Fred Wiseman hates to be pigeonholed. Ask him if he belongs to the school of cinéma-vérité and he accuses you of spouting “pompous, bullshit” phrases. Refer to his work as a series on American institutions, and he argues that he just makes films about subjects that interest him. A slippery character? Perhaps. But once you see a few of his films you realize that all he demands is the same latitude he affords his own subjects.

Look, for example, at the scene that ends Wiseman’s 1975 documentary, Welfare. After nearly three hours of buck-passing, crossed signals, and failed communication in a New York welfare office, we see  a gaunt, defeated-looking man. His clothing is worn but well-made; he has obviously known better times. The man is caught in some bureaucratic snag and not getting his welfare checks. As he explains to an impassive case worker, he just stole seven candy bars from Woolworth’s, ate three, and gave four away. He sits down and, with an intimacy worthy of Tevye the dairyman, begins to converse with God: “I’m waiting for Godot. You know the story of Godot? He never came…” A couple of chairs away sits another welfare case, a woman, nervously sizing up her neighbor. She looks at the camera and makes a funny face. “This guy is nuts,” she’s telling us.

From a dramatic viewpoint, this scene has everything: pathos, humor, irony. But more important is how we respond to it. Wiseman pushes us to identify with one of the characters, but which one? Too many emotions pull at us: we feel contempt for the bureaucrat but also sympathy, because we know he is stuck in an unmanageable mess; we feel compassion for the man but are amused by his histrionics; we are inclined to agree with the woman yet condemn her for her lack of compassion. The list goes on. Most filmmakers manipulate our responses to confirm their own preconceptions; for them, reality comes in neatly defined categories. Not for Wiseman. Though he makes no claims that his films are balanced or “objective,” there is a level of ambiguity and thematic complexity in his work that was virtually unknown when he entered the documentary field in 1967. One consequence is that people see what they want in a Wiseman film: when Basic Training came out in 1971, critics celebrated it as a scathing attack on the military, while Pentagon officials found it a fair and accurate depiction of what goes on in a training camp.

Which is not to say that Wiseman’s films never make people angry. Indeed, his talent for catching people with their vulnerable, banal, and seamy sides exposed to the camera would seem to guarantee controversy. Titicut Follies (1967), Wiseman’s exposé of the Bridgewater facility for the criminally insane, gave new vigor to the phrase “banned in Boston.” To this day, the film can be seen in Massachusetts only by “professionals”: doctors, lawyers, judges, and others in related fields. (Wiseman, a lawyer by training, says that this was the first time in American constitutional history that a work not judged to be obscene was banned from public viewing.) Since then, he has had an easier time of it, though High School (1968) was repudiated by the Philadelphia Board of Education, and Primate (1974), filmed at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, brought accusations that Wiseman’s refusal to use narration or subtitles prejudiced the viewer by separating the research procedures—which included decapitation and forced ejaculation—from their humanitarian goals.

With unflagging regularity, Wiseman has brought forth anew film each year. The titles of his documentaries are as stark as the films themselves: Hospital (1970) and Juvenile Court (1973) are self-explanatory; Law and Order (1969) follows the activities of the Kansas City police; Essene (1972) looks at a Michigan monastery. Meat (1976) traces the food production process from grazing cattle to the supermarket, with grueling emphasis on the slaughterhouse. Canal Zone (1977), perhaps his most ambitious film, examines the lives of civilian Americans in Panama. Sinai Field Mission (1978) focuses on an American peacekeeping mission in the Middle East, and Manoeuvre (1979) chronicles a NATO war games exercise.

Wiseman, who turned 51 on New Year’s Day, works in a cubicle just large enough to hold a desk, two chairs, and his Steenbeck editing machine. His office is in the unfashionable part of Lewis Wharf, in a rickety, white-washed building at the end of the dock. When we spoke he had just finished work on a new film about a New York modeling agency. He calls it—what else?—Model.


Alan Stern: How do you choose a subject for a film?

Frederick Wiseman: Really any subject that interests me that I think would be worth spending a year with.

Does it get harder with each film?

No, I have a list of things that I’m interested in doing. The list changes, but at any given moment there are five or six things on it.

Tell me something about Model.

It’s about the day-to-day activities in a modeling agency. I filmed in the office of the agency and then went out with both men and women models on their various jobs. It’s an interesting subject because modeling is at the intersection of many different worlds—newspapers, TV, magazines, advertising—so you get a sideways look at what’s going on in these worlds, as well as a look at what it’s like to be a model.

Are institutions still your main area of interest?

Yes, well I have a very loose definition of institution: almost any place where they have regularly scheduled activity of-one sort or another. It’s not a formal, social-science definition.

Your films tend to capture people either in crisis, high-pressure circumstances—Law and Order and Hospital—or in highly structured, regimented situations—Canal Zone and Basic Training. Do you prefer one to the other for what they tell you about the subject?

No, I don’t have a preference. Those are two things that happen to work well in documentary. Not everything does: for example something that depends on a complicated factual base. Take a film about a law firm. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t know how to do it, because the factual base that the audience has to know to be able to figure out what’s going on is too complicated. It would take fifteen minutes to establish the context for a one-minute event. What works well in documentary, as you mentioned, are emotional kinds of situations, some kinds of formal events—although not all kinds—and funny things. What you’re looking for are ways of making the material interesting. You try to get all kinds of revealing gestures. I don’t start with the idea that there’s going to be a lot of hand action in my films, but sometimes hands are particularly expressive.

I saw most of your films in a short span of time and that was pretty striking.

There are a lot of similarities, I think, among the films: thematic similarities, similarities in sequences,  similarities in language. It’s not unusual, since my interests don’t change that much from film to film.

You also seem to be fascinated by the machinery of institutions—computer equipment in Welfare and Meat, or the tape recorder in High School, in that scene where the teacher plays the Simon and Garfunkel song.

That is something that interests me, the relationship of people to machines. Again, you’re-looking at what’s going on in the place and the effort is to be as inclusive as possible. Not in the sense that you can ever be definitive, but you try to get into the film as much of the diverse activity in the place as you can. Machinery is only one example.

You’ve mentioned that you look for the “once in a lifetime” incident. What happens if it doesn’t occur?

I don’t remember saying that. What you’re looking for are normal incidents, even though what’s  “normal” may be absolutely outrageous in terms of someone else’s experience. You’re looking for what seems to be characteristic of the people and place at the time you’re shooting.

You made that comment in reference to the scene that ends High School. The principal reads a letter from a former student who’s about to be flown into the DMZ in Vietnam. He writes, “Don’t worry about me, I’m not worth it I’m only a body doing a job.” And then the principal concludes, “When you get a letter like that, you know—we’re very successful at North East High School.”

Right. I may have made that statement in response to the question of whether I do research. I think I was trying to make the point that the shooting of the film is the research. In a sense, every incident is once in a lifetime because people don’t respond in the same way at the same time to the same thing. You can’t get them to. repeat it, because they’re not good enough actors. If you’re doing research and something spectacular happens, like that letter, you’d be mad at yourself if you were present and not prepared to shoot it.

And if you hadn’t been present?

It would have been a different film. Because that scene, in my point of view, pulls together the previous themes and enlarges the context of the film.

In what ways has your technique changed or been refined since you started making films?

That’s not really for me to say. Other than the general statement that you like to think you’ve learned  something, and you try to apply it to the next film.

Can you be more specific?

Well, you learn more about what kinds of rhythms work in a film, the duration of certain kinds of  sequences. You try to shoot more cutaways, because the more you have, the more choices you have in the editing.

How many people in your crew?

There are three of us. I do the sound, I work with a cameraman whom I direct, and there’s an assistant who changes the magazines. The cameraman has one eye on me and one eye on the camera, I’ve got one eye on him and one eye on what’s going on, and we use signals to change angles or position.

So there’s only one camera shooting at a time.

Right.

How do you edit for continuity?

By paying attention to the content. You try to cut it in such a way that it appears as if the event took place the way you’re watching and listening to it, but of course it didn’t. That’s no different from any kind of editorial work.

You’ve said about editing that the pieces of film “are the physical facts, but they are ordered and structured in a way that has no relationship to the length and order they took place in real life.” Editing, of course, condenses time, but how often does the order of events get shuffled around?

I don’t shift the chronology within a sequence. I won’t begin with something that happened an hour and thirty-two minutes into an event and then cut to something that happened in the first minute. But from  sequence to sequence, there may be a lot of shifting around. The last sequence of a film could be something that happened early on during the shooting. I might just as well have started shooting on the thirtieth day rather than the first. Whatever ethics are involved in the thing. I don’t think that presents a problem. To me, it would present a problem if I diddled with the order within a given sequence.

You don’t conduct interviews in your films because “that’s where you get all the formal, pompous  bullshit.” Yet you’ll film a subject being interviewed by someone else, as in Meat, Primate, and Canal Zone. What’s the difference?

The difference is that you’re getting someone else’s process, not your own. If someone interviews you for a film, he’s really just shooting you and not focusing on the interview as an event between the two of you. But the interviews in my films are unstaged events that take place in the life of the people at the place that’s the subject of my film. There’s a good reason to seek that kind of thing out, because frequently you’ll get people making more abstract, general statements, which are extremely useful for structural purposes.

How do you tell when a subject is performing for the benefit of the camera?

The same way you tell if I’m performing for you. Anybody who meets a lot of people becomes fairly sensitive to when he’s being conned.

What do you do when that happens?

I stop shooting. If I don’t realize it until the editing, then I don’t uge it in the film. Undoubtedly it sometimes slips through.

Do you ever direct your subjects?

No.

Do you always get consents before or after you shoot a scene?

I always try to.

In Law and Order, there’s a scene of a woman who’s just been in an auto accident. It’s hard for me to imagine your going up to her to ask her consent.

Obviously if someone is lying on the ground screaming, waiting for a doctor, you don’t say “Madame, may I take your picture?” You go ahead and shoot it. But if there’s a relative present, or if there’s a chance when things calm down, you try to get permission then. And in some cases you don’t. In Law and Order, there was less need to get consents because it’s well established that what the police do is news, so the likelihood that someone will bring an invasion of privacy suit is extremely small. Anyone can bring a suit, of course, but there are any number of Supreme Court cases upholding the right of the press, and in this case, documentary filmmaking is considered journalism. There’s almost nothing that goes on in the street that you can’t show on film. Privacy is not an absolute right to begin with, and the courts usually balance the right to privacy against the public’s right to know.

Is any effort being made to remove Titicut Follies from its restricted status in Massachusetts?

Well, there hasn’t really been a case on that since 1971. The injunction as originally determined by the courts still stands. The film was shown as part of Boston’s 350th birthday celebration. The attorney  general tried to get an injunction to prevent it, but a superior court judge refused to issue the injunction on the ground of prior restraint. We showed the film under strict compliance with the restraining order. Notices were filed, and everyone coming into the theater had to sign an affidavit that they were in the class of people allowed to see the film.

Did you attempt to take the case before the U.S. Supreme Court?

Yes. The Supreme Court has denied certiorari twice.

Has High School ever been shown it Philadelphia, where it was filmed?

Not in any widespread way. High School was released right after the Follies case, and it wasn’t shown in Philadelphia at the time because I didn’t want to get into another legal hassle. I didn’t think anybody would have a case, but it would have been enormously expensive to prove that they didn’t.

Have any other of your films been banned restricted or censored in any way?

No.

How did you come to do your two “animal” films, Primate and Meat?

Well, for Meat I wanted to make a movie about some aspect of the food business. It was a subject  about which most people knew nothing. And the industrial aspect of food production was interesting from a film point of view. For Primate I wanted to make a film about scientific research. It seemed to me that the kind of research being conducted at Yerkes lent itself to a film, whereas some of the more obscure, complicated areas of research didn’t.

Do both films fit into your series on institutions?

They’re both films about subjects that interest me. This whole business about a “series on institutions” is just a rubric to catalogue my movies. It’s just a series of one film after another.

At the beginning of your career you were more explicit about your intent to make a series on institutions.

Yeah, but almost anything fits my definition of institution because it’s so, vague.

David Denby has said that a tendency of your films is “to establish an elite audience of the tough-minded and strong-stomached” Have you ever pulled back either in the shooting or editing, because a scene was too gruesome?

In certain sequences of Meat it seemed as if you had I didn’t pull back because it was too gruesome, but I also tried not to dwell on it. Obviously a slaughterhouse has some seemingly gruesome aspects. I didn’t want to dwell on them, but, on the other hand, I was interested in showing all aspects. I was trying to give a sense of the process.

But you don’t pull back in consideration of the sensitivities of your viewers?

No, I think the viewer is as sensitive or insensitive as I am.

Many people find your films discouraging, depressing, and even shocking. Are they overreacting?

I don’t pass any judgment on how other people react.

Do you maintain an essentially pessimistic view of American society?

I resist making generalizations like that. I’m pessimistic about the value of generalizations like that.

Would you comment on how you think Americans’ awareness of and attitudes towards our institutions have changed since you began making films?

No. I think anything like that would be utter pretension and bullshit, so why do it?