Documentary Veteran Frederick Wiseman Doesn’t Like Description ‘Observational Cinema’

The 2016 honorary Oscar winner offered an IDFA audience a candid insight into the working methods that have sustained him for 50 years

Frederick Wiseman
AGF s.r.l./REX/Shutterstock

AMSTERDAM — For a man of 86, Frederick Wiseman has enough energy and stamina to shame a man half his age. Attending IDFA with a screening of his 1970 documentary “Hospital,”  a study of New York’s Metropolitan Hospital Center, Wiseman brought along extra clips from two near-contemporary movies – 1971’s “Basic Training” and 1975’s “Welfare” to explain his methods, but what emerged from the three-hour masterclass was not simply how insightful those films were in their day but how relevant to modern America they still are.

Surprisingly, although his style is famously non-interventionist, in contrast to the more populist  style of America’s Michael Moore and the U.K.’s Louis Theroux, Wiseman took issue with the conception of his films as ‘observational’. “I don’t like the description ‘observational cinema’,” he said, “because for me that suggests that you just set up the camera in the corner of the room and let it run forever. It smacks of anthropological filmmaking, which I don’t think I do. These movies are made up of hundreds and thousands of choices. So you have to observe, you have to see what’s going on, but you also have to choose what it is you’re going to shoot, the way you’re going to shoot it and the way you’re going to use it. That’s not observational. Observational, to me, is too passive a term.”

To illustrate his point, Wiseman explained that it all starts in the editing. “It’s not an exaggeration to say there are millions of choices,” he said. “The toughest film to edit is always the most recent one. I’m not kidding – because that’s the one I remember best. I just finished editing one and I worked very hard on it, because each film presents a different set of editing and structural problems.”

Wiseman’s recollections of making “Hospital” gave a fascinating, even forensic, glimpse of what he meant by this. “I’ve forgotten how many hours we shot,” he said, “but I think about 90 hours. During the shooting, I would look at the silent rushes almost every night. This movie was shot on film, as they all were up until about seven or eight years ago, so the first thing that had to happen was that the sound and the picture had to be synchronised, and once they’re synchronised I look at all the rushes and I make up a log – an entry for each shot. It takes usually about six weeks to look at the rushes, and at the end of that first round I put aside maybe anywhere between 40 and 60% of the material, and then I edit sequences that I think I might use for the film – but with no idea of what the themes or point of view are going to be.”

In the case of “Hospital,” that probably took Wiseman about five months. “And it’s only when I have all the so-called ‘candidate sequences’ in more or less final form that I begin to work on the structure,” he added.

Tellingly, Wiseman claims that all his films develop this way, emerging from the material itself and not from his own imposed viewpoint. “Everybody works differently,” he said, “but I can’t work on the structure in the abstract. I have to figure out the consequence of starting the film with one sequence and ending it with another, and what the relationship is between the beginning and the ending. I have to do that by a process of trial and error, and in that process I begin to realise – or discover – what the themes and the point of view are.”

He continued: “The first assembly of the film usually comes out 30 or 40 minutes longer than the final film, and then after that first assembly it takes me anywhere from four or six weeks to arrive at the final film, and that four-to-six weeks is spent working on the rhythm and making sure I have the best dramatic narrative structure that I can find. And then, when I think the film is finished, I go back and look at all the rushes all over again, to make sure there’s nothing that I’ve forgotten or have dismissed as not useful, and I often find sequences or transitional shots that solve a problem I hadn’t adequately resolved.”

Wiseman was illuminating and funny yet likably modest about his achievements, but admitted that one key question remains unanswered after all this time – why do so many people open up to him? Or, more importantly, reveals their flaws?

“I think they’re distracted by my big ears,” he joked. “I have no idea, but it’s never been a problem. But I think it’s important the way you present yourself. In other words, I try not to be threatening, I try not to be arrogant and I try to explain what I’m doing. But I don’t think that’s the explanation. I mean, I don’t know why anybody agrees to be filmed. But the fact of the matter is, it’s not a problem – 99.9% of people agree and 99.9% of people don’t act for the camera. Possibly because most of us aren’t good enough actors.”