Frederick Wisman has been making movies since 1967. Now, 55 years later, he’s directed his first narrative fiction film ever shot on location. A Couple stars Nathalie Boutefeu as Sophia Tolstaya, the only actor in the 64-minute film from its 92-year-old director. It’s a methodical piece by Wiseman, shot on the small island of Belle-Île, close to the filmmaker’s home in Paris. He follows Tolstaya around a lush garden and on a deserted beach, focused on the words she’s speaking to Leo Tolstoy and the thoughts coming into her head. It’s ruminative, slight, and washes over its audience—much like Wiseman’s other, non-fiction films.
The director has been prolific in the last five decades, releasing a new film nearly every year, beloved by critics. Wiseman trades preparation for perception, placing his camera in front of his subjects without judgment or interference. This hour-long film is far from his usual three-to-four hour affairs, cutting down hundreds of hours of footage in a long, extended editing process. It represents a different direction for the veteran filmmaker, who has no intention of slowing down.
He’s matter-of-fact when speaking about his films, including A Couple. Wiseman has nothing to hide in his process. He doesn’t attempt to simulate an air of mystery, rather modest in his accomplishments. There’s an understanding that reviews, critics, and interviews are all a part of the process. The Boston-born director turns toward his literary affection with A Couple, the first—in his words—of a longer line of fiction projects.
I chatted with Wiseman over the phone ahead of the premiere of A Couple at New York’s Film Forum, a theater that has shown many of his films over the last decade. He was more than a delight. We talked about his five-decade career, the stillness in this newest project, and his relationship to the city of Paris.
The Film Stage: I’ve been reading a lot of your interviews over the last few days—
Frederick Wiseman: What a boring thing.
No, it’s good. I don’t want to be asking you the same exact things you’ve answered countless times.
I should give contradictory answers.
Has your view on press and interviews changed at all?
No, no, it’s perfectly fine. People have the same interests. If I agree to do the interview, I accept the idea that maybe some of the questions will be similar. People have a lot of the same interests, so they ask similar questions. But there’s nothing wrong with that.
Do you read reviews?
Yeah, I read reviews. Sure. Particularly ones that I hope are good.
Is that something you’ve always done?
I think anybody who says they don’t read the reviews is bullshitting you. Because everybody wants to know what people think of the film. See if they like it, if they don’t like it, if you think they don’t understand it.
Are there certain publications you refer to for reviews?
No, in the last 10 or 15 years, a lot of my films have opened a lot at Film Forum. So the press representative from Film Forum sends me the reviews and I read them.
Have you read negative reviews ever?
Of course. Not everybody likes it. I think I’m lucky in by and large, the reception of the films has been very good. There are films that some people don’t like or like better than others. And that’s perfectly normal.
How has your viewpoint changed of the entire filmmaking process over the last 50 years?
I’d like to think in the 50 years or so that I’ve been making films that I’ve learned something. One of the interesting experiences for me is looking at the old films, because some of the films are… what, I made my first film in 1966? So, I’ve been looking at the old films, some of which I haven’t seen in 40 or 50 years, because I tend not to. Once the editing is finished, I generally don’t look at it again.
I know it by heart. Yeah, so when I look at some of the films, I see things that I wished I’d done differently. I see mistakes. I don’t know that I’ve changed a lot in 50 years, but I’ve had more experience. The more editing I’ve done, at least by editing improves.
Are you someone that watches a lot of films as well?
I don’t watch a lot like I used to. No, I’m a reader. I read a lot. It takes me eight or ten months to edit a movie. And after sitting in front of a screen all day long, the last thing I want to do is go to the movies.
What kind of books are you reading?
Oh, I read novels and poems mainly. I have been reading a lot of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth. He wrote a great book called Radetzky March. And he’s written some other good novels too. If you’d like to read novels, it’s a really good one.
I’ll check it out, see if they have it at the library. You mentioned your editing process. How did you go about editing A Couple?
I didn’t have anything in mind. I will say I had a script. My guess was it was gonna come in between 60 and 70 minutes. But I didn’t set out to make a film of 63 minutes; I set out to make the best film that I could, based on the material that I had. But when we read the script remotely, read the script from beginning to end, I realized it was going to be in that range. And I realized that we timed it. But that’s when the script was finished.
There are many shots in the film that are of the natural environment around Sophia, like the garden, the beach, or the waves. How do you decide how long to hold each of those shots?
The real answer—I don’t know it’s a rational answer—is just that the way I react to the shot, what I think is the appropriate length. I don’t set out to make a 60-frame shot or a 300-frame shot. It’s just the way it feels to me and how it cuts with the preceding and the following shot. It’s a feel for it. It’s a feel for rhythm. I have to be able to tap my foot to it. Sometimes it’s a waltz, sometimes it’s a tango.
She’s in the garden for so much of the film. And then you move down to the beach. I was just curious about that move—it feels like it has a different energy to it.
It does because of the force of the sea. The force of the waves.
Why did you wait to have that force?
I wanted to show a shot to the sea, and I want to trust her near the sea and I wanted the natural beauty of the sea. Because Belle-Île, where the film was shot, is an island. And I also wanted a break from the garden—mainly because I thought the sea was beautiful—and the shots of the sea became cinematic.
During most of her dialogue, she’s static. She’s rarely in motion.
Yeah, she moves occasionally, but really, I think that’s fair.
Tell me more about that choice.
Sometimes when she’s addressing Leo, I thought dramatically it worked. To have her—as a reflection of her thinking—standing there, thinking about what she was going to say, and then saying it. There are a few moments when it looks like she’s looking past the camera. When she’s looking at the camera, she’s addressing Leo.
And when she’s looking off to the side of the camera, is she just thinking about their relationship?
What about your time working with Nathalie Boutefeu? How was it directing an actor in this different way, drawing something out of them?
Naturally, she’s a close friend of mine, and we did a play together—about 11 years ago we did a play based on Emily Dickinson. And we worked very closely together on the script so we know each other very well. And we talked in the course of developing and writing the script; we talked a lot about the characterization. And the relationship between Leo and Sophia and what the implications of the words might be.
Did you have to direct her performance less during filming then?
Well, no, nevertheless, I directed her performance. But because we had worked on it together, I didn’t have to go into long explanations. She got things right away because she knew the material. And if I didn’t like something I just said, “Now we should try it this way rather than that way,” and she did. She’s a very good actress. Very accommodating.
I think she’s incredible. She holds your attention. If you were going to make more fiction films, would you always want to work with a friend like this?
It’s dependent. If I make more fiction films, which I hope I’ll be able to do, I always want to work with an actress that will best perform the role. I know a lot of actors and will try to find the actor that I think is best for the role.
I’ve seen lots of questions about the classification of your films. To clear it up, what word do you prefer?
I call them movies. It’s not just ironic. I hate “documentary.” I could make the argument my documentary movies are really fiction movies. And I don’t particularly like the word “documentary” or “reality fiction” or “cinema verite” because—first of all—“cinema verite” is a pompous French term. But I once described my movies as “reality-fictions” as a joke and it got picked up. But “movies” is a good omnibus word.
Do you like the general quality of that work?
They’re movies. You know? I don’t like the idea of being categorized as a documentary filmmaker because it just doesn’t work. I think of myself as somebody who likes to make movies.
During the course of your filmography, what have you learned about the way humans interact? About how they act when a camera is placed in front of them?
In my experience, it is very easy to tell when someone’s playing for the camera. Because it just rings false, it’s no different from the experience that you have as a print journalist, or a teacher has or a doctor has or a lawyer has. To survive you have to know when you’re being bullshitted or someone’s trying to con you. It’s no different than making a movie: if somebody is acting for the camera, it’s almost immediate. I don’t say that I’ve never been fooled, but you’re aware of it as an issue instantly when someone is conning you in real life.
What about when people are being real? When something big happens in front of the camera?
You know when you’ve got a good scene. Most of the time, when you have a really good, really dramatic event, you’re going to use it. But sometimes you don’t realize it until you’re in the editing room: how good it is; how relevant it is. Good not because it’s emotional or because it’s angry or because it represents a conflict, but it becomes good thematically. You can come across a scene that you were indifferent to during the shoot, but in the editing you realize that the themes that you think are in the material are very well expressed in that sequence.
I’m still fascinated by the editing process, creating a three- or four-hour narrative from hundreds of hours of footage.
But it’s interesting! It takes time, but it’s interesting. You have to think your way through the material. You have to feel you understand what’s going on in each sequence in order to make the choice of 1) whether or not you want to use it 2) how you’re going to compress it into a usable form and 3) where you’re going to place it if you decide you want to use it, where you’re going to place it in the structure. All of those things require a response to the material. So I have to think—whether it’s self-delusion or not—that I understand all the sequences. I have to think that in order to make the choice of whether I want to use them and how I’m going to use them. So editing is a very demanding exercise—it requires you to think. It draws on all of your resources, all of your intellectual and emotional capacities.
Do you enjoy the editing process more than the filming process?
Well, I enjoy them both. I suppose if I had to choose one rather than the other, I would choose the editing. I enjoy the shooting because the shooting is like going to Las Vegas: you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s some combination of good judgment, luck, and chance.
Do you feel like you have a good understanding of the places that you’ve been and the people that you’ve filmed?
Eventually, yes. Not initially. Actually, I don’t know anything about them. I had been in Monrovia once before I started shooting there.
Are there certain emotions that you’re looking for when you’re filming? Grief, heartbreak, etc?
I’m looking for anything that interests me—I’m a very curious person. Part of the fun is you don’t ever know what you’re gonna get. It’s an adventure. It’s both an intellectual and emotional adventure. It requires some luck, some chance, and some good judgment. And sometimes you just happen to be in the right place at the right time.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about was your relationship to France and to Paris and the French language.
I like living in Paris because the food’s good. And I like to go to the theater. I like to go to the ballet. I still maintain a home in Boston, but I spend most of the year in Paris. I have a lot of friends there. And it’s such a nice city. It’s a comfortable city to live in.
How did you become so interested in the language and in making a film fully in French?
I was a student in Paris in the 1950s. And I liked living there. And then I didn’t go there for a long time. And then, by chance, I had told this friend of mine in the mid-80s that I wanted to make a film sometime in France. I got in touch with the Comédie-Française, and ten years later she called me and said, “I think you can do it now.” And in fact I got permission. And so, for one reason or another, I was there for three months before the shooting started, and I shot the film for another three months. So I rekindled my interest in living there and then I was asked to direct a play there, so I went back to do that.
And is there anything that drew you back there recently?
I have a lot of friends in the dance world, in the theater world. And I like, you know, everything is very successful. Man, it’s a convention in New York. It’s a relatively small city. And which is nice. I lived in Boston for a long time. And it’s fun; I enjoy it. It’s nice. I can edit for eight to ten hours and I can go have a nice meal in a restaurant with friends or I can go to the theater. Go to a dance performance. It’s all very easy.
A Couple is now playing at NYC’s Film Forum and will expand.