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How to Explode a Car: John Wilson on How To with John Wilson‘s Final Season

John Wilson and Bruce Beveridge in season three, episode five of How To with John Wilson

in Directors, Interviews
on Aug 25, 2023

“How To Watch Birds,” episode five of How To with John Wilson’s final season, presents a familiar trajectory: eponymous documentarian follows through with stated premise before being diverted into a completely different context. Not more than seven minutes into Wilson’s episode about birding he’s interviewing UFO expert Travis Walton, whose alleged abduction story inspired Fire in the Sky (1993), and not long after that he voluntarily agrees to a lie detector test. “Have you ever lied to someone on your show?” asks the administrator. “No,” Wilson replies, following a pregnant pause. When informed he is lying, Wilson quietly mutters, “Fuck.”

The penultimate episode of the series meditates on the orchestration of Wilson’s series. As it progresses, Wilson explores his guilt about implicitly conveying authenticity despite, say, renting a set to stage a shot of a toilet comically overflowing, something he initially witnessed in a video his friend independently filmed. Though the scene was partially to fulfill a tax credit, Wilson admits it’s a calculated attempt to maintain his image, and considers why people ask him if he actually bought his landlord’s building or, per Jimmy Kimmel on his late night show, if he really meets the people he films. Fitting with the theme, “How To Watch Birds” breaks apart the infrastructure of the series, satisfyingly dovetailing with Wilson’s self-conscious persona, “revealing” that his team employs standard “tricks” of the documentary trade: green-screened scenes, multiple takes with interviewees (some of whom receive compensation for their time), etc.

Still, Wilson beautifully, comically cracks the fourth wall of his series, all while maintaining his signature visual comedy (e.g., “And even if you do see uh… rare bird,” Wilson intones while driving past Long Island’s Big Duck) and without capitulating to tired conceptions of non-fiction filmmaking. While examining his guilt about the faked shot and other shortcuts, Wilson embarks on a road trip with Bruce Beveridge, author of Titanic Or Olympic: Which Ship Sank? The Truth Behind the Conspiracy, around eastern Tennessee. After discussing Titanic conspiracy theories and Beveridge’s past as a police officer, they eventually arrive at a motel to follow up on an anonymous threat over email. Just as How to.. embraces a familiar mode of eccentric portraiture, it seamlessly shifts into an eerie thriller that culminates with Wilson’s car exploding… with Beveridge inside! (Cue “Dun dun duuun!” sting.)

I spoke with Wilson about peeking behind the curtain during his final season, and how he filmed that explosion with a little help from a certain filmmaker.

Filmmaker: What was [Steven] Soderbergh’s involvement in [episode five] as a consultant?

Wilson: When I started writing this with [co-writer Michael] Koman, I kind of wanted it to feel like a Soderbergh movie for part of it, and we just ended up reaching out to him because I saw that—you know, he publishes what he watches every year, and I saw that he had seen our show before, so I thought he might be into collaborating. We reached out, he got back to us and we sent him the script, then we met up with him. He gave us a couple of little notes, but also just gave us some advice about how to do some of the pyrotechnic stuff.

Filmmaker: That was my next question. How did you stage the car explosion?

Wilson: That was just one of the most insane logistical operations. I was hanging out with the Titanic expert [Bruce Beveridge] for a few days, and he had no idea what was happening. To him, we were just hanging out and visiting different attractions in Pigeon Forge [in Tennessee]. But simultaneously, my production team had bought a duplicate of my car, the exact same Volvo but with minor differences, that we were able to disguise and rig it to blow up. I knew what kind of angle I wanted because I had written [this script that was] kind of a fake thriller, with the motel in there and a balcony that looked out onto a parking lot below it. It took production so long to find a place that not only looked like that but that would let us blow something up there. They had to talk to the cops and get a permit, so when the explosion ends up happening, police have blocked traffic on either side of the motel. There’s traffic backed up for ten minutes or so while we do this. 

So when I’m in the car with Bruce and he’s talking to me about how to keep a secret, he still has no idea. I really just go into the motel and film what I need to, then I come out and told him. Only then do I reveal what has been happening behind the scenes and that we’re about to bring in a duplicate car and we’re going to blow that up and basically fake his death, and he was completely fine with it. The only thing he asked us was if his wife, or his partner, could come and watch the thing blow up too. She was in a motel down the street and didn’t know. Then we took my car out, brought the other car in, and I filmed the one shot of me exiting the hotel and my car blowing up.

Filmmaker: How has your vetting process changed with interviewees? Is it more pointed? 

Wilson: We just try to find the most real people that we can. It’s a case-by-case thing. Sometimes the best stuff that you get is just from a really generic Craigslist ad: “Do you have a crazy story about ___?” e do have a casting person, Kate [Antognini], and she’s really good. If we’re looking for someone who’s lost packages or something, she’ll do a whole casting call and we’ll look through everything and try to find someone who doesn’t feel media trained.  We have become more discerning over the years with the kind of people we include, but sometimes performative people are really funny too. If they are super theatrical or trying to promote an energy drink or whatever, that’s just part of who they are.

Filmmaker: Were there any major differences in terms of the approach in production this season? Either in terms of early writing conversations or discussions with your team on the ground, was there a directive that was different for this last season?

Wilson: I think we were able to achieve what we did with season three by speaking even less in certain ways. With with season one, we were trying to figure everything out and had no idea what the show would even be. But by season three, the second-unit team was such a well-oiled machine and I think we understood what we wanted to get out of each interview.  When we shoot an interview in season three, I think we were much better at going through six episodes worth of material with them and just covering a bunch of different topics so that everything would have multiple purposes, just in case we needed it in the edit. We had way more to work with as we assembled everything together. That was cool.

Filmmaker: I imagine everything’s more efficient now. I think you said you knew going in that this was going to be the last season. Did that give you permission to start showcasing the scaffolding of the series? Especially in episode five, you reveal the bit about the toilet, but there are smaller bits as well, like revealing you do multiple takes with the interviewees and that you pay them.

Wilson: I feel like knowing that this was going to be the last season, I was able to unlock a few different things that I was afraid to put in previously. It allowed us to be more ambitious narratively and what we reveal about the production in terms of the spectacle of the whole thing. Also, what we reveal about how the show has impacted my life, which was something that I wanted to do.

Filmmaker: Could you talk about the pay structure for interviewees?

Wilson: Obviously we ended up paying [alleged alien abductee] Travis Walton in the birds episode because I think he’s a bit more of a media figure. He’s done, I think, a lot of interviews about UFOs before. But some people I just meet on the street and follow them and there’s no real exchange there. Other times, we find people on Craigslist for an interview, but it depends. I think at most it’s a couple hundred bucks depending on who the person is and if they make a living off of talking about the subject.

Filmmaker: Watching this final season revealed a broad, recurring macro structure across the series. Each season, there’s an episode where you attend a convention or meeting, there’s usually one or two urban portraiture episodes. How conscious were you of maintaining that structure or did you just lean into a happy accident?

Wilson: Every season, I want there to be at least one or two episodes that deal with a bureaucratic or civic design issue. We have the restrooms in this season [“How To Find a Public Restroom”], we have the one about noise in New York City [“How To Clean Your Ears”]. In the second season, we had the batteries episode [“How To Throw Out Your Batteries”]. The scaffolding one [“How To Put Up Scaffolding”]. That’s always very deliberate, just to make sure we get a couple of those in there. I did want the show to potentially have some kind of real-world impact, even though it was done through goofy, satirical means sometimes. I even see that happening. I’ve been hearing the mayor talk about scaffolding and citing How to… as a reference point for it. I wasn’t the first person to talk about scaffolding, but I’m glad the show has the ability to elevate stuff to that point and prove the point that I was hoping to prove, that maybe the best way to Trojan Horse these very real issues are through comedy.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the Anthology series that you programmed that’s coming up? It seems really interesting. I’m curious about some of the choices you made in terms of programming that stuff.

Wilson: The people I chose to work with on the show are all really amazing artists in their own right and I just wanted to find a way to be able to showcase their work somehow, and one of those screenings is original work by crewmembers, whether it’s editors or people who shoot on the second unit. Then, the other work is just stuff that really inspires me, like some [George] Kuchar movies. There’s this Bruce Brown movie [On Any Sunday]. Mostly documentaries that have the kind of aesthetic that inspires the show and I feel like I just want more people to see and make work like this really good documentary called Animalicious, all about animal attacks as told by the people who were attacked by their own pets. I hope people come out to it.

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