What kind of things does an obsessive documentarian like to watch in their free time? It’s a question I was curious to ask John Wilson, a filmmaker who––over three seasons of his singular HBO series, How To with John Wilson––achieved the rare feat of showing one of the most familiar places on Earth in a new and gnarlier yet somehow more endearing light. “I like watching old, recorded TV stuff,” Wilson explained to me recently on an overcast morning at Visions du Réel, “because it still has a lot of the commercials. I also got a bunch of tapes off eBay recently of extreme weather compilations. There was a trend of news channels compiling all of the disaster footage from major ecological events and news events and just pressing a tape of it and putting it out there. It’s nice to have something on all the time, to always have something to look at. I think it sparks something, sometimes.”

Founded in the political maelstrom of 1969, Visions du Réel started out as a festival dedicated to non-fiction filmmaking but in recent years has become a home for movies that stretch that definition: amongst its guests of honor this year were Alice Diop and Jia Zhangke, masters of the hybrid worlds in-between; and Wilson, currently best known for TV, completed the year’s list of honorees. The festival takes place each year in Nyon, a town of around 18,000 people that sits on Lake Geneva, nestled amongst fields of sunshine-yellow rapeseed, idyllic chateaux, and snowy Alpine peaks––about as far as you can get from the gloriously mess of Wilson’s art.

We’d met the night before at a dinner organized by Emilie Bujès, the festival’s charismatic chief, and spoke over plates of vegetable tempura and seafood carpaccio (both of which he videoed). Afterwards, having failed to find a dive bar, we made our way to the festival’s meeting area for drinks. Our interview took place the following morning in a backroom of the hotel Ambassador. In person, Wilson has a big, affable presence that comes in nice counterpoint to his quiet, funny way of speaking. (The ums and likes of his affected narration style, of course, came as welcome additions.) Over a wide-ranging chat, we spoke about his working method, some Burning Man regrets, and his life after How To...

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity

The Film Stage: Did you stay late last night? The €9 beers make it a bit prohibitive.

John Wilson: I really wanted to find that dive, the Tropicana. Looked like a swingers tiki bar.

I remember finding one a few years ago in Locarno. Have you ever been?

Oh, no.

There’s this one trashy place that’s tucked away in a corner of a town just next to Locarno. The barman does these kind of flirty magic tricks when you order. They must have played “Despacito” like seven times. You would have liked it.

Oh, shit. Is Locarno like a similar town to this?

Bit bigger, but has that same sort of clean, pleasant, Swiss energy. I was actually curious about that. When you’re filming in a place like Switzerland, say, which is extremely orderly, do you still notice things?

I mean, yeah, it’s a bit harder. Like, I went around filming yesterday. I think it’s a bigger challenge to find whatever little pockets there are, that are kind of disordered.

It’s been a year since the show wrapped up. How has it been in the aftermath? I read that the CEO from the energy drinks company got fired. Are there many people you’ve kept in touch with?

I mean, I think that’s what’s kind of so nice about making the work––you can follow what’s happening to these people in their real lives, in real time. It gives a longer life to the work in a way. I mean, also, like a lot of the people from my neighborhood that are in the show, I just see them every day. Like, the guy that I get the neon from, he‘s someone that I just see at the bar all the time.

Did you go see Way of Water with the Avatar group?

I sadly saw Way of Water by myself. The Avatar group, they don’t all live in New York. They’re kind of scattered across the Northeast, but I think they had their own viewing party. Probably multiple viewing parties. It seemed like they really dug it.

I was into it.

Yeah. I kind of fell asleep during part of it, but I think it was because I was fully reclined.

Looking back to all the footage you got, was there something that was particularly painful to have to leave out?

I mean, there was the Burning Man footage.

Oh, yeah. What was the situation there?

There was someone who had negotiated for exclusive rights to shoot it that year. We still went because we had already planned the whole production. So I went there and I spent seven days just filming porta-potties in 120-degree heat, and just watching all of these sanitation workers vacuum all of the shit out of the toilets. And then to be told that I can’t use any of it, it was just…

You only found out after?

We were negotiating with them while we were there. We were in, like, a dust storm, in a tent arguing with the heads of Burning Man, trying to get access to the material that we were currently shooting. It was one of the most frustrating, annoying things I’ve ever done.

You recently got into production on Carpet Cowboys. Are you now looking to do more on that side of things?

I just wanted to get my feet wet a little bit with that documentary, and it was really cool. I wasn‘t really around for the production or anything, but I was around just for shaping the edit, just making sure the story felt right. I think personally, I want to do some longer-form stuff, like my own stuff. I want to get more into cinema, you know, outside the world of TV.

You mean scripted?

I don’t like working with actors, but maybe with non-actors or something. I don’t know––my mind doesn’t really work like that unless there’s a book to adapt. There’s this one book I want to adapt, a non-fiction book by a journalist I really like, but I think the rights are impossible to get. It would also be way too ambitious. But I feel like it could be cool to do a modern version… I don’t know, I can’t pitch this right now. [Laughs]

You said in a piece for Interview that you’re usually happiest when you’re working on something new. I was curious when I read that. As someone who films constantly, do you not always feel like you’re making something new?

I guess I just don’t know what I’m working on a lot of the time until I have enough material. It’s tough because, during the show, it was happening so fast that we had to commit to something and just work through it, you know? And when you don’t have those constraints, I think you’re kind of free-floating a bit more. I have this really fucked-up way of working on stuff where I need to have a primary thing that I’m committing to so that I can work against it in some way.

Like if it’s about batteries or if it’s about, like, wine or something, I like to have that thing I can always fall back on and obsess on but I also just love doing two things at once all the time. I feel like I can almost never do one thing at once. I like to have the thing that I commit to, that I become bored with, that I then need to work against. It’s like when you’re procrastinating––like doing your taxes––you might paint something or do some other thing you’ve been putting off for a while just to avoid the thing that you don’t want to do.

When you finished the show, was it a bit nerve-wracking to tie it up––to not leave it open-ended––or was it nice to have that clean break?

I knew the show was going to end with some kind of crazy emotional crescendo and I had been writing little lines here and there that I knew I wanted to put into the ending, but I don’t know. I wanted it to feel conclusive but also open-ended, in the same way that the cryogenics people think about their own future, where you could look at it one of two ways: either it’s unhealthy to extend something beyond its natural life cycle or you need to have hope that it will return.

So yeah: that kind of encapsulated a lot of themes and it was relatable for me with the anxiety that I have about a project, like How To, that I had just been working on for 14 years. I think it’s over but I am also in the camp of the cryogenics people. I’m just like, you know, I just want to keep things…

No need to pull the plug.

Yeah, I’m not ready to confront mortality.

I mean, the ending is very romantic. Even though the last season is kind of the grossest. Like, it definitely has the most rats and toilets and shit and whatever.

Yeah, it was funny. When I went to the Emmys, the first person to talk to me was RuPaul, and they were just like, “Oh my God, I love the show. But you know, I have to say: too much dog shit.” And I though that was a cool review, but it didn’t stop me from putting more in.

You know, whenever I order a tofu dish now I still think of that mattress...

Oh wow.

from the “Split the Bill” episode. I’ve got a friend who moved to Florida last year and we still reference that bit sometimes.

Like whenever you see a mattress or whenever you see tofu? [Laughs]

Tofu, for sure. Same with the scaffolding. I can hear that line where you’re like, “And these people use it, um, as a bedroom.” I mean, you must get this a lot from people, that they have these little juxtapositions lodged in their heads.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of people send me photos of scaffolding, which I love. I just hope that if I made an imprint like that, that it doesn’t torment you. I hope it makes you happy to see certain things because, like, there are certain songs you get stuck in your head where you’re like, I wish I never heard this before. I don’t want to put anything out into the world that would make you feel worse about seeing something. I mean, what kind of life is that?

Are there any that stick in your brain?

I mean, I can’t turn off the thing where I see houses that look like faces. I don’t know, like, every season you kind of have to reprogram yourself to try to notice new things.

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