Frederick Wiseman on the making of his exquisite Ex Libris: New York Public Library, which is about the role of the library in society. This is an excerpt from the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1, which is now available for purchase here.
Ex Libris: New York Public Library is Frederick Wiseman’s fourth film in five years, each a masterpiece focusing on an institution or group of institutions dedicated to the public good. Over the course of four hours in At Berkeley, Wiseman looked at the inner workings of America’s greatest public university: University of California at Berkeley. In National Gallery, Wiseman travelled to London to discover how the public interact with great works of art. His last film, In Jackson Heights, marked a return to New York City as he documented the country’s most diverse neighbourhood. Examining class and culture through a mix of music, dance, talks, and community meetings, the film was like an overview of Wiseman’s pet topics from throughout his career.
Wiseman continues his winning streak with Ex Libris: New York Public Library, a film that will get you excited about the role of the library in contemporary society. Libraries are no longer merely buildings that house books. They are meeting places to discuss community issues and to get information delivered with passion straight from the experts. At the same time, the library is where people go to find answers to personal questions, from how to deal with a cancer diagnosis to tracking family history.
The New York Public Library is an especially interesting subject because not only does it have local branches across New York City, but it also has specialized branches with special collections. Wiseman visits the Performing Arts Library to see concerts and shows. At one branch, people are creating audio versions of books to make the library’s collection more widely accessible. And at branches in low income neighbourhoods, community outreach programs for tutoring are especially important. By giving us wide shots of each branch’s exterior and interior, we learn about the context of the proceedings we see and how this supports the community.
When Ex Libris screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I talked to Wiseman about the unique challenges presented by the film, his editing process, and how he approaches sound and music in his films.
Seventh Row (7R): In Ex Libris, we get a sense of the rhythm of the library itself: there are sequences of people just quietly studying, on their computers with their headphones in. There are also the talks. We see these things repeat in a way that we see how the libraries function. At the same time, you’re building in an argument about what the library does and means.
Frederick Wiseman: A film has to work on a variety of levels. On a literal level, in this case, what are the various activities of the library? At an abstract level, what’s suggested by these activities? On a literal level, you see all the various programs and services. At an abstract level, you see this is democracy in action. You see the services be free regardless of race, class, economic status, ethnicity, etc. When Toni Morrison is quoted as saying that the library is a great democratic institution, you then understand what she means by that.Wiseman on libraries: 'This is democracy in action.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you figure out which library branches to shoot at?
Frederick Wiseman: The library publishes a monthly bulletin of the classes, courses, visits, talks, and seminars that are offered at various branches. I read that. I had a liaison at the library. When I wanted to find something out, I just called her up. Then, I just picked whatever interested me. Not randomly — I’d look a day or two in advance. There were some meetings that took place on a regular basis, like the chiefs meeting — the senior executives of the library would meet every Wednesday at nine, so I showed up at their offices on Wednesday at nine. A lot of it is just random: you walk down the corridor and see something interesting.
7R: One of the interesting things you said about National Gallery was that on film, you could show a painting in a different way than how you would look at it on the wall in a gallery. Was there an equivalent here?
Frederick Wiseman: No. A painting is a finished work. A book doesn’t lend itself to representation on film in the way a painting does. You need a combination of wide shots, medium shots, and closeups. You accumulate them during the shooting. There was nothing in the library movie that was equivalent to shooting the paintings in the nation gallery, except for the photographs and the prints shot, but they were always shot as shots where it’s possible for the photograph or painting to fill the screen. There’s no effort, as there was in National Gallery, to break up a print or a photograph into storytelling parts.'A painting is a finished work. A book doesn’t lend itself to representation on film in the way a painting does.'Click To Tweet
Frederick Wiseman: The equivalent of that in the library movie would be the need to show the different neighbourhoods, to suggest the different neighborhoods for the different branches. I didn’t just jump from the sequence in the main library on 42nd Street to a sequence in Harlem. There was a transition of four or five shots that brought us to Harlem, or to the Bronx, or to a library in Greenwich Village.
Those kinds of shots serve a variety of purposes. They create a transition so we know we are in a new geographic location. They give you a sense of the neighbourhood where the library exists. They provide a short respite from the scene just concluded before the next one begins.
The principal challenge is you’ve got this great blob of material in front of you, which has no form, except insofar as you impose a form in the process of editing.'The principal challenge is you’ve got this material in front of you, which has no form, except insofar as you impose a form.'Click To Tweet
7R: What is your overall editing process?
Frederick Wiseman: When I come back from the shooting, I look at all the rushes. That takes me six weeks. As a result of that, I set aside maybe 40 or 50% of the material. One the next six or eight months, I edit all the sequences I think I might use. It’s only when I’ve edited all the sequences that I might use that I begin to work on the structure. I can’t do structure in the abstract. I have to see its consequences to see how it works. I may edit a sequence in month one, and I don’t get back to it until month nine, when I’m working on the structure.'I can’t do structure in the abstract. I have to see its consequences to see how it works.' -WisemanClick To Tweet
At the end of when I start working on the structure, I make the assembly in three or four days, because I know the material very well at that point and can make the changes quickly. That first version comes out to within 30 or 40 minutes of the final film. Then, it takes me about six to eight weeks to arrive at the final film. What I do then is work on the internal rhythm of each sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences. Often, I shorten a sequence. Occasionally, I lengthen it. When the film is done, I go back and look at all the rushes again to make sure there isn’t anything useful that I left out.
To read the rest of the interview with Frederick Wiseman on his film Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, purchase a copy of the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 here.