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When it comes to documentary filmmaking, Frederick Wiseman is a living legend. At 80, the Boston native received the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award – after releasing no less than 39 films spanning almost half a century. La Danse is his 38th, a 158-minute foray into ballet-making that captures the inner workings of the Paris Opera Ballet, from the ballerinas’ rigorous discipline and endless rehearsals to food and costume making.
In La Danse you poke your camera into the Paris Opera Ballet, bringing the audience to watch the stage as well as the backstage. Isn’t that a case in point of ‘observational cinema’, as your work has often been described?
There’s something about the term ‘observational cinema’ that suggests that you turn your camera on and just let things happen in front of it. Which is not the case, because making one of these movies involves thousands of choices. So it’s not simply putting the camera in the corner and letting it roll. In terms of subject matter, how you shoot it, how you edit it and the length and structure of the film, there’s much more involved then what the word ‘observational’ suggests.
So, how do you get your ideas to begin with?
I don’t know how I get them but I get them! I was sitting in my dentist’s office one day reading People magazine, and there was an article about a modeling agency. I figured I was at the right time of my life to do a movie about a modeling agency. So I did (Model, 1980). But I usually have a long list of things I want to do. I’m currently working on a film about U.C. Berkeley in the US. I think it will fit well into the series of films I’m doing about institutions.
There was also a high school (High School I + II, 1968+1994), a department store (The Store, 1983) a hospital (Hospital, 1969) – you definitely like institutions. What is it about them that fascinates you?
An institution gives me access to a lot of people. And it provides a boundary. It’s like the nets and lines of a tennis court. Whatever takes place on a court is fit for inclusion; what takes place outside isn’t. Institutions always have rules. The people who run the institutions are trying to apply those rules – sometimes successfully, sometimes less. And by picking one place, for example when I did the film Welfare (1975), I did it in one welfare center. I could’ve gone to many welfare centers, I could’ve gone to the apartments where welfare-recipients live, I could’ve gone to hotels where people who receive welfare checks live, I could’ve tried to find their family of origin. There is a variety of choices but by staying in one place, I lessen the risk of the film being superficial. It was the same with this film: by staying at one place, I could enter the world that that place represents with greater complexity.
You already made a film about ballet 15 years ago. (Ballet from 1995 was about the American Ballet Theatre in New York). Why another one?
I think when it works, it’s an absolutely beautiful art form, and the compositions made with people’s bodies are very beautiful to look at. There’s something about the transient nature of ballet that appeals to me, because it’s over – like that! With a snap of a finger. No two performances are the same; it’s one of the most beautiful things I can think of to watch. So, I thought it would be interesting to do another ballet movie – see what the differences were between a company in America and a company in France. But the principal reason is that I like ballet. One of the things I wanted to do in the movie was to show the relationship between rehearsal and performance as well as showing all the other work that’s required to make the performance possible: the making of costumes, the makeup, the sets. I wasn’t interested in putting the camera in front of the stage and showing the final ballet – there are lots of movies that do that.
You’re known for keeping the research stage to a strict minimum before shooting: was that the case again?
That’s right. I spent a day at the Paris Opera Ballet before the shooting started. In that day I mainly just got a sense of the geography of the place. Where the rehearsal rooms were, where the administration’s office was. I met the ballet masters. I think the shooting of the film is the research. There’s not much point in being there and seeing things go on and then not being able to get them for the film. All of that would just increase your depression if something terrific happens and you’re not prepared to shoot it!
How do you get a sense of what you want out of the film?
I don’t begin to think of structure or theme until I’m well along in the editing. All I knew in advance were classes of events I wanted to cover. They were the obvious ones: rehearsals, performances, administrative meetings, various workshops, where the jewelry or the costumes were made. What is going to happen in those places is not known because they are different from hour to hour and day to day. And then it was a question of whether what I saw was interesting enough - or was good for the film. For La Danse I ended up with 150 hours of rushes. The final film is only 2.5 hours long, so the ratio between film shot and film used is about 50:1. For this kind of movie you have to shoot a lot of film in order to have the choices in the editing room.
So your films are conceived in the editing room. That’s when and where you decide on narrative. How do you tackle that part?
I cut my movies in such a way, at least I hope so, that enough information is conveyed that people watching the movie who haven’t had the same experience as I’ve had of being at the place and studying the material, can understand what’s going on. In that sense, my approach is more novelistic than it is journalistic – a major difference being the ratio between fact and imagination. A novelist may be drawing on his own experience, but a novelist is only limited by the scope of his own imagination. I’m limited by the scope of my imagination in relation to a certain number of hours of rushes. But within that context I have a wide variety of choices. I don’t manipulate events, but I choose in the editing what I want to present. The events aren’t fictional, but the order in which they’re presented is. I have to construct a fiction that appears as if it took place the way you’re watching it… even though it didn’t.
You have been called a pioneer in your field for your distinct ‘fly-on-the-wall’ technique, not having any voiceover or inserted information. Aren’t you ever afraid of losing the viewer?
I have no idea how to think about the audience. I don’t know anything about the educational level, the age, the sex, the economic background, the class background. Everyone that tells you to think about the audience is deceiving himself. The only consequence of thinking about the audience is to dilute the material to meet your fantasy of the lowest common denominator. And the only thing I know how to do is to assume that the audience is as smart or as dumb as I am. Anything else is condescending. And I hope that people watching La Danse know the difference between a rehearsal and a performance.