Crazy Horse, the most recent film by documentary godhead Frederick Wiseman, observes life and work at Le Crazy Horse, the Paris cabaret. It's now in theaters.
What lead you to the Crazy Horse in Paris?
A friend of mine asked me whether I was interested in doing a movie about a nightclub, and I said, "Sure," but I had never done anything about it. Eventually, we went around to some of the Parisian nightclubs. We went to the Moulin Rouge, and I fell asleep. And then we went to the Crazy Horse and I was intrigued by the show. I'd been there one time in 1957 with my father-in-law, and I remember it vividly. The next night, we went to the Crazy Horse and I discovered that Philippe Decouflé was choreographing a new show. Since it was a completely different style of dance, I thought, as a follow-up or a parallel to La Danse, it might be fun to follow the rehearsals of the new show at the Crazy Horse. I met Decouflé and the people who ran the Crazy Horse the next day and they agreed to let me make the film. I started shooting a couple of weeks later.
How long was the shoot?
And during this time was there much dialogue between you and your subjects? Does camaraderie ever develop during filming?
Camaraderie is not the word that I would use. As attractive as the girls are at the Crazy Horse, I'm not making these movies to make new friends. There was a lot of conversation because they were curious about the film and interested in knowing about some of the other films.
And they've seen the other films?
Yes. I always make my previous films available. When the Crazy Horse gave me permission, I gave the owners six of the films. I also distributed eight films among the dancers. I like everything to be transparent. If they like what they see in the earlier films, they will feel more comfortable about the shooting of the film they are in. There was not a lot of conversation because, at the Crazy Horse, the dancers were very busy. They were particularly busy at that time because they were rehearsing and performing. They would come in around eleven in the morning and rehearse until five and then those who were in the show at night would prepare for the evening performance. There were short conversations with the dancers. I always direct the talk toward trying to understand what's going on, or to find about events that characteristically take place and when they occur, so that I can incorporate what I learn in to the shooting schedule. The shooting at the Crazy Horse was a bit easier than many other institutions because it was so small. At the Paris Opera Ballet, for example, at any given moment, there may have been six rehearsals going on and a couple of meetings. Each day there was a much wider variety of choice. At the Crazy Horse the rehearsals were in the theater and there was only one conference room. It was pretty easy to keep track of what was going on.
You've said in the past that you're limited to the facts, although I'm curious about whether you have any particular preconceived ideas or opinions about the venues you decide to shoot.
Not really, no. For most of the places, I don't know anything about them in advance of the shoot. Basically the assumption I make is that, if I go into an institution and stay there six to ten weeks, there is going to be enough material for a film. I do not know the point of view of the film before I start since I do not know what I'm going to find. I never start with a thesis. If I set out to prove a thesis, it would be boring and I would not learn anything. The fun is to discover something about the institution and then the movie is a report on what I've learned.
Do you feel obliged in any way to the people you're filming?
I do feel an obligation to be fair but I recognize that is a very subjective term. It's easy to twist anything in the service of some social or political agenda, but if you try to do that you end up making a fool of yourself.
And how many people are working with you?
The crew is three of us. I direct and do the sound, there's a cameraman, and the third person changes the film mags. The cameraman and I communicate with signals.
Does shooting stage performances effect your working relationship with your camera operator?
When you're shooting rehearsals and performances, as in La Comédie-Fran çaise, La Danse, Ballet, and Meat, you're shooting people doing the same thing over and over again. Therefore, you have a chance to shoot the same thing in different ways. For example, in La Danse, the cameraman and I had a terrific position on the stage. I was very lucky because the director of the Paris Ballet said we couldn't shoot from the front of the theater because that would interfere with the audience. That was fine with me because it eliminated the possibility of doing the traditional shot from the front. We were able to stay right at the edge of the stage, out of sight of the audience. A different angle than most dance films.
We're always watching from either the left or the right of the performers, it seems.
That's right. We were in close quarters. Because I was connected into the sound system of the theater, we could also talk when necessary. I also recorded the sound with a microphone on a boom because I wanted to preserve the sound of the footsteps on stage. For performances, we also have the luxury of looking at the rushes the next day and to decide what works and, if something doesn't work, to be able to go back the next night and shoot it a different way. For example, there's one sequence in La Danse of a Ballet called Medea by Angelin Preljocaj, and the sequence I wanted to use was when Medea kills her children. It didn't work as a wide shot and at another performance it was shot tight and worked much better. During the performance, we shoot it in a variety of ways so that in the quiet and comfort of the editing room I can make a choice. It's one of the reasons why you have to shoot a lot of film, particularly of performance. I thought I was going to use the Medea sequence one way, but when I came to the editing room, I used it in a different way because I could look at it and compare it. I edit the films myself. That's been my best education as a filmmaker. I learn more from the editing than any other aspect of filmmaking. When you're in the editing room and you don't have the shot you need, you tend to remember the problem and get the shot the next time you're out and are in a similar situation.
Some of the early films, particularly High School, tend to fragment your subjects visually into close-ups of hands, arms, eyes, mouths, and so on. I'm wondering if there's been a conscious effort on your part to rely less on these kinds of close shots and more on wide and medium shots in the recent films.
At the time I shot High School, I thought the close-ups were fine. When I look at some of the older films, I see mistakes. When I look at the recent films in a couple of years, I'll probably see mistakes, too. I might not shoot High School the same way today. It's a complicated question because it's a response to the situation. One of the reasons I wanted to do a lot of close-ups of teachers in High School, for example, was because the rooms were extremely cramped. The offices were a third a size of this room, so it seemed to me that intense close-ups were appropriate.
I'm wondering how much preparation is involved before you begin shooting.
I don't do any research. I don't like to be at a place, hanging around while something really interesting is going on that I don't get to shoot. With one exception, the longest I ever spent in a place was a day and a half or two days. And the exception was the Comédie-Fran çaise, not because I had to do research but because I had to get the permission of twenty-three unions. I not only had to get their permission to shoot the film but also their agreement not to be paid. I wouldn't have been able to make the film otherwise. With Ballet, when I filming the American Ballet Theater, the dancers went to Chicago, and I thought I was going to shoot the performance there, but the musicians' union wanted a hundred thousand dollars for ten minutes of music.
Do you generally run into difficulty securing permission? How do you usually approach your subjects?
I ask. I introduce myself, and say I'm doing a movie for PBS, I say that my tape recorder is running, and I explain what I'm doing, and that I'd like to request permission. I mention that the movie will be shown on television and in theaters, and I ask if it's all right if I continue to record the conversation. Sometimes I do that before the sequence is shot, but most often it's done after. And strangely enough, for reasons that I never completely understood, even if I haven't explained what I'm doing, people never look at the camera and they rarely say "no."
Their tape-recorded consent is their release form, in effect.
Right. But when I'm dealing with a private institution like Neiman Marcus, I'm much more careful to get tape-recorded consents. I never get written releases because it usually proves too complicated. Tape-recorded releases are just as good because they're contemporaneous records of the subject's consent. But I'm less scrupulous in public institutions. For example, in a welfare center, or in any public, tax-supported institution, the documentary filmmaker is protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States. In our democratic society, public institutions are supposed to be transparent; the public has a right to know what is going on.
I'm always fascinated by how much liberty these people grant themselves in front of the camera. The conversations are often very personal, very private.
I've been doing it for years and I'm still amazed. You would have to be a literary genius to be able to write some of the stories you hear. As a documentary filmmaker your job is to recognize their meaning and implication, but you don't write the dialogue.
Can you talk a bit about your choice of typefaces for the credit sequences? They almost always correspond stylistically to the subjects of the films.
Well, I'm very interested in type, and I try to pick the type very carefully in ways that are, at least in my mind, some way related to the film. The typeface for Crazy Horse is Busorama, which I've also used for Model and two of other films. You're the first person to ever ask me about that. In my mind it's important because it's the first thing the audience sees.
Right. And it's something they leave with, too.
Exactly. Because I use the same type for the end credits as I do for the opening.
Was Crazy Horse shot on film?
No, it was the first film shot on HD. And it was shot on HD because I can no longer get the money for film. Forty-eight minutes of HD costs about forty dollars. Forty-eight minutes of film, by the time you count the costs of the negative, the development of the negative, and making a work print, would be well over eleven hundred dollars. Kodak is in bankruptcy and DuArt doesn't process film anymore. In fact, most of the labs that I know of don't process 16mm film anymore.
This is the beginning of something new for you, then.
Yeah. I tried in the color gradation to give Crazy Horse a film look. The film was shot with a Sony 900 camera, which was quite good except in low light conditions. There's a new Arriflex camera called Alexa, and there's also the Red, where the quality is very, very close to film, and you can also shoot in very low light conditions.
What are you currently working on?
I'm editing a film about the University the California, Berkeley. It's going to be ready by the end of the summer. Berkeley's a great university. It is a public university that, in effect, has become a private university. It used to get most of its money from the state and now it gets nine percent of its money from the state. Berkeley an outstanding faculty and the students are great, but the institution is struggling to maintain its very high standards in a situation where there are serious financial constraints.
Which reminds me of your decision to use Northeast High School in Philadelphia as the setting for High School. At the time, the school was considered the best of its kind.
That's right. It's more interesting that way. Why shoot a sitting duck, so to speak? It's more complicated if people are trying to do a good job. There is more to think about.