Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman says reading key to his success
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Frederick Wiseman is not a Hollywood guy. The filmmaker has been quietly making documentaries from his home base in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since 1967, exploring such subjects as meat production, welfare, a ski town and a hospital for the criminally insane.
Though none of his films received Academy Awards bids, Wiseman will accept an honorary Oscar Saturday at the film academy’s eighth annual Governors Awards. He’s being recognized alongside action star Jackie Chan, film editor Anne V. Coates and casting director Lynn Stalmaster for career achievements and contributions to film.
“I’m very pleased. It was a big surprise,” Wiseman said during a recent interview from Paris, where he is finishing his latest film. “The kind of thing I do is really not done in Hollywood. And I’m quite content to pursue my career from my home in Cambridge.”
Though a documentarian, Wiseman considers his work “more related to fiction writing.”
“I’m not suggesting the films are fiction, although they have a fictional aspect,” he said. “But in the construction of the film, I’m trying to construct a dramatic narrative out of sequences, out of (footage) completely formless... In editing, I’m involved in the same kinds of issues that a novelist would be involved in. issues of character, abstraction, metaphor, passage of time, etcetera.”
Wiseman has always loved to read. He studied law but didn’t like it, daydreaming his way through school reading novels. After graduating, he ended up with a job teaching law.
“I reached the witching age of 30 and figured I better do something I liked,” said Wiseman, 84. “It was just a few years after the technological developments that made it possible to shoot synchronous sound... so that opened up the world for filmmaking. And there were so many good subjects that hadn’t been filmed, as there still are.”
He has made almost a film a year since then, describing his career as a “continuous course in adult education, where I’m the alleged adult and every year I’ve got something new to study.”
He collects all the footage in one three-month blitz, then spends the rest of the year editing the material into a narrative he discovers along the way. Wiseman said all the novels he read as a young man helped him develop his most valuable skill: reading and recognizing the story in the raw footage.
“It has to do with knowing what it is, trying to understand what it is you’re seeing and hearing,” he said. “The fact that I took a lot of English courses in college and I learned how to read — or at least I hope I learned how to read — carefully is the thing that’s been most useful to me.”
His next film (his 44th) is about the New York Public Library.
“I don’t have time to read much anymore, which I regret,” he said. “But I like — Working when you’re old or older is a way of keeping yourself going. Because I’ve seen so many people who, when they stop working and don’t have anything to do, they get sick and they die. And I’m not ready to meet the grim reaper yet.”
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is at www.twitter.com/APSandy .