Legendary filmmaker gives viewers a glimpse of his world, newest film

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April 22, 2016

On a beautiful afternoon with a warm spring sun shining outside, more than 100 documentary film devotees ventured indoors to celebrate one of America’s most prolific and decorated filmmakers while gaining an insider’s view of his creative process.

Frederick Wiseman, director of 40 documentary films over the past 50 years, visited Northwestern University on Monday, April 18, as the School of Communication’s 2016 Hoffman Professor. His latest epic, In Jackson Heights, is a three-hour deep dive into a wildly diverse Queens, N.Y., neighborhood. It was screened at Pick-Laudati Auditorium in the Mary and Leigh Block Museum.

The post-screening Q&A moderated by Debra Tolchinsky, director of Northwestern’s MFA in Documentary Media, turned into a filmmaking discussion that revealed Wiseman’s idiosyncratic creative process and his charming wit.

Tolchinsky introduced Wiseman and singled out his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), which chronicled the disturbing reality of life inside the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

“I was so moved by that film,” Tolchinsky said. “It inspired me to become a documentary filmmaker.”

But the conversation quickly turned to In Jackson Heights and Wiseman’s gift for gaining access to diverse communities.

Jackson Heights is home to a multitude of people, cultures, religions, and languages, as many as 167, according to locals. But Wiseman doesn’t claim to be a linguist. Far from it. “As someone once said,” he offered, “speech is not my language.”

But not having a shared language with many of the characters didn’t seem to inhibit him during filming In Jackson Heights. In discussing how he gains the trust of his subjects and gets their agreement to participate, Wiseman said it’s a “non-issue.”

“I don’t understand why people agree to be photographed, but it is in fact very easy,” he said. “It’s rare that anybody objects. … I don’t know what the explanation for that is. Perhaps it’s indifference. Or maybe it’s narcissism or vanity. Or it could be that they’re pleased that somebody is sufficiently interested in their lives that they like the idea of being photographed and recorded.”

Or, perhaps, he said mischievously, “The explanation is my big ears.” And the audience roared with laughter.

As for filmmaking in an era when seemingly anyone can do it, Wiseman sees the craft as relatively unchanged. “Perhaps we shoot a bit more” because of technical and equipment improvements, he said. “But the work experience is no different.”

That might be because through 50 years of trial and error, Wiseman has created a system that works for him and that guides him from one project to the next.

For In Jackson Heights, as for his other projects, Wiseman said he works with a small crew that helps him maintain tight control on the creative process.

“The crew is three of us,” he said. Wiseman directs, edits and provides the overall guiding hand. In addition, he works with a cameraman and a third person who “is an assistant who carries all the extra equipment, the extra lenses … and gets lunch.”

He has added a fourth member to the team in the past few years who “works in a closet someplace” downloading footage from digital cards to disk drives so that he doesn’t have to purchase too many of the expensive digital cards.

One of the keys, Wiseman said, is knowing when to stop. In Jackson Heights, that meant after 10 weeks of shooting and 140 hours of footage. When Tolchinsky asked why he stopped there, Wiseman was quick with an answer.

“It’s mainly, at a certain point, you want to go home,” he said. “Almost every decision in this kind of filmmaking is subjective and that’s just another one.”

“I figured with 140 hours (of footage), I had enough to make a 15-minute movie.”

Of course, Wiseman didn’t make a 15-minute movie, but he did share how he pulls together a film as layered and complicated as In Jackson Heights.

Here’s his recipe:
10 weeks: Shoot film
6-8 weeks: Study all the footage (called “rushes;” in this case numbering 140). During that time, eliminate about half of the footage.
7 months: Edit sequences that might make the final version and begin assembling the film and settling on the thesis. When finished, “It usually ends up 40 minutes longer than the actual film will be,” he said.
6-8 weeks: “I begin to work on the rhythm of the film, the internal rhythm within the sequences, and the transitions between the sequences.”
The finish line: “When I think the film is finished, I go back and look at all 140 hours of rushes again to make sure there’s nothing that I rejected that now might be useful. And it’s frequently the case that I find transitions that are better than the transitions I used. Or sometimes I find a sequence or a part of a sequence that explains or is better than the way I had explained it in the earlier version.”

And when he finally settles on a finished version, he said, “I get depressed and start thinking about the next film.”

By Mark Wollemann