As a non-fiction filmmaker for five decades, Frederick Wiseman considers his films “novelistic, not journalistic.” Epic in size—some clocking around four hours—and rich in subtext, Wiseman’s films patiently observe the institutions that compose daily life. There's a real purity to the image, without any text on the screen to distract from the moment. His breakthrough, the controversial Titicut Follies (1967), observed the inner workings of a Massachusetts mental hospital. His would-be “stick it to the pigs exposé” Law and Order found some redemption in the police. Welfare offices, high school classrooms, and college campuses have all found their way in front of Wiseman’s seemingly invisible lens—he does not interfere or provoke, he just lets the camera roll, finding the story after shooting wraps. At 86 years old, he's still directing, producing, and editing himself.
His latest film, Ex Libris, is the centerpiece of “The Complete Wiseman: Part II,” an ongoing Film Forum retrospective that finishes on September 14th (the film itself will run from the 13th until the 26th). If you go, here's a tutorial on how to watch a Wiseman film.
Ex Libris is on trend with his previous “institution series” offerings, National Gallery and At Berkeley, which offer valuable inside looks at the goings on in renowned cultural hubs, from the folks cleaning the floors all the way to the top of the administrative offices. It also connects with his last film, In Jackson Heights, in demonstrating how key bureaucratic decisions can also affect social life.
Mr. Wiseman spoke to us via phone earlier this month from Venice, and though he remains soft-spoken about what his films mean, instead relying upon the audience to gather their interpretations, he offered a valuable discussion on the democracy of information, especially in the age of Trump.
Congratulations on the film and getting it made. Did you go down the Kickstarter route like you did for In Jackson Heights? No, no. I don't think I could ever do that Kickstarter thing again. I didn’t like doing it at all. I did try it and it didn't work. I understand it works with others but it’s not my cup of tea.
How did this film get off the ground this time? I got money from PBS and the Ford Foundation, and the LEF Foundation.
PBS certainly has been helpful to you throughout the last few films. PBS, over the years, has always given me some money. PBS has always given me between 15% to 20% of the budget. They’ve been very consistent with that sort of thing. I’m very grateful to them. I just wish they had more resources!
You’ve said that you chose to make a film about Jackson Heights just by walking around the neighborhood. How did you choose the NYPL? I had wanted to make a library be the subject of my next film. I knew the New York Public Library was one of the great libraries in the world, so I got in touch with (president and CEO) Anthony Marx, and he said, “Okay!” Many years ago, I had done some work and research in the Library for Performing Arts, and I had been through the main building (the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) many years ago simply as a tourist, but that was a long time ago. Maybe forty years ago.
You certainly use the image of tourism a lot in this film, and the Schwarzman Building really becomes the film’s anchor. Well, because the senior staff is in the Schwarzman building, and also the archives are there. For those reasons, there are a lot of sequences that take place in the Schwarzman building.
It’s interesting how it starts there, with the Richards Dawkins talk, because when people think of the NYPL, that location is their primary image of it. But as you reveal throughout the film, these other branches are what give the library its blood, even as the main administrative and bureaucratic decisions are made in the Schwarzman building. Right. It’s a vast organization, about ninety or so branches throughout the city. They have multiple levels of organization.
You focus on only a handful of locations throughout the film. Were there other locations that you filmed at in addition to, or just those? No, there’s some sequences I filmed at other locations. I shot some sequences on Staten Island, and at a library on the Upper West Side, but I think there are thirteen different locations.
A lot of the best material comes from lower income areas, such as in The Bronx or at Macomb’s Bridge (at Harlem River Houses). Yeah, in that small library.
They call themselves the “jewel of the public library.” Right. That last scene shows what looks like the size of a medium hotel room. The whole library is basically that one room.
It’s a stunning reveal, especially since there’s this enormous discussion of education and how information is being let out, and it's a huge social issue, and yet it's only being discussed in a room of just five people, starkly contrasting with where you have Elvis Costello or Patti Smith talking about stuff in front of hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Well, it’s also a different kind of event.
It’s interesting how you give lesser known figures just as much screen time, if not more screen time, than the bigger names. Well, in each case, I cut it for the content that interests me. I think what Patti Smith had to say was interesting, but I like what Elvis Costello said. But I don’t ever weigh it in my mind as big name versus smaller name. It comes out the way it comes out.
In a way, your films cut through difference in class and try to give everyone a fair shot. Right. Exactly.
You said before that you like to place your films in complicated places. What is complicated about the New York Public Library? There’s so much going on. It’s an archive, it houses six million books, there are ninety branches, there’s all kinds of different programs. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different programs going on every month in the branches. It’s a public-private partnership—the administration has to be concerned with their politics in relation to the city, and they have to raise money from rich people who are interested in the library, so that makes it pretty complicated.
There’s a lot of footage just of the administrative groups struggling between being a business and a public service. It goes along with some of your previous films, which maintain the belief that information should be available for everyone. That’s right. The current administration is really devoted to turning the branches into learning centers or community centers, so that there are courses for children and adults in different languages and all kinds of different subjects.
And you, like in previous films, make an emphasis on resources available for blind and deaf visitors. You try to encompass as many groups as possible, which is important because the library is so ubiquitous and resourceful, yet a lot of people just don’t know it even exists. Right. Yeah, I agree.
I’ll tell people I’m going to the library and they look at me like I have two heads, like, "Why would you do that?" It’s sad where in this age we expect many things to be free that people don't use it more often. Well, the whole spirit of the library is very democratic. It’s open to everybody, used by everybody, anyone can sit there as long as they’re not creating a disturbance. I included a lot of footage of homeless people sleeping in the reading room. But you don’t necessary know that people are homeless. They’re not wearing a placard that says it. There’s an enormous variety of cultural events, between whats performed in the branches, in the library for performing arts. It’s an enormous part of the cultural life of New York.
Was there much difficulty in filming certain scenes, any conflicts with the staff or patrons? No. There was never any difficulty. Everyone was extremely cooperative. Even as things got intense, and there were hundreds of people filmed.
The film comes at a time where the distribution of correct information was in peril. Going back to the Dawkins talk about things being factual but disagreeable, was that on your mind when making it? Like how we’re at a point where false information is directly impacting our political beliefs? When you were editing and you put that talk first, did the peril of information cross your mind? What you see in the film is the complete opposite of what Trump represents. The staff and the administration deeply care about education, care about culture, care about helping immigrants and helping poor people. I’m doing everything I can to provide assistance and achieve their goals. It’s complete contrast to the Darwinian aspects - I’m not even sure Trump knows who Darwin is - of the Trump administration. I finished editing two days after the election, so the form of the film was already established. But I recognized what was going on was contrary to what Trump was saying. But I had no idea he was going to be elected president. Nobody could believe it was gonna happen. I certainly didn’t.
Your films invite audiences to question their institutions, and we definitely need that now. Oh yeah. I would hope that this film would provoke those kinds of discussions. Absolutely.
What has been the reaction of the library since the film has finished? They like it a lot. And they’re putting up posters in all the branches, notifying people in their email list. I’m very pleased that they liked it, that their heart’s set behind it.
And do you know if the staff members in the smaller branch have seen it? The staff, all of them, were invited to the two screenings I had at the 42nd Street branch of the Public Library. People at all the branches where I filmed were notified. Many of them came out.
You make these, in a sense, home movies about these communities. It’s nice how, even after the film is over, you can make that happen again. Yeah, it's always a strange experience for people who were in the film to see it, but they liked it a lot.
Something I was struck by in the talks and performances—you don’t really include scenes of applause! No, I show them listening quietly. I never thought applause was necessary, even in the films about performance. I don’t want to prejudge the viewer’s response. It's a waste of time.
The applause sorta disrupts the rhythm. It can. It’s not necessary. It always depends what the next sequence. If there’s a lot of noise, then the applause will blend into the next sequence.
It keeps in line, also, with the sense of library etiquette. Right. I agree with that.
How long was the filming? The filming was twelve weeks, and the editing took about a year. I shot through pretty much all of September, October and November [of 2015].
Was there any particular footage that you did shoot that you were disappointed you couldn’t use? I only had 150 hours of rushes, and the the film is only three and half hours of material. 98% of the footage is cut out. The scenes that are left out I usually have a good reason for leaving them out. I'm trying to make a movie. I try to find material that’s really interesting.
On September 14, Frederick Wiseman will be in discussion with Errol Morris at the NYPL's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. And 'The Complete Wiseman' runs at the Film Forum through the 14th, and they'll be screening Ex Libris through the 26th. More details can be found here.