Documentary Master Frederick Wiseman on How to Find Your Film in the Edit
A small town in Indiana gets the cinematic spotlight of a documentary master.
88 years young and tireless, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman remains one of America's preeminent surveyors of domestic life. In the case of his latest feature, Monrovia, Indiana, the director re-ups that reputation, following the men and women who make up the 1,000 strong of this quaint Indiana town. An area so small that its Wikipedia page already mentions Wiseman's movie in its noteworthy "History" section, Monrovia finds community through farming, sports, band practice, barber shops, live auctions of John Deere tractors, and more.
Wiseman's approach observes these group functions and interest without interference; he's as interested a spectator as we are. As he mentions to No Film School below, Wiseman had never been to Monrovia before coming to the decision to make a film about its community, and his camera eye, whether in attendance at a funeral or at a mattress sale taking place in a school gymnasium, is ever observant. Studying the quietness of a town that may or may not want to stay that way, Wiseman finds the town's true character in both its push for community growth (as evidenced by local community meetings) and its rich history that may be left behind.
As Monrovia, Indiana is currently playing in select theaters, No Film School spoke with Wiseman about the basis for this project and how his 16-month process of editing 120 hours of footage is crucial to finding his story.
No Film School: How familiar had you been with Monrovia, Indiana before you began this production?
Frederick Wiseman: Not at all.
NFS: Not at all?
Wiseman: I spent half of a day there before the movie started, before I started shooting.
NFS: How did the city come to your attention?
Wiseman: I told a friend of mine in Boston, who teaches law, that I wanted to make a movie about a small town. My friend, who teaches at the University of Indiana Law School, had family who lived in Monrovia for six generations (in other words, the beginning of the 19th century). By chance, I was going to Bloomington (where the University of Indiana is) a couple of weeks later, and so I called up and was told to come out early, i.e. "I'll take ya to my hometown and introduce you to my cousin."
So, I went out and he introduced me to his cousin, who is the town undertaker. She knew everybody and liked the idea of the movie and offered to introduce me around. I live mostly in France, so I went back to Paris and she called up people in the town and asked them to participate in a movie. They all said yes. She then gave me the names of those people and a few others and I called them from France to say that I was coming on such-and-such a date and that I'd like to call the people who run the pizza parlor, the guy who owned the restaurant, the guy who owned the supermarket, et cetera. I mean, I was vouched for by a resident who they had confidence in and so they accepted me. It's a technique that I've used before because it's very useful so that I don't come in as a stranger. So, then I started.
"It's a small town and one of the functions of the shots of the fields and all of the houses, for example, is to establish where we are and what it looks like. I mean, they also function as transitions, but they literally they function as what Monrovia and the area around it look like."
NFS: When you're choosing a town such as this, how are you planning out the most uniquely interesting locations to visit? Or do you learn that after the fact? Are there certain institutions you arrive with wanting to observe? Such as the Masonic 50th commemoration event...
Wiseman: I mean, somebody told me that there was going to be this 50th-anniversary celebration, a Mason, and so I asked, "can I come?" And he said, "well, let me find out." He eventually called me back and said, "Yes, it's okay with the local chapter and it's okay with the state chapter. It's at nine o'clock on Saturday morning." So, I showed up.
NFS: And you take it from there.
NFS: The film feels both barren and populated; the exteriors are still, but the interiors, like a local pizzeria or veterinarian's office or exercise class, have a bustling community within them. Was it important to first establish a kind of geography of Monrovia before introducing us to its residents?
Wiseman: It's a small town and one of the functions of the shots of the fields and all of the houses, for example, is to establish where we are and what it looks like. I mean, they also function as transitions, but they literally function as what Monrovia and the area around it look like.
NFS: And by showing some of those, such as the farms and the fields and the growing of the corn and the placing of the pigs together onto the truck, was it important to include those sequences of "production," if you will?
Wiseman: Yeah. Well, I mean because I showed the farming activities, I then wanted to show [the products of them]. We see the combine in the field and a couple months later there is wheat in the field or soybeans or whatever.
NFS: You've said in a previous interview with Kent Jones that "I have no idea what the point of view or the themes or the duration [of one of my films] are going to be because I have no idea what sequences I’m going to find." How, after nine weeks of filming this latest documentary, did you know you had a fully realized picture?
Wiseman: At the end of the filming. I decide at the end of filming because I have enough material out of which I can cut a film. In 120 hours, I should probably find something. I have no idea when I begin and I only have the vaguest idea [when I end]. At the end of shooting, I think "Well, I got a lot of sequences that I think are good," but I still don't have any idea what the film's point of view is going to be. That only emerges after months of editing.
NFS: When you're in the editing room, are you focusing on the chronology of events and of how you're stringing them together?
Wiseman: Well, I don't pay any attention to real chronology. The sequences appear in the film as I find them useful to present. I mean, just because the funeral sequence is at the end of the film, it could have been the first thing I shot and yet decided to use it as the last thing. The order of the sequences in the film has nothing to do with the order in which they are shot. The sequences are all edited down. Except for the transition shots, there are very few sequences that are in their original length. Sometimes sequences could be...for instance, the senior staff meetings in the film, went an hour-and-a-half and yet in the movie they may be six or seven minutes, maybe two minutes here, a minute there, thirty seconds there, edited together to appear as if it took place the way you're watching it in the film, when it didn't. That's one of the fictional aspects of this kind of filming.
NFS: Does that create a narrative through-line for your films?
Wiseman: You have to do that, otherwise you couldn't reduce, otherwise you'd be producing a document and not a movie.
"While I don't think of it as a center, the meetings had to be spaced out because it would be boring, to take an extreme example, to show three town council meetings one right after the other. They have to be spaced and they have to be related to other things you see in the film to have a maximum effect."
NFS: You mentioned those city council meetings throughout the film. Had you been aware of the conflict between keeping Monrovia the way it is versus creating new housing that brings in new residents for sustainability purposes?
Wiseman: I wasn't aware of it.
NFS: Not at all?
Wiseman: Until it came up in that meeting.
NFS: It's interesting seeing this small town that's not dying but could use some extra residents moving in.
Wiseman: The guy from the county says "We need more people." That's why the two or three meetings at the town council related thematically.
NFS: We return to these meetings throughout. Did you see them as a way to center the film?
Wiseman: While I don't think of it as a center, they had to be spaced out because it would be boring, to take an extreme example, to show three town council meetings one right after the other. They have to be spaced and they have to be related to other things you see in the film to have a maximum effect.
NFS: For example, very early in the film, we're introduced to a school teacher who seemingly knows everything about Monrovia sports history. It feels like a solid way to bring us into the "narrative," an overview of that which its community is most proud.
Wiseman: Well, that's why it's there. Exactly. I use it at the beginning of the film because in addition to showing that class, it serves as the abstract aspect of an introduction to the values of the people of Monrovia. Sports are important there, you know, and there are certain famous athletes that came out of the town. You also get a sense of community participation in sports and how important that is when the teacher talks about people coming together to celebrate. Everybody contributes to the football field, somebody comes with a tractor and levels the field, somebody else gives the goal post, somebody else brings sandwiches, whatever. You see that it adds an illustration of community involvement.
NFS: I wanted to ask about the scene in the gun ammunition shop. We're in there for a little while and you cut to posters that are obviously very pro-Second-Amendment and a little frightening. Are you aware of those things when you're in there, thinking of ways to accentuate them later on in your edit?
Wiseman: Well, they're shot because I recognize them. There are a couple hundred of those stickers there and I chose to use those, but during the shooting, I have no idea where. The footage ratio in this movie is about 60-to-one or 55-to-one (that means that I use little more than one percent of the material I shoot because the film's two-hours-and-twenty minutes and I had shot 120 hours). The sequences are shot in a way that I'll have material that I will be able to edit them down from their original length. However, I have no idea how I'm going to use them or where I'm going to use them.
NFS: How long do you work editing?
Wiseman: The editing is a 16-month process. In the first part of editing, I just review the material and then I put aside about 50% of the rushes. I then edit the remaining 50%. I edit the sequences that I might use in the film and get it close to final form. It's only when I have edited all of those sequences that I begin to work on the structure six or eight months into the editing.
NFS: I wanted to ask about your relationship with the Film Forum in New York, where Monrovia, Indiana is currently screening. I believe you're now the filmmaker who has had the most first-run films open there?
Wiseman: Well, I'm also the oldest filmmaker!
Wiseman: I'm pleased that Karen Cooper and Mike Maggiore continue to show the films. That's great, especially now after about the 14th or 15th film [of mine] they've shown there.
"I have an obligation to show [my film's subjects] the [finished] film first."
NFS: Is it ever a challenge to get distribution for your films over time?
Wiseman: It's always a challenge. Luckily, my movie is going to open in about 40 or 50 cities, which is great.
NFS: Is there a movie theater in Monrovia?
Wiseman: They don't have one in Monrovia but there's a multiplex about 10 miles away. When I showed them the movie at the end of August, I had an evening where I showed the movie to whoever in the town wanted to come and see it.
NFS: Is that important to you as a filmmaker?
Wiseman: Yeah, I like to show it when it's possible. It's not always possible to do it, but when it is, I like to show it to the people who are in it before it appears publicly. I think that's a courtesy to the people that agreed to be in the film. They liked it. At least the people that talked to me said they liked it. I have an obligation to show it to them first.