Published  02/02/2015

Frederick Wiseman: ‘National Gallery shows more about the ambivalence, depth and horror of human nature than almost any other film’

Frederick Wiseman: ‘National Gallery shows more about the ambivalence, depth and horror of human nature than almost any other film’

The American film-maker Frederick Wiseman talks about his latest documentary, a portrait of the National Gallery, and his novelistic approach to his work


Frederick Wiseman’s cinematic portrait of the National Gallery is the latest entry in his encyclopaedic and understatedly absorbing human comedy that has been unfolding for some 50 years. His subjects have included an asylum for the “criminally insane”, institutes of learning, a ski resort, a department store, a welfare office, a hospital, an erotic revue, a police department, national ballet companies, a boxing gym, people with disabilities, and the military. Throughout his films, Wiseman scrutinises the rituals and confines of his surroundings with humane detachment and restrained humour, eluding facile judgments, and mindful of the motivations of all his subjects, even the most apparently disparate. In National Gallery, Wiseman observes not only the rites of a cultural institution and its participants, but also the art itself that tells its own, parallel, riveting story.

Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò: Orson Welles claimed that the very eloquence of cinema is achieved in the editing room, something that certainly seems to apply in your case. Your long and finely tuned editing process brings to mind an author closeted away writing a novel, and I think you have compared your filmmaking to novel writing?

Frederick Wiseman: I think it is similar; it’s not exactly the same, in that, of course, a novelist is only limited by his or her own imagination and I’m limited by my imagination as it plays against 200 hours of rushes. But that still gives me a wide choice. When I start one of these films, the only assumption I make is that if I hang around long enough – for example at the National Gallery – I’ll have enough material to make a film. But as for the themes or the point of view, I have no idea at that stage, as I don’t know what I’m going to find. Other than, obviously, shots of the paintings and the public – but I didn’t know what kind of encounters I’d find, and I didn’t really know anything about the behind-the-scenes activities in the restoration, scientific and educational departments. So the model is Las Vegas – each film is a roll of the dice. You roll the dice, you take a chance and find the film in the editing room.

ARC: So to continue with the image of the writer, do you think that you not only find the film in the editing process, but you actively create it?

FW: It’s the reverse of fiction. In a fiction film, you shoot a script – and 95% of the movie is shooting the script – then you select and edit the takes. But you know what the structure is in advance. Here, I have no idea what the structure is in advance; I haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going to happen while I’m there. For instance, I know there will be meetings, but I don’t know what anyone’s going to say in the meetings or what the subjects are. So what I do in each case is accumulate a lot of film, in the case of the National Gallery 170 hours. The first thing I do when I come back from the shoot is look at all the rushes, which in this case took around six to eight weeks, and make notes. I put aside – not discard – about 50% of the rushes, then I edit all the sequences that I think might make it into the final film, without any sense, at that point, of structure. Only when I have all the so-called candidate sequences edited in close to final form, after around seven months, do I start to think about structure. I can’t think about structure in the abstract: I have to think about it in relation to the sequences I have. In each case, it’s a question of thinking through the meaning of the individual sequence as I’ve edited it, and the consequences of using that sequence and the implications of placing it where I have.

ARC: Which is similar to what a novelist would do in terms of scene structuring …

FW: Yes, it’s very similar, from what I’ve read about writing novels. And the little bromide that I have about my movies is that they’re more novelistic than journalistic. Of course, every form deals with issues of abstraction and characterisation, the passage of time and so on. The way you resolve those problems is different in each form, but, in general terms, the same problems exist. So at the end of six months of editing individual sequences, I make the first assembly of the movie in a couple of days, making changes very quickly, and the first version of the film comes out at about 30 or 40 minutes longer than the final version. Then I work for maybe another five or six weeks on the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences. Then I arrive at what I think is the final version and go back and look at everything all over again – what I rejected and what I used.

ARC: So these are like drafts that you’re polishing?

FW: Yes, sometimes I don’t have the right material for characterisation, or sometimes the rhythm of a transition isn’t right. Or I’ll forget about a sequence which turns out to be very useful that I’d initially rejected. But I have to feel that I have a mastery of all the material. And I have to be extremely compulsive about looking at it and making sure I haven’t forgotten anything useful.

ARC: And other than editing, it seems that another very important aspect for you is sound. Here, as in your other films, there’s a very rich soundscape – apart from the sound of people talking. Do you do your own sound for practical reasons, or because you want to have control over what seems to be a crucial element for you?

FW: I like doing it and it gives me more leeway during the shooting.

ARC: I noticed in this film a combination of the dreamlike – most obviously with the paintings – and the prosaic, with a lot of attention on physical work, not only at the “high” end, with restoration, but also flower-arranging, dusting, hanging, lifting, drilling and hammering. Your opening scene offers this kind of contrast, with the poetry of a sequence of paintings brought down to earth with the relentless drone of a floor polisher. It’s a wryly comic moment and you always seem very attuned to the potential humour of any context.

FW: I think my films are funny.

ARC:They absolutely are, but perhaps that’s not sufficiently recognised?

FW: No, they’re often taken too seriously. Not that I mind them being taken seriously, but people sometimes miss the comedy.

ARC: Which is certainly present again in this film: sometimes it’s unintentional, sometimes not.

FW: Well it depends what you mean by intentional. I like to think it’s intentional on my part and sometimes unintentional on the part of the participants …

ARC: A thread that runs through all your films is the way that people behave under a range of constraints of one kind or another. That’s no less the case in National Gallery and makes for some of the most tragicomic scenes, as in the administrative meetings. Do you find that this aspect of negotiating restrictions come up again and again, regardless of context?

FW: Regardless of place, yes.

ARC: And as an independent film-maker, you presumably value your relative autonomy when you see the way things operate within the confines of an institution?

FW: Well, it depends what you mean by autonomy. I’m autonomous in the sense that I completely control the film in terms of choices, subject matter and so on. But I’m not autonomous in that I’m dependent on what goes on, and I don’t ask anybody to do anything. But I am in control of the material I have.

ARC: You give your viewer a very active role in your films by not providing the usual props of narration, interviews and various explanations. I find that, almost paradoxically, this withholding of information makes your presence stronger and the viewer more curious as to your own responses. Here, I got the impression that you were particularly taken with conservation and restoration?

FW: Yes, I was. Again, it’s the novelistic approach, or what I characterise as a novelistic approach. I try to provide the viewer with enough information to understand what’s going on, without identifying people by name or title, but I think – though I may be wrong – it’s sufficient to get a sense of who has authority over someone else. For instance, you don’t need to know that’s Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, talking to the woman who is head of communications, to understand something of the relationship between the two of them and who’s the boss.

ARC: Of course, even when you don’t necessarily know who the people are, as was the case for me watching At Berkeley and other of your films with less familiar settings than this. The relationships become self-evident.

FW: I hope so.

ARC: And the process of trying to decipher the situation makes it a much more immersive experience for the viewer, it provides a constant tension–

FW: You have to work. The viewer becomes a participant; it’s up to me to provide enough stimulation for them to become a participant.

ARC: In formal terms, I noticed the very particular way you incorporated other crews shooting in the gallery. You frame the figures from the side, in a way that gives them all equal importance: for example, arranging the gallery attendant, boom operator, cameraman and talking head in a frieze, rather like Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans. There’s also a revealing, and again funny, depiction of the relationship between fiction and non-fiction in the case of the critic talking about Turner, where we’re shown his on-camera aplomb and off-camera petulance.

FW: I’m glad you got it, that’s the idea.

ARC: Even when a lecturer was talking about Michelangelo’s Entombment, initially you show her and her audience, again from the side, only bringing in the image under discussion later on. You alternate this portrayal of the relationships between the various participants with an illustration of the actual works to great effect. You always work with the same cameraman, but do you decide the exact composition of the shots?

FW: I’ve worked with the same cameraman, John Davey, for more than 30 years. John’s a great cameraman and we work very closely during the shooting.

ARC: You also achieve a very harmonious balance between the faces in the paintings and the faces looking at them – some of which look as if they’re out of a painting themselves.

FW: I was as interested in one as the other. We were trying to make lovely portraits in purely film terms. I hope the viewer thinks of the relation between the film portraits and the painted portraits. One of the themes of the film is how common problems are resolved in different forms. 

ARC: You certainly portray striking relationships between various forms: dance, poetry, film and painting–

FW: And the different styles of documentary film-making. I am trying to suggest some of the different ways a variety of forms resolve issues that are common to all the arts.

ARC: And one of those comparisons, the pas de deux in front of the trio of Titians, also brought about one of those quasi-absurd moments, poised between beauty and deadpan comedy, when as a spectator you fear the dancers might fall–

FW: –fall into a Titian!

ARC: Compared with the more obviously “difficult” settings of some of your films, although here there’s a veneer of civility, those universal human conflicts that openly erupt in other contexts you’ve portrayed are never that far from the surface in some encounters …

FW: Well I think that’s true. But the subjects of the paintings include almost all the major experiences of existence, so there was no need to delve into the conflicts at the National Gallery. War, religion, disease, envy, jealousy, fear and so on are all very dramatically expressed in the paintings.

ARC: But I think even what you did show was suggestive enough without having to probe more deeply. For example, the curators discussing the musical Watteau painting …

FW: The sequence does suggest their range of scholarly interests …

ARC: And the very effective editing choice of including the xenophobic heckler outside the gallery in Trafalgar Square – heard but not seen – also sets up a contrast between conflict and hostility outside the gallery and the apparent order inside …

FW: Apparent …

ARC: While, outside, we witness some of the kind of unbridled antagonism that we have encountered in your other work. Throughout, National Gallery sparks off a dialogue with your other films; I found myself often making comparisons and finding remarkable similarities in the dynamics of human behaviour, although there’s often a tendency to artificially separate your work into the “difficult” subjects and the rarefied, “cultural” ones.

FW: Which is total nonsense. National Gallery shows more about the ambivalence and depth and horror of human nature than almost any other film, if you think about what the subjects of the paintings are: religious orthodoxy, persecution, war, plague, jealousy, envy. As I said, there’s no major human experience that’s not represented in the paintings. Some people think that by making films about cultural institutions like the Comédie Française, the Paris Opera Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, Crazy Horse or the National Gallery, I’ve abandoned my true subject, which is poverty. But I’m trying to make movies about as many different aspects of human behaviour as I can. 

ARC: And the drives are often similar. I think it was the chancellor in At Berkeley who said that even a campus culture is as resistant to change as any other culture, and this seems to be another leitmotif in your films, people resisting change, even in the most apparently progressive contexts.

FW: Oh, definitely.

ARC: The most formally ambitious scenes come at the end, with the piano recital and the sequence of details from various paintings in the National Gallery. Was there any particular reason why you lingered on Salvator Rosa’s Witches at their Incantations?

FW: Why do you think?

ARC: I assumed you were making some kind of comparison.

FW: With what?

ARC: With what surrounded you.

FW: Well, not only with what was surrounding me. The paintings, I think, suggest some aspects of the unconscious sources of our behaviour.

ARC: The atavistic side

FW: The atavistic, primitive, hermaphroditic, violent. It’s stripping away the veneer of civility from the beast. And it’s funny as well.

ARC: And intercut with that you placed the Rembrandt self-portrait, which seemed to convey the more benign end of the spectrum of human frailty.

FW: Yes, although the Rembrandt portrait appears later.

ARC: The piano scene also brought to mind the British documentary director Humphrey Jennings’ wartime footage of the National Gallery’s lunchtime piano recitals (Listen to Britain,1942).
Your films have mainly been set in America, with the exception of two or three French subjects. In London, you were ostensibly working in your own language, but was there ever a sense in which it felt like another language?

FW: Well, that’s hard to comment on. There’s a sense of irony, so perhaps in the use of language there’s a difference. And class aspects are much more obvious here – I’m not the first to say this – and the English are often funny in their use of language.

ARC: Overall, do you think that, over the years, people have become more guarded?

FW: No, it’s interesting but, thank God, they haven’t, not at all. I think the reason I can make this kind of film is that we don’t see ourselves the way other people see us.

ARC: But it occurred to me that perhaps a certain kind of “performance” wouldn’t be possible today. One of my favourite characters in your films is the man at the end of Welfare with the monologue–

FW: About (Waiting for) Godot? He’s one of my favourite characters, too. And he really was like that. I heard him give a similar speech before, when the camera wasn’t running, and one of the reasons I followed him was that I hoped he would give another speech. That was just the way he was. I knew I had lived a clean and healthy moral life when I got that sequence. God was on my side.

ARC: On another note, I was curious to know if you had seen Mike Leigh’s film on Turner. Apart from the obvious parallel of art on film in your current works, it seems to me that there is more broadly a comparison in your attempts to capture an authenticity of human experience, often in fraught situations.

FW: I have seen it, after I made National Gallery. From what I know, he works on the script with the actors in rehearsal.

ARC: Yes, the situations are fictitious, but there is an attempt to document a reality of human interaction.

FW: But he is working with actors.

ARC: Though one could argue that the people you portray, while not acting as such for your camera, are nonetheless performing in their institutional settings.

FW: Yes, they’re performing roles, but Mike Leigh’s actors are conscious of the fact that they’re acting. I don’t think the people in my films are conscious of their performances, nor do I think they could repeat what they’ve done in the way an actor can.

ARC: What are you working on now?

FW: I’m working on two things at the moment. One is a programme for French television on Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters.  And I’m working with a choreographer on a ballet based on Titicut Follies [Wiseman’s 1967 documentary about conditions in a hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts]. Which should provide some morbid comedy …

ARC: Thank you so much.

FW: Thank you, I enjoyed your comments.

Frederick Wiseman’s film National Gallery is out now. Frederick Wiseman films are available from Zipporah Films,


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