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INTERVIEW: Director of Monrovia, Indiana, Frederick Wiseman

Susan Kouguell interviews documentary director Frederick Wiseman at Manhattan’s Film Forum on the day before his new film Monrovia, Indiana was beginning its run at the same venue.

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Recently, I had the honor of interviewing documentary director Frederick Wiseman at Manhattan’s Film Forum the day before his new film Monrovia, Indiana was beginning its run at the same venue.


Since 1967, Frederick Wiseman has directed 42 documentaries—dramatic, narrative films that seek to portray ordinary human experience in a wide variety of contemporary social institutions. His films include TITICUT FOLLIES, HIGH SCHOOL, WELFARE, JUVENILE COURT, BOXING GYM, LA DANSE, BALLET, CENTRAL PARK, BALLET, LA COMEDIE FRANCAISE, BELFAST, MAINE, and EX LIBRIS—The New York Public Library. He has directed a fiction film, THE LAST LETTER (2002). His films are distributed in theatres and broadcast on television in many countries.

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Frederick Wiseman received his BA from Williams College in 1951 and his LLB from Yale Law School in 1954. He has received honorary doctorates from Bowdoin College, Princeton University, and Williams College, among others. He is a MacArthur Fellow, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has won numerous awards, including four Emmys. He is also the recipient of the Career Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Society (2013), the George Polk Career Award (2006), the American Society of Cinematographers Distinguished Achievement Award (2006) and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement from the Venice Film Festival (2014). In 2016, he received an Honorary Award from the Board of Governors of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was a Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University in 2018.

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Founded in 1834, Monrovia, Indiana (pop: 1063) is a small farming community that might be passed over en route to larger cities like Indianapolis or Fort Wayne. Yet 46 million Americans live in rural towns like Monrovia, once the backbone of American life. In his 44th film, master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman trains his legendary camera on the town, exploring its conflicting stereotypes and illustrating how values like community service, duty, spiritual life, and generosity are lived—Christian sermons, a freemason ceremony, industrial agricultural work, a town council ruling on expanded development, and gun-shop talk. All punctuated by cinematographer John Davey’s stunning, big-sky Midwestern landscapes. The importance of rural America as a formative center of American politics and values was demonstrated in the 2016 presidential election; MONROVIA, INDIANA provides a window into a way of life that, although central to this country’s history, is often overlooked by city dwellers.

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We began our discussion with Mr. Wiseman’s choice to explore the town of Monrovia in his new documentary.

WISEMAN: I told a friend of mine who is a law professor in Boston that I wanted to make a film in the Midwest about a small town. She had a friend who taught at the Indiana law school, whose family lived in the same small town for six generations. By chance, a couple of weeks after that I had been invited by the University of Indiana in Bloomington to show some of my films. So, I called the Bloomington law professor to say I was interested, and he said, "Come a day early, and I’ll take you to Monrovia." He introduced me to his cousin who is the town undertaker in the cemetery, an extremely nice woman, and she offered to help by introducing me around.

I looked around Monrovia for about two hours. This was mid-April and I was planning on shooting in May. In the interim, she contacted the people she thought would be important for me to meet, like the head of the school board, the police and fire department, store owners, the vet. And then I called them, and because she made the introductions and I had the ‘Good Housekeeping seal of Approval’ they were very receptive. I had no problem getting access.

KOUGUELL: How long was the shoot?

WISEMAN: About ten weeks.

KOUGUELL: How long did you prepare for it in terms of meeting people?

WISEMAN: Only the two hours when I was in Monrovia in April. That’s always the case. I don’t like being around a place doing what’s called research and not being able to shoot. In my view, the shooting of the film is the research.

KOUGUELL: What size is your crew?

WISEMAN: Me and two others. I direct and do the sound. I work with a cameraman, and the third person assists us both. It’s fun. It’s a nice way to work.

KOUGUELL: Did you need to get releases signed from the participants?

WISEMAN: I ask people’s permission. I usually get tape-recorded consents. They’re just as legal as written consents.

KOUGUELL: Have the participants seen the finished film? Were you there for the screening?

WISEMAN: Yes, they seemed to like it. I was there. There were three screenings in one night; I took over a multi-plex.

KOUGUELL: At the end of the film, and without giving anything away to the readers, there are moving and poignant sequences about the passing of one of Monrovia’s residents. How were you able to get the family to agree to being filmed?

WISEMAN: The undertaker asked them. Her company was in charge of the event, so to speak.

KOUGUELL: Much is often made about categorizing your films. Do you consider them Direct Cinema? Cinema Verité?

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WISEMAN: I don’t like any of those words. I don’t know what Direct Cinema means. Fly on the Wall is obnoxious; I think I’m more conscious than a fly. Observational Cinema is too passive; as if somehow you sit in a corner and let things happen in front of the camera when a movie is made up of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of decisions. I like to call them movies. A simple, old-fashioned word.

KOUGUELL: You said that the themes and POV emerge at the end of the editing process.

WISEMAN: I don’t start a movie with a thesis in mind because I think that would be too limiting. I like the movie, in one sense, to be a report on what I learned as a consequence of making the movie within the context of it being a dramatic narrative. If I start the movie with a specific idea, then it’s like a horse with blinders, you’re not seeing other things.

I don’t know anything about these places before I start. I really learn about it in the editing. I have to review the rushes, decide which sequences I want to use, how I’m going to edit, and order them. That requires a careful analysis, a reading of each sequence. I have to think that I understand what’s going on in each sequence in order to decide whether I want to use it, how I’m going to edit it, and where I’m going to place it.

KOUGUELL: You mentioned that for this film you shot between 100 and 120 hours of footage. Let’s talk about your editing process.

WISEMAN: I like editing. During the shoot, we send back a hard drive to an assistant in Boston. She would categorize it, for example, all the shots in the supermarket, farmers, and then write a one-line description of each shot, and make sure that the sync was okay. Then when I come back from the shooting, I start looking at the material. That takes me 6-8 weeks; this first pass. At the end of that, I put aside about 50 percent of the material, and then I start editing from the other 50 percent of those sequences that I think will make it into the final film. That takes me 6-8 months. Then when the candidate sequences are edited, I do the first assembly in 3-4 days. That’s my first attempt at structure, which is usually about 30-40 minutes longer than the final film. Then, over the next 6-8 weeks, I work on the rhythm of the film, and make sure I have a dramatic narrative that works. I work on the internal rhythm of a sequence, and the transitions between the sequences. When that’s done, I look at all the rushes again to see if there is anything else that will be useful to include.

A good part of editing doesn’t have to do with the physical manipulation of the material, it has to do with what the material says to me. The conversation between me and the rushes.

KOUGUELL: A distinctive aspect of your work is the lack of voice-over narration and interviews, or reflexive (revealing to the viewer some part of the filmmaking process) elements.

WISEMAN: Right, you don’t physically see me but every aspect of the film, you see me because you see the choices I made.

KOUGUELL: What appeals to you with this style of filmmaking?

WISEMAN: The way I make movies is more novelistic than it is journalistic. I make the argument that my films are fiction films because, for example, reducing a sequence from an hour-and-a-half to seven minutes, and it’s never seven consecutive minutes, it’s 20 seconds here, 40 seconds there, and edited like you’re watching it in sequence. It’s fictional in a sense that the camera is looking at the people in a different way than the eye.

To learn more about Wiseman’s work and upcoming events visit Website.

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