People Are Who They Are: John Wilson on the End of “How To”

The gonzo documentarian discusses his influences, his process, and accepting mortality (or not).
Andrew Northrop

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John Wilson. Image courtesy HBO.

Across three seasons, How To with John Wilson (2020–23) turns the familiar format of online tutorial videos on its head, investigating such topics as making small talk and locating public restrooms. By embracing anxious thoughts and chance encounters, the show demonstrates the difficulty of positing a one-size-fits-all solution to a question or problem. Integral to the show are John Wilson’s imperfectly perfect voice-overs, which lay out the complexities of our collective existence in thoughtful, personal, and often poignant ways. The show’s thematic detours spring organically from its New York City setting, a seemingly endless source of memorable encounters

In contrast to shows and social media content in which passersby are pranked or asked on-the-spot questions, How To is often more delicate in its portrayal of each episode’s key players. Wilson takes the time to get to know his subjects beyond their surface-level intrigue, enabling a more compassionate depiction of those with whom he crosses paths. In season two, Wilson reveals how an Avatar (2009) fan club is also a support network for its members. In season three, Wilson meets a community of people invested in cryogenics, adding a bittersweet note to the end of the series. 

Soon after the How To series finale aired last September, Wilson was invited to Visions du Réel as a special guest. He showcased episodes from the show, a Carte Blanche selection of films by others, and a program of his early short works, some of which are otherwise out of circulation. One curious, lesser-seen film in the program, The First Four Months, collates some of the first material Wilson shot in New York City a few years after graduating from SUNY Binghamton in 2008. Many of these MiniDV tableaux strike the tone of the B-roll that comprises so much of How To, but the film documents an earlier iteration of New York, with a different feel to the advertisements around the city and noticeably fewer cell phones in hands. The passage of time is punctuated by the appearance of Wilson’s cat—the central catalyst for How To’s “How To Cover Your Furniture” episode—as a kitten.

How To with John Wilson

How To with John Wilson (2020–23)

The Road to Magnasanti (2017) takes its name from the dystopian SimCity map that prioritized efficiency of space over quality-of-life considerations. Noticing similarities, Wilson probes New York City’s rapid gentrification, observing that photographs of the city’s historical features decorate the interiors of new buildings, the likes of which are destined to erase them. Wilson comments that the perfect view of the city comes with a price tag, though he manages to blend in with press in order to see the Empire State Building’s skyline view for free, without the obstruction of tourists. 

Looner (2007), a documentary project from Wilson’s college years, looks at balloon fetishist parties. Again, the film avoids an immediate punch line by focusing on the business side of such a community. While a production team works on videos of women blowing up balloons twice their size until they pop, event organizers contend with a boycott from commercial printers, forcing them to screen-print their own balloons.The film features one of Wilson’s funniest and sharpest compositions: a dancer being upstaged, mid-interview, by two men loudly preparing a large gas canister right next to her, captured in one wide shot.

At Visions du Réel, framing choices, narrative mishaps, and snippets of Wilson’s voice-over ignited different pockets of the audience, revealing varied sentiments and senses of humor. Wilson has often spoken about the difficulties of film festival recognition, but there is a collective joy to watching his work in a cinema setting. Months after the conclusion of How To, Wilson finds himself optimistically at a crossroads, as he was when transitioning from independently produced short films to working with HBO.

At the festival, I spoke with Wilson about his documentary influences, his Carte Blanche selection, premiering his earliest films on Vimeo, and being an archivist of New York City.

The Road to Magnasanti (John Wilson, 2017).

NOTEBOOK: When I first saw How To, I was taken aback because I could sense a lot of sentiments from expanded documentary filmmaking—essay films, direct cinema, cinema verité—which you don’t normally see on television. So, I’m curious about your influences and the effect they had on the show.

JOHN WILSON: I had an intense phase of devouring as much canonical documentary work as I could, and it was such an amazing creative phase because I saw all these different styles of documentary that people were experimenting with over the years. I basically wanted to develop a format where I could do all my favorite stuff but have it all in the same container. But I didn’t want to adhere to any doctrine a bit too closely because there was always that debate about direct versus observational cinema and all this weird purity and stuff.

I really loved someone like Nick Broomfield, who was front and center, doing his own audio. I love the way that the tension was unique in his movies, because you’re watching him struggle as a technician and as an interviewer. The danger was really palpable. And I felt like it’s a wasted opportunity with a lot of nonfiction stuff where they don’t really acknowledge the process behind it as much. But I also didn’t want to be so ham-fisted that I was up my own ass about philosophy on screen or anything—I just wanted to do it and not make a big deal about it. But yeah, it’s the same thing with Louis Theroux too, where you’re watching him with neo-Nazis and they’re asking him if he’s Jewish—there’s no substitute for that!

NOTEBOOK: I was really intrigued by Harrod Blank’s Wild Wheels [1992] from your Carte Blanche program. As with your work, he finds subjects people could instantly deem eccentric and perhaps not go any further with, but he takes extra time to get to know their personalities and finds common ground with what they are doing. What was your first experience with that film, and how did you choose the other two films in the program?

WILSON: I initially found Wild Wheels just because I’ve always been such a huge fan of Les Blank, and when I discovered that his son was also making work of exceptional quality, I was really excited. It has one of my favorite opening scenes of any movie, where the guy’s pleading with the judge to get him to recognize that he’s being discriminated against for having an art car. That kind of absurdity within the legal system is like candy.

It’s also from my favorite era of documentary, where it’s this beautiful, probably 16mm film stock, and it’s gorgeous, and it’s just shot so well. I think I chose that movie along with the other two because I wanted there to be a bit of an undercurrent with suburban horror stories, or suburban eccentricities. You have Wonderland [John O'Hagan, 1997] which is about Levittown, one of the first planned suburbs in the country. It was pretty close to Long Island, where I grew up. That has a bit more of a lighthearted portrait of these people in what was supposed to be this idyllic suburban development. But with Wild Wheels it’s like, what do people do when they get bored in the suburbs?

With Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story [Garrett Scott, 2002], it becomes more of a horror story. This is what happens when your distaste for the suburban infrastructure makes you so infuriated that you get a tank and destroy your town. If Wild Wheels is this really happy vehicular stuff, then Cul de Sac is the inverse image.

Wild Wheels (Harrod Blank, 1992).

NOTEBOOK: Your various odd jobs are covered in How To really well, but I’m just as intrigued by the initial appeal of Vimeo as a platform for uploading your short documentaries. I remember it was an interesting place to discover new work at that time, and a lot of people cut their teeth on that platform before going on to other things. What were you eager to explore there?

WILSON: I think I started using Vimeo as a platform because it had a clean interface without ads, and YouTube was starting to get annoying at that point, so I just started to upload [my videos] there. Before How To, I would always try to submit stuff to festivals, and I would always get rejected, so I would be holding on to this piece of work for some hypothetical premiere—just sitting on it. By the time I’d been rejected by festivals, I’d fallen out of love with the work and didn’t know if anyone would have cared.

But putting it online—I think more people should do that. I know people do have to get paid and do expect some kind of return from their stuff, but honestly, the world is filled with lots of really bad free stuff. I really believed in the work, and I love to rewatch it. I wanted to make work that I didn’t really feel existed out there yet, so putting it out for free was the most logical thing. All the stuff that shaped me as a filmmaker I saw for free, stuff I’d pirated, or stuff like that. I feel like the worst thing you can do is put a paywall up on something before you’ve had the chance to make a name for yourself.

Something like Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected (2000) was a really early internet video that probably shaped so many people—anything has the power to do that as long as you’re not too precious about the grip you have on it.

NOTEBOOK: Regarding not being too precious about something, you chose to end How To after three seasons. How did you arrive at that decision?

WILSON: I like trilogies, first off. [Laughs.] When I made the pilot episode, I didn’t even think I had enough interesting stuff about my life for one episode. I was horrified, but then that turned out not to be true. And then I felt the same thing after the first season, but sheer momentum is a really powerful thing, like when you have to deliver something. And I’m so glad it went that way, and that’s why I like the schedule of TV.

When I started writing season three, I wanted to write something that felt a bit more revealing and conclusive in certain ways, and I think I was ready to move on to something longer form, which I’m trying to work through right now. But it just became a happy accident with the cryogenic people in the finale. Within their world, I mirrored a lot of anxiety about overextending something. But I’m still of two minds about it. You can accept your mortality and accept that you’ve had a good run, or you can just make a wish, try to extend your life into an uncertain future. But I’m still not sure. I don’t think I have accepted mortality yet. [Laughs.]

How To with John Wilson (2020–23).

NOTEBOOK: I was curious about the construction of the voice-over: you’re obviously writing with a rough idea of the “how to” component at the start, and then you have to react to things that happen while filming. How much did you have to tweak things? Were you doing it in stages, or writing most of it at the end?

WILSON: I’ll write the initial script that we go into production with, and that’ll be the PBS[–style] script about the subject matter. Then I’ll go out and shoot and rewrite the script based on what happened in my actual life. And then when I’m done shooting, the voice-over has to be written from the ground up, for each shot. There are often massive gaps in the timeline, and they need to be filled with all this B-roll, and the B-roll is often only chosen after we have shot everything, so we really can’t imagine what the jokes will be or anything. So yeah, the script is written three times, more or less.

NOTEBOOK: It's good that you had that space for things to impact the overall narrative of each episode. On the same hand, your experience with Burning Man was heartbreaking—you had shot material there for season three, but they had signed an exclusivity contract with a different filmmaker, and ultimately forbade you from using any of the footage. I imagine it’s a difficult balance—do you have to just let things go sometimes?

WILSON: Yeah, it is a very hard pill to swallow when something has to get cut, because this material still exists, you know? But if anything bad happens like that, I then try to immediately flip it into a positive somehow. If I wasn’t rejected at Burning Man, I wouldn’t have found the guy with this massive bunker or gone on to the other third-act stuff in that episode, so I’m really glad that that happened, because honestly, the Burning Man stuff I don’t think was that good. Being denied said something more interesting about exclusive, private spaces—about gatekeeping and stuff like that. But yeah, that’s my way of convincing myself. I mean, the imagery of Burning Man is so boring to me.

How To with John Wilson (2020–23).

NOTEBOOK: Whether you can use it or not, it seems you have quite a lot of extra footage, and I get the sense that you’re actively out and about shooting quite a lot. In one episode we get to see your archive of DV tapes and a glimpse of how you cataloged them. What’s your relationship with your archive like?

WILSON: I guess I have a couple of different archives, like I have the personal archive and then the HBO stuff. I still have all that HBO footage on a drive, but it’s like I can only play around with it in secret. I’d have to ask for their permission if I wanted to use any of it again.

All my footage is in folders with dates, and I cross-reference it with what I did that day—and I keyword it that way. But the work began as an exercise in archivism, as a way to preserve things that were changing very quickly in the city, and using the narration as the device to have some glue to put it all into a container somehow, so it wouldn’t get lost or corrupted on a hard drive. Once it’s out on Vimeo or HBO or something, you’ve crowdsourced the archiving process: people have made VHS tapes of the show and stuff. I feel a bit more secure in this constant race against stuff disappearing.

NOTEBOOK: The first season came out before lockdown restrictions during the pandemic. In a way, people would have had this way of walking around New York City through the show at a time when they couldn’t—did you get much of a sense of how people were engaging with the show during that time period?

WILSON: So many people that come up to me say that it was this safety raft during the pandemic for them, as a way to remind them of what the city was like, but also what it would be again, in a way.

I was really afraid before the first season came out. I was like, “People are going to roast me; they are going to hate this,” because it was such a politically fucked up moment. You couldn’t really talk about anything other than the minute-to-minute coverage of what was happening, definitely in the States at least. And then to come out with a happy-go-lucky show that deals with really banal stuff like check-splitting—I thought people would think it was really crass. But it had the opposite effect, I think, this kind of very recent nostalgia that people didn’t realize they needed.

How To with John Wilson (2020–23).

FESTIVAL STAFF: You have three more minutes left, if you’d like.

NOTEBOOK: Oh okay, what to ask…

WILSON: Well, what have you been watching recently?

NOTEBOOK: I’ve finally been getting around to the Frederick Wiseman films I haven’t seen. I’ve seen a lot of the earlier and later works, but I’m now catching up with the middle period.

WILSON: Have you seen Aspen [1991]? That’s maybe my favorite. I remember I accosted him once. I lived in Cambridge around 2008, and Zipporah was based there. All the films were available in the Cambridge Public Library, and I would just devour all of it. I went to a Q&A for La Danse [2009] or something, and I ran up to him and I was like, “Hey Mr. Wiseman, do you feel like people react to the camera more now than they did in the ’60s?” He was just like, “…No,” and somehow outpaced me. [Laughs.]

But now I get it, because people ask me the same question sometimes, like, “Are people more performative now,” or something. But honestly…no. People are just who they are, even if there is some theatricality to it. But if you’re filming someone doing something they do pretty much every day then it comes off as pretty natural.

NOTEBOOK: One thing I really appreciated about How To was that you gave people time, and that you gave yourself time to ask questions, rather than quickly moving on…

WILSON: So much stuff is so over-edited, and I think people just need to breathe!

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