In this interview, Frederick Wiseman discusses capturing the paintings in National Gallery on film, his editing process, directing theatre, and how to familiarize yourself with his oeuvre. This is an excerpt from the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1, purchase a copy here. The book also features interviews with Wiseman on In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris.
At 84, American Master Frederick Wiseman has been making movies for 47 years, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He has directed 39 documentaries — among them, Titticut Follies, Welfare, and At Berkeley – and two fiction films, and he has held MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. Each of his films takes a behind-the-scenes look at a different institution, whether a university, a hospital, the state legislature, or the Paris Ballet. There are no talking heads in Wiseman’s documentaries; instead, he takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, observing the goings on of the institution he’s filming.
His latest film, National Gallery, which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in May, takes a look at the inner-workings of London’s renowned art museum. We meet the staff of the National Gallery, the tour guides, the restoration department, the communications department, and the research department. We gaze at numerous paintings, often illuminated by a tour guide’s lecture, and we see the special exhibitions change throughout the year: we start with a Leonardo da Vinci showcase, then a J.M.W. Turner and Monet exhibit, and finally a Titian exhibit.
The film is a fascinating look at one of the greatest art museums in the world, its role in the community, and how the paintings it houses continue to speak to us. During his visit to San Francisco, I sat down with Wiseman to discuss the film, how he shot the paintings, his editing process, and how being a documentarian makes him uniquely well-equipped to direct theatre.
Seventh Row (7R): You said, in the press notes, that you first starting thinking about making a film about a museum 30 years ago.
Frederick Wiseman: I had tried a museum in New York, and they wanted to get paid. I neither wanted to pay them, nor, even if I had the money, would I. And then the National Gallery came up by chance. I was at a ski resort and I met someone who worked at the National Gallery, and she asked me if I was interested in doing a movie about a museum, and I said, “yes.” She arranged for me to meet Nick Penny, who’s the director of the National Gallery, and he said “yes.”
On capturing the paintings in National Gallery
7R: I would imagine there’s a certain kind of technical challenge with trying to capture all the paintings at the National Gallery with as much fidelity as possible.
Frederick Wiseman: There were several problems. I wanted to be sure that the colour was at least an accurate representation of the original colour. That in itself is a very complicated question, because the colour is dependent on the time of day and the nature of the light. If there’s sky light, the colour is going to be one thing; if it’s electricity, it’s another. If it’s dusk, it’s going to be one thing; if it’s noon, it’s another.
I decided very early on that the way I wanted to shoot the paintings — when it was possible, and it wasn’t always possible — was inside the frame, because I thought the painting became much more alive when you didn’t see it as an object on a wall, with a plaque next to it, giving the name and dates of the painter.
For those paintings which are story paintings — as many of them are up to the beginning of the 19th century — I found that you could shoot them serially. You could do closeups of different parts of the painting, and present the closeups serially, which is different from the way the eye takes in a painting. It begins to resemble more a movie, or a novel, because the form of storytelling is serial, as opposed to instantaneous.
7R: There aren’t shots where you’re moving the camera as if it’s someone’s eye scanning the painting.
Frederick Wiseman: There are no panning shots, because I don’t like panning shots. But there are lots of, in some of the story paintings, like Holbein’s The Ambassadors, you see closeups of different parts of the paintings. I cut those close-ups to be linked to what the guide was saying about the painting. But at the same time, you’re both seeing the whole painting, but you’re seeing the painting in serial form, which is different from the way you look at a painting in a gallery. But [it’s] similar to the way you look at a sequence in a movie, or read a chapter of a novel, or the whole novel.
To read the rest of the interview, purchase a copy of In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 here. The book also features interviews with Wiseman on his films In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris, plus a comparison between Wiseman’s documentary filmmaking philosophy and Gianfranco Rosi’s.