National Gallery—Frederick Wiseman’s thirty-ninth documentary—uncovers treasure after treasure within, without, and around London’s leading art museum. From Turner and Rubens to docents, restorers, and administrators; from museumgoers of every age to appraisers and lighting experts; from a touch-and-feel class for blind art lovers to a ballet choreographed to Titians, Wiseman covers everything in his quest to understand the art of painting. To view the trailer, click here. •Availability: US theatrical opening Film Forum, November 5-18. National Gallery received its US premiere at the 2014 New York Film Festival. •Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Your previous subjects, like ballet and boxing, have had a lot of intrinsic movement. In National Gallery, your subject was paintings. How do you give cinematic life to an inanimate object?
FW: One of the big issues before we started the film was how to shoot a painting. I thought the best way to do it was to be inside the frame of the painting so the painting filled the frame of the movie. We also did closeups of various parts of the painting so we could shoot the painting sequentially. Until the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth century, most great painting was story or character driven. The collection of the National Gallery stops at the end of the nineteenth century. It was possible to make sequences out of some of the paintings—in other words, to show the paintings not in one shot but in a series of shots, which then links the way the painting is presented to other forms, like movies.
DT: Kind of giving them a linear depth of field.
DT: You’ve described your editing as a process of associations, where one thing leads to another.
FW: It’s a combination of trying to be very logical and at the same time paying attention to your associations. No matter how I’ve arrived at a cut, even if I’ve dreamed it or arrived at it by paying attention to my associations, I nevertheless have to be able to rationalize it. I have to be able to say to myself in words why I think it works, why it belongs in the film in the place it’s in and in the form in which I use it.
DT: Sort of an artistic rationalization for something that’s instinctive?
FW: I can arrive at a cut deductively or associatively. Both things happen.
DT: Have you ever tried working another way?
FW: No. That’s the way I know how to work. It would be stilted. I work the way that works for me, to use the word “work” in another way.
DT: Every method has disadvantages and advantages. What are the disadvantages and advantages of working your way?
FW: I haven’t really thought about it other than the fact that that’s my way of working. I like to think that I’ve learned something over the course of the years and that what I’ve learned gets applied to the next film. If you haven’t resolved a problem satisfactorily in one film, when a similar issue comes up in the next film, you tend to remember that you need different kinds of material in order to anticipate the problem you ran up against in the editing.
DT: Can you give me a for-instance?
FW: In the beginning, I didn’t collect enough cutaways of participants in meetings. You need cutaways in order to reduce the sequence and reduce it in a form that helps create the illusion, however momentary, that the meeting took place the way it’s edited and in the form in which you show it in the film, even though it didn’t take place that way. If I didn’t have enough cutaways during a meeting, the next time there was a meeting going on, I remembered that I needed to get more shots of people just listening, or with their hands next to their cheek, or their fingers folded together.
DT: What do you mean by “reduce the sequence”?
FW: It’s very rare that a sequence in a film is the same length of time that it was when it occurred. For example, in At Berkeley, some of the meetings in the chancellor’s cabinet went on for an hour and a half. I might use ten minutes of it, but it’s not ten consecutive minutes, it’s thirty seconds here, forty seconds there, a minute and a half here, edited together to make it appear as if it was taking place the way you’re watching it. I say momentary illusion; if the editing works, it works because you feel that’s the way it happened. It didn’t—it’s a summary, it’s a compression of an hour and a half.
DT: You’ve said that “accumulated experience” takes you from film to film. For instance, you shot La Danse after meeting some of its cast at Comedie Francaise, then Boxing Gym was conceived as a relationship between ballet and boxing. Does National Gallery fit into that picture?
FW: Sometimes that’s after the fact, because I didn’t know Boxing Gym was going to be a dance film until I made it. After being at the gym for a while, I edited the material, and I realized I was making a dance film in part. So it’s not as if I specifically set out that way, but I came to that conclusion as a consequence of the experience.
DT: For me, the phrase “accumulated experience” describes my experience of watching your films. With their in-depth exploration of a single subject, I may start out knowing virtually nothing about it, but my accumulated experience over the course of watching brings me to a new place. Is that your intention?
FW: One aspect of the films I make is that they should be a report on what I’ve learned. There are many other aspects as well, but to the extent that I can adequately convey what it is I’ve learned to somebody watching the film who hasn’t had that experience, maybe it will add to their understanding of the subject.
DT: Let’s discuss your shooting process. Before you begin, do you have a preconception of what the film will be?
FW: No. I have none. The only preconception I have is the assumption that if I hang around this place long enough, I’ll accumulate enough material out of which I can edit a film.
DT: Then how do you guide your shooting?
FW: I guide my shooting by a variety of ways. I try to find out the power center…who are the people who make the decisions, what kind of decisions they make, can I be at the meetings when the decisions are made. If it’s an institution that serves clients, like a welfare center or a hospital or a police department, I try to get the relationship between the people who are offering the services and the people to whom the services are offered, and I try to get some sense of what the daily routine is like.
DT: In National Gallery, you had a vision beforehand of how you wanted to shoot the paintings.
FW: Yes, that was an idea I had before shooting to cover myself. The paintings were shot in a wide variety of ways so that in case I was wrong—in case my idea for shooting inside the painting didn’t work out—I had choice. In the 170 hours of rushes that I had for National Gallery, there were lots of shots of paintings where you see the wall or you see the relationship to other paintings in the room. The idea during the shooting is to collect enough material so that you have choice in the editing room, and since I don’t know what the themes are going to be or what the point of view is going to be, I need a wide variety of choice.
DT: You shot 170 hours of footage. How much of it did you use?
FW: The film is three hours, so I used about 1/60, a little less, maybe 1/59.
DT: What’s your selection process when you’re looking at the rushes?
FW: There’s no external checklist of criteria. I’m responding to the material. What I really have to do is analyze what I’m looking at and what I’m watching and hearing. I have to think that I understand what’s going on in the sequence in order to be able to edit it. First, I’m constantly asking myself the question, Why? Why does somebody say this? Why is there a pause here? Fifty percent of film editing has nothing to do with the technical aspect of film editing, especially in a documentary. It has to do with analyzing the behavior that you’re watching in the rushes, because if you don’t, you may be mistaken. You have to have some understanding of what it is you’re seeing and hearing in order to make the choices, and that has nothing to do with formal aspects of film editing. You use the technique, but the technique is at the service of that analysis.
DT: I don’t know if this is what you intended, but I walked away from National Gallery with the feeling that painting is a very elitist art.
FW: I don’t know what that means. I can speculate what that means. Elitist is too trendy a word these days. I’m not suggesting you’re necessarily using it that way, but that’s my response to it. I think any great literature, any great poem, any great play, the Bible, the Greek plays—they only work if you bring a certain amount of experience with language or thought in order to understand what they’re about. So if intelligence and education are elitist, then painting is elite, but it’s no more elite than studying the great nineteenth-century American novels. To understand what Melville’s at in Moby Dick, to understand some Hawthorne short story, you have to bring your intelligence and education to bear on what it is they’re trying to do.
DT: Why do you do your own sound?
FW: Because I like to do it, and I can make better choices about what to shoot, because I’m right there.
DT: How does the sound determine what you’re going to shoot?
FW: The sound in part determines what you’re going to shoot because one of the ways you make a decision as to what to shoot is what people are saying. It’s basically just the two of us, and the third person is usually outside the room or way outside the shot. I lead the cameraman with the mic. At least it’s one of the ways I’ll lead the cameraman.
DT: How else do you lead the cameraman?
FW: There are signals that we use, gestures that we make.
DT: So you haven’t set up the shots ahead of time?
FW: Oh no, I never set the shot up ahead of time. Inanimate objects like the paintings, yes, but in terms of people, no.
DT: Do you direct people when you’re with them?
FW: Never. I like to be able to accurately and honestly represent that I’ve never asked anybody to do anything.
DT: You’ve described National Gallery as your most abstract film, in terms of recursiveness, yet what struck me was the extreme physicality of painting, which I’ve always considered sort of ethereal.
FW: What do you mean by physicality?
DT: When I go to a museum, I experience the painting not as a physical object but as “a work of art.” In National Gallery, it was so clear that the paintings were physical objects that needed to be cared for.
FW: They’re both, really, aren’t they? They need to be cared for, preserved, restored, like us. But at the same time they have a form and a beauty, which is what the artist has created. And they’re the result of thought, among other things, not just technique. When Rubens created Samson and Delilah, he had to have an idea. As that wonderful woman guide in the movie says, he had to have an idea of what the relationship was between Samson and Delilah, and he had to find a way of expressing that relationship. He does it with the expression on Delilah’s face and the ambivalent position of her hands. To get back to this elitist business, if you don’t know the Samson and Delilah story, it’s difficult to properly interpret the painting. You don’t know the history, you don’t know it’s a giant and there’s a war with the Phillistines, blah blah blah. You think it’s a beautiful man asleep on the lap of a beautiful woman.
DT: What did you learn about painting that you didn’t know before making National Gallery?
FW: I learned a lot about how to read a painting. I knew this to some extent before, but the depth of my ignorance was impressed on me. I learned about how to pay the same kind of detailed attention to a painting that I would bring to something that I read. My experience before had been a lot more with reading than with visual art. But listening to some of those guides, I began to pay a lot more attention to the details of paintings. This was particularly true of paintings that tell a story, as most paintings did until the twentieth century. I learned that to properly appreciate Titian, you have to know something about Greek mythology, you have to know something about Ovid. To properly appreciate a lot of the great Middle Ages paintings, you have to know something about the Church and the Bible and the history of the Church and the literature and the ideology of the Church. In order to understand the painting, you have to bring something to it, which is true of great literature as well.
DT: It’s true of film as well.
FW: It’s true of film as well. Right.
DT: I love the irony that the foundation of the British National Gallery was laid at a major auction of the Duke of Orleans’ collection following the French revolution.
FW: That was a nice lucky thing [to have in the film].
DT: That was the piece that brought me to the idea of elitism. When I say elitism, I don’t mean knowledge or education. I really mean money even though in New York you can shell out a nickel and get into a museum.
FW: But you can’t buy it for a nickel, unless you’re lucky enough and the artist is so unlucky he’s starving, which has certainly happened in the history of art. Rembrandt went bankrupt. For a lot of the great Impressionist painters, people thought their paintings were crazy and maybe they were crazy, too. The smart people were the people who bought it when it cost nothing. It’s only now that it costs twenty million dollars or forty million dollars.
DT: While you were shooting, you were obviously conscious of a painting being an object that represents life without being life, the same way that film represents life without being life.
FW: It’s an abstraction. It’s taken from life. That’s one of the things the movie’s about—the different ways you represent experience. Whether it’s a movie or a play, a poem or a novel or a ballet, it’s all drawn from experience. The subject matter of the paintings shown in the film are some of the great human experiences—life, death, war, love, etc.
DT: Are you working on anything new?
FW: I’m working with a choreographer to make a ballet out of my first movie, Titicut Follies. That’s why I’m in New York this fall.
DT: How did that come about?
FW: I made two ballet movies, and I go to the ballet a lot. I was struck by the fact that a lot of the dancing is great. Certainly Balanchine was great, but a lot of contemporary choreography isn’t so interesting. It has very little relation to contemporary life other than the fact that it’s always dealing with relationships. There’s so much other good subject matter around. Some of it is dealt with in modern dance, but not so much in ballet. So the idea is to see whether you can transfer a classical form into a tough contemporary subject and a complicated contemporary subject.
DT: One of the things that struck me while watching La Danse is how difficult it is for a dancer to interpret a choreographer’s vision. I imagine it’s the same with acting and directing.
FW: Sure it is. But it’s the job of the choreographer, or the ballet master, to impose sometimes. Sometimes the dancer understands it, and sometimes the dancer will make a contribution, because the good dancers are not puppets. They’re in part puppets, but the really good ones add something, they bring their experience to the interpretation of the role just as a good actor brings his or her experience to the interpretation of a role. But it has to be within the framework of what the choreographer has in mind.
DT: When will your ballet be ready?
FW: Two years from now. Fall of 2016.
DT: And it’s going to be called Titicut Follies?
FW: Titicut Follies, the Ballet.
FW: It’s a funny idea, I agree. It remains to be seen whether it will work, but it’s worth the effort, I think.
Copyright © Director Talk 2014