On October 3, 2018, well known documentarian and filmmaker Frederick Wiseman arrived at Wheaton and gave tremendous insight on his life, career, techniques, and much more. Wiseman’s style of cinematography and documenting is vastly different from the likes of others in his field. Rather than utilizing people voice over or conducting interviews with the film’s subjects, he instead simply records what he sees in front of him at any given moment. The only context he gives is what he records, and this technique has the interesting effect of making the audience almost completely forget that they are watching a documentary at all. Instead, this technique gives the appearance of a regular film that is fictional, scripted, and acted; however Wiseman’s films are entirely real and nowhere close being fabricated.
Wiseman opened his talk on his overall procedure when making a documentary: “The technique has been the same from the beginning, I don’t really do an research because none of the events in this film are staged, there’s no script, there’s no music. A basic technique is to hang around, collect a lot of material, and figure it out later and it’s what I’ve done since the beginning, it’s essentially a reverse of fiction filmmaking”. Wiseman credits success in this line of filmmaking to luck and good judgement, while being very aware and conscious of what’s happening around him once filming has begun.
Upon going to any location, Wiseman tries to establish what the daily routine is like day in and day out. Another aspect of his filmmaking is that he has no idea what the theme is going to be, or how much footage he wants, he simply shoots what interests him at that given moment. His most recent film Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017) which came out almost a year ago had a total of about 150 hours of footage that was eventually trimmed down to just three hours and 26 minutes, another one of his films At Berkeley (2013) accumulated about 250 hours of footage.
One of his biggest concerns when filming is figuring out if what he’s recording is true, genuine, or real and how sometimes people will act differently when being filmed. In his experience, people do not actually care that they are being filmed or act any different. One example he gave was during the filming of his 1969 film Law and Order, in which he followed several members of the Kansas City police department, and in one instance Wiseman tailed along with two undercover policeman who were trying to crack down on prostitution. In this instance, the two officers were trying to arrest a woman and she resisted arrest and fled. Eventually they followed her to a basement where she was hiding and proceeded to strangle her. Wiseman believes that had he not been there filming, the woman very well may have died. He was very much astounded by the fact that the officers thought that this was an appropriate way to act and that what the officer was doing was a perfectly decent way to act even when being filmed. Wiseman followed up the story by stating: “That’s an extreme example of what goes on all the time, all of us think our behavior by and large is okay, but we don’t necessarily see it in the same way someone else observing it may respond to it. And that’s one of the reasons you can make these kinds of films.”
Wiseman is also not a fan of the word “documentary” and finds the term particularly bland and that when he was young a documentary was considered something that was good for you and going to improve you.
Most interestingly, Wiseman claimed that he does not make films to produce social change. Rather, he believes that films cannot really produce much social change and that he simply makes movies because he likes to make them.
Overall, it takes him about six to eight weeks to look at all the sequences and he makes notes of what he’s looking at. After this, he sets aside about 50% of the material and then takes another six to eight months to edit everything together, compiling the footage that will be in the final film. Throughout this process, Wiseman repeatedly will ask himself “why?”. After everything has been edited, he then tries to figure out which order he wants people to see the film in. He considers his movies far more novelisitic than journalistic, because in journalism the journalist is constantly asking who, what, when and where. However, for Wiseman he never directly tells the audience what he thinks about what’s happening in front of the camera, instead doing through the actual compilation of the film in how it’s edited.
One final thing Wiseman emphasized is a technique he used in college for analyzing a poem or a novel called close reading, in which the reader carefully evaluates the text and looks for evidence within the reading. He credits this to significantly helping him to look at anything in life very carefully and has taught him to pay attention. This is a method he has always used to help create and produce his films.
As a young filmmaker it was astounding to witness such an honored individual in the same field and gain tremendous insight into what goes on in the world of professional filmmaking. I was astonished at how simple he made the entire process seem and at how humble he was about his career and his films.