Notes from Fredrick Wiseman’s lecture at DePaul


Photo: Diana Gabriel.

Frederick Wiseman has made over 30 full-length documentaries, but says he doesn’t think about his art. He came from a law background and examines institutions across the nation, but says he never does research. The ironies you find in Frederick Wiseman’s films come across when you listen to him speak.

Sometimes I had a hard time figuring out if he is being serious or sarcastic. Most of the time I think he was serious when he spoke about the process of filmmaking. It was nice a filmmaker who makes such serious, sometimes troubling, films not take himself too seriously.

All in all, I picked up some good advice, had a few laughs, saw one of my favorite filmmakers, and got reminded not to take myself not too seriously because I am only making films.

Here are some Frederick Wiseman-isms, all closely paraphrased from his Lecture at DePaul University on 2-27-09:

“My first film was on a prison for the criminally insane. A High School was an obvious follow”.

“I never research before my films. The films are the research. I do not want to read other people’s opinions”

“Documentary filmmaking requires three things: judgment, instinct, and luck”.

When asked, who are your strongest influences? Fred replied, “I have no idea. Certainly not other films”.

“Editing is a manic depressive exercise. Sometimes you’re ecstatic, bored, or depressed. It takes a lot of strength or insanity to sit in the editing chair. I am not quite sure which one”.

When asked how he feels about shows like Jerry Springer where people go on the program to show their worst moments. Fred replied, “I don’t know who that (Jerry Springer) is.”

“I don’t know what the audience will think. I can only assume they are as smart or as dumb as I am. Anything else would be condescending”.

“Things that work best: Funny or Emotional”

“I edit by myself, because I like to talk to myself”.

“The book that helped me most with editing was James Wood’s novel on the structure of Fiction writing”.
When asked to tell us about his art, Fred replied, “It is not something I really think about. It relives boredom. It is challenging. I treat it as a sport. I train for it. There is a lot of equipment to carry, long days, and it takes a lot of concentration”.

“I am not kidding when I say, if I could say it in 25 seconds or less I shouldn’t make the film”.

“I am trying to capture contemporary American society”.

“It is impossible to run out of good material”.

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Article by Mitch Wenkus

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One Comments

  1. Mario Contreras says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m glad that we got to witness this together and I see that we enjoyed a lot of the same moments.

    “Editing is a manic depressive exercise. Sometimes you’re ecstatic, bored, or depressed. It takes a lot of strength or insanity to sit in the editing chair. I am not quite sure which one”.

    Some where around this part, he mentions that you need the insanity and persistence to stick with the film until you are finished…. in either sense of the word.

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