BLOOMINGTON, IN – The old and new guard in the documentary world met Wednesday, April 5 at the Indiana University Cinema when groundbreaking observational filmmaker Frederick Wiseman sat in conversation with Murray Center Filmmaker-in Chief Robert Greene, himself an important voice in modern cinematic nonfiction. The event launched Indiana University’s “Filmmaker to Filmmaker: Conversations from the Director’s Chair” program.
The program included screenings of several of Wiseman’s films, including Basic Training (1971) and Boxing Gym (2010), in the days leading up to the conversations, followed by a screening of Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (2016). Before the filmmakers took the stage, IU Cinema hosted a reception where students and Bloomington film enthusiasts could discuss film one-on-one with the directors.
Wiseman, now 87, made his directorial debut 50 years ago with the controversial mental health documentary Titticut Follies (1967). In his half century of filmmaking, Wiseman has made 43 films, whose influence Greene openly discussed. Greene, whose first feature Owning the Weather hit theaters in 2009, has become a significant figure in documentary filmmaking in less than a decade. Despite his own critical acclaim, Greene was humble in his discussion with Wiseman, sharing that the final sequence of National Gallery (2014) made him burst into tears. The discussion between the two filmmakers was rooted in deep respect for each other’s work, though their styles are drastically different.
The pairing offered a balance in understanding the process of nonfiction filmmaking. Wiseman’s films are observational and rarely character driven, while Greene’s films rely on showing the performance of strong central characters. While Greene’s filmography boasts different approaches and subject matter, Wiseman’s films usually begin with the same premise–finding an institution and observing the lives that pass through that confined space.
Greene began the conversation by asking Wiseman what his “aha moment” was when deciding to develop that style. Wiseman said that he likes to make his films logically, and joked that a film about a high school was the logical follow-up to a film about an institution for the criminally insane. Greene asked Wiseman if the myth that he scouts the scenes of a new documentary for weeks with an unloaded camera before recording was true. Wiseman replied that he shows up and just starts shooting and rarely researches his topics before beginning.
Wiseman, formerly a practicing lawyer, discussed the overlays of logic and abstraction in his films, explaining that Near Death (1989) is a film about the democratic process in an abstract way.
“Film works when it has informers to the outside world,” Wiseman said. “The movie takes place in the link between the literal and the abstract.”
Among the comments that surprised film enthusiasts during the discussion was Wiseman’s insistence that the subject matter of his films are chosen somewhat randomly. He quipped that his decision to make Model (1980) occurred during a dentist visit where he, then in his fifties, ran into a fashion model. He then decided that he had to make the film, “for all the obvious reasons.”
In line with his decision to pursue movies that come to him by chance, Wiseman stressed that he wants to learn everything about each film in the process of actually making it. He advised that for every sequence that tells you something about the people or place, there should be another contradicting sequence to make the viewers constantly question their perceptions.
Greene’s films are more researched and often risk coming across as didactic, literally following subjects as they try to guide the audience to an understanding of the films’ subject matter. Greene’s Kate Plays Christine may be the antithesis of Wiseman’s “no research” approach as it follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she researches her role as Christine Chubbuck, a television reporter who fatally shot herself on the air in 1974. Greene said he feels he is able to make films in this way since Wiseman does such a good job making traditional observational films. The contrast of the filmmakers’ styles shows up most when considering the planning and research that goes into Greene’s work before he ever rolls camera.
Both filmmakers emphasized the importance of their roles as the editors of their own films. Greene shared that he uses the sardine packing scene from Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine (1999) as a teaching tool for editing sequences. Though the sequence itself is only about four minutes long, Wiseman shared that it took five weeks to piece together about 275 cuts from five hours of raw footage. The manipulation of time seen in this and other scenes in all his films is not authentic, he argued, but also does not make the films dishonest.
The two agreed that the manipulation of time and place in the edit for the sake of cinema is what may make nonfiction filmmakers steer clear of the word “documentary” itself and believe that nonfiction does not have to teach a lesson, but can serve as entertainment as well as education.
“‘Documentary’ comes from the ‘Ex-Lax idea,’” Wiseman said. “It’s supposed to be good for you.”
Greene shared that editors recoil from the title of “documentarian” faster than anyone because it feels artificial. But Wiseman said he does not share Greene’s anxiety about the audience’s perception of what he does while editing. There was a palpable tension in the audience as aspiring filmmakers awaited Wiseman’s secret to not caring about audience’s criticism. In what increasingly appeared to be his style, he flatly stated that he cannot understand what film audiences are thinking, so he doesn’t waste time and energy worrying about it. He also said he lets the structure of the film arise organically in the edit, without much planning beforehand.
“God didn’t hand down a commandment [saying], ‘films shall be 54 minutes long,’” Wiseman joked.
Wiseman’s style of editing has a recognizable quality, holding certain action shots for more than a minute, while cutting scenery and establishing shots short. He stressed that he does not follow a formula in his editing, but rather allows the footage to take the shape that it deserves in each particular sequence. The filmmakers discussed that Wiseman’s shots of the sunset in Boxing Gym (2010) are short, though the audience may want a long view of the beautiful scenery. Regardless, Wiseman said he doesn’t mind cutting what the audience wants short to make the film that he wants.
Wiseman’s nonchalance about things that are out of his control may be rooted in his years as an attorney, but that part of his career certainly appears to be in line with the clear-headed, paced direction of his films. Likewise, Greene’s energy and eagerness to ask questions during the discussion displayed the ambitious searching and construction in his movies.
Unlike Wiseman, Greene has moved towards a more participatory and performative style in his filmmaking, with his Sundance award-winning film Kate Plays Christine engaging in a collaborative dialogue between subject and director. He talked about how Brandi Burre, featured in his critically-acclaimed 2014 film Actress, did not initially have as much of a collaborative role, but grew to be a major creative force in the film through her constant playing to and with the camera.
Greene often asserted that there is performance in every documentary, to which Wiseman surprisingly agreed. The origin of that performance, though, is where the two filmmakers diverged. Wiseman argued that people, particularly in public spaces, are constantly playing a role in which they are comfortable in that setting that has nothing to do with the camera being present. Greene insisted that the presence of the camera adds an unmistakable difference to that performance.
Even though the two may disagree on the nature of performance and other aspects of documentary filmmaking, the conversation was never tense. The love and respect each filmmaker had for the other could be felt from the back of the room and fostered an open discussion on some of nonfiction cinema’s hottest topics.
The Filmmaker to Filmmaker event, funded by a gift from Roberta and Jim Sherman, will continue in future years to screen work from two filmmakers, followed by an unmoderated conversation between the two on their bodies of work and their methods.