One of the most distinctive and unique documentarians of our time, Frederick Wiseman, 85, is famed for two things: an utter disdain of explanatory narration and an exhaustive fascination with his subjects. Since 1967 — when he produced and directed “Titicut Follies,” a documentary about a Massachusetts correctional institution — he has made more than 40 films, directing his lens at ballet in 1995, boxing in 2010 and the University of California at Berkeley in 2013. He may not be not a wildly popular filmmaker but he’s certainly a deeply respected one. To see any one of his works affords an experience so dense with meaning and purpose that it leaves you drained, and steeped in wonderment and gratitude. It’s as if you had taken on a difficult mountain climb instead of passively watching a movie. But actually, it’s impossible to be passive when watching a Wiseman film. His particular style of filmmaking demands your complete concentration and the full engagement of your faculties.
Wiseman was a lawyer and university lecturer before turning to filmmaking. He has so far made 43 films and the latest is “National Gallery,” in which he took his camera and crew into the eponymous site in London and filmed just about everything in it, including a board meeting discussing the National Gallery’s budget and income problems. True to Wiseman’s style, there’s no explanation of what’s going on and no names. We look, we ponder, we learn. Clearly the filmmaker wouldn’t have it any other way. Here’s what Wiseman had to say about “National Gallery” in a recent interview with The Japan Times:
What was your method when shooting inside the National Gallery?
The daytime scenes were pretty straightforward: People came to see art, and there were some truly wonderful guides who gave inspired lectures. But when it came to the paintings themselves, I wanted to shoot them one by one, in natural light, so I could only shoot in the mornings before the place opened and no one was there. I also made the decision early on to shoot inside the frames, so that the viewer would only see the painting and nothing else: No plaque, no descriptions, no artist name — nothing. I felt that the people who knew the paintings wouldn’t need the descriptions and the people who didn’t know the paintings wouldn’t come to the gallery or see the film.
What made you decide on the National Gallery?
Initially, I wanted to film inside the MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and had tried to get permission. But they asked for payment and I never do that, I never pay to be able to work. Word got around that I wanted to film an art museum and then I was introduced to Nicholas Penny, the (now retired) director of the National Gallery. I told him that I wouldn’t be able to pay the gallery and he said that wasn’t a problem. Otherwise, I never would have made the decision to go to England. I thought I wanted to get inside an American museum. But, of course, that thought was dispelled right away. The obvious thing to do was to pack up and get (to London) immediately.
Did you find that you or your outlook had changed after filming?
I always try to start filming with a completely clear mind, with no preordained conceptions or ideas. I like a clean slate — you know, a white canvas — and this time it was easy for me because I knew nothing about painting; I only had an appreciation for art. And I think I learned a lot from spending a total of 12 weeks inside the National Gallery. I observed the paintings, and observed the people observing the paintings, and found that the paintings always looked back at whoever was looking. It was a fascinating moment of discovery. And then I spent 13 months after that editing the footage. During that time, I learned something about reading a painting, and then being able to talk about it, and my appreciation vastly increased. It’s one thing to walk through a museum and look at art, and another thing entirely to know how to communicate with a painting, and be able to talk about it to others.
The film also devotes a lot of time to the goings-on behind the scenes, so to speak.
Yes, I wanted to get every aspect of the National Gallery, because I’m always fascinated by the work and dedication that goes into running an institution like this, especially academic and cultural institutions. This time, I learned a lot about the scientific aspects of painting restoration. It was wonderful to be able to hear to the restorers talk and hear what they had to say about their craft. Restorers are great painters themselves, their skill is unparalleled, but they’re also very humble about what they do.
If you were to give advice to a young filmmaker just starting out, what would that be?
First thing I would say is that he should marry a rich woman as quickly as possible. (Note: Wiseman himself started his own distribution company, Zipporah Films, in 1970, named after his wife.) The other way to make films is to be extremely persistent: don’t take it personally if they reject you, because they’re going to reject you a lot. People think it’s easy to get the money to make a movie — well, it’s not. The difficulty is the same whether it’s a documentary or an indie film or a Hollywood production. For me, the cycle remains the same every time I start a project, I have to do what everyone else does and sing for my supper.