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“I Don’t Have the Prosthetics Team Sacha Baron Cohen Does”: John Wilson on his HBO Show How To with John Wilson

John Wilson shooting How To with John Wilson (courtesy of Zach Dilgard/HBO)

In his short films, compulsive shooter John Wilson combines a nervous voiceover with impossible amounts of nonfiction footage; the joke often alternates between the unexpected metaphorical/pun juxtaposition of dialogue with shots selected from his vast archives and sometimes nerve-wracking encounters with assorted eccentrics. That seemingly free-form structure, in which Wilson’s voice ties many disparate elements together, was established in shorts with titles like How to Walk to Manhattan and How to Keep Smoking. Now it’s been expanded in the six episodes of the first season of his HBO series, How to With John WilsonNathan For You’s Nathan Fielder is an executive producer, and the family resemblance is evident in sometimes nervewracking encounters with strangers—e.g., an anti-circumcision activist happy to strip down on his bed and showcase his foreskin-stretching device. But How To‘s six episodes keep veering in other unexpected directions their deliberately innocuous titles (the first one is titled “How to Small Talk”) conceal—it’s invigorating and surprising, a fresh direction for TV comedy. The series premieres this Friday, October 23rd, at 11 ET.

Filmmaker: What was it like to scale up from your shorts to this TV series?

Wilson: It was definitely a challenge to do a more ambitious version of my internet shorts. Usually, it would take me about a year to make ten minutes—working at my own speed, cutting everything myself. I usually know after a year or so that I have enough material and funny moments, and a story, to cut everything together. But with the show it was different, because we had to scale up and there’s obviously a schedule we have to keep to.

Basically, I’m always filming everything I do, as long as it’s interesting, so the writing process for the show happened in tandem with shooting. I’ll have a few subjects in mind while I’m walking around New York, whether it’s scaffolding or splitting the check or small talk or memory. I have all these different concepts in my head shuffling every single day, and I try to think about what, in my life, can potentially relate to each topic. I knew initially that I wanted to do an episode on scaffolding, so I spent the entire summer before COVID underneath scaffolding, studying scaffolding, filming scaffolding by myself. While I was filming there would be a collapse somewhere, or a funny decoration, or I’d meet someone with a scaffolding fetish. We work backwards from the good footage, so if I capture some once-in-a-lifetime thing, we usually try to figure out how to write a section up to that point to support it. I try to fill in the gaps between the strongest moments with meandering thoughts.

In my old stuff, I would shoot 100% of it myself. Now, I shoot about three-quarters, and the other quarter is shot by a second-unit team of people who basically get pick-up shots for sections I want to fill out. Let’s say the scaffolding again: I had people going out and filming scaffolding as well, like the different ways it’s decorated. I tried to have as many people out filming every single day as I could. Some days they may come back with nothing, but other days they come back with something extraordinary, and we have to try to find a way to fit that in. Usually all of the main story stuff I’m filming, and all the little stuff in between, is a mixture of my stuff and second-unit. But all of it’s real, and that’s something I really want to stress—even with an HBO budget, the money went towards making sure it was real. I knew that we would need a lot of time to film and explore, and that costs money. It’s just a numbers game: the more time you have on the street filming, the higher the chances you’ll get something unique.

Filmmaker: Was everything in the show shot for the show, or is there repurposed footage from your archives in there?

Wilson: 95% of it is shot for the show, but I did dip back into my archive of iPhone footage. Everything is on the table, from my childhood up until now, but we happened to shoot a lot of new stuff. A good percentage of the show is shot on iPhone. I shoot most of it on an FS5, but I wanted to make sure we were able to use iPhone stuff. That’s just the nature of the show: we need to allow for a recording device that is the best for spontaneity. If we removed iPhone from the aesthetic of the show, we’d be cutting off a limb.

Filmmaker: I’m not sure I wouldn’t have realized some of that was iPhone footage. Did HBO object?

Wilson: You would think that HBO would care about the quality of the footage, but they don’t. That’s what’s great about the show: whatever it’s naturally recorded on feels the most real. If I’m at my own birthday and filming it, I’m not going to bring a huge crew in there, I’m just filming with an iPhone.

Filmmaker: Can you walk me through the timeline of the show?

Wilson: We began formal production in March 2019 with the pilot. The show was greenlit in August. We shot through winter and into the spring, and we ended around the time COVID began.

Filmmaker: Was there a framework for each episode before you started, or were you working through all six of them simultaneously?

Wilson: There was no framework. We had to make everything up as we went along. I had my own weird method I tried to scale up, but there’s a lot more stuff you have to do. There would be days during production where I’m just walking around and there’s a van following me. I look like I’m by myself, walk into a store or up to someone on the street and ask them what their jacket says, and end up talking to them for an hour and a half. Afterwards, you have a team of people that comes in and gets the release from them and makes sure everything’s OK. That’s when they realize what the show is. A lot of people don’t realize I’m the host. Usually a cameraperson doesn’t talk to the subject—usually that kind of person is going to lose their job, you know? So, I think it’s kind of disarming to have the cameraperson be the host.

If I’m shooting people on the street doing something funny, either I or a field producer will go up to that person and tell them they were in a shot for a documentary show about New York, then we get a release. Pretty much everyone says OK, which was surprising to me—people respond surprisingly well to the news they’ve been filmed as long as you level with them and tell them exactly what the show is, like “Oh, I’m making an episode about small talk and you guys were having small talk on the street.” It’s innocuous when you tell them what it is, because people’s imaginations can run wild when you tell them they’ve been filmed. You have to put them at ease and let them know exactly what context you’re planning on putting it in. I’m confident that it’s to serve a larger, weird joke, usually on myself.

Filmmaker: Does anybody ever ask to look at the footage?

Wilson: Uh, not really. (laughs) Sometimes when you tell someone that you’ve filmed them, they will ask and I’ll often just show the footage, and they’ll go “Oh, that’s funny.” All these clips on their own are kind of unremarkable, but they’re super-charged once you fit them into this larger poem.

Filmmaker: As in your shorts, there’s a lot of jokes where your voiceover takes place over images that are puns, metaphors, contrapuntal or otherwise non-literal illustrations of what you’re saying. That’s not standard for the visual language of TV comedy. Did that cause any friction?

Wilson: I think HBO knew what they were getting themselves into when they greenlit the show and knew the dailies would take on a completely different meaning once they got the edit. They had no idea how any of this material was going to be reimagined. So, there wasn’t really any friction there. You can try to script really basic stuff beforehand, but actually [it’s about] sitting down with the footage and combing through days and days’ worth and trying to find the funniest, most inherently interesting moments, trying to think for a funny pun for that shot, then working backwards from there. There’s a hidden joke inside of everything. If you spend long enough with a piece of footage, you can find something funny about it.

Filmmaker: There’s a throughline about how New York City is untenable for a lot of its residents. If there is a larger arc beyond the character of John Wilson, it’s about whether or not it’s sustainable to live here.

Wilson: I think it’s an ever-present part of living in New York, all of these contradicting things. I wanted to depict New York as accurately as I could. That means showing a lot of cops doing goofy things, huge piles of trash everywhere you look—all the agony and ecstasy of New York City. I wanted to be able to show that spectrum in the show. A lot of fictional shows I see about New York, they try and try, but it’s not the real New York, it’s still fake. Even the most realistic depictions of New York in a narrative fictional show are unsatisfying to me, and I feel it’s not really giving me the actual New York I see when I walk out of my front door.

I went to Los Angeles a couple of years ago and went to a part I’d never been to before. I was like, “This is one of the most filmed cities in the world. How do I not know about this part? I’ve never seen this depicted anywhere.” I feel like that about New York sometimes. All the raw material is there, you don’t need to dramatize it. That’s why it’s so easy to make a movie in New York for nothing that’s interesting: It feels valuable already, even though it costs nothing to make, because it has this inherent value. There’s so much turnover in New York—more than any other city, it feels like—which is tragic but also what makes it my favorite subject to film, because I’m all about filming these things are disappearing. As a preservationist, this city is like candy to me. Even if the show fails as a memoir or comedy, at least it’ll hopefully succeed as raw footage of New York City during a very specific period.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the structure of each episode? The first episode begins with an opening voiceover segment, then shifts into travelogue mode, which you might expect to be the structure of each subsequent episode. But the second episode is focused entirely on scaffolding.

Wilson: The subject matter definitely dictates the form. I love making this kind of documentary because there are no rules. It’s a little sandbox for me to play with as many documentary tropes as I want, and I love all of them. In “How to Make Small Talk,” I was able to do my more anthropological, Planet Earth-y thing where I’m filming people touching each other or having small talk on the street. But it’s also a memoir at the same time, in a strange way. There is a travelogue, which is something I also really like to do. But in “Scaffolding,” I have the whole “scaffolding in cinema” [montage of scaffolding depictions in the movies]. That was my Los Angeles Plays Itself section. I had written a section like that in a couple of episodes, but the scaffolding one was the best and we didn’t want to be repetitive. Nathan [Fielder] especially stressed that at the time: if it felt like we had seen anything before, we tried to take it out, so every single thing you saw felt completely new and you never really knew what was coming next.

Filmmaker: Nathan obviously has some experience working with a legal department and setting up elaborate scenarios. Did you find yourself changing the way you work because you had access to more of those resources? You’ve already put yourself in some difficult situations in your previous work.

Wilson: Our lawyers—Nathan’s lawyers from Nathan For You—were incredible. Nathan really goes to bat, he really hates to lose a legal argument, and we spent a lot of time talking to the lawyers making sure everything was OK. I did not expect to get away with as much as we did on a channel like HBO. With my old stuff, there wasn’t much accountability because I didn’t expect anyone to see it and it was fairly innocuous and self-released. I didn’t have a legal department to worry about, and if I was sued that was just my problem. But HBO also came out with the Michael Jackson documentary [Leaving Neverland] just before we started shooting How To, you know? To take on the Michael Jackson estate is insane, and this felt like a very small legal liability compared to something like that.

Filmmaker: While I’m loath to go down the anecdotal path, I do want to ask about the foreskin-extension-device guy.

Wilson: I’m not good with blood or anything, but it wasn’t surgical, it was just a stretching device. I had seen the device when the anti-circumcision guy told me about it. I looked up the device and could see how it worked, so I wasn’t shocked to see it in person. I was just happy he was so open with me filming so intimately. It’s also a product demonstration for him, you know? It’s his dream platform. I wonder if he’ll become a wildly successful manufacturer of [foreskin] restoration devices. I still don’t have one myself. He offered to give one to me, but he would not give me one unless he was able to measure my penis both flaccid and erect, and I wasn’t able to do that during the shoot (laughs), so I never got one. But maybe one day. I feel fine without it, I guess.

Filmmaker: Has your approach to voiceover recording changed over the years?

Wilson: I feel like you hear my diagetic voice in the show more than you ever have before. I think it works well. The quality of my voice [in both modes] is distinctive enough that you can tell what’s going on. Very early on,  I was embarrassed of my voice, so I put on a bit more of a character. I feel much more confident as a voiceover artist. I wasn’t like that to begin with.

Filmmaker: I was startled to see you on-screen in a full shot.

Wilson: I’m not super-against being on camera, I just don’t think it’s very interesting to watch. I also think it makes it harder for me as a documentarian if people know what I look like, and I would rather not people know if I don’t have to. But I don’t want to pretend like I’m this masked magician. I don’t want to be obnoxious in that way.

Filmmaker: It’s funny because after I’m done talking with you I’m watching the Borat sequel and it’s like, how on earth do you get entrapped by Borat at this late date?

Wilson: Yeah… I don’t have the prosthetics team Sacha Baron Cohen does.

Filmmaker: Your production was just wrapping up when the lockdown happened.

Wilson: The moment COVID happened, every production shut down. I knew in that moment, around March 14th, that I may be the only production still able to shoot, because I was taking on 100% of the liability myself. I could scale down to one person making the whole show and it wouldn’t look any different. I felt like I had to keep going and put myself in some scary situations. But we all did—we all went to get groceries right when the virus hit. The supermarket rush during that week was probably the biggest super-spreader event there was, you know? Nobody was wearing masks, everybody was indoors. My favorite stuff in the world is art made during really massive historical moments. That’s that thing from 9/11: they’re making a documentary about some firefighters in lower Manhattan, then it becomes this roving document of what people are doing on the streets. We’ve been fed the same diet of COVID media stuff, but I hope more emerges of people’s individual experiences in this moment.

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