Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, the four-and-a-half-hour documentary on Boston’s City Hall, finds him embraced by the city he calls home (when not editing in Paris) and given free rein to various departments. City Hall recently aired on PBS and is currently streaming on the organization’s website, marking a poetic full circle from Wiseman’s debut film, the Boston-set Titicut Follies, which spent more than two decades in censorship following a brief theatrical run.
When we talked to Wiseman, who has been stuck in Paris since editing City Hall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had just received his first dose of the vaccine. The conversation gave us a chance to discuss his latest film, his body of work finding new audiences via Kanopy, and what’s next for the 91-year-old.
The Film Stage: Congratulations on getting the vaccine shot.
Frederick Wiseman: I’m very relieved.
Do you have plans now to be able to come back to the States and begin work on whatever project is next?
Well, I can’t come back for another five weeks, and I’m not I’m not sure I want to make a documentary when people are all wearing masks. But I haven’t made up my mind.
Since you’ve dealt with an infamous court case that revolved around consent and privacy, perhaps this is a tiring question to answer, but for a film like City Hall, how does consent work with subjects—I know you get permission from the city, but how does that work when you’re dealing with a large number of city employees?
Well, all the city employees knew in advance that the film was being made, and they knew that if they didn’t want to be filmed, they could just tell me that.
What about with a film like Domestic Violence, where privacy was of the utmost importance for vulnerable people?
The women in the shelter all agreed. And for the part in the court, I got their consent. But I didn’t have to, because what goes on in the court is protected by the First Amendment.
When you were interviewed for National Gallery, you said covering something like The Louvre wouldn’t be possible with one film because of the sheer size of it, which I found interesting to consider with something as vast as Boston’s City Hall. What difference do you see there, or what has changed?
The difference was that so many of the activities [in City Hall] were centralized, whereas in the Louvre, they have so many different art objects that I couldn’t possibly have covered the collection. But in the National Gallery, I didn’t have all the paintings. I think there are shots of 350 paintings in the film, and there are 2,400 in the collection. But I covered all the different periods in the National Gallery’s collection. With the Met or the Louvre, the collections are vast and there are many curators. Most of the curators of the National Gallery are in the movie.
So you see something like the Louvre as compartmentalized, whereas something like Boston City Hall is all entangled tendrils that touch each other and flow together?
They are not comparable institutions. 17,000 people work for the city government and Boston has 23 neighborhoods. There are sequences in 13 of the 23 neighborhoods. The film touches all the major departments in the city: police, fire, public safety, health, traffic, building inspection, etc. Even in the earlier films, where there are less people involved, it’s never everything. It’s impossible, unless you are going to make an 800-hour movie.
In preparing City Hall, you also considered South Bend, Indiana, and Mayor Buttigieg. I was wondering what kind of considerations went into the net that you initially cast?
I just read a newspaper article about good mayors around the country: Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Boston, South Bend and others. I wrote six cities asking permission. Only Boston asked me to come and talk with them. I got a ”no” from Chicago, I got a “no” from South Bend, a “no” from Los Angeles, and the others just didn’t answer.
What went into that calculus of what makes a good mayor for you?
Well, I’m not a person who knows enough about mayors in different parts of the country to know whether they are good or not. I certainly didn’t have the experience to make that judgment. I relied on what I was told by other people with experience and their view was that Mayor Walsh was a good mayor. I generally try to pick an institution that is a good example of its kind. I think that’s true of all my films. For example, a film like Titicut Follies, Bridgewater was horrible, but compared to the prison for the criminally insane in Mississippi at the time, Bridgewater was the Ritz. Northeast Philadelphia High School [featured in Wiseman’s High School] was, at the time, thought to be the second-best high school in Philadelphia. Central was the first. I didn’t want to do Central because Central wasn’t coed. People seeing High School don’t necessarily think it’s a good high school, but in the context of Philadelphia at the time, it was thought to be a good high school. It’s more interesting to pick a place where people are trying to do a good job. I don’t think I’m in the exposé business. That’s not my interest in making movies.
People have pointed out that, with Mayor Walsh, you have more of a central figure than you usually do.
Why do you think that developed now with this film?
Because he was at the center of all the action. He’s a hands-on mayor, so to speak, and the sequences with him help explain what was going on in the city. It was just that he was central; it was his policy that the other city employees were carrying out. So I wanted to see him implementing his policies and show the connections he has with the citizenry. I’ve never calculated how many minutes he’s in the film, but I doubt that he’s in the film more than 30 or 35 minutes. And it’s a four-and-a-half-hour film.
I think it might feel like he’s in it more than he is just because of how much he’s a recurring character more than other people are.
You mentioned Titicut Follies. While making City Hall, was that film in the back of your mind as your first in Boston and one that specifically showed maltreatment, while this one often shows professionals working, whether they get the funding or not, to find proper, nuanced treatment for people — there’s the meeting to provide for homeless teens or the one to improve accessibility for disabled citizens.
Well, yes, I have very strong memories of Bridgewater, but Bridgewater was under the jurisdiction of the state, not the city. Boston had nothing to do with Bridgewater. It was a state prison. But in some ways, I have all the films in mind whenever I do a new film. There are echoes of the previous films in many of them. There are echoes of the other films in Belfast, ME or in Aspen. There are also echoes of the other films in City Hall.
I know that you don’t go into a film with a preconceived thesis, but as someone who is a Boston resident, did you suspect, going into City Hall, that there would be this throughline that develops of non-white citizens struggle to get an equal footing?
No, that’s something I really didn’t know anything about before I started the movie. I had been to a meeting with the mayor and another meeting with the mayor’s assistant, which lasted 15 to 20 minutes. I walked around City Hall for a couple of hours one day just to get a sense of the geography. But, although I live in Cambridge, which is a city adjacent to Boston, I never followed Boston politics. I knew nothing about it. What I learned about Boston is what you see in the film.
There’s an incredibly vulgar moment in the film I want to ask you about featuring the city waste department throwing things in a garbage truck. What goes through your mind when you’re filming something like that? Do you get excited to catch this wild moment?
What excited me about the garbage truck was that it was visually very interesting, and I am making a movie. And in addition, the collection of garbage is an important city function. It’s also funny, the way the claws of the truck grind up the mattresses and the grill. It is visually very interesting, and it’s funny.
A few years ago, the majority of the Zipporah catalogue was added to the library-based streaming service, Kanopy. This gave fresh life to your body of work to a younger audience, especially those who don’t live near repertory cinemas, and otherwise might not have found works like Multi-Handicapped or Primate. What does it mean to you for these films to be more easily accessible than they perhaps ever have been?
I’m very pleased when I reach an audience that I haven’t reached before. I like it when the films are shown and seen. But it took a while to discover Kanopy. The reason the films weren’t available streaming before is that nobody made me an offer, or the offer was so small that it would’ve been a mistake to accept it. You know, like everybody else, I like to eat.
Over that time, I’m curious how you think your style has developed over your career. Particularly in the last 20 years, I feel like your cinema has been increasingly interested in surveying discourse, as a place where civics and community happens, but also as a place where power is negotiated. I’m not sure if you would agree with that or not.
I think that’s always been true. I’ve always been interested in where power is negotiated. Even the early films, like Titicut Follies, the power of the guards and the staff over the inmates. In High School, the power of the teachers. In Law and Order, the power of the cops in the community. So the relationship between people and power is a constant theme in all the movies. I like to think that as a consequence of making movies over a long period of time, my capacity to think in visual terms has improved. I’ve learned more how to present complex ideas in visual terms and aural terms. Another way of putting that, is that I think I’ve learned something more about editing.
So the coverage is the same?
The method is the same, but I think it’d be strange if, in the course of 54 years, I haven’t learned something and I like to think that I have.
What I was referring to is that the negotiations of power have always been there, but I think that seeing these longer scenes of discourse and meetings where that happens—I’m thinking of At Berkeley or the Monrovia city-council scenes…
Well, there are longer meetings in the films, not because I’ve suddenly become interested in longer meetings, but because longer meetings exist within institutions which are the subject of the films. If I had made At Berkeley in 1966, I presume I still would have had long meetings, since I would have attended and shot them. It’s not because of a transition to an interest in longer meetings. The contents of the films are a reflection of what I find at the place; they’re not something that I’ve imposed on the material. Bu, to make a film about Berkeley without showing many faculty meetings and classes wouldn’t be a film, in my view, about Berkeley. It’s more a reflection of the materials than it is anything else. There aren’t many meetings in Law and Order or Basic Training because they’re more action movies.
I know you’ve had some critics, like Kent Jones or Eric Hynes, follow your work closely for years, but it seems like critical coverage of your work started to pick up more widely around La Danse or Boxing Gym. Do you know why that is?
No, I have no idea. The only possible explanation, and I’m not sure it’s the correct one, is that when my movies began to get shown more in theaters, there was another group of critics who wrote about them. When I first got started, they were hardly shown in theaters or had very limited theatrical runs. But in the mid-90s film critics began to review them because they were theatrically screened, in a modest way, all over the country.
So perhaps festival curators and programmers in general took more of an interest?
That’s right. In the beginning, for years, I didn’t crack the major international festivals. I didn’t have a film at Venice or Cannes before the mid-90s. I think that’s a consequence of an increased interest in documentary films. After about 1995, the newspaper and magazine critics and major festivals started to pay more attention to my films. Pauline Kael wrote a great review of High School in 1968, but that was exceptional, her interest was unusual.
I know you’ve said you don’t get feedback on films while you’re making them, but do you read reviews of them after?
Sure, I read reviews.
Most interviews with you seem to devolve into asking about your process, more so than with other filmmakers. What is it about your films, you think, that makes people interested in the process?
You know, it’s hard for me to speak for them, but I can speculate that they become interested in the way I start off without a point of view, without much knowledge, and the final film is a response to the process of making a film. I don’t know for sure, but I’m speculating they’re interested because the film evolved from a process, which is the exact reverse of what you do in a fiction, where everything is planned in advance. With me, nothing is planned. The sequences I get, I get out of a combination of luck, chance and my capacity to recognize what it is that I’m seeing and hearing.
What is your conception of your audience?
I don’t have any conception of my audience. I don’t know how to think about an audience. I’m not being ironic, I really don’t. When I’m editing a movie in 1966, how can I anticipate what some 30-year-old is going to think about Titicut Follies in 2020? Anybody that says they know their audience is either naive or bullshitting you. How can you know the audience… their age, their sex, their educational level, their interests, their attention span, what books they’ve read. Thinking about an audience is a non-starter for me.
You mentioned last fall work on a short piece of fiction, which would be your first scripted film since The Last Letter, 20 years ago.
I’m going to shoot it in May. I took a big step forward today in getting the first shot of the vaccine.
Does that excite you to work in fiction again?
In fact, I like making documentaries more than I like making fiction. I don’t like the repetitive aspect of fiction, where you shoot the same scene six or 10 times. I like the surprise of documentary and the pressure of having only one go at it. But I was very taken with Vassily Grossman’s great novel, Life and Fate, a chapter of which was the basis for The Last Letter. I tried to make some other fiction films and it was a pain in the ass having to deal with the Hollywood scene. I had the choice of trying to deal with that scene and wasting months and months or make another movie, and it was always more interesting for me to make another movie.
Lastly, I want to ask for an update on The Garden. A couple years ago, you said you were working on getting it out, publicly. What’s the progress on that?
Well, I’m working on it still. I think there’s a good chance it’ll get out in the next year.