Frederick Wiseman on 'La Danse – The Paris Opera Ballet' – Page 2

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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.

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You mentioned that have the schedules of the dancers. Do you follow them strictly or do you prefer to wander?

‘There are lots of choices. Every morning at the Paris Opera Ballet there are at least three of four classes. Even though we have the schedule there’s an enormous amount of choice. Generally what I do is when I decide to go to a rehearsal, I stay, because in my experience the worst thing you can do is jump around because you’ll inevitably miss something good. It’s hard to anticipate when the good moments are happen.’

Do you always shoot with one camera?
‘99.9 per cent of the time, yes. There’s one 60-second shot and another, maybe, 45 second shot in “La Danse” with a second camera.’

Would you ever let another crew film a rehearsal where you weren’t present?
‘No. First of all, it would be too expensive. Already I shoot a lot. For “La Danse” it was 130 hours of rushes and, on film, that’s quite expensive. I mean, you could shoot with 360 cameras at 360 different angles, but I don’t know what I’d miss because I’m not there.’

What are the technical considerations for filming people dancing?
‘The most important thing was avoiding the mirrors in the rehearsal rooms because there were mirrors on three walls. Also, I’d seen a lot of dance movies that I didn’t like where the dance was shot not at the service of the dancer but at the service of the filmmaker. In the sense that there would be close-ups of the hands and the arms and the legs and you’d rarely see the entire body. I saw one dance film recently where once in the entire film did I see the entire body of the dancer. I decided earlier on and it was partially due to the experience of making “Ballet” that I wanted the film to be at the service of the dance. Occasionally there are some close-ups of the legs, but for me that’s all the more effective as that’s not what you’re doing all the time.’

Can I ask about the subjects’ consciousness of the camera?
‘Well it’s a normal question and I don’t have a definitive answer, it’s just that in my experience, the camera doesn’t change people’s behaviour. With “La Danse”, I spoke to all the dancers and technicians beforehand, so they knew a film was going to be made. But with a movie like “Law and Order”, the police knew, but the people the police stopped in the street had no idea. When a policeman stops someone in the street, I can’t just go up to this guy and say, “Hey, I’m making his movie and could you please not look into the camera” before they’re being arrested.

'The fact is you can go into a situation and people will not ask you what you’re doing or why you’re there.Whether the explanation is vanity, indifference or media saturation, I don’t know, but the fact of the matter is, people rarely say no when I ask to film them. And in terms of whether the presence of the equipment changes their behaviour, I don’t think people are good enough actors to step out of the role they’re accustomed to.’

Do you feel that people might accentuate their behaviour?
‘For me, the classic illustration of this point is the sequence in “Law and Order” – that  movie again! – where a cop chokes a woman who’s accused of prostitution. Now, you could argue he was doing it for the camera, or you could argue that he felt that it was the appropriate way to treat a woman who’d knocked an undercover cop down the stairs and fled and hid in the basement. Someone in the scene says something like, “If you wanna be a prostitute, that’s okay, but don’t fuck with our boys”. In choking her, he was both revenging the cop that got knocked down the stairs and initiating her into the police-prostitute system. I don’t think you could argue that if we hadn’t been there he would’ve killed her – I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think he was shaping her up into the system. And he was acting in a way that he thought was appropriate for the situation he was in. And I think that’s one of the reasons you can make this kind of movie, because we all think we’re acting decently and we all think we’re acting in ways that are appropriate for the situation we’re in, but other people looking at it may not agree.’

You say you shot 130 hours of footage. Do you keep the material you don’t use?
‘Yup. Well, it used to be in my basement but there’s now seven million feet of outtakes and it was costing me a fortune, so now it’s been deposited at the Library of Congress.’


What do you plan to do with it?
‘Nothing! [laughs] I mean, I haven’t decided whether I’m going to destroy it or not. Obviously I’m not going to destroy the original cuts, but I’m trying to make up my mind. The Library of Congress wants to keep them.’

Do you not think that would just make it more tempting to meddle with the finished products?
‘Well, if I were to give it to them – which I haven’t decided yet – a condition of the grant would be that even when the copyright expires, and even when I’m long gone, that nobody can use the material for anything else. That’s precisely my concern. That’s why I have been thinking about destroying it. It’d be a rather large bonfire.’

I mean a library seems like a good place for them because they’d be handy research tools.
‘Yes, I have no objection to somebody looking over the rushes for research purposes. But for the seven million feet and growing pile of material, to forage around in it to try and make another movie or to re-cut my movies – no, I would definitely come back from the dead if that happened.’

When you were filming “La Danse”, how do you know when it was time to go and edit?
‘Oh. It’s a combination of judgement and instinct about it, that’s all. I keep track during the shooting, I mean I watch rushes almost every night, over the weekend or whatever. I make a list of the sequences that I like. It’s a general impression that I have enough material. And usually with 130 hours, it’s enough to cut at least a 15 minute film.’

Do you ever find that you’ve got things that you’ve shot that are too dramatic to be in the film that may perhaps ruin the overall tone and rhythm?
‘That’s happened once or twice. For example, in “Basic Training”, there are several religious scenes in the chapel. There’s a scene where the chaplain gives a sermon, and somebody plays the piano and there was another scene of a baptism that I didn’t use: It was very funny. Basically, the trainee’s head was dunked in a dirty bathtub with dirty water. But it would’ve tipped the balance too much; at least I thought so at the time. So I didn’t use it.’

But that’s a rare?
‘Yeah, it’s very rare. Because you want dramatic scenes after all. You hope you’re making a movie, and a movie has to have dramatic scenes in order to have some kind of a structure.

With this film, the drama is in the movement of the dance.
‘Well yeah, because nobody’s getting strangled or killed, except symbolically. What I hope in my movies is that there’s a literal aspect and then there’s the more abstract aspect them. And a movie like “La Danse”, the story – I hope – proceeds on both a literal and the abstract level.’

Your films often highlight a mordent humour in very ordinary behaviour.
‘Right right. I agree with you. I think a lot of the films are very funny. I hope not at the expense of the people in them, but there’s a lot of comedy in the way people react with each other. It’s inherent in the situation. I hope it’s not comedy that I’ve forced, but it’s comedy that I recognise. Which is, for me, a big difference.’

The subjects and style of your films have been very influential. ‘The Wire’, for example, is indebted to your ‘Public Housing’ and ‘Law and Order’.

‘I haven’t see “The Wire”, but I’ve been told about it. Some film directors have borrowed my stuff too. The first half of “Full Metal Jacket” is not quite, but almost a shot-for-shot remake of “Basic Training” [laughs]. I remember, somebody called up one day and said, “Mr Kubrick would like to see ‘Basic Training’,” so I said them, “Well, Mr Kubrick can rent my print of ‘Basic Training’ if he wants.” It then took us a year to get that print back. When I saw the movie I understood why he needed it for so long!' 



At the moment you’re editing another Paris-based movie, a film about the Crazy Horse burlesque club.
‘Yes, I’m still working on that at the moment. I also have a film ready called “Boxing Gym” which is going to be in Cannes. It’s not a Parisian boxing gym, though, it’s one in Austin, Texas.’

Read our review of 'La Danse – The Paris Opera Ballet' here

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Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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