In Jackson Heights/Frederick Wiseman

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. ©John Ewing.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. ©John Ewing.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

There’s a threat rising in the multiethnic New York neighborhood of Jackson Heights, where Jews and Italians, and natives of India, Colombia, Mexico, and Pakistan have lived and done business for decades; where the LGBT community finds a welcome home; where churches and synagogues still serve as community centers: Big-city real estate developers are poised to wipe out the neighborhood under the guise of a BID (Business Improvement District) and convert it to a luxury wasteland. Frederick Wiseman captures the beauty, the anxiety, and the pathos in this astounding portrait of a neighborhood facing unnecessary and unjust obliteration. A highlight of the New York Film Festival.  •Availability: World theatrical premier in New York City, Nov. 4, Film Forum. Click here for listings in the US and abroad. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  Excuse the hyperbole, but this was the most brilliant editing I’ve ever seen.  All the images, and faces, and conversations—everything converges on your final shot so that it represents every frame that preceded it in the film.

 

FW:  Great!

 

New York City’s Jackson Heights neighborhood, subject of Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

New York City’s Jackson Heights neighborhood, subject of Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

DT:  How did you do that?

 

FW:  I sat in a chair for eleven months and worked away at it.

 

DT:  Can you describe the process?

 

FW:  I can describe the external aspect of the process.  When I come back from the shoot, I look at all the rushes; it takes me six weeks or so. I make notes, then after I finish looking at all the rushes, I put aside 40 or 50 percent of the material. Over the next six or eight months, I edit all the sequences that I might use in the final film. When I have all the so-called candidate sequences close to final form, it’s only then that I begin to work on the structure of the film. I can make the first assembly in three or four days, because at that point I know the material very well and I can make the changes quickly. The first version usually comes out to around forty minutes longer than the final. And then, over the next six or eight weeks, I work on the internal rhythm within a sequence, the external rhythm between the sequences, and I get what I think is the finished film. After that, I then go back and look at all the rushes all over again to make sure there’s nothing I’ve forgotten or might be useful, or something that I initially rejected that turns out to be useful because of the other choices I’ve made.

 

DT:  One door opens, another door closes, and one thing always leads to another, but as you’re shooting, do you get any sense of—

 

FW:  Structure?  No.

 

DT:  Or what to include?

 

FW:  You know when you get a good scene, like the scene with the woman who asks the Southern Baptist street sweepers to pray for her father.  You know that’s a good scene. The scene in the halal butcher shop is a good scene.

But most scenes aren’t like that, and 50 percent of film editing has nothing to do with the technical aspects of film editing. It has to do with understanding the material, or at least deluding yourself into thinking you understand the material.

 

DT:  Another question about the final shot. I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen the film yet, but to me Manhattan looked like Disneyland, with those fireworks going off…

 

FW:  That’s one association to it. It’s not the only one.

 

DT:  Did you set off those fireworks?

 

FW:  It was the fourth of July. Fireworks in Manhattan.

 

DT:  It was perfect.

 

FW: I thought it was perfect.

 

A mariachi band performs in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

A mariachi band performs in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

DT: This Jackson Heights is different from the one most New Yorkers think of, with saris and Indian emporiums and the Jackson Diner on 74th St.  Why did you choose to shoot this Jackson Heights?

 

FW: That’s the Jackson Heights that I found. 156,000 people live there. I’m not a mathematician, but the number of possibilities is almost infinite in terms of the combinations one could make. I never want to suggest that it’s a definitive work. That’s why I called the movie In Jackson Heights. I didn’t want to suggest this is all of Jackson Heights.  I mean, it’s only a three-hour movie.

 

DT:  I know you say you don’t know anything in advance.

 

FW:  I don’t!

 

DT:  But when you and I spoke after you shot National Gallery, you talked about finding the power center; in other words, the people at the center of power wherever you’re shooting. But finding the power center takes time. It takes time to arrange meetings, it takes time to be allowed into the meetings. Did you have your camera and your microphone while you were finding the power center, or did you go out in advance to scout it out?

 

FW:  I don’t know that I found the power center. It was obvious that City Councilman Dromm was the center of some power aspects there, so I hung around his office a bit. And obviously the church—not only the Catholic church but other churches—have influence in the community, so those were obvious places, which is why they’re in the film. The Jewish Community Center, which is no longer used primarily as a synagogue, was a place where a lot of activity took place, because it was rented out to whoever would rent it out. Muslim groups, Bangladeshi groups, Baptists…whoever wanted to use it could.

 

Taxi drivers attend a tutoring class in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

Taxi drivers attend a tutoring class in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

DT:  How about the labor organizers and the IDNYC people?

 

FW:  I just stumbled across them. Somebody told me about them, and I called them up and asked whether I could follow them around. That was in the last couple of weeks of shooting.

 

DT:  To me, that was the most meaningful aspect of the film. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without them.

 

FW:  It depends what would have substituted for it, but it would have been a lesser film, I think. Both the community organizers and the whole issue of the BID, as well as the activities at Make the Road New York [a community NGO], are very important aspects of the film.

 

DT:  Can you talk about the scene in the councilman’s office, with the parents who were worried about the schools?  From what I hear people say, the schools are what holds the community together.

 

FW: I just happened to be there the day that was being discussed, and it was a very interesting issue that touched on a lot of the other themes in the film—people moving away from the community because of religious or ethnic reasons, and the schools suffering as a result. There were a lot of issues suggested in that scene, as well as the scene in Councilman Dromm’s office cross-cutting between the two ladies on the phone. I hope that suggests the kind of stuff they have to deal with.

 

DT: That was a great scene.  So let’s say you’ve edited all your sequences. Do you choose one and say, This is the organizing principle of this film?

 

FW:  No.

 

DT: When did you know that the BID issue was so important?

 

FW: Only when I started to assemble the sequences. When I was editing them, I realized it was important, but I didn’t realize how important or how I was going to use them or the extent to which I was going to use them until I actually tried. I can’t edit in the abstract. I have to try it out.

 

A woman relates her story of coming to the US at a Make the Road New York immigration support group in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

A woman relates her story of coming to the US at a Make the Road New York immigration support group in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

 

DT:  Is there one trigger scene that says, This is it.

 

FW: No. There were all kinds of interesting activities at Make the Road New York, so one of the structural issues was where to place them. There’s a very short sequence early in the film—the one about fake adoption in order to get citizenship—to establish the fact that Make the Road is important not only for the subject matter of that sequence but also to establish it as a place we’re going to revisit. Sequences in Make the Road New York appear from time to time throughout the film; it’s a question of working out the structure, not only the narrative structure but also the rhythm of the film, because you can’t place them all together. No matter how good they might be, they would be boring if they were placed all together, so you have to surround them with other kinds of events, whether musical, or funny, or action-oriented, or whatever.

 

DT:  One of the things I loved most about the film was a whole series of familiar images—the subway, the cops, certain faces—that, because of the way you use them, take on new meaning as the film develops.

 

FW:  Not only my movies, but any movie, proceeds on two tracks. There’s the literal track—who says what to whom, what’s going on—then there’s the more abstract, or metaphoric, track, or what is suggested by the literal sequences and their order. That’s where you get the more general ideas that the film is dealing with.

 

DT:  That’s what makes your final shot so mind-blowing.

 

FW:  Exactly. The final shot summarizes a lot of those issues that have been presented in the film and carries them forward.

 

DT:  Truly brilliant. In our National Gallery interview, you said, “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.” Did you learn anything in National Gallery that you applied to In Jackson Heights?

 

FW:  When I’m in the process of editing, I say to myself, How did I deal with this problem before?  Also in the shooting, if I previously edited a film and found I didn’t have a kind of shot that I needed in order to solve an editing problem, I tend to remember to get that shot the next time out.

 

DT:  Which do you prefer, shooting or editing?

 

FW:  They’re both fun.  Shooting is an adventure. One of the things I like about documentary filmmaking is that it’s intellectually very demanding and physically very demanding, because you have to be alert during both the shooting and the editing. It draws in all your so-called intellectual capacities and emotional capacities, too. During the shooting there are also physical demands because you’re on your feet twelve hours a day.

 

DT:  And you’re doing the sound.

 

FW:  Yeah.

 

DT:  The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you were going to be working on Titicut Follies, the Ballet.

 

FW:  I am working on it, with James Sewell as choreographer. We presented twenty minutes of it at the Toronto Film Festival. It seemed to go over very well, and we’re hoping to have a premier in New York in the spring of 2017.

 

DT:  And that’s going to be onstage.

 

FW: It’s not a movie. It’s onstage.

 

DT:  Can’t wait.

 

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