Hot Docs ’15: 11 doc lessons from Frederick Wiseman

In Toronto to pitch their latest project to broadcasters, Frederick Wiseman (pictured, center) and his long-time producer Karen Konicek (right) sat down to talk filmmaking and financing with an audience at Hot Docs.
May 1, 2015

No documentarian is above asking for money. Lest any young filmmakers should think otherwise, Frederick Wiseman (pictured, center) is on hand at Hot Docs in Toronto with some blunt advice.

“The moment you think you’re entitled to the money is the moment you should quit,” the 85-year-old director of more than 40 films said during a talk at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Wednesday evening (April 29).

Wiseman and his long-time producer and distributor Karen Konicek (right) are at Hot Docs this year to pitch broadcasters on In Jackson Heights, a documentary portrait of the New York City neighborhood that many new immigrants to the United States call home, during the annual festival’s popular pitching event, the Hot Docs Forum.

A day before he presented a seven-minute pitch to a roundtable of commissioning editors at the Forum, the pair participated in an on-stage chat about Wiseman’s development, production and distribution processes with CBC journalist Piya Chattopadhyay (left).

Since his first doc Titicut Follies took viewers inside a hospital for the criminally insane in 1967, Wiseman has focused on unobtrusive explorations of institutions in films such as High School (1968), Welfare(1975), Model (1980), Near Death (1989), Ballet (1995), At Berkeley (2013) and National Gallery (2014).

Much of the hour-long discussion centered on the doc duo’s approach to filmmaking and financing, as well as In Jackson Heights, which is two months from completion and does not yet have a release date. Wiseman has submitted the film to the Toronto International Film Festival so he may have reason to return to the Canadian city come September.

Chattopadhyay used his 11-step process (“It’s not a 12-step,” Wiseman quipped) to making documentaries as a loose guide for the conversation, covering topics from ideas and permissions to editing and distribution. Although the talk often strayed from that format, here are 11 filmmaking lessons and insights into Wiseman’s process and work that realscreen gleaned from the illuminating and frequently funny discussion.

1. A good idea can come anytime, anyplace.
Having an idea is naturally step one in Wiseman’s process, which is driven by a fear of boredom and depression that creeps up once his current project is nearing completion. The idea to make Model occurred to him while flipping through a magazine in his dentist’s office. The year was 1980. “At that point, I figured I was the right age to do a movie about a modeling agency,” he said.

2. In Jackson Heights is about the “new face of America.”
The Queens, New York neighborhood that is the subject of Wiseman’s next doc is like a city within a city. The area is home to more than 108,000 residents, according to U.S. Census numbers, around 60% of whom are foreign born. “It’s exactly what the Tea Party can’t stand because it’s the new face of America,” Wiseman said. “It’s very colorful because people wear the clothes that they wore back home. It doesn’t look like Beacon Hill in Boston.”

model (1980)

Model (1980)

3. Wiseman gets permission by asking for it.
Asking permission is step two in Wiseman’s process. How does he get it? “My great secret is that I ask,” he said.

When pressed by Chattopadhyay, he explained that he usually gets permission to film his subjects immediately after approaching via an intermediary who can vouch for him. Once a subject is on board, he drafts a letter outlining what the movie is about, his approach (small crew, no interviews, no lighting, no additional music), the length of the shoot and that he will have complete editorial control. Then, he asks them to sign it and send it back.

“Other people’s bullshit meters are just as good as you think yours is,” he advised. “If they think they’re being conned, they won’t let you make a movie.”

Wiseman could only think of two instances when subjects said no. The New York Times has denied his request to film in their office and the Los Angeles Police Department scuttled his attempt to make the force the subject of 1969′s Law and Order by denying him access to police cruisers. “Since there were no foot patrols in Los Angeles, that seriously limited the story.”

4. Raising money is the most “demeaning” part of making a movie.
Like many filmmakers, Wiseman prefers to leave the money part to his producer so he can focus on the filmmaking process. However, he will get in the trenches when called upon to do so.

“I’d rather not express my opinion of that event,” he said in response to a question about the Hot Docs Forum. “I’m playing the game to do what we need to do to attract the people with money.”

Fundraising is “the worst and most demeaning part of it but you push through it,” he added. When he started in the late 1960s, his budgets were in the $75,000 range. Today they are around $250,000.

Wiseman is at a point in his career when cinematheques are organizing retrospectives of his work so Konicek can supplement income through speaking engagements and masterclasses. “I make more money talking about movies than I do making them,” he said. “Unfortunately I have to go make them in order to talk about them.”

5. His shoots generally last four to six weeks.
Making a good documentary is a combination of instinct, judgment and luck. He allows “the rhythm” of the place he is filming to determine a shoot length, which is generally a month to six weeks. Films with a lot of performance – such as La Danse – can take up to 12 weeks. Welfare, which he shot in a New York welfare office in 1975, was a relatively short shoot because there was so much going on. “It was a cornucopia of human misery. You just had to be there to harvest it,” he said.

In Jackson Heights resulted in 120 hours of footage, National Gallery had him parsing through 170 hours and At Berkeley netted a whopping 250 hours “because professors like to talk.”

6. Half of documentary filmmaking has nothing to do with filmmaking.
During production, Wiseman will look at silent rushes and later on he re-watches rushes synched with audio and makes notes. That process can take six to eight weeks. After that, he puts aside half the material and then spends six to eight months editing the rest into “candidate sequences” for the final film.

Once the structure starts to take shape, he compresses the candidate sequences into final sequences. For example, a 90-minute lecture filmed for At Berkeley was compressed into an eight-minute sequence to appear as though it happened the way the audience sees it in the film. Thus, making editing choices is a process of understanding the material’s essence.

“At least 50% of documentary filmmaking has absolutely nothing to do with filmmaking,” he explained. “It has to do with asking yourself the question, ‘Why?’ Trying to understand what it is you’re seeing or hearing. Whether I’m right or I’m wrong, I have to feel that I understand what the sequence is about in order to decide 1) whether to use it and 2) how to use it.”

7. The filmmaker’s point of view exists between literal and abstract levels.
Wiseman’s model for filmmaking is more novelistic than journalistic. “I’m interested in comparative forms,” he said. “How the same problems are resolved in a novel, a play or a poem. In general, [literature] has helped me think about those issues and that in turn has had an effect on the choices I make in the editing room.”

His challenge is always to capture—and then pinpoint—moments when the abstract meets the literal. One such moment occurred in High School when the school’s dean of discipline invited him to visit his office at 8:45 a.m. in order to see “the culprits lined up outside the door.” During disciplinary meetings with unruly students, the dean launched into lectures on the school’s values and what it means to be a man.

Those scenes were essential to the broader story Wiseman wanted to tell. “It’s the interplay between the literal and the abstract that the real movie exists,” he said. “The movie has to add up to something and that’s where I express my point of view.”

8. He never does research.
Wiseman rarely spends more than a day sussing out a location unless it is absolutely required. For example, in order to make La Comédie-Française, his 1996 doc about the world’s oldest repertory theater company, he needed the permission of 23 unions. By the time cameras rolled, he was well-acquainted with the Parisian institution.

“The shooting is the research,” he said. “If I’m not there, I don’t know what I’m missing.”

9. He never cuts a film to meet the needs of a broadcaster.
Wiseman’s runtimes have been known to stretch into four hours. Many TV programmers would have a problem with that length, the recent trend toward long-form programming dubbed “slow cinema”–a term Wiseman branded as “derogatory”–notwithstanding.

“I never cut a film to meet the needs of a TV channel. I can’t be concerned with that,” he said. “Commissioning editors fantasize that people don’t have an attention span to watch a three or four hour film.”

When the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes asked him to cut his 1971 doc Basic Training from 84 minutes to 52 minutes to fit its time slot, he cited an obligation to the defense department and the military recruits featured in the film, and refused.

Admittedly, he took the hard line naively back then but his youthful stubbornness has paid off. “So far, I’ve won.”

10. Self-distributing his films on DVDs has been successful.
Konicek joined his company Zipporah Films in 1981 and handles the business side of his productions. She also oversees distribution, which is handled in-house and encompasses hand-packaging and mailing out DVDs and corresponding with fans. The company is now looking at streaming Wiseman’s films. “We have a very good DVD business but a small business,” said Konicek. “We’re stepping into streaming and that will be done in a similar kind of way.”

11. The key to longevity in film is a good producer.
Konicek and Wiseman continue to work well together because they love doing what the other does not. When Konicek took a job in the Zipporah office fresh from grad school in the early 1980s, she abhorred the film industry and was keen to return to a job in the non-profit sector.

Wiseman was shooting Racetrack at the time and never in the office, but the two hit it off over the phone. She threatened to leave but he insisted she hold off on quitting until after he returned home from the shoot.

“Fred makes the films. I love the business side of it – the organizing and distribution side,” she said. “The key is to find someone who can do things you don’t want to do or aren’t good at.”

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.