A mini masterclass with Frederick Wiseman

While this is in many ways a continuation of Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg's Silverdocs coverage, she felt it important to give Frederick Wiseman his own blog entry.


As promised, here are some of the gems from Frederick Wiseman during the interview he gave after receiving the Charles Guggenheim Honors at the Silverdocs Film Festival. Since this is Wiseman afterall -- the master of making lengthy films which take us into every nook and cranny of everyday institutions -- these are abbreviated versions of what he said, but worth sharing for the filmmakers among the blog readers.  Or for that matter, for anyone who is interested in the documentary filmmaker's process -- some insight into the seemingly tedious parts of the documentary filmmaker's job between a great idea and a great film on the screen.  (Though I hardly think Wiseman would consider any of it tedious.)

  • I do very little research -- only one or two days on site. I don't like seeing something interesting happening and not being able to film it.

  • My approach to filmmaking is very similar to Las Vegas. You roll the dice and hope for the best.

  • My films are a combination of luck, instinct, and judgment.

  • My only rule of when to turn the camera on and off is to not stop the camera in the middle of a sequence.

  • In terms of post-production, during the shoot, I watch silent rushes on a 3-day cycle and make notes.  An assistant syncs the sound so all the rushes are available when production is completed. [Blogger's Note: Wiseman still shoots and edits in film so that is why he watches silent rushes since they haven't been synced with sound yet].

  • When the shoot is over, I log the shots in an accounting-style notebook. I take 6-8 weeks to look at all the footage and note it with a ratings system of 1, 2, or 3. I eliminate 40-50% of the material in this first cut. In the early days of my career, I looked at the footage chronologically. Now I tend to look first at the sequences I remember liking during the shoot.

  • Once I have made the first cut down of material, I take 6-8 months to edit the candidate sequences. I look at each sequence individually and am not yet thinking about the overall structure of the film.

  • Once I am down to something close to the final version, I look again at all the rushes including the original rejects. Very often I find something which can be used for transition sequences, contextual information, or character development in material I originally threw out.

  • I don't know how to think with an audience in mind. It is hard enough for me to make up my own mind. My only assumption about the audience is that they are as smart or as dumb as me. I don't want to get caught up in the Hollywood-like focus on cutting to the lowest common denominator. Editing is really talking to yourself.


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