A Discussion with Frederick Wiseman and Robert Kramer

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Questions posed by Aaron Gerow and Fujiwara Toshifumi, 1997

Entretien réalisé lors du Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 1997.

 

Fujiwara: Fred, you always work with John Davey as your cameraman.

Wiseman: There are about three of us. I direct and do the sound and
John does the camera and the assistant carries the extra magazines.

F: And how about Robert, how have you been with your crew?

Kramer: The crews in the last period of time, if they haven’t been one
person-me-they’ve been about five: camera (me); a sound person-if it’s a feature
then usually a sound assistant; a camera assistant for me; and someone who does
the light, director of photography, something like that. It was three people for
Route One/USA (1989): technical crew plus a production person and one actor.
For Walk the Walk (1996) it was six people-there was an electrician.
I’m really for keeping crews as small as possible after a couple of experiences
with full professional crews-60-75 people-which I find extremely painful and uninteresting.
It puts me in the position of military commander. I’ve really tried to avoid that.
There’s not much need for all those people. Even with really complicated things,
it can really be done with less.

F: Maybe the smallness of your crew makes for the physicality of the
work.

W: Well, physicality in the sense that if you have to carry the equipment,
you have to carry it yourself. But also for the kind of movies I do you have to
move very quickly, you have to always be prepared. Often if you miss the first
ten or fifteen seconds of an event you’ve missed the initial part of the explanation
that makes it comprehensible to somebody who wasn’t there. You have to make up
your mind quickly and you have to move quickly. Often you have to run because
the people you’re following are running and you have to keep up with them. You
have to run in such a way that flapping the Nagra against your hip doesn’t get
on the soundtrack. You have to keep the mike in such a position that you’re recording
the sound of the person you’re following for the movie and not your own sound
or your own heavy breathing or the other people working with their heavy breathing,
or footsteps.

K: It’s impossible. For me there’s something you could call the ecology
of filmmaking, which means not deranging the ecology of where you’re filming since
you’re in real situations all the time. Even in a film like Walk the Walk,
it’s all shot in real situations so if the crew is very big, if the crew is insensitive,
if the crew doesn’t have this habit of working, the film becomes about what happens
when the film crew arrives somewhere and everybody is basically relating to that
film crew. You want to be invisible.

W: That’s just what you want: you want to be invisible.

K: The second thing is the smallness has a big effect on the technology
we use. When there are fewer people, it means that you’ve really thought through
exactly what kind of material you want to work with, what’s the minimum, and you’re
trying to make the technology as invisible as possible. The big films are like
swimming with all your clothes on and what we’re trying to do is swim nude as
much as possible. I’ve been helped a lot by new developments in technology over
the last 20 years. So the new Aaton camera with the internal time code permitted
a whole new flexibility in working with sound and image that was a huge step forward in terms of minimizing the disruption of the filming process. It’s complicated because it’s like you want to hide that you’re making a movie; it’s not about candid camera, but it is about finding some way of keeping the technical side on the same scale as what you’re filming. The power of the camera can disrupt everything: the camera’s there and everybody stops, everybody relates to the camera.
You have to work through that and that depends on the mentality of the people,
what equipment you’re using, and a whole way of working.

W: It’s funny, but that’s not quite my experience. My experience is
that 99% of the time the people who are being photographed don’t react to the
camera or the tape recorder and almost no time is required to acclimatize them.
For a lot of the situations I’m in, that’s the only time the people who are being
photographed ever see us. For example, shooting at a welfare center: you see a
case, you follow the people, you get the sequence and you never see them again.
And for reasons that I don’t understand, whether it’s vanity, indifference, media
saturation, or an incapacity to act otherwise-most of us don’t have the capacity
to act other than as we do-the presence of the equipment and the people operating
the equipment makes no difference at all.

F: That might be different in La Comédie Française ou l’amour jou(1996), don’t you think?

W: Well, it’s slightly different in Comédie Française, but the experience was no different. With the Comédie Française, I’m in the same place everyday, although not photographing the same people. I just finished a movie in a public housing project. There are five thousand people living in the housing project. It was rare that I spent much time with any one person. The one sequence they’re in is the only time that I saw them.

K: Maybe one of the differences is that I was thinking of situations
where we’re actually introducing our own characters into a real situation.

W: Ah, that’s a significant difference, isn’t it?

K: Which is the case throughout Route One and it’s a lot the case in
Walk the Walk. We’re in this hybrid situation of wanting people not to
relate to us but at the same time we’re sticking something that’s foreign right
into the middle of them. Maybe that explains some of the difference of it. It
also goes a long way to talk about the difference between documentary and fiction,
which for me is a completely arbitrary difference. It’s not something that’s defensible
at any interesting level. But in people’s minds, there’s a huge difference. So
the first question people ask is, « Is this a documentary or is this a fiction
film? » It means are there actors and it usually means do they know who the
actors are from other films. As soon as we say, « We’re making a fiction film
but it’s not a fiction film like you usually mean by a fiction film, » we
are into another kind of conversation and people are really excited in different
kind of a way than they would if we just said, « We’re filming your life »
or something like that. It creates different elements, a different kind of situation
that has to be worked with. Then they discover that the actors don’t come with
a make up crew and they probably don’t know who these people are from the movies
that they see.

A weird thing in Walk the Walk is that the black actor, Jacques
Martial, is incredibly famous for a television sitcom in which he plays
a black policeman. I didn’t know this when I took him. I knew him from some
small movies that I’d seen him in. I would go to these towns and the mayor
would be there! The mayor would be there to ask him to be the judge at some
sporting the next day. Everybody would come asking for his autograph. I
was horrified but in fact it worked out fine.

Another difference which is very hard to talk about is, « Is there
a difference between the media saturation in the States, where everybody’s
a player, and the effect of the camera, for example, in France. »

W: I anticipated that might be a problem with the Comédie
movie but it wasn’t. I was amazed.

K: Is that because they were actors?

W: I don’t think so. I also thought that because they were actors they
would be acting in non-theatrical situations like committee meetings but I don’t
think they did. In fact the experience was absolutely no different than working
in a welfare center.

K: Well, I think it’s changed a lot in the 20 years I’ve been in Europe.
When I first came it just seemed incredibly different to me from filming in the
States and now it doesn’t seem really any different.

W: This is not the first time I’ve filmed abroad but it’s the first
time I’ve filmed in another language or another culture. In the past it was always
Americans abroad so in that sense it was not different from filming Americans
in America. But I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t a problem.

K: I think it’s changed a lot. I think it’s changed because of television,
because of movies. The image is a way of life.

There’s a real possibility that just my discomfort with the language
in the beginning made me feel doubly uncomfortable in those situations.
But it’s true that when I went back to shoot Route One after living
in Europe for ten years, I was shocked by more than just the acceptance
of the camera, but by people having a very clear sense of what it meant
to play oneself, to externalize and to take advantage of the situation,
sometimes in absolutely fantastic ways. So you felt that everybody was an
actor. It lead to a whole series of thoughts about a society where playing
yourself is your major card.

W: Don’t you think that everybody is an actor except that they don’t
have the capacity for a wide range of roles? I disagree with you slightly about
that because I don’t think there’s any difference: we all can play ourselves,
we always do play ourselves. What we don’t have the capacity to do is to play
somebody else. In that sense what you’re taking advantage of in documentary filmmaking is that you have the privilege of being present when people are playing themselves in complex situations. If you’re lucky enough to be there when it’s going on, then you get absolutely fantastic sequences. But I don’t think it has as much to do with familiarity with the media as it has to do with the almost single roles that we develop for ourselves. One of the things that interested me about doingthe Comédie movie was that, here I was dealing with actors who could play, theoretically, anybody. Which they did in rehearsal and performance, but they were back to their roles-their identity as distinct selves-when they were in committee meetings. Their capacity to play different roles gave them a degree of freedom that the rest of us don’t have. In a sense they could become the Other, or a series of others. And yet when you compare their acting various roles with the kind of events you see in other documentary films where you get very dramatic sequences, the people can’t repeat them but they become just as dramatic as a staged event because they’re enclosed in a frame. They’re recorded and memorialized.
If you’re lucky enough and recognize what you see, they’re as dramatic as anything
that’s staged.

K: Well, that’s for sure. I don’t know about this question of roles.
I had the feeling in France when I got there that the camera tended to push people
back into their idea of how they should be. I think that’s the sign of a more
traditional society. I don’t know that much about Japanese documentary, but I
have a feeling here that if I catch somebody’s eye when I’m walking here, they
have to do certain things. They have to react a certain way to me out of codes
that I don’t know about, codes of formality, codes of class. I felt this very
strongly in France instead of the camera inviting somebody to just be themselves,
whatever that is.

W: Sorry to interrupt, but how do you distinguish between someone being
themselves and acting according to codes?

K: There’s an ancient political idea that there is a difference. I don’t
know how you distinguish it. It’s obviously not « This is authentic and that’s
not authentic. » It’s different layers. It’s the feeling that you have, Fred,
it’s a very intuitive thing; it’s the feeling that you have talking to someone,
filming. You start off and they begin either by a series of generalities or a
series of attitudes that you feel, rightly or wrongly, are correct-speak-something
that they know to say and you feel that something else is bubbling underneath.
And you keep digging for it. This is why we’re making fiction films. Maybe these
are my fictions. But I have to go to the bottom of my idea about the identity
of this person, the whole story they’re not telling me. In fact I judge movies
this way. There’s a lot of movies that I’ve completely written off where I feel
that the person didn’t take that step. It’s impossible for me not to judge the
image that way. I feel there’s something waiting to be said there and I’m being
left on the surface.

W: There’s also distinctions between the things you’re describing and
films where interviews are being conducted-where people are acting formally because
they’re nervous or they’re not yet comfortable with the questioner-and the more
observational kind of film where people are engaged in another activity which,
for at least one of the participants, is normal-where the actual event, the non-film
event, is more important than the film event. Even if people are uncomfortable
with the idea of being photographed, they still behave, at least in my experience,
in ways that they think are appropriate not for the situation of being filmed
but for the situation which they’re in. And in a sense that’s exactly what you
want. You want people to behave in ways that they think are appropriate for where
they are.

K: I think this is a really interesting discussion. I was really struck
by where you said you defined the situation as filming people who you would never
see again. Increasingly I’m in a situation where I film with people and I feel
bad about that. I feel like, not only wasn’t I good, but because of that I didn’t
give them the space to do more things. There’s more things they want to do. So
I’m prepared to go back and work with them again.

W: It’s a different kind of film.

K: Right, but starting from a lot of the same love of real situations.
We make very different films but we definitely come out of the same fascination
with the world as it is, whatever that is. It’s not really an older generation
thing, but the politics played a role.

I don’t know if it’s important but this scraping away thing is certainly
« Robert sometimes just scripting the world, » « Robert wanting
something which is Robert and maybe not the people in front of him. »
I’m thinking of a situation in Starting Place (1993), the Vietnam
film, where I filmed with my translator, who was my translator in 1969.
I just felt this guy was a what we call in French « langue du bois »:
it means « wooden tongue »-« political speak, » « politically
correct. » I didn’t expect this from him at all since he was a very
soulful guy. But every time I’d turn on the camera he’d go into camera mode:
he’d just been an apparatchik for his whole life and, at the same time that
I can admire him because he wasn’t an apparatchik who ever put a nickel
in his pocket, he really believed in all of that stuff and still does. So
I went home and I felt terrible and thought, « We’ve got to do another
thing with him. » I could tell that he was suffering. I was putting
him in a situation where he could be no other way because of who he was.
So I felt that I had to completely change the situation. I gave him a radio
mike and put him really far away and told him to do anything he wanted to
do, to go anywhere he wanted to go in this whole garden, and to tell me
the few things that he thought it was important he should tell me and I
didn’t want to hear. And we did get to another level because it was a monologue:
it was him alone with himself. He certainly knew that he was being filmed;
there was nothing hidden about this.

It’s true that I am into this work with individuals; it’s so much related
to this feeling I have about people that there is a place to go to, which
is maybe just my illusion.

W: It’s also a question of how you get to that place. There are different
roads to the same place

K: I don’t believe in badgering for one thing. Yeah, there are different
roads to that place and there have been times when you’ve spent an enormous amount
of time in one place with the same people.

W: Yes, the Comédie Française, the film I did in
a monastery, and the one at the Sinai Field Mission are the three examples.

K: Not Titticut Follies (1967), you don’t count that?

W: No, Titticut Follies was a population of nine hundred.

K: But you were with very much the same people.

W: Not the same inmates.

K: So those pieces that keep coming back are actually filmed at one
time and then cut that way?

W: Well, the pieces that keep coming back in Follies are the
inmate-staff variety show-that only happened on one night. The case conferences
are all different case conferences; the guard who’s in the film a number of times
was the guard who accompanied us. But I’d say that for 95% of the people in the
film it was just one time. The monastery: there were only about twenty people
in the monastery so everybody knew it. In the Comédie Française
there were 450 people, even though not all 450 were in it, but sometimes I went
to the same rehearsals with the same actors a number of times. But for most of
the films that’s not the case.

K: I feel that I need two or three cracks at the same situation, even
the same welfare center.

W: But I never get the same situation.

K: No, it’s not the same situation but that’s all right: my perception
improves. I’m often in the situation of arriving to film some place I’ve never
been before. So after the first filming I’m beginning to get an idea of what I
think about this, and after the second time I can get at another angle of it.

W: The problem for me is that, with the exception of the monastery or
aspects of the Comédie Française, it’s almost always the
first day.

K: Which has it’s own beauty about it, which makes it even more this
thing of a way, a path, because if you’re on, you know you’re on.

W: Because with different people the kind of situation and the kind
of problems you’re trying to deal with are always new, so you can’t repeat it.

K: No, but the institution is always larger than the people, the place
is always . . .

W: I’m not sure what that means.

K: Well, it means that it doesn’t really make any difference when you
go back. I’m thinking of the welfare and food distribution center in Bridgeport
where I kept going back to film in Route One. It didn’t really matter whether
the same people were there, the institution was profoundly in place and placed
all those black people in the same relationship to the pile of used clothes, to
all the white women waiting at the desks to receive them. In that sense this « house »
was much greater than the sum of all the people who passed through it, everything
that it represented in terms of how the whole thing functions.

But I want to go back to this thing where Fred says every day is the
first day. I think this is like a religious trip, just to give it a certain
color. The thing about physicality that we talked about at the beginning.
If you’re not really open the first day when you go there, you’re going
to miss it.

W: That’s right, that’s the fun!

K: Yes, that’s the fun, that’s the yoga of it. That tension of « the
day » is repeated for however long you’re shooting. In Route One it
was five months. That next day is a great teacher. When people talk about filmmaking
and they start to talk about their agent and the script, I don’t know what they’re
talking about. That has nothing to do with the filmmaking that I feel like I’m
involved in. It’s all about that adventure which is in the framework of an almost
constant application of filmmaking on a daily basis. Which is really a kick, it’s
wonderful.

W: However the film comes out, it’s good fun.

Gerow: You both started making films in the late sixties in a certain
political and cinematic situation. Can you talk a little bit about that, about
how things have changed over time?

W: I’m pausing because I have a hard time generalizing about this sort
of thing. For me it’s related to what we were talking about a minute ago. It’s
so much a matter of reacting at the moment-the moment could be a couple of months-of having an idea and trying to act on the idea, which means getting the permission, raising the money, and making the movie. The only thing that I can safely say about what I’ve been doing over a period of thirty years is that my films have become less didactic. I like to think I’m better able to express complex ideas in film terms. Less ideological, though I don’t think they’ve ever been that ideological.
It’s always been very important to me that the film express what I’ve learned
in making the film, and not be an imposition of preconceived views on the material.
I don’t see any point in making a film if you’re not surprised to a major extent
by the way it turns out. Otherwise you spend a year on something you know what
the result’s going to be. So it’s not that I’m without, for lack of better words,
« ideological, » conceptual views, but I try not to let those be blinders
so I try not to exclude things that don’t fit with whatever my ideology is at
the moment.

G: When I was listening to your conversation I was sensing that in the
past there have been differences between you two.

K: We’ve never been in the same boat. We’re more in the same boat now
than we were in the beginning. Fred was up north and I was in New York. Also,
I didn’t start out to be a filmmaker and neither did Fred. I began writing and
one thing I remember was I spent a lot of time describing the material world.
When I said that institutions are stronger than people I also believe that things
are stronger than people. So for example, Walk the Walk is built on the
idea that the objects are much more imposing and permanent than our bodies; that
our bodies are extremely fragile and transient against this monstrous cage that
we’ve constructed for ourselves, made of all the machines and technology and objects
that clutter the planet. I spent a lot of time describing the physicality without
having any theory. I was just writing these novels and the material world was
so much what I wanted to talk about. When I first started filming I realized that
all that effort to describe the physical world was there at the level of the image
effortlessly.

The other thing I remember were these discussions. I started filmmaking
with two other young filmmakers; we had this little company together, Norman
Frector, Bob Mackover, and I. We were also in touch with people who were
doing what was called in America cinéma vérite or  cinéma direct. They were real documentarists: they really believed that there was documentary filmmaking and, while they were never really over the edge around the idea that the continuous take could tell the truth, they were definitely into this idea that there was a way. They were able to define it very simply. They said they wanted to be able to film events directly with enough sophistication and intelligence so that when they got to the editing room they would have the same flexibility for editing as they would have had if they had scripted it. They would have known to have a close-up when they needed a close-up; they would have been intelligent enough in the filming of this world without intervening at all to have the kind of richness of detail that you usually expect from a fiction film.

I said, « Well, I want to make films about what I know about. I maybe want
to write these films, but I want them to feel like what’s happening in front of
you is happening for the first time. I want this whole atmosphere of immediate
reality, but I actually I want to speak. I want to speak through people, I want
to be there. » That was the beginning and it’s gone through a lot of changes.
I would say that I didn’t have any theories about filmmaking, but the filmmaking
just followed my life up. The films come out of whatever I’ve been trying to work
out in my life, with the idea that it’s something to show other people, that it’s
not just up my own asshole, that it’s something that is out there. The films have
followed the life more than anything else, and of course each film affects the
life afterwards, a sort of cycle. I never thought that I was a militant filmmaker
and I was never accepted as a militant filmmaker: my « comrades » always
denounced my movies!

There have been a lot of ups and downs in that voyage. I don’t think
that the world resembles anything like where I started, either in terms
of the filmmaking community or anything else. I think about the way we worked:
we all worked for nothing, we all got our money somewhere else, we were
making films for ridiculous sums of money-my first feature cost $1,500 or
something. Ice (1969), a two-and-a-half-hour movie which is still
around and being shown, cost $13,000. Everybody who worked on that film
worked on it for nothing. That changed everything about working on the film
because it’s absolutely impossible to say to somebody who believes that
their point of view is precious enough to go to jail for, « Say those
lines because I tell you to say those lines. » They’re going to say,
« I’m not going to say those lines. I don’t believe in that. » And
you’re instantly into a very interesting thing which has not stopped at
all. I would say, « Well, that’s okay, but it’s not good for the character.
What about this? » And then they say, « Well, I could accept this
part if I don’t have to say that part. » I like this negotiation and
it blurs even more the line between documentary and fiction because what
you’re actually dealing with is the life of people who are in the movie.
This is as true of Walk the Walk now as it was for films made during
the sixties and seventies.

But everything has changed. Young filmmakers are in a terrible situation
today. I’ve seen a lot of young filmmakers; I do know how it is in the States
because I taught at Cal Arts last year. They’re basically in the situation
where they feel that if they don’t have some kind of commercial success
with their first film, they don’t have a future in filmmaking. That means
either selling it to television or going to Hollywood. They don’t have a
chance. They start out thinking the wrong way from the beginning. There’s
very little chance for experimentation and it also means that, with all
this enormous new technology, nobody’s making Hi-8 digital movies or feature
films on the weekend. I don’t know why. It seems like that’s what everybody
was doing at the beginning of the sixties. Everybody had a movie that they
were making with their friends every weekend when they weren’t working.
There were places to show that, there was the cinematheque, there was people’s
houses, there were people who were interested. To analyze why those changes
have happened is much too large a subject: it has to do with the changing
world and people’s powerlessness in it and a lot of things. I think the
situation is terrible for young filmmakers and not very promising for filmmaking.

It’s a pity because it was a great period of time. It was really very
exiting. The way in which, for me, the thing mingled with the politics:
there was a whole ping pong game between political activity and filmmaking-which
were not the same thing and which I could never reconcile, but were interesting
precisely because they could not be reconciled and caused a lot of conflict.
I think conflict at that level is very healthy. There were lots of people
to talk to-or to yell at and be yelled at. I think that’s okay. Now I feel
like it’s more like a very solitary transatlantic trip. Which I haven’t
helped by going to Europe.

G: Robert was talking about putting his life into a film changes. How
have your filmmaking activities affected your life, Fred?

W: I like working on movies: for me it’s not work. I get completely
absorbed in what I’m doing. It’s a perfect way to pass the time. I suppose it’s
changed my life in really obvious ways. I travel more than other guys do, I get
in more interesting situations. But I don’t feel like I have a job, I feel like
I have a passion. That’s a big difference. I suppose passion is better than work!

F: You’re one of the rare filmmakers in the world who can make almost
one film every year.

W: It’s very, very hard to get the money to make films. I work at it,
like everybody else.

K: Well, not exactly like everybody else. We’re describing the profile
of a certain kind of animal here. An animal with two heads and different kind
of body. It’s a full time affair, it’s a life affair. It’s not a thing about finishing
a movie and going on vacation. There’s perhaps an economic element-I know there’s
an economic element for me. I live for making movies; I don’t live for the distribution of movies. So in that sense it is a work as well as a passion. So I basically have to plan my life so that if I do want a few months between movies I have to figure out some way to have done a lot of work to have paid for that period of time.

W: The filmmaking is the passion, the work is raising the money-it’s
a total pain in the ass. I recognized a long time ago that nobody else is going
to do that work. At least in America, you don’t find producers. I know that I
have to organize myself so that I do it, much as I dislike doing it. I know that
if I don’t do it for myself, nobody else is going to help me with it. The fact
of the matter is that there are only seven or eight sources of money in the world
for these kind of movies. After a certain number of years, you know who the dispensers are who put up the money. You meet your friends in their offices or waiting rooms, either with smiles on their faces or depressions in their moods. You’re in exactly the same position. You run around between those eight offices trying to raise the money every year. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you make a movie on a lot of credit, sometimes you borrow the money. I have a deal with my bank where I can pledge the negatives of my earlier movies and borrow the money against those negatives. I’ve often had to do that.

K: My situation is a little different because I’m working in so many
different kinds of forms, so I’m jumping around between funding sources a lot.
Walk the Walk is a very traditional European co-production with three
countries and a prominent producer from Switzerland. Another film will be with
an experimental television network in Europe and another film will be something
completely different from a young producer. There’s a real patchwork. It’s partly
the difference between Europe and the United States, but one of the real differences
between documentary and fiction has to do with money. It’s all about getting less
money for documentaries and television getting more time for less money than fiction films.

I’m leaping around a lot and I like that. It puts me into a lot of different
kinds of production situations. I’ve gotten a lot better about making sure
that not only am I taken care of, but that I can pretty well control the
film. It’s another encouragement for working with small crews, specifically
because time is the main thing that you’re fighting about at every level:
time to think, time to work, time to shoot correctly, time to do the editing.

I need a lot of time for editing. After some experiences of being trapped
in a situation where the editing process in film, with an editor and an
assistant editor and every thing else, was so costly to the production that
the time was continually limited-I don’t really like to edit film-about
twelve years ago I started editing on video, which I felt more comfortable
in. Eventually I bought the cheapest kind of deck you can get, a Hi-8 deck.
I’ve basically edited every film of mine that you’ve seen in the last five
years in Hi-8. I go from 35mm-Super-16 in the case of Walk the Walk-directly
to Hi-8 video. Then I edit on video in my period of time since it’s not
costing the production anything. Basically I’m paid for a whole film, I’m
not a weekly salaried worker. I spend as much time as I want before an editor
comes in with me and we go back to film. We just print basically a rough
version of what I’ve already cut and then finish the film in film.

It’s obviously not possible to finish a film in video. There’s no real
relationship between video and film. That’s one of the things you learn
when you edit in video and then edit the same thing on film. It’s a very
good way of learning why nobody can think now, why the process of analytic,
rational thought is disappearing from the planet. Video’s not about that:
it’s about something very interesting, it’s about flowing, it’s about music.
That’s why it goes so well with video clips. It’s about this faucet flow
of stuff and you never know when the shot stops and the next shot starts.
When you get to the film, say I’m about around three hours in video, I know
I’ll be somewhere around two hours in film in a week, because you take one
look at this thing that you cut in video and you say, « My god, look
at that! Cut, cut, cut! »

F: Robert mentioned thinking in film. Is that why you always work in
film?

W: Well, I like working on film. With the exception of one very short
thing that I did for a play that I was involved in, I’ve never edited anything
on video and the one experience I had I didn’t like. When I edit, I edit alone,
mainly because I don’t like to have to discuss it with anybody. I have a hard
enough time figuring out what I think, without having to worry what somebody else
thinks. There’s something about the process: in film you have time to think. Since
I haven’t worked in video, I’m not sure why you can’t stop and think in video
too, if in fact you have something to think about. I like the handling of film.
Like Robert, I take whatever time is necessary. It could be ten or fourteen months,
but it’s usually around a year.

F: How much time did Comédie Française take? One
year?

W: The shooting was over at the end of February, then with the exception
of six weeks I took off during the summer to shoot Public Housing, I mixed
it by the end of March the following year. So it was about a year of editing.

G: Robert was talking about young filmmakers today, the state of filmmaking
right now. I was wondering what you think of the films that are being made today?

W: In fact, he seems to have much more contact with young filmmakers
than I do, so I’m reluctant to make a general statement about it. I also don’t
get to see that many new films, so I don’t know what the quality is. Based on
the quality of the fiction films that I see, it’s not an encouraging situation.
It’s complicated by the fact that when I went to college everybody wanted to be
a novelist, now everybody wants to be a filmmaker. There’s no reason to expect
that there would be that many great filmmakers, as there was no reason to expect
there would be that many great novelists. I don’t mean to sound dour, but it’s
just the experience. It seems to me that the technology is not that complicated;
the issue is what you do with the technology, the issue of ideas, of thinking.
It’s like anything else-it’s not simply limited to filmmakers. It’s true of doctors,
lawyers, businessmen, whatever.

F: Your films are also profiting from new technology, like fast film
which did not exist in the 1950s.

W: Right. All the movies up to 1981 were in black and white. And then
there were some subjects that I wanted to do that I felt had to be in color, such
as the school for deaf and blind children, since the fact color is absent in the
lives of blind children made the presence of color in the film important. Or in
The Store (1983), the color of the clothes and the theatrical way they
were displayed became an element in the story. But in some films, for instance
Ballet (1995), I wanted to shoot in black and white because I thought it
would be more abstract and stylized. The first day of shooting was all in black
and white. I looked at it in the lab the next day and it was unusable because
the light was no good. The next day I went back and shot with a fast color negative
and exactly the same lighting situation, and the color was great. I think that’s
because Kodak has done more experiments with color to keep up with videotape.
The basic black and white negative, 7222, I don’t think has changed since the
1960s, whereas Kodak now has a new great color negative every year. The Vision
500 which I used in the last film was just extraordinarily fast and beautiful.

F: You would have been unable to make Comédie Française
without such film.

W: Well, Vision 500 didn’t exist for Comédie Française.
A lot of Comédie Française was shot in extremely low light
conditions because I had to deal with the theatrical lighting. In a play like
Dom Juan, for example, the light was very dim.

F: You really have a lot of work with lenses and camera movement in
that film.

W: There’s a difference when you’re involved in repetitive situations
you’re able to re-shoot, which you aren’t in other circumstances in the documentaries
I make. I probably went to see Dom Juan fifteen times and probably shot it ten
or twelve. You shoot it and go back and look at it. If it’s not right you go back
and shoot it again because the actor’s got to hit the same spots the next night.
It’s the same actors, the same costumes, the same make up the next night. That’s
a luxury you don’t have ordinarily. One time you can shoot it straight, another
time you can use a zoom if the light’s okay, another time you can shoot all CU
with a fixed lens.

F: It’s almost like a feature film.

W: It is like a feature film! On the other hand shooting performance
is different from the other type of documentary sequences because you can’t be
up that close. The camera has to be out in the audience whereas ordinarily the
camera is seven or eight feet away and you can move around the participants. When
you shoot a performance, you’re in a fixed position and you have to be careful
not to disturb the actors and not to disturb the audience.

F: Watching Comédie Française and Walk the Walk,
both of you are facing the problem of American filmmakers shooting in French.
Robert, you wrote the script for Walk the Walk in French.

K: This negotiation process that I described before-« I won’t say
that because I don’t believe it »; « Then what will you say? »-in
a way hasn’t really changed much because even if I write in French-I’m bilingual-I
don’t write correct French. If I write the script, I’ve got to work with the actor.
They’re going to say, « You can’t say that » or « It doesn’t mean that. » Then we have to work in the gray zone between languages and cultures.
Basically I consider that as part of my work now. That’s one of the implications
of having moved away from my own language.

It’s true that a lot of the things that I want to say the most cannot
be said in French. For example in a movie that’s in the Tokyo International
Film Festival, a character says, « What should I do for my son? »
And she says, « Be yourself with him (Êtres toi avec lui). »
We had to decide whether to be shocking, or not; shocking in the sense of
« You don’t really say that. » So it leaps out at you. There’s a
lot of this kind of thing and I feel good about that.

I also feel that the French cinema comes from theater. It’s a theatrical
form and even in its more developed stages, the Nouvelle Vague, people are
still talking like they don’t talk anywhere else except in the movies. That’s
of course something that I’m not interested in at all. Every time a producer-a
bad producer-wants to work with me they want these French scriptwriters
to write scripts for me which I don’t want. I have to fight that whole thing
off and it’s created some very difficult situations with lots of people.
Especially my first movie, where people said you just can’t do that. And
the thing is you don’t know what you can do, because you don’t really know
how it’s heard, whether they’re hearing ignorance, or bad manners, or what?
Or maybe they not hearing because it’s so grotesque. This is a constant
but I like this. I think that we’re out there moving toward one small planet
and I feel like I’m on the frontier of this problem every time I go to another
country and start to work there.

I have shot some films where I really didn’t know what was being said.
And I’ve been very curious because I’ve been pleased by the results. I thought
that I would try to go on the basis of my feeling of energy, my feeling
of what was coming out of the people, at what point I could shoot because
we didn’t have a lot of raw stock. Usually I felt like the material was
good. But then I thought maybe it was completely arbitrary and I would have
thought anything I had on film was pretty good. It’s hard to know exactly
how accurate my judgment was. But I think that’s a very interesting thing
because it’s a lot about body language: not listening to the words, but
listening to the movements, the eyes, the expressions, the relationships
between the people and trying to film on that basis. I think it’s the way
that, for example, different kinds of disabilities can give whole different
colors to the world. I’m very involved with close ups and I wonder whether
it has something to do with my changing vision. I never used to wear glasses,
but I wear glasses now for reading.

W: When I was doing the Comédie FrançaiseI was
always terribly nervous that I either didn’t understand what was going on or that
my train of association toward what I was hearing was wrong, that I was missing
the cultural cues that you take for granted in your own language, your own culture.
Which doesn’t mean you’re right about them, but it’s not a burden. It was an intense
burden in the Comédie because the question was: was I familiar enough
with the politics, would I understand the political frames of reference, people
talking about sports or union negotiations or whatever? As a result I found that
I tended to overshoot in some situations to make sure that I was covered, so that
I had a chance in the editing to study the material. So I’m fascinated by your
feeling that you can shoot successfully without any comprehension of the language.

K: I think that one of the real differences that you could pull out
between us is I think that you’re really looking to find out what’s happening
out there in and of itself. I’m basically interested in the idea that there is
no « out there » except in the negotiation between the person who sees
it and it: me and it. I think it’s really two different ideas about reality. I
feel that what I’m talking about is very much related to all the new developments
in physics, in psychology, and perception. It’s why I get trapped in these.

W: So you’re telling me I’m old-fashioned!

K: No, I didn’t mean it that way. I think you have more confidence in
the idea that there is something out there in and of itself. In some sense that’s
one of the conversations that I have with your movies: « What am I really
seeing here? » I know when you came out of Route One, you said, « This
is a really complicated movie, » and I think what you were referring to was
that constant negotiation between me and it. I’m into it, to the point that it
goes along with a lot of other things that I think about: life and things like
that. I’m into pushing it farther and farther. That’s why when I got into the
camera, things took a radical turn in that direction even more. I played less
and less the role of a traditional director outside, and got completely inside
the idea that what I’m perceiving is. Danger signs all over the place: solipsism,
losing myself in my own. I’m prepared to negotiate with those dangers in order
to deal with this question.

The idea of working without language cues is just an extension of the
same idea. I wouldn’t like to do it all the time but I’m not opposed to
trying. Sometimes, like with the Vietnam film, there’s a lot of stuff which
I didn’t understand. Here’s an example. I don’t know how you feel about
this: the Vietnam film was the first film where I was almost systematically
wrong throughout the whole shooting about the quality of the relationship
with the people I was with. I really felt that they didn’t like me, that
they weren’t telling me the truth, that they were all politically correct.
I got back home and I looked at the rushes and I was crazy. There were really
wonderful relationships. People were going to the limit of their capacity
inside their culture to express themselves.

W: Wasn’t that one consequence of not speaking the language?

K: Yes, absolutely. But the film shows that generosity. What was shameful
was my judgment, in the hotel at night, saying, « Fuck that! They’re just
tweaking me around. »

W: But that’s the paranoia that we all have when we don’t understand
what’s going on.

K: Well, we don’t understand what’s going on!

W: Well, that’s true in the ultimate metaphysical sense. Sure, we understand
enough to know when we’re thirsty that there’s water in this cup.

G: Robert, given the issue of cultural difference, would you like to
talk about Tokyo Customs citing some scenes in Ghosts of Electricity?

K: I have a very complicated feeling about this censorship. I don’t
think it’s really simple, like, « There shouldn’t be censorship. » There
should not be censorship and there should be freedom of speech, but after we’ve
said that, then we can say some interesting things like, « Why is it that
the Japanese institutions have done nothing about this? » « Why is the
Tokyo festival so cowardly? » « Why is it that the Shibata Organization
can pay to have Antonioni and Wenders’ film exempted and everybody accepts that? »
This is a Japanese problem, not Robert’s problem. Robert doesn’t give a shit whether
you see the film or not-at that level. I’m actually very angry about this thing,
and particularly about the reaction of the Tokyo festival, who said absolutely
no to the intertitle in the censored parts. They don’t want to fight with the
censors. They have peace with the censors now. Peace means that I get censored
but the big films in the competition don’t. So why should I make any effort about
this at all? It’s your problem, it’s not my problem. My film will be shown all
over the world. At any event, it’s a cultural problem: me bringing all of my attitudes
right smack down in the middle of a local problem. A Japanese cultural problem
about the relationship to power.

I’m walking on eggs here. If I don’t have any institutional support,
if everybody’s saying to me, « Fight, fight, fight, » why am I such
an interesting combatant? How about you? Them? This kind of problem with
political censorship I’ve been having in Vietnam, absolute political censorship,
and I have not felt outraged about that. I’ve been understanding their position
and trying to work it out little by little. I brought my film there three
weeks ago for the first time in four years: it hadn’t been shown there except
in cassettes, sort of secretly.

This is related to the language problem, related to working in foreign
cultures. I’m so into it that, that it’s really boring for me to go back
to where I know what the codes are, when I know what all the signs are.
I love this problem of going out every day and feeling like I don’t know
where I am and I don’t know what I’m running up against. It’s like a drug.

W: I found that a big strain in France.

K: It is a strain! But it’s definitely given me a little pepper on my
bland carrot.

F: Fred, you are one of the few major filmmakers whose first work was
censored.

W: For 24 years.

F: How do you feel about that?

W: I have a simpler view than Robert’s: I’m against it. But the point
that you’re making about the collusion, that the people who are doing the censoring
want the filmmaker to collude in their decision, is often the case. I run up against
that in public television in America. Public television in America is very balkanized
and some stations won’t allow the words « motherfucker » or « shit »
to be broadcast. My contract with public television is that no cuts can be made
in the film without my permission, in writing. Every year they come back and say
the station in South Carolina or the station in Houston won’t run whatever movie,
will you cut it? I say, « NO, if I cut the language I’m censoring my own movie. »
I’m helping them out of a difficult situation. I’d like them to run the movie
but I’m not going to compromise what I think is the right thing to let them run
the movie. I’m sure it’s going to happen to the Public Housing movie, in
some of the usual places. In the past I’ve said, « Okay, if you don’t want
to run it, don’t run it. » This time I’m going to write letters to all the
major newspapers in that particular area and say, « Look, this is the situation:
they asked me to cut, I’m not going to cut but the result is that some people
in your area who want to see the movie won’t be able to because some other people
are making the decision that it’s not appropriate. Why can’t people make up their
own minds whether they want to see the movie? »

K: That’s basically the thing about censorship. People should make up
their own minds: no chip, no nothing.

W: The filmmaker isn’t trying to impose this on anybody, but on the
other hand, I’m not going to cut my own work because somebody doesn’t like the
word « motherfucker. » This first happened in a movie about the police,
Law and Order (1969), where a black guy who was being beaten up by the
police accused everybody in sight, not only the police, but all his black neighbors
of being motherfuckers. The whole point of the scene was lost if the word « motherfucker, » which was used about eighteen times, was cut out.

K: It was interesting about this: I was not prepared for this at all.
When they wanted to make these cuts in Ghosts of Electricity, I thought,
« Well, okay, let’s show the film, but let’s put in an intertitle. »

W: You mean saying something had been cut?

K: No, I wanted to say, « Japanese customs censorship censors human
bodies, not guns. » The sequence was about the relation between pornography
and violence, so it’s even more ridiculous. The Tokyo festival flipped. Then it
turned out I couldn’t put in anything. I couldn’t put « censored, » I
couldn’t put a censor’s stamp. NO intertitles. Why? « We don’t want war. »
Well, at that point the whole thing was so craven, because it’s all about money;
it’s all about money from the city of Tokyo for the Tokyo Film Festival. I don’t
want to be implicated in their problems. It’s so craven that it actually deflates
my spark of a feeling to do something about this and not just withdraw the film
and forget about it.

W: With Titticut Follies, the original decision of the Massachusetts
Supreme Court said I had to put a notice at the end of the film saying that since
the movie was made, conditions had changed at Bridgewater, which is the place
where the film was made. I had to do that to show the film under any circumstances.
So I put in a title card, « By order of the Massachusetts Supreme Court a notice
has to be appended to this film saying the conditions have changed. »
That’s one card and the following card was, « Conditions have changed. »
It’s a perfect ending to the movie because it emphasizes the ridiculousness
of the order.

G: Thank you very much for the interesting discussion.