Frederick Wiseman on 'La Danse – The Paris Opera Ballet'

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The master documentary maker talks to Time Out about filming real people, what he's doing with his outtakes and how 'The Wire' adpoted his naturalistic filming style

Considered by many to be the greatest living documentary filmmaker, 80-year-old Bostonian Frederick Wiseman, whose ‘La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet’ opens next week, is famous for taking his camera behind the doors of American institutions. He has given us an asylum for the criminally insane (‘Titicut Follies’, 1967), a New York welfare office (‘Welfare’, 1975), a public housing development (‘Public Housing’, 1996) and even a high-end Dallas department store (‘The Store’ 1983). His latest film sees the director heading to Paris to make his second film about a ballet company after 1995’s ‘Ballet’.

Do you still run your company, Ziporah Films?
‘Yes, but someone who’s been there for 30 years is running it at the moment so it means I can take off. My company is simply my films.’

Was it the fact that you’re based in Paris that contributed to the decision to make this film?
‘Well, no. It’s really the other way round because I stay in Paris to look for projects.’

So art comes before life?
‘Well, no. Making movies allows me to have a more interesting life. It started in 1995 when I did the movie about Paris’s famous repertory theatre company “La Comedie Francais” – I got to do a couple of plays in Paris. After I did the movie I directed a play there and then after I did the play, I made a movie based on the play. I didn’t just shoot the play, but adapted it for the screen. I then asked them if I could do another play there and they agreed, then I did the movie about the ballet company.’

That’s sound like an affirmation that they liked the film! Who did you first approach at the Paris ballet?
‘I first approached Brigitte Lefèvre, who is head of the company. She nominally reports to the head of the opera but she’s basically head of the ballet company and is autonomous. She’s been head for about 13, 14 years. I hope she comes across how she was, which was a competent, smart, sensible, direct woman.

How did you pitch the film to her?
‘It happened in a variety of ways. In this case, her second in command had seen a whole bunch of my movies as there was a retrospective at the Cinemateque around the time that I was asking permission. He could then explain to her the way I work. What I then do is that I offered – she’d seen a couple too – and I explained how I worked and what I wanted to do and how it was going to be financed and that I was going to edit it and that I’d have editorial control and where it was going to be shown in the US and France. I always try to make a very straightforward presentation because I don’t want people coming back to me afterwards saying you didn’t tell me this or that. I say that, in principle, I want access to shoot anything that’s going on, but if anybody doesn’t want to be included in the film, I respect that, they just have to tell me either before, during or immediately after the sequence, but I can’t give anybody the right of review.’

All your films have been shown on PBS in America, but this one has also had quite a broad cinema release.
‘Yes, it’s had the biggest theatrical distribution of all of my films.’

Can you guess why that might be?
‘I have no idea. Well I suppose there’s a lot of interest in dance. My films have had a limited theatrical distribution. In fact, it’s not even that “La Danse” has had a massive theatrical distribution, but it played in 120 theatres, which is still quite modest, compared to “Avatar”.’

Do you make them with the medium in which they’re going to be presented in mind?
‘No, I like to think how ever illusory that it may be that they’re going to be shown in cinemas. They’re made to be shown in movie theatres.’

Have there been times where companies or institutions have contacted you and asked if you would make a film for them?
‘No. That’s never happened and I wouldn’t do it. I like to have complete control of a film and I’ve never made a film for hire. If someone approaches me about a subject and offers to pay for it, the likelihood is that they would ask for editorial control and that’s something I’m never willing to cede.’

It’s been noted that you are very fond of dance. Was there an element to this film that it was indulging a passion?
‘Well, I supposed to some extent. But there was an interest in seeing the way ballet is being done in France and America, not that one can generalise that that New York represents America and Paris represents all of France. They’re two very different companies with two very different styles of dancing and two very different sources of funding. I was interested in that. The real reason I made the movie is because I like ballet and I like Paris.’

Do you see differences between ‘Ballet’ and ‘La Danse’ as being similar to, say ‘High School’ and ‘High School II’?
‘No, not at all. The only similarity between “High School” and “High School II” is that the students are of the same age group and they both take place within buildings. But from the point of view of educational philosophy and ethnic and racial composition, size of class and ratio of teachers to pupils, they’re entirely different.’

Are there not those ideological differences between the American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet?
‘Not as marked. There are differences, but they’re much more subtle. The Paris Opera Ballet has had a subsidy from the state for 300 years and the American Ballet Theatre, like all American ballet companies, are dependent on foundation grants and big donations. When I made the movie it was in 1992 and they were in financial difficulty.’

From watching ‘Ballet’, I got the impression that the focus was on a more traditional style of dance, whereas in ‘La Danse’ there is much focus on more contemporary and modern dance.
‘I don’t know what the American Ballet Theatre were doing in 1992, but if you compare what they were doing in 1992 to what the Paris Opera is doing now, that’s right, but whether it’s a fair comparison or not, I don’t know.

Prior to making a film you go on a short reconnaissance mission.
‘Very short. I spent one day at the Opera Garnier before I started.’

What do you look for on that day?
‘Every movie is a crap shoot. Some times you don’t know what the material’s going to be, but the chances are you’ll get something interesting. Whether you put it together right and make it right is another story. All I try and do in advance is to get a sense of the geography of the location. I also try and get some sense of the daily routine. In the case of “La Danse” I found out what the rehearsal schedules were and got on the email list that is sent out to all the dancers with information about their classes. Then I got in touch with Brigitte Lefèvre’s secretary to find out what meetings she was having, so I had a good point of contact to I knew when to be hanging out in Brigitte’s office.’

That’s very trusting of them.
‘It was extremely trusting of them, but once she made up her mind and said okay, her attitude is that, “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it all the way.” But that’s not uncharacteristic, as you can’t make these films without the total collaboration of the people who are the subjects. If each day is a struggle and half the people are going to say no, it’s too difficult. And also, I feel like I wouldn’t get a wide enough range of material.’

But in general with your films, you find that people are very cooperative?
‘Very. I’m pleased about it. It’s very rare that I haven’t got permission for something that I wanted to do. The only time that I started shooting and had to stop was on the movie “Law and Order”. I originally intended it to be about the police in Los Angeles, and they said I could do anything I wanted except ride around in the police cars. I then discovered there were no foot patrols so that seriously limited the story. Then I went to Kansas City where I had complete co-operation. But that’s the only time that’s ever happened.’

Continued on page two


Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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