Everywhere Is Different and Everywhere Is the Same: Frederick Wiseman and the Making of the World

By Robert Chilcott

meat-frederick-wiseman.jpgMeat, 1976

The cinema of Frederick Wiseman continues, almost annually, to draft a labyrinthine parchment of the American Institution, and as such the minutiae, the jigsaw, of American, and all Western, society. His frequently intense and exhaustive analysis of work, routine, administration and hierarchy, without recourse to the voiceovers, main characters, external soundtracks or sentimental montages that have become standard generic devices of contemporary documentary, puts Wiseman in a unique position, his working methods consistent and largely unchanged over the last 40 years – a crew of three, one on camera, Wiseman on sound and an assistant to reload the mag. The following is an edited transcript of discussions given to students at the Lisboa Documentary Festival in October 2008 after screenings of Meat and Missile, part of a Wiseman retrospective.

Robert Chilcott: The first thing I felt very strongly was that this was first a well known film about the food industry, but very quickly I felt that I was watching one of the very rare films in the history of cinema about human labour.

Frederick Wiseman: It is certainly one of the principle issues. Meat is my western! Cowboys and cows. You start with the cow and end up with the hamburger. With an industrial process like that, its one of the few times in documentary film where you can reshoot, because the same thing is always happening. They kill 3000 cattle a day. So sometimes if I was dissatisfied with some of the rushes I would go back to that point in the process. That happened a few times. It’s extremely rare in documentary film to go back and have exactly the same thing going on, but it presented an opportunity to get the shots exactly how I wanted them because of the repetitive aspect of the process.

RB: I was wondering how you came upon this subject, or how you come up with all your subjects.

FW: The true answer to that question is I don’t know. When I was doing Titicut Follies I thought what you could do in a prison for the criminally insane you could do in other institutions. And I thought institutions were unexplored territory in film terms, because when you see early documentaries, the technique is that one or two people are the subject. In these, the place was the star. So that was the idea. And once I had the idea for doing institutions, I thought I should do the ones that are important to the functioning of American society. And presumably the same sort of institutions exist everywhere – wherever people eat meat, cattle are killed, wherever people are sick there are hospitals, wherever there’s a state, there’s an army, wherever there’s a community, there’s a police force.

So from that framework I try and pick the principal institutions, and within that I always try to pick as the particular choice, the particular place, an institution that represents a good example of its kind. Even Bridgewater, where Titicut Follies was made, as horrible a place as it was in 1966, was probably one of the better prisons for the criminally insane in America at that time. In comparison to a prison for the criminally insane in Mississippi, Bridgewater looked like the Ritz hotel. Similarly where I made High School, it was one of the two best schools in Philadelphia. This meat packing plant was a model of how a meat packing plant should be. I always think it’s more interesting to pick a good example, because a bad example is too easy. The film has a chance of being a more complicated representation of reality if it’s showing a good example of its kind. So, within that context, there are still hundreds of subjects that I haven’t done.

high-school-frederick-wiseman.jpgHigh School, 1994

RB: Have you ever returned to places such as the meat packing plant and observed changes since the films have been made?

FW: No. I rarely go back, because first of all I’m too busy doing something else, and second of all, how it’s changed is really not of interest to me. And in order to make some determination about that I’d have to spend an equivalent amount of time – I’m not interested in making these films for social change, in film terms. I’m interested in making as good a film as I can about whatever happens to be the subject at a given moment.

RB: Do you regret not shooting the film in colour, or would there have been too much red?

FW: I like shooting in black and white. There were two reasons I started shooting in colour. The first colour movie was The Store, because the colour of the goods sold in the store was part of the story, so it had to be. And the movies for the school for the deaf and blind in Alabama had to be in colour, because colour was absent from the lives of the blind students, so colour in a sense was one of the subjects of the film. And also I began to work in some situations where the light conditions weren’t very good, and a colour negative was much faster, so you could shoot in much lower light conditions. I wanted to do Missile in black and white, and I’d ordered the stock six months in advance, but two weeks before I was to start Kodak said it had trouble making black and white stock, so would I take colour for the same price. So I did. I like the stylised look of black and white, so when I can and when I think it’s appropriate, I’ll use it. The last time I used it was for Near Death, which was 20 years ago.

RB: How did you start this project – I think I read that you work for the Public Broadcasting Service?

FW: Well I don’t work for them, in the sense of an employee, but I get some of the money for each movie from PBS. About 20% of the budget. I’m an independent filmmaker. I have to raise the money myself. The rest of the budget comes from a variety of sources, sometimes I get foundation money – The Ford Foundation, The Macarthur Foundation, occasionally I’ve gotten money from the BBC, though not very much in recent years. Occasionally from ARTE in France. But there are only maybe eight or 10 places in the world to go to for money for this kind of movie, and you meet your friends waiting in the offices of those places. The ideas are mine. I’ve never worked for anyone else. I’m incapable of working for anybody else.

RB: Do you get surprised by what you find?

FW: I’m always surprised, because I don’t know much about these places before I start. Part of the fun is to learn something, and to have the final film reflect what I’ve learnt. I spent one day at the packing plant before I started shooting. Then I spent 5 weeks there, so I knew much more about it by the end. And studying the material for a year.

RB: You don’t do research?

FW: There’s nothing to read! There may be things to read about the meat industry, but not about the packing plant. The shooting of the film is the research. Because if you are there doing research, you’re not watching the same events that you’re going to have an opportunity to shoot in the film, because its always different, nothing is staged and no two situations are alike. So I don’t do research in the traditional sense of hanging around and observing in advance. I also don’t want to put myself in the position of being in a place and not able to catch what’s going on. If something really great happens, you want to be able to get it, at least if you’re not there when it happened you don’t know that it happened, because you won’t know what you missed.

high-school-frederick-wiseman-2.jpgHigh School, 1994 

RB: Were you personally horrified by the process?

FW: The horror comes from the viewer, the horror is not necessarily inherent in the situation. You’re attaching the label horror to something you’ve seen, but somebody else may just say “well, you like to eat meat, and this is the only way that meat can be supplied to millions of people every day”. I thought it was scary to see all that blood, but I wasn’t horrified. I thought it was interesting.

RB: It is a very tough job. In the end we hear somebody say that there are very few people that can do it for more than ten years.

FW: I don’t think I’d like to work there! But on the other hand, to a large extent it’s a film about work, the repetitive nature of work, which has analogies to other kinds of work where there’s no blood involved. It has kinship to other movies about work, and the industrialisation of killing. I try to avoid any sentimental streak. It would be self-indulgent to have pity for these people. I’m not saying it’s not hard, but don’t forget these people choose to work there because they want to work, they want to earn a living and support their families.

missile-frederick-wiseman.jpgMissile, 1987 

RB: Could you talk a little bit more about the approach to institutions, because it seems there is somehow a message throughout all the subjects.

FW: I hope there are a variety of ideas, but one idea is that what goes on in a particular institution is also a reflection of what goes on outside the institution, so you a looking at the larger picture through a smaller picture. I think I’m making one long movie about contemporary American life which is currently about 90 hours long. And I’ll never cover all aspects of American life, but over the course of the time I make movies I will have a series of thematically connected films about contemporary American experience. And in that sense, the movies are a form of natural history. I like to think they have dramatic structures, but they are also contemporaneous records of the way we live. To the extent that the negatives don’t dissolve, if anyone is interested in seeing them 50-100 years from now, they’ll confuse historians even more because they will be a film record of the past. My documentaries, any documentaries, that last, they’ll provide a historical record so that people of future generations will have a much better idea of how we lived than we say, have of people in the 19th century, when photography was only beginning and we were dependent on words. Nothing wrong with being dependent on words, some great words have been written, but in addition to that there will also be these film records.

RB: Do you try and remain neutral?

FW: I hope my films don’t make obvious political points. Of course they are political, but not in the sense of supporting any ideology or party. They’re not political in the way Michael Moore’s films are political, I’m not trying to impose a political message, because the realities I’m dealing with are ambiguous. In High School, for example, which is quite an obvious movie, a sad situation comedy – it comes across as being completely out of touch with the times, I think. But there was a very conservative politician in Washington who saw it right after it was made – I thought the film was very critical in many ways of this North East high school, but I was introduced to her after the screening and she said, “Mr Wiseman, that’s a wonderful high school. How can we bring high schools like that to Boston?” I thought she was kidding, but she was on the other side of all the value issues. What I thought was not a very appropriate way to treat 16 year olds, she thought was right. She liked the idea of dress codes, enforcing certain kinds of discipline – all the things that came across to me as absurd she thought were great. Now you could say that’s a fault of the film, that I didn’t make that clear, but she interpreted what she saw differently than what I did. I think that’s a strength.

meat-frederick-wiseman-2.jpgMeat, 1976 

RB: Were there any shooting restrictions in the location you filmed Missile?

FW: I allowed the Pentagon to review it for breaches of national security, and they found none. The only thing I was liable to stumble upon were the launch codes, but I really didn’t want to know the codes - because if I did I’d have a lot of new friends! The reason I didn’t go underground was that the training was all above ground. Underground were the real launch missiles, but this was about the training program – they were assigned to the underground launch centres after they graduated. The fact is, American society is transparent, and the government will support a high degree of transparency. I think under the Bush administration, since 9/11, that’s probably much less true. Before then I made three movies about aspects of military life, and it was relatively easy to get permission. I had somebody show me around the base, but I didn’t have a keeper who said, “you can go there but not go there”. It was completely open.

RB: What is the theme of the film?

FW: Well, you’ve just watched the film, I’m curious to know what you think the theme is? What is the goal of this learning process? It’s an education, it’s a school. What are they being taught to do? What is the abstract thing that they are learning about? Isn’t the whole point of the training that they will launch a nuclear missile when they are ordered to do it? What is the goal of the method? They are learning how to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles that will more or less destroy the world. I suppose I was interested in the ease with which people can accept the idea of that training, the ease with which people accept the idea of destroying the world. That woman at the end was certainly very proud that she had passed her exam in how to launch a missile. It’s a film about the banality of evil - an expression Hannah Arendt used to describe Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was not a particularly brilliant man – he was a bureaucrat who organised train schedules, train schedules that shipped people to their death. He’s not the devil with smoke coming out of his ears and a forked tongue and blood stained eyes. He’s just an ordinary person doing something horrible.

meat-frederick-wiseman-3.jpgMeat, 1976

RB: How do you shut down when filming certain scenes – in Meat it is cold, it smells of blood etc?

FW: You don’t forget about the environment, but you have one thing in mind when you are there and that is you are there to make a movie. And that is also a kind of defence against some of the things you are seeing. When I did Near Death and was hanging around watching people die every day, it was not the easiest thing to do, but, like everything else, you get used to it, and you know that the doctors and nurses have gotten used to it so there’s no reason you can’t get used to it. And it becomes commonplace. That, plus the fact that you’re not just there standing in the corridor watching somebody die, you’re there making a movie. So you have work to do, and the work is a diversion. It’s not that I didn’t have emotional reactions to some of the things I saw, because of course I did and they were very sad, but, in my job, I protect myself by doing my job, which is to make the movie. And that provides, almost automatically, a certain amount of distance, because there are technical things you have to do. The fact that you are using a camera and a tape recorder to make a movie creates the distance, because you’re distracted.

RB: If you don’t do research, how do you know what you are looking for?

FW: I don’t. It’s a gamble. That’s the Las Vegas aspect about it that I like. I’m willing to take the gamble. One of the first things I enquire about, obviously, is who the boss is. Usually in these places there is only one boss, so you know you need to hang around the bosses’ office. You hang around the centre of power. In Welfare there were staff meetings, certain hours of the day when they were at their busiest. I ask all the obvious questions in the day or two before I’m there, but there’s no way I can anticipate what’s going to happen when I make the movie weeks or months later, or even days later, because nothing is ever the same. You know people will come to the welfare centre every day, but what their stories are going to be, who they’re going to be, how they are going to be dressed, what they are going to say, or what the workers’ response is going to be, is always different. One of the reasons I have to accumulate a lot of film is because I’m often wrong. You start shooting a sequence and you shoot it all the way through, and it’s no good. I only use two or three percent of the material.

high-school-frederick-wiseman-3.jpgHigh School, 1994 

RB: You still shoot on film?

FW: I don’t like the look of video. For the ballet movie I edited on AVID for the first time, because in Paris now the labs don’t do A and B printing, and it was too great a risk that the splices would show. I had to stop myself making editing decisions too quickly. With a Steenbeck, you have to go to the wall, find a roll, thread it through the machine, roll down to it, but that’s not all wasted time because a lot of that time you are thinking about how you are going to use the shot. The speed of the AVID I found disconcerting, but on the other hand I’ve been editing on a Steenbeck for 40 years. I had to edit this movie on the AVID for financial reasons, but I think for the next movie I’ll be back at the Steenbeck.

RB: Do you think that because you studied law it influenced the vision you have of the truth, in that you don’t say in your films who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?

FW: I don’t think law had anything to do with it. First of all, you make an assumption that is not correct when you say I studied law. I was physically present in law school, but that’s far different from studying law. Because what I did in law school for three years was study novels. I knew how to take the exams, because I borrowed my friend’s notes and read them the day before, but I didn’t study and I actually know very little about the law. I leave it up to you to decide what you think about the people, but that doesn’t come from studying law, or not studying law. That comes more from reading. I think my approach to film is more novelistic than anything else, though I’m very leery about talking about influences.

More information about Frederick Wiseman can be found at www.zipporah.com

With special thanks to Susana Seabra and all at DocLisboa; www.doclisboa.org

Robert Chilcott is Vertigo’s online editor.