School Life/Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane

A miracle occurs every day in northwest Ireland. For forty-nine years, the staff at the Headfort boarding school, chief among them John and Amanda Leyden, nurture the young students entrusted to their care to be the best they can possibly be: the most discerning learners, the kindest friends, the most caring citizens. Documentarians Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane capture a year in the beautiful life of the Headfort boarding school. Availability: Opens September 8, IFC Center, New York City, with national rollout to follow. A Magnolia Pictures release. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: How did you discover this amazing place and these amazing people?

Amanda Leyden and Kevin, center, in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Amanda Leyden and students in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NNC: It started with a hunt for a school for our children. We were living in the northwest of Ireland in a very rural community. We realized we needed something more diverse education-wise for our kids, so we started looking for schools. There’s not a huge choice in Ireland, but we realized we were going to have to move, and we found Headfort’s website. It was the parents’ comments that attracted us first, talking about the happiness of the child being at the core of the education, and we thought that was a really good starting point. We went there, we met them, we really loved the school, we decided to send our children there as day pupils, so we moved out as a family.

Then we realized this was a really special place. David and I have a history of boarding schools. I went to boarding school, David went to boarding school, I had a great experience and David had a traumatic experience, so we were really curious to see what a twenty-first-century boarding school looked like. Luckily the headmaster knew some of our previous work, so he was open to the idea, and that was it.

We discovered the Leydens, the teachers who are the main subjects of the film, a year into working on the film; we spent a year researching and getting to know all the people in the school, the other teachers, the staff, and the parents, and then we spoke to a lot of alumni. We asked them what their experience at Headfort was, and it was John and Amanda’s names that kept coming up. But at this point, John and Amanda Leyden didn’t like the idea of a film being made about the school. I didn’t understand why, and they were very hesitant, so it took about a year to get them on board.

DT: How did you finally do that?

NNC: I think over time they realized we were really serious about making a film, and they got to know us, and they got to know our kids slowly, and I think they kind of liked us. One day at the end of the summer term they invited us to their house for tea. And that was it. About a week later they came back to us and said, “OK, you’re going to do this? We’re in.”

 

DT: Who founded the school, and what was the philosophy when it was founded?

At a concert by the school band, a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

At a concert by the school band, a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

DC: It was founded by Lord and Lady Headfort. It was the ancestral home of Lord Headfort. They were Anglo-Irish, which means they would have come over and been part of the settlers who colonized Ireland. They decided there was a need for a school for children of other Anglo-Irish people, because it was a predominantly Catholic school system. So they set it up. Lady Headfort did that while they were still living there. They moved into one wing of the big house and set up a school in the other wing. Over time Lord and Lady Headfort ran out of money. That often happens with large ancestral homes. They allowed the school to continue. Finally the school raised the money to actually buy the Harry Potter building, and forty acres of woodlands. The rest Lord Headfort sold to developers, golf courses, the usual sort of thing. The school changed then, it became nondenominational, it didn’t cater just for the Protestant community.

It was a boys-only school the first ten, fifteen years, then a couple of daughters of staff were allowed in. That happened a lot in single-sex schools, the children of staff, if they were girls, were allowed to attend the school, and eventually it opened up. It became more and more progressive to the point where the current headmaster would call himself a Marxist. He taught for fifteen years at the Dalton School in Manhattan, and he would have a very progressive attitude toward education. I think that shows in our film. He believes in encouraging children to discuss and debate issues rather than feeding them facts and telling them this is the truth, this is the fact, this is what you have to learn.

 

DT: How did the Leydens fit into the history of the school?

NNC: When we were filming, they were there forty-six years. They both came as young teachers. It was their first jobs. They came independently, they met at the school, and a couple of years later they married. They’ve always lived on the grounds of the school. They raised a family there, and thankfully they’re still teaching there. They’re now into their forty-ninth year teaching.

 

DT: Can you talk a little bit about shooting? You got some remarkably intimate moments, but I’m also curious about how you knew which stories to follow.

NNC: In terms of the children we didn’t know which stories to follow. Basically we shot over three years. We ended up using the footage from the first year to raise funding for the film, because it was 2012 when Ireland was coming out of the crash, and nobody wanted to fund a film about a private school. So we had to shoot footage before people were finally convinced that this was something unique.

In the film you see the footage from the second year. We asked the headmaster from the very beginning if we could have a room in the school where we could hang about when we weren’t filming, because we knew that we had to become part of the furniture and part of the daily routine of the children’s lives so there was no big fuss when the film crew arrived to shoot.

DC: It’s important to note that the film crew was just the two of us. Neasa was doing camera and I was doing sound, and we were also the parents of two children in the school, so we were accepted very easily by the children. That was a critical thing, because children at that age, they played up a little bit for the first week and jumped in front of the camera and pulled faces and all the things that ten-, eleven-, twelve-year-olds do, and then they completely forgot about us. We were invisible to them and they just got on with their lives. We got that intimacy because they trusted us and they allowed us into their space.

The painfully shy Eliza with John Leyden and bandmate in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The painfully shy Eliza with John Leyden and bandmate in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NNC: We had an idea of what children we were interested in, but we made a rule that we wouldn’t let the child know that we were focusing on him or her because we didn’t want them to carry that throughout the whole year. We filmed with everybody in all the classes, and we filmed things we knew we weren’t going to use that wouldn’t give us stories. It was in the editing that we could really figure out when we had a complete story arc.

We were always interested in Eliza. Eliza was just cinematically captivating from the very beginning, but had she not come out of herself at the end I don’t think we would have used that footage—we wouldn’t have suspended her in this kind of painfully shy state.

For our three main characters we got consent from all the parents, and we made sure they were OK with the storylines we were pulling out of the footage. We said to the parents of Kev, “He’s going to be featured in the film, are you OK with that?” And Kev said, “It’s not possible, Mom, they never filmed me.”

DC: As documentarians we didn’t have an idea of what the observational film would follow. We were following the surrogate family—the idea that all of these staff and teachers and matrons, the women who look out for the care of the children, the nurse, even down to the grounds staff and the kitchen staff, all had the role of surrogate parents. The original title of the film was In Loco Parentis, which means ‘in place of parents.’ We were trying to understand how surrogate family could possibly step in and be there instead of the parents. As documentarians we knew what to follow. The children fit in there, and then slowly we discovered the stories of the children.

 

DT: Let’s talk about the editing phase. You film has been compared to Frederick Wiseman’s work. Was that intentional? He assembles sequences and then he assembles the film from the assembled sequences. Is that how you worked? In the footage that you thought you were just going to throw away, did you discover anything that you ended up keeping?

NNC: We were very influenced by direct cinema  like D. A. Pennebaker, Wiseman, and Kim Longinotto, a female filmmaker in the UK. They were our three heroes. Yes, our approach is similar to Wiseman’s in the sense that because we shot for over three years we had over 450 hours of footage. We decided in the end that we would only use footage from the second year for coherence sake, because children change, and that we were going to hang the film on “a year in the life of” idea. Then we whittled that down to twenty-five hours of our favorite scenes. We always knew that John and Amanda Leyden would be main characters, and then the children who wove in and out of their lives became our primary focus. So it was a process, it took a year, and it was a process of whittling it down.

 

DT: Did you film your own kids?

CNN: Not much. We didn’t focus on them. As it happened, our daughter was in John’s class, so she features a little bit more just because she’s there.

 

DT: Your point was to ask the question, Can boarding schools function as surrogate family? What’s the answer, given your experience at Headfort?

CNN: I think very much so. From what we witnessed of John and Amanda, there’s a well-worn path to their house. On any weekend you’ll find a fifteen-year-old or a twenty-year-old staying with them or coming to visit with them or have lunch with them. John is in constant contact with the kids that have been in the school. They all keep in touch. Amanda still talks about them as “our kids.” “Oh, he’s one of ours,” she’ll say.

DC: They act like parents. They say, “Our kids are coming back. What should we feed them?” The surrogate family is very, very strong at Headfort.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

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.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

National Gallery/Frederick Wiseman

National GalleryFrederick 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 hereAvailability: 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.

 

FW: Exactly.

 

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.

 

DT: (Laughs)

 

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.

 

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