Since 1967, Frederick Wiseman has been making extraordinary documentaries about the ordinary. His latest film, In Jackson Heights, is a meticulous, textured portrait of a Queens neighborhood in transition. For more than three hours, the inimitable documentarian captures moments of raw emotion, from emigrated families fighting for citizenship to small business owners combating capitalism. It’s strange, really, to watch a Wiseman film, and then speak to the man. These docs are unfiltered accounts of life, often achingly personal and revealing. When it comes to Wiseman, he plays matters close to the chest. He’s appropriately guarded, weary of analyzing his work before people have even seen it. After an hour of ping-ponging back and forth, he opened up.
The A.V. Club: Some honesty: In Jackson Heights made me cry.
Frederick Wiseman: I’m glad to hear that. It’s a funny and sad movie all at once, I think.
AVC: Do you know when you’re filming that you’re capturing great comedy and great sadness?
FW: Yeah. I mean, the scenes are somewhat different, originally, because I have to condense them all and compress them all in the editing. Also, there’s a certain amount of distraction in just doing the work. But, of course, the scene with the 98-year-old lady, when that happens, you know it’s a good scene.
AVC: Is that the mark of a good scene—that you tell it’s going to be good while it’s unfolding?
FW: Well, no, but you recognize it! It’s also true that sometimes you don’t. A scene that you originally put aside because you didn’t think it was much good becomes very valuable because it provides a context for something else. There are scenes—like the taxi driver or the woman that asked the group of Southern Baptists to pray for her—you know at the moment that it’s a good scene. But there are other scenes that you don’t necessarily know, and become equally important.
AVC: Do you think you have a keen eye for that?
FW: Well, I don’t know. It sounds pretentious of me to say that I have a keen eye. I’ve been making movies for a long time. And documentary filmmaking ruins you for real life, because you learn to be extremely attentive.
AVC: Do you find that that translates into your own life?
FW: I think I’m more attentive now than when I started because it’s something you learn. I was recently attentive when I started. I don’t know, I don’t have an attentive scale. You learn to pay attention to detail, because so much is in the detail. And when you’re shooting, you try to be very alert to what’s going on, even if you’re tired. For example, that scene with the Southern Baptists. We started to shoot them, and just by chance, this other woman came up and asked them to pray for her and for her father. It was sheer luck.
AVC: How much of your documentaries do you chalk up to fortuitous timing?
FW: I don’t know what the percentage is, but certainly a good percentage is. It’s a funny thing: It’s a combination of luck and good judgment in different proportions in different times. And then knowing how to use it, and that’s a function of your general experience. So much of these movies, particularly in the timing, have nothing to do with film. It has to do with deluding yourself into believing that you’re understanding what you’re seeing and hearing in the rushes. Because unless I can convince myself that I understand what’s going on in the sequence, I don’t know 1) if I want to use it and 2) how I’m going to use it. So I have to convince myself, whether correctly or not, that I understand not only a sequence, but all the sequences in order to make the judgment whether it’s useful to me and how I want to edit it and what its relationship is to other sequences I’ve selected.
AVC: How hard is that convincing process?
FW: I don’t use the word “hard’ in relation to it. It’s very interesting. It has always taken about a year to edit a movie. And the last three or four months, I work seven days a week. That’s not hard—not that it doesn’t have its moments of boredom and frustration, because of course it does—but it’s interesting, because I wanna see how the movie’s gonna come out.
AVC: Did you have a moment in editing In Jackson Heights where you felt like you couldn’t do it—where you felt frustrated with the process?
FW: Sure. Not in relation to the whole movie, but a problem editing a sequence. But I’ve learned over time, when I have trouble editing a sequence, I take a walk, take a nap, go to the movies, have a good night’s sleep, and lo and behold, a solution presents itself the next day. Editing one of these movies takes total immersion in the subject matter. I’ve thought of cuts walking down the street, in the shower. I’ve dreamt cuts. It’s a funny combination of being a very rational process and a very nonrational process, perhaps even irrational. One of the things I’ve learned is paying attention to the thoughts at the periphery of my head. In other words, associations. You get as many good ideas from listening to those associations as you do from logically thinking about what’s going on, and the movie emerges from those two seemingly contradictory, but not at all contradictory, thought patterns.
AVC: Within the first 30 minutes of the movie, there are conversations about immigration, gay rights and activism, big business, the dysfunctional school system, gentrification—there’s a lot. More than most movies contain in two hours.
FW: It’s a dense movie, I agree with you.
AVC: Did all these conversations—which seem incredibly topical and relevant to life now, even away from In Jackson Heights—happen organically or did you seek them out?
FW: It happened organically. What I thought about In Jackson Heights before I started was that it was a neighborhood of immigrants—recent arrivals, or relatively relevant recent arrivals, mixed up with earlier generations of immigrants, Jewish, Italian, and Irish primarily. Now there were [immigrants] from South America, Asia, and East Asia, from all over. And that’s why I made the movie, because I wanted to look at an immigrant community. But I had no idea what sequences, what I was going to stumble across, and what they would represent. And then in the shooting, it’s a matter of collecting interesting sequences. And it’s only in editing… obviously when I was going along I knew that this sequence had to do with big businesses coming into a community, or this sequence had to do with old age, or this had to do gay rights, or this had to do with the police and transgender—but how they would fit together, I had no idea. And I only have an idea, only begin to have an idea of that, in the last stages of editing. I start off by editing all the sequences I like or will make it into the film, and it’s only when I’ve done that—and that takes six or eight months—that I begin to work on the structure.
AVC: You make movies about the minutia of day-to-day life. Your films often deal with the ordinary, whereas most films deal with the extraordinary.
FW: That’s a very fair statement. That’s a statement I would make about the movies. I’m interested in ordinary experience, and regardless of the precise definition of ordinary, and I’ve found that in so-called ordinary experience, there is as much comedy, tragedy, sadness, as there is in great drama. And I don’t invent it, I recognize it.
AVC: It seems that you are better at recognizing it than most people.
FW: I don’t know, I’m interested in it. I guess I find life strange and interesting.
AVC: What do you find strange about it?
FW: Well, look at all the things you see in In Jackson Heights. I think it’s strange that a woman comes up to a group of strangers and asks them to pray for her father who’s dying in the hospital. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but you know it’s not what one ordinarily anticipates when one is walking down the street.
AVC: Are movies your way of understanding the world and understanding your place in it?
FW: Yeah! First of all, I like doing it, it’s fun. It’s interesting, it’s very demanding both intellectually and physically. It’s also explaining my experience to myself. In Jackson Heights is my way of explaining to myself the experience of spending nine weeks in Jackson Heights. It’s finding a form for the experience.
AVC: Do you wish you could film every event in your life?
FW: No, I don’t wish to be filming every event in my life. Not at all.
AVC: Wouldn’t that make life easier to understand because you have footage of it?
FW: Not necessarily, no. I start off with, as with In Jackson Heights, 120 hours of rushes. My job as the editor is to find a form for that experience in the 120 hours of rushes. And that’s one of the fascinating things about making this kind of movie, is that you try—the rushes are 120 hours, the final film is about three hours—so that means, the ratio of film shot to film used is 40:1.
AVC: So how would you regard your whole experience in Jackson Heights?
FW: At the risk of evading the question you’re asking, it’s what you see in the movie. The answer to that question is the movie.
AVC: Do you worry about answering questions like that or answering questions in a certain way?
FW: You notice I’m not trying to explain the movie. I’m trying to explain the process of making the movie, and that’s not the same thing. I don’t like to, or really ever do, explain the movie.
AVC: How much change do you see in yourself from year to year?
FW: That’s a difficult evaluation to make. I don’t know that I can answer the question. When I look in the mirror I see more wrinkles. But in a sense, the real answer is too personal to tell you or anybody else.
AVC: Is that what it is?
FW: Well, it is. I don’t see the need to talk about my personal life at all ever, actually.
AVC: My sense, this is my general impression, is that things are moving quicker than ever. I don’t know if you’ve had a similar experience.
FW: Well, yeah, sure, I do.
AVC: Is that always the case wherever you are?
FW: No, I don’t feel that’s always the case. One’s relationship to time is complicated, and sometimes a day will drag on forever and sometimes it’ll be over in a flash. When you look back, “I’m old,” after 40 or 60 years, I can’t believe I’m as old as I am.
AVC: Are you a nostalgic person?
FW: No, not particularly. I’m too busy to be nostalgic, which is one of the reasons to keep busy. I’m not a very sentimental person.
AVC: Do you think that comes across in your movies?
FW: I’ve never really thought about it that way. I think the movies aren’t sentimental. I think the movies are funny and sad and realistic. Not realistic in the sense that they’re documentaries, but realistic in the sense that they’re not idealistic, they’re not optimistic, not pessimistic, and not propagandistic. They’re an analysis of a situation. I call it as I see it, so to speak.
AVC: Do you shy away from injecting yourself into the movie?
FW: No, I’m all over the movie, because I’m making all the choices that go into it.
AVC: But it’s not like you appear in front of the camera.
FW: I don’t like doing that. Marcel Ophüls makes great documentaries and he’s in almost every shot. I don’t happen to like to do that, that’s all.
AVC: If you did, you could take away the title card that says your name on it.
FW: There’s something to that. I’m still sufficiently vain that I want my name in the movie.
AVC: Do you shy away from injecting your politics and your feelings into the film?
FW: No, I don’t think that’s so. The movies are a representation of my feelings. But my feelings are always very complicated. You mentioned a moment ago, how the first half hour of the film has gay rights, multiculturalism, old people, etc. etc. The fact that those are issues that are raised in the first 30 minutes of the movie are choices that I made.
AVC: But the choices signify interest, but not a particular stance.
FW: No, the movies aren’t political in that sense at all. Because I don’t like ideological explanations. They aren’t accountable for the complexity I see.
AVC: Which why there are no talking heads interviews.
FW: I don’t think they’re good for my kind of movies. I have enormous admiration, as I said, for Marcel Ophüls’ movies, which are all talking heads. I like everything represented in the movie to something that occurred. A talking head is a staged event, no matter how brilliant the conversation. I’m not being critical of that, it’s just a different style.
AVC: You’re very careful of being not critical about that.
FW: I’m very careful of not being critical of other people’s movies, which work in different styles. I think some of my movies can be interpreted as critical of their subjects. Titicut Follies, for example. And the first High School movie is not an admiring look at North East High School in Philadelphia.
AVC: You’ve made 41 films. Does it feel like you’ve made that many?
FW: No. But once it’s done I rarely go back and look at it again.
AVC: At the end of it all, is there something that you’d like to be remembered for in this genre and this form?
FW: Well, I’d like to be remembered for the 41 movies I’ve made!
AVC: Certainly you’ll be remembered for those. But, is there—
FW: No, but certainly, making movies is an effort is an attempt to leave a trace of your existence.
AVC: Can you imagine doing anything else as a career?
FW: Yeah, I thought of being Roger Federer, but it’s too late.
AVC: When did you contemplate being Roger Federer?
FW: Well, long before he was born, but I love playing tennis. I used to play tennis seven days a week, and then I had to stop because my hip was worn out. I got an artificial hip. I’m only kidding you, but I love to ski, which I still do.
AVC: Do you prefer living in Paris to America?
FW: I like Paris. Food’s good, and I’ve had a whole bunch of projects here. In addition to making some movies there, I’ve directed some plays. I edited In Jackson Heights there simply because I like it there. I lived in Boston for a long time and I enjoyed it, and my home is in Boston, and I like coming to New York, but I don’t think I’d like to live in New York. It’s too expensive. But I like living in Paris because it’s such a beautiful city. Wherever you walk, particularly in the center of Paris, because they haven’t destroyed the old buildings, it’s quite beautiful.
AVC: Is there a movie or a subject or something that’s on your bucket list?
FW: I’d love to do the White House. But I’d never get permission.
AVC: What if Trump gets in the White House; do you think you could make a movie?
FW: Well, it would already be a situation comedy. And a tragedy.
AVC: He may be just vain enough to say yes to being in that movie.
FW: Yeah, but all kidding aside, the national security issues. You might get in, but you’d never get the good stuff.