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 |

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.