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 |

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.