Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman discusses his editing process and how it informed how he shot In Jackson Heights. 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 National Gallery and Ex Libris.
“The only thought I have of the final film, in advance, is that I might make a film,” said master filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of his new documentary In Jackson Heights. “I have no idea what I’m going to find,” he continued, or “how I’m going to use [it]. In that sense, it’s always a crapshoot.” Each film is a discovery, and it’s not until Wiseman actually gets into the editing room — he spends months editing each of his films himself — that the film starts to take shape.
Wiseman’s documentaries tend to zoom in on a particular institution, whether it’s the National Gallery of London (National Gallery), the University of California at Berkeley (At Berkeley), a high school (High School and High School 2), or Central Park (Central Park). For each film, he spends several weeks immersing himself in that institution, observing its daily goings-on, filming what he sees, and trying to make sense of what he’s observed.
In Jackson Heights represents Wiseman’s largest and most expansive subject to date: an entire New York City neighbourhood. Jackson Heights is the most multicultural neighbourhood in the United States, full of different groups of people from different walks of life. One of Wiseman’s biggest challenges was figuring out where to shoot and who to talk to in order to find the most interesting and diverse material. The film touches on a panoply of topics, from dance to race to inequality, that Wiseman has explored in past films. In Jackson Heights is his most ambitious project and a culmination of his work to date.
In National Gallery and At Berkeley, some of Wiseman’s content was preordained — gallery patrons, lecturing profs — but for In Jackson Heights, whom to follow was tougher to crack. Wiseman realised early on that to get substantive content, he needed to enlist help from “community organizations, like Make the Road New York or some of the church organizations,” who pointed him toward smaller enclaves within the larger Jackson Heights community. Make the Road New York “had meetings almost every night on one subject or another — job discrimination, immigration — so I went there a lot and hung out with them. Hanging out with them led to those sequences, which I think are very important in the film.“The best way to shoot dance was with a wide shot, because you see everything.Click To Tweet
Because Wiseman has shot films on a variety of subjects, he had already developed a methodology for shooting certain types of material. When filming a local belly dancing class in a wide shot for In Jackson Heights, Wiseman drew on his previous films La Danse and Ballet. By the time he’d filmed La Danse”, Wiseman had concluded that, “the best way to shoot dance was with a wide shot, because you see everything.” He continued, “I’d seen a lot of dance films where the filmmaker used the dance in the service of his own film purposes. I think the reverse should be true. The filming should be at the service of the dance. You don’t have a zoom in your eye, [but in] a lot of dance films you see elbows, faces, toes. You don’t see the partnering. You don’t see the whole body.“
Similarly, Wiseman used a wide shot to film the Mexican Band playing in the street for In Jackson Heights. He reasoned, “If you started doing closeups, it’d be very hard to sync. You can do it sometimes, but it’d be very hard to sync up the hand movements on the instruments with a different song. Sometimes, you can fake it, but it’s very hard to do that. I think it’s a better shot, wide, because you see the whole group, and you see the group in relation to the people that are watching.”
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 National Gallery and Ex Libris, plus a comparison between Wiseman’s documentary filmmaking philosophy and Gianfranco Rosi’s.