching exposi of the brutalities
of a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane. Only recently has the
long-standing ban on the film "Titicut Follies" been lifted in the state.

Since his first film, the former law school professor has turned his
dispassionate camera on American institutions, trailing through high schools,
welfare offices, a monastery, zoo, near-death care unit, fashion runways and
the American Ballet Theatre. Wiseman is one of the leading proponents of cinema
veriti, or direct cinema; his films
have no narration, music or titles. His subjects condemn or exalt themselves on
their own, in full knowledge of what they're doing, without coercion or
persuasion. Whatever acts of generosity, horror, triumph and mind-numbing
boredom surface, the viewer is left to interpret for himself: Wiseman explains
nothing.

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Wiseman's latest film, his 29th, marks the first time he has
ventured beyond American subjects. "La Comidie
Frangaise" puts the oldest continuous theatre company in
the world under the Wiseman microscope. Created in the 17th century by Louis
XIV, the Paris-based theatre troupe is the preeminent exponent of French theater, a national institution charged with the delicate task of simultaneously upholding tradition and staying on the cutting edge. Unlike any other company in the world, its members are elected for life.

Wiseman's "La Comidie Frangaise" will be aired over the PBS network on September 1 and shown in competition at the Venice Film Festival on September 4. It airs in France and Germany in December.

I spoke with Wiseman at his summer home in the Maine woods. With his black hair curling behind his ears and his thick, arching eyebrows, the 66-year-old
filmmaker has an elfin look of playful, permanent irony. His protruding eyes
seem exactly suited to a man who shot 126 hours of footage for the French film and spent a year editing it down to a meager three hours and 40 minutes running time.


How did you come up with the idea for doing a film on the Comidie Frangaise?

I got the idea about five or six years ago. In the fall of 1993, I met with
(the company's chief administrator) Jean-Pierre Miquel. He said "OK, but you'll have to get
permission from all the cardinals." He wasn't necessarily suggesting that he was the Pope, but that there were a lot of independent power bases at the Comidie. I
had to get the OK from the stagehands, the electricians and so on.

You had to get individual permission from all the various members?

Yes.

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How many groups were there?

I think there were 24.

So I spent three months there in the winter of '94 just hanging around, which is something I had never done before. Usually, I hang around for two or three days at the most, sometimes only a day. But for
January, February and March of '94, I went to the Comidie Frangaise every day in
a low-key way. I met people, had beers with them and went out to lunch.

They knew the film was under consideration?

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Oh, yeah. There was a notice that went out that I would be there, that I was thinking about making a movie. At the end of three months, I would indicate whether I wanted to make the movie and they would indicate whether it was OK with them.

I went to performances, I went to meetings, I hung out in the Green Room, basically all the things that you see in the movie. There are 450 people who work there and I met a large proportion of them. At the end of the three months, I said I wanted to make the film and the administrator consulted with the groups
and the word came back that there was no objection. So then we formally entered into a contract.

I started December
1, 1994 and shot through the third week of February in '95. It took me about a year to edit.

What was your original impulse for filming the theatre? What was the appeal?

The appeal was that I had been doing a series of films about institutions. All the others had been American and I wanted to do a theatre company. The film I had done just before the Comédie Française was on ballet, about the American
Ballet Theatre. There is no equivalent theatre company in America to the Comédie Française, with the tradition and quality that it has. There's no repertory
company in New York of the same quality. There are regional theatres that have
put on good performances, but none have the same tradition and weight that the
Comédie Française has.

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I also thought it would be fun to try a film in another language.

Was it also an opportunity to examine French society through the lens of the Comédie Française and French plays?

Yeah, sure. Part of the gamble was that what was going on at the Com´die would in some way reflect larger issues in French society. That was the idea I had when I started and as I hung around the Comédie I saw that that was possible. A lot of
the issues that the movie presents are issues that go beyond the particular problems of the Comédie Française, but there are links, or it has resonance, if that's not too phony a word, with what's going on in other French institutions and in French life in general.

What would be an example?

The arguments about the finances and the bonuses and social charges, the issues with the unions, indirectly some of the sexual mores that are reflected in the plays, the hierarchical nature of decision-making.

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These aspects distinguish the Comédie very clearly from how the American
Ballet Theatre, for example, works?

Yes. It doesn't deal definitively with these issues, but suggests the connections. Jean-Pierre Miquel's analysis of politicians, for instance, saying that
they get involved in politics because they are bored. I thought that was a very
interesting speech.

The opportunity to have the experiences that allow you to come up with that kind of analysis is particularly French. It's a reflection of the centralization of everything in Paris. It's a small world. The administrator of the Comédie Française is someone who would be invited to dinner at the Elysées Palace (the home of the French president) or is in contact with the
minister of culture.

When I lived in France, it became quite clear to me that
there's a much greater overlapping between the political, business and art worlds than there is America. There is that in New York to some extent, but it's vaster in New York. Since the Comédie Française is a national theatre and so
much of the theatre world in France is subsidized by the government, it's quite natural that the artists would be dealing with politicians. Also there's the old
boy network from the grands écoles (prestigious
universities). They all know each other.

Just the idea that one percent of the French national budget goes to the arts makes an enormous difference. I don't know the exact figures, but my guess is that the arts budget for the city of Lyon is probably greater than the arts budget for the entire United States. If it's off, it's not off by much. The NEA budget now is $90
million. It's outrageous.

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Were there any restrictions on the film?

The only restriction was the same one that applies in all my movies. If someone doesn't want something shot, they just say no and I walk away. I don't feel I
have any absolute right to film them. Fortunately, it doesn't happen that often.

Did they have any doubts about letting an American put their national theatre under the microscope?

No. I think that the fact that I'm not French helped me in the sense that it was clear that I didn't belong to any faction, that I was a real outsider. There
might've been the fear that a Frenchman might've had an ax to grind.

How do you go about filming?

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[Wiseman points to his nose.] There was a weekly schedule of all the meetings
and all the rehearsals, so that was a good framework to start with. In addition,
the technique I use is that I wander a lot.

Is it just you, or do you have a crew?

It's me and two other people. I direct and do the sound. I have a cameraman and
the third person carries the extra film magazines. There's a lot of wandering
down corridors, popping into an office to see what's going on.

One of the characteristics of all the movies is that you develop informers, people who tell you what's going on -- not in any McCarthyite sense. For example,
I found out about the scene in the old age home because I was at the Comédie around noon on a Saturday and was going to go somewhere else, to a place where they were designing the sets for "La Double Inconstance." Then I met Catherine
Samy at the entrance off the Palais Royale and she said I'm going out to a 100th birthday party for an ex-actress of the Comédie Française, you gotta come along.

I was really torn. It was the first week I was there, and this other guy had promised to take me to the set design and I didn't want to hurt his feelings. But the nose told me this is not something to miss. I struggled with myself. I'm always very sensitive because you never know what's going to upset people. I told him I couldn't go and went out there and it was absolutely the right decision. To me, that scene brought together all the themes of the movie. If I had been at the entrance thirty seconds later and had missed Samy, I wouldn't
have gotten it. That's a prime example of luck and instinct.

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How does it bring together the themes of the movie?

There's the whole aspect of tradition, the fact that Catherine Samy was young when this woman was in her prime. Catherine Samy says she helped her. Earlier in the movie, you've previously seen a scene where Catherine Samy herself is helping a young actor so there's a continuity, a hundred years of the Comédie Française.

It also brought up the whole issue of what constitutes performance, because the mayor could have been a member of the theatre. The mayor was from central casting. He gave a terrific performance. It was the only one he knew how to give
and he couldn't give it on command or on cue, but it was a theatrical performance. It was funny because it was such a cliché. So it
brought up the whole issue of roles in everyday life and acted roles.

Then when the birthday girl says "La Comédie Française, c'est un religion." Well, it is.
You have to be a believer, you're devoted to it, many people spend their life
there.

Do actors still plan on spending their entire careers at the Comédie Française?

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Yes, but there's always the temptation of making films. A number of the younger
actors will have the chance to be movie stars. You can't do both theatre and
films all the time.

How is the career of an actor in the Comédie Française different from that of an
American or British actor?

If you enter the Comédie Française as a pensionaire (a candidate for permanent
membership) and are elected a societaire, you can stay as long as you want, as
long as your acting remains of a high caliber. That's not true anywhere in
America and I don't think it's true in England either. The societaire is
tenured.

How do you imagine American audiences will relate to this film?

I don't know. I'm not being evasive, I have a very hard time predicting audience
response. I can't think about an audience when I'm making a movie.

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How do you chose what footage to keep?

Basically what I have to do
is think my way through the experience. I always like to think that the final film is a report on what I've learned as a consequence of making the film rather
than simply being the imposition of pre-conceived ideas on the material. Otherwise, why do
it? So much of this kind of shooting is an adventure.

Obviously with the Comédie Française, there were certain elements I needed, like performances and backstage preparations, but I had no idea how I might put them
together. In the editing, once all the material has been gathered and I go through the logs that summarize what each shot is, I then edit sequences that interest me without
thinking of the structure. I deliberately drift through the material. Out of
that I develop a goodies list of those sequences I think might make it into the final film. Over five or six months, I'll have hanging on the wall lots of sequences that are edited into near-final form. Each sequence is an island and I'll develop archipelagos, saying this goes with this, that goes with that.

After a couple of days of this process, I will start connecting those isolated sequences into a structure. Then I begin to fiddle with the rhythm -- both the
internal rhythm and the external, the relationship of the sequences to each
other.

What amazed me was that the actors would allow you to film so much, even revealing sequences that make them look ridiculous.

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Yes, the whole experience of people allowing you to take their
picture and record their voice I find extraordinary. I don't know the explanation for it. Part of it is that most of us think what we're doing is OK. We're not ashamed of it, so we go ahead and do it. You also have to factor in vanity and indifference into the explanation of why you can make movies like this.

Indifference?

Indifference in the sense of, "I'm going to do what I'm going to do. I don't care what you say." It's not just actors who do this. I didn't come to this profound thought just on the basis of dealing only with actors.

The basic ground rule is I
don't ask anybody to do anything. Even with actors, and certainly with non-actors, apart from the moral issue, there will inevitably be something phony about it. Anybody who meets a lot of people all the time has to develop a fairly sensitive bullshit meter for survival purposes. Similarly, when you're doing one of these
movies, if you think someone is putting on for the camera, you stop shooting.

Why is there no narration in any of your films?

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Because I don't like to be told what to think. When this technique works, it
works because it places the viewer in the middle of the event. It asks the viewer to think through their own relationship to what they're seeing and
hearing. That's treating the audience as adults. Some narrated films treat the audience like stupid children. For this kind of movie, the real movie takes place where the mind of the viewer meets the screen. If you're interested in one
of these movies, it means you're sucked into what's going on. It requires you to think about what's going on. It's up to me as an editor to give you enough
information to adequately think that through. It's up to you as the viewer to
use that information because I'm not going to explain what's going on.

There are
benefits and risks, because with a
narrative movie you can provide more historical information, you can set the scene. With this kind of movie, you can get more into the feel of it, you can be more in it.

How did the French plays you chose bring out particularly French attitudes on love, social class and their ironies?

Well, the four plays that you see parts of in the movie are plays that deal with
different aspects of love. "Occupe-toi d'Amélie" is
farcical; "La Double Inconstance" is about intrigue and maneuvering; "Dom Juan"
is passionate; "La Thébiade" suggests the sacrifice of
children and engages mother's love, the rivalries in families that are aspects of love. There's some connection to contemporary life in the suggestion that the kinds of issues the plays illustrate are still going on between men and women.

There's still a universality to the plays?

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There may not be a prince trying to marry a virgin today, but as Jean-Pierre
Miquel points out, the play of "La Double Inconstance" transpires in 24 hours. At the beginning, Harlequin and Sylvie start out pledging eternal love to each
other and 24 hours later, they're each satisfied with someone else. This is not unique to the playwright Marivaux's time. And in "Occupe-toi d'Amélie," the issue of a friend seducing his best friend's girlfriend is hardly exclusively a
late 19th-century issue.

The fascination of the Don Juan character is that he adapts himself to whomever he's dealing with -- whether man or woman -- to always get what he wants. It's an extreme form of rationality. When Don Juan declares that hypocrisy is the vice
in fashion, I hope that takes you back to Jean-Pierre Miquel's ruminations about
politicians and their boredom. That's what I meant by connections between the
plays and contemporary French life.

What is an example of the film being French?

France is still a much more hierarchical society and social class is less fluid
than in America. A play like "La Double Inconstance" still has relevance to
current mores.

There's also a great deal more sophistication about sexual issues in France than
in America. When one character in "La Double Inconstance," for instance, talks
about her relationship with the peasant, she says: "Well, it's going to be a
two-week fling." Because she wants to serve the Prince and he's asked her to
seduce Harlequin away from Sylvie, she agrees. But the actress and Jean-Pierre
Miquel see that the spirit in which it should be done is that it's going to be a
good time. It's not just going to be manipulative.

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There's also such complexity involved in mounting 18 productions a year. One of
the reasons I tried to do so much behind the scenes is that I wanted to suggest
what's involved in designing costumes, in making wigs and fitting them,
designing sets and constructing them.

What astonished you about the operation of the Comédie Française?

It was not astonishment but regret that comparable opportunities didn't exist in
America, how wonderful it is that the French government supports the arts in
such a way. It was great to see the consequence of this government support.

What is your background?

I went to Williams College and Yale Law School.

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Where were you born?

In Boston. And I taught law for a couple of years. I didn't like it, I didn't
like law school. The joke that I make is that I was physically present in law
school. It's true. I never went to class and read novels for three years.

But how did you teach law?

I sort of stumbled through.

What started your interest in movies?

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Well, I lived in Paris from 1956-58 and went to movies a lot. I came back and
that's what I wanted to do. It was pre-film school so I became an apprentice to
myself.

What led you to make "Titicut Follies?"

When I taught at Boston University Law School, I was teaching a class in legal
medicine and I was also
teaching family law. And in order to make the class more interesting for both me and the
students, I took them on field trips. I thought I would make the cases a bit
more real by taking them to trials, parole board hearings, probation hearings,
mental hospitals. One of the places I took them to was Bridgewater, which is
a prison for the criminally insane. When I thought about making a movie,
Bridgewater occurred to me as a natural subject. It was untouchable from a film
point of view, visually very interesting. While I was doing it, I realized that
what you could with a prison for the criminally insane you could do with other
institutions. So I had this idea of an institutional series. The next one was a
high school. Moving from a prison for the criminally insane to a high school was
a natural transition.

Will you continue with documentaries or try fiction films?

I like doing documentaries more than fiction films because with fiction films
you do the same thing over and over again, in the sense that you do a take 10 or
15 times. With documentaries, you never do the same take twice. It's more of a
sport.

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I've written scripts for fiction films but nobody has ever been interested in
doing them because in the language of the industry, they've been thought to be
too soft. I wrote a script about 15 years ago based on the Anne Tyler novel
"Celestial Navigation" which I think would make a great movie. I couldn't get
the money.

What are your plans for the future?

Right now, I'm editing a documentary on a public housing project in Chicago. It should be ready in a few months. Later next year, I may be shooting a fiction
film in France about a writer shot by the Germans. We'll see when the financing
comes through.


Richard Covington

Richard Covington covers cultural subjects and the arts from Paris.

MORE FROM Richard Covington

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