Naked Girls at Work: Crazy Horse Director Frederick Wiseman on Filming Performance, Shooting Digitally, Getting Permission and Not Writing Dialogue

01/26/2012 4:00 AM |

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?

Ten weeks.

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.