“It’s Impossible to Predict [an Audience’s] Reactions, and I Make No Effort to Do It”: Frederick Wiseman on Monrovia, Indiana and His 51-Year Career
In the last 51 years, Frederick Wiseman has made 42 non-fiction films, plus two fiction features. In a sense, each film is the same: The filmmaker, a sprightly and sharp 88, goes to an institution — or, in a handful of cases, a confined area — with a small crew. (Currently it’s his longtime cameraman John Davey and Davey’s assistant Jim Bishop.) Wiseman doesn’t do research; as he’s said countless times, “The shooting is the research.” He does no interviews. There is no onscreen text describing who is who, or even where is where. He rarely shows any person more than once. He films for one to three months, edits for eight to ten months, and every year or so the world receives a new Frederick Wiseman film — his report on what he learned.
Within these narrow confines lies great diversity. The earliest films are muckraking. Titicut Follies — his grainy, gritty, hellish 1967 exposé of Massachusetts’ Bridgewater State Hospital, where the “criminally insane” were shown undergoing endless depravities — belies his previous life: He was an unhappy lawyer who happily stumbled into a medium that had only recently been democratized, thanks to newly affordable and portable gear.
By his third film, 1969’s Emmy-winning Law and Order (like many of his movies, it aired on TV), you can see him realizing that life, basically, is complicated. Trailing around the Kansas City Police Force at the height of the Civil Rights era, it shows cops doing ill but also good. The films that followed focused on education (High School, Basic Training), assistance (Hospital, Welfare), consumerism (Meat, The Store), religion (Essene) and science (Primate). Each showed America (and occasionally elsewhere, as in the Panama-set Canal Zone) as a Jenga tower made of institutions, always on the brink of collapse yet never quite crashing to the earth.
The same goes for Wiseman’s entire filmography. The films, which began as punchy and under 90 minutes, by the ’80s began swelling in size; the longest remains 1989’s six-hour Near Death, and the average now hovers around the three-hour mark. They’ve grown in complexity, and even in narrative experimentation, but they’ve retained — and even confirmed — Wiseman’s worldview that society just barely works but never breaks.
Wiseman’s latest, Monrovia, Indiana, is one of the ones that’s not about an institution. Like Canal Zone, Aspen, In Jackson Heights and Belfast, Maine, it drops in on a location, in this case a Midwestern town with a population around 1,000. Wiseman has always avoided topicality, but he chose the spot after the election of Donald Trump, who won the county by 52 points. The president as of this writing is never once mentioned; instead we see people continuing to live their lives, far from those whose lives are affected by his policies. By staying stubbornly himself, Wiseman has made one of the most chilling films of the Trump era — chilling in its absence of Trump talk.
Filmmaker sat down with Wiseman as he returned to New York City — a town that has been the subject of nine of his movies, from Welfare through Central Park through last year’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. We spoke about how Monrovia, Indiana differs from his past films, how none of his subjects brought up You Know Who, and what the deal is with 2005’s The Garden, the only one of the legendary filmmaker’s works currently kept out of circulation due to legal hiccups.
Filmmaker: Monrovia, Indiana is one of only a handful of your films about an area or a town rather than an institution. What are some of the logistical challenges that are different with these?
Frederick Wiseman: When you’re shooting in one building, which is the opposite extreme, it’s easier to have an idea of what’s going on. But in a town, like Monrovia or Belfast, I knew there were certain places I wanted to go. For instance, with Belfast, I had the idea that I would go to places that were subjects of my other films — though not exclusively. So went to a welfare center. I went out with the police. I went to a theater rehearsal. I went to a high school.
Filmmaker: Was the idea there that you would see how they differed in a small town than in a big city?
Wiseman: Well, it helped me organize my time. It wasn’t organized exclusively around that, but it helped me get started. I didn’t do quite the same thing [with Monrovia], but I knew for a small town the town government would be important, the high school would be important, the school board would be important, police would be important. Except I rode around with the police for about five nights, and the big event was a speeding ticket.
Filmmaker: Another issue with shooting in a town versus an institution is I’d imagine you’d have to do more networking, to ingratiate yourself unto more strangers.
Wiseman: I had someone in Monrovia who helped me. Through a friend I got introduced to the woman who’s the undertaker. And she knew everybody. Before I got there, she had called the businesses and the town council and the school board, just telling them about the film and asking if they would cooperate. And they all said yes. When I would call them up, I already had her Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. So it was easy. A place like that, it’s important to have somebody local who knew the scene. In Belfast, I had the editor of the newspaper and the doctor of a clinic who knew everybody. I’d meet them every Wednesday morning, around 6:30, and talk about what I was doing and what I wanted to do. There was a newspaper that had a weekly schedule of events, so I used that as a reference point.
Filmmaker: So you just had to call?
Wiseman: Yeah! For instance, I called up the head of the school board and said, “Can I come and meet you?” He said, “Sure, come over.” So I went over, and we chatted for about a half hour. I said, “I’d like to go to a history and English class, and maybe a science class.” Similarly, with the vet, I told her what I was doing, I said, “Can I spend a day in your office?” She said, “Sure, next Tuesday.”
Filmmaker: The vet scene is one of the most stomach-churning things in any of your films, though unlike with the gibbon that’s dissected in Primate or the wounded wolf that’s shot in Belfast, Maine, it’s life-saving. Actually, it’s not even that.
Wiseman: Yeah, it’s cosmetic.
Filmmaker: It’s still pretty grueling. There was a lot of unrest at my screening during this scene, and even a couple walk-outs.
Wiseman: [Shrugs] It’s just blood.
Filmmaker: You’ve shot all of your films since 1980’s Manoeuvre with cinematographer John Davey. You can’t talk when you’re shooting, obviously; you use a network of signals to communicate while rolling. How long did it take to get that shorthand?
Wiseman: I talk to him a lot before and after [shooting], and we watch rushes together. I lead with the mike, picking out what’s going to be shot. Often the kind of shot you need is pretty obvious. You know in a meeting, for example, you’ve got to get wide shots, you’ve got to get cutaways. And you have to follow whoever’s speaking, when what they’re saying is interesting. We shoot whoever’s talking, long as I think it’s interesting. If it’s not interesting, we shoot cutaways, because I know we’re going to need cutaways in order to reduce the sequence to a usable form.
Filmmaker: Meetings can be very boring to shoot.
Wiseman: We both prefer action sequences. On the other hand, with some subjects, meetings are important. Meetings were important in Zoo because 50% of the participants couldn’t talk.
Filmmaker: One big get in Monrovia is a Masonic ceremony. How did you get them let you film that?
Wiseman: I asked.
Filmmaker: Simple as that?
Wiseman: Well, one of the offices of the lodge told me there was going to be this ceremony. So I said, “Can I come?” He said, “I’ll find out.” The head of the lodge called the main Indianapolis headquarters of the Indiana masons, and they said okay. I think they said okay because it was a public ceremony — public in the sense that the family of the honoree was there to see it. The people there were fantastically cooperative.
Filmmaker: I think most people assume masons are eternally secretive.
Wiseman: Yeah, but you never know till you ask.
Filmmaker: Did you spend much time with the locals when you weren’t shooting?
Wiseman: Most of the time you’re not shooting. You might shoot three hours a day. But you’re there 12. And you’re hanging out. Either you’re talking to people or observing things.
Filmmaker: So they’re comfortable around you when you’re shooting.
Wiseman: With the issue of comfort, people’s participation is simply not a problem. Whether that’s because of vanity or indifference or the fact that someone’s taking enough interest in their lives to film them, I don’t know. But it’s extremely rare that anybody says no. And it’s even more rare that people act for the camera.
Filmmaker: There’s an article about a screening of Belfast, Maine a few years back with the denizens of Belfast, Maine. The reaction, it said, was split between people who got what you were doing and people who didn’t like the way you portrayed them.
Wiseman: It was a class reaction. People who moved to Belfast from big cities, because it’s a beautiful country town, didn’t like the fact I showed the sardine factory or unhappy young women. I showed the other side, the non-pretty side of Belfast.
Filmmaker: Do you tend to worry about how people who are in your films see your films?
Wiseman: They see it the way they see it. I can’t keep that in mind. It’s impossible to predict people’s reactions, and I make no effort to do it. Basically, I never think about an audience, whether it’s the people who are in the place or the people in a movie theater. I don’t know how to predict their reactions, and I think anybody who says they do is bullshitting you. At the risk of seeming arrogant, and I don’t mean it arrogantly, if you start thinking about an audience, all that means to me is you’re thinking about how to simplify the material to match your fantasy of the lowest common denominator. I have no interest in doing that, and it’s a fantasy anyway. For good or bad, I make the films to meet my own standards. I have a hard enough time trying to think about what I think about or what my standards are, let alone trying to anticipate what your reaction is going to be four or five months after I’ve finished it. Or somebody who sees it in London. What do they know about Indiana? How can I anticipate whether they know anything about Indiana or what they know? So why do it? It’s a waste of time.
Filmmaker: It also makes the film timeless, if that’s the word. You can watch, say, Canal Zone without knowing the full context of the background, of America’s history with the Panama Canal, and you can still get a lot out of it. You tend to avoid topicality or addressing topical issues head-on.
Wiseman: You’re right. First of all, I’m not interested in the topical in the traditional sense. Second of all, the topical will no longer be topical when the film comes out a year or a year and a half later.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you kept that up with Monrovia, Indiana, despite what I imagine was a strong temptation to try to talk to the locals about Trump. But no one does talk about Trump in the film. Since you’ve never refrained from showing the unflattering or disturbing sides of your subjects before, I imagine they really didn’t talk about Trump.
Wiseman: They didn’t. There was no political talk when we were shooting or when we were hanging around. There was local talk at the town council, some of which was in the film, but there was no national political talk at all. I found that fascinating. And I don’t think it was because I was around. There was a considerable lack of curiosity about the external world.
Filmmaker: Cities are often called bubbles, but I think the same goes for small towns.
Wiseman: It’s a different bubble.
Filmmaker: A lot of your films have big, popular songs in the background, but there’s actually a song in Monrovia that was in Belfast, too. It’s Charley Pride’s “Then I Met You.” It pops up at a gathering towards the end of Monrovia and it’s covered in a bar in Belfast. I think that’s a first in your career.
Wiseman: [Pause] I didn’t know that. I haven’t seen Belfast in years. That’s funny. That’s a happy coincidence.
Filmmaker: It’s always amusing to hear big songs in your films. Same with the famous people who sometimes pop up in your films, who you treat like normal people. You don’t identify, say, Pavarotti or Midnight Oil or Francis Ford Coppola, all of whom have cameos in Central Park.
Wiseman: Why identify them and not everyone else? If I did it would be like an American movie in Japan, where the screen is filled with print. And the Coppola thing: Characteristic of what often happens, I was just walking around Central Park when I saw some film equipment. They were filming under an underpass area. [Ed. At the time Coppola was filming “Life Without Zoë,” his contribution to the 1989 omnibus film New York Stories.] I went in and I went up to Coppola and said, “Can we shoot it?” He said, “Sure.”
Filmmaker: Did he recognize you?
Wiseman: I have no idea. I introduced myself. There was no flicker of recognition. But the answer is I don’t know.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about Seraphita’s Diary, your first of two fiction features? Unlike The Last Letter, it’s hard to find.
Wiseman: It’s not much in distribution. There’s not much to say about it.
Filmmaker: Are you allowed to talk about The Garden, a 2005 film about Madison Square Garden that has been caught up in legal limbo since completion and has never been seen?
Wiseman: Oh, I can talk about The Garden. Whatever conflict I had with the Garden is now resolved, and ultimately it was not much of a problem. Now it’s just a question of getting some clearances. I think the movie might come out in the next year or so.
Filmmaker: What about I Miss Sonia Henie, a Yugoslav short from 1971 that lists you among eight credited directors, yet only runs 14 minutes.
Wiseman: Oh, that isn’t anything. I had nothing to do with that. I’m in it. I went to a Yugoslavian film festival with some other Americans. They asked me to pretend to I was directing actors. I amused myself for a few minutes and that was it. I had practically nothing to do with it.
Filmmaker: In the last six months, the majority of your films have popped up on Kanopy, a streaming service that’s available to most New Yorkers with a library card. Given how hard it was to see your films before you started releasing them on DVD many years ago, that’s a big deal.
Wiseman: It is a big deal, because it’s the first time the films have been available on VOD. They’re all going to be available by other means, because the Kanopy deal is not exclusive. What we’re thinking of doing is having our own VOD. I had my own DVD distribution, because nobody made me an offer. I got a couple of offers for Monopoly money. We figured we had nothing to lose, so we put out the DVDs ourselves.
Filmmaker: Because you own the rights.
Wiseman: Yes. And that was financially one of the smartest things we ever did, because there’s been a sustainable market for them. I made much more money and they’re more widely distributed than if I had given them to a distributor. And I know I would have never seen another cent, because the rule of thumb is you take the advance and run.