The Choice and Order: An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

The great American documentarian discusses digital filmmaking, his new film on the University of California, Berkeley, and more.
Daniel Kasman

Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films.

Frederick Wiseman's broad canvas epic At Berkeley, a bipartite portrait of the complex, living organism that is a public university in California, is a characteristically wide-ranging yet pinpoint exploration of the dynamic between people and an organization. "Education" in 2010, when the documentary was filmed, is what unites the system with its participants, a large and abstract calling awkwardly defined in the film's first scene by a teacher trying to explain what makes the mission of the University of California Berkeley different from that of East Coast Ivy League school. The term is replete with meanings moral, ideal, practical, and theoretical, and is only further complicated by Wiseman splitting his story between the administrators meeting and discussing budgets, tuition, campus policing, tenure policies and teachers benefits, and classrooms where the students engage with a range of topics from poetry and political science leadership to institutional racism and advanced astronomy. In a brilliant conceit, each of the classroom scenes is simultaneously made of the literal subject under discussion—say, the motifs of Walden or the possibilities of humans traveling to distant stars—and works on an analogical level where each subject indirectly engages with core ideas of how to educate, how to use education, and what meaning it has for the students now as youths and for their futures in the outside world.

That world itself remains abstract throughout; the UC campus, hilly, rambling, architecturally diverse and geographically fragmented, remains a fiefdom unto itself (unless Berkeley city police are needed, as they later are, for large scale campus trouble), with its own leaders, politics, police, currency, and citizens. Theory is the subject at hand—the staff debating how to run the school, the students debating how to run their lives (or the world)—because the campus is so big, the buildings so many, the subjects so polyphonous. Wiseman's images are the concrete proof of the system, and inside those frames the system is engaged with directly and indirectly through words and debate. Progress isn't captured so much the flowering of discussion in an environment so fertile that even those tasked to run it are immersed in discussing the nature of its mission. Interestingly, praxis, the turning of theory into action, is mostly left aside in the face of an environment that encourages, if not requires, constant evaluation and self-evaluation from above (administrators) and below (students). Despite a misguided student protest which shockingly predates by a year the inspiring but confused muddle of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the sense of the campus, ultimately, is of a truly inquisitive world, and one absolutely present: a place where all discussion on all levels centers on how to live in this very place.


I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Wiseman and discuss the film prior to its public screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film also is showing at the New York Film Festival. Thanks to Adam Cook.

NOTEBOOK: If you don’t mind, could we start by discussing some generalities? Could you talk about the methodology of being on set for this picture?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: I do the sound, and I lead the cameraman with a mic and there’s a third person who carries the equipment around and what I try to do, in all the films, is just get a sense of what going on at the place.

Berkeley is particularly big, so I had somebody who was a former vice chancellor as a consultant who helped me make arrangements. I said I wanted to go to an English class and he introduced me to some people who taught English. He generally told me about things going on around campus because there is a faculty of 5000 and there are 3500 courses. In addition, I was trying to follow the administrative stuff. That worked out extremely well, and then what I always do is when I meet people, even though you’re on location 12-15 hours a day, you’re not shooting that long so when I’m not shooting I use the time to talk to people I meet. I have a notebook in my pocket and I’m constantly asking people what’s going on, what’s interesting. I make notes about that.

For the meetings, and the classrooms as well, you have to shoot the whole thing. You don’t know what people are going to say and when, you don’t know how it’s going to turn, so for example for the meetings in the chancellor’s cabinet, I would put out 3 radio mics on the table and the boom and we were set up with HD to shoot for an hour and it only takes 20 seconds to change the tape, so we would just shoot the whole meeting. It’s best to have the choice in the editing room. One of the reasons we ended up with 250 hours of rushes is you have to shoot a lot, and the situation where there’s not physical action it’s all dependent on talk.

NOTEBOOK: I could see the challenge early on. There’s one of the long sequences with the students, the teacher gives maybe an 8 minute talk but then the student right next to her immediately jumps in, but she’s in frame. There’s no way you couldn’t include what she had to say—

WISEMAN: —Not really, you could go around that by going to cutaways, but what she said was interesting. That class was two hours long, it’s one of the longest sequences in any of my films, 22 minutes, a reduction of 2 hours to 22 minutes. You have to edit as if it took place the way you’re seeing it.

NOTEBOOK: So you’re letting your cameraman make the fundamental compositional and camera movement choices while you’re directing where the boom is going.

WISEMAN: It’s a combination. We have signals for different kinds of shots. The final close framing is his.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the length of the digital tape, is the size of the digital camera also impactful, is it even less of a presence than your film cameras were?

WISEMAN: It’s actually the same size as the Aaton. I don’t use the small camera because the quality isn’t good. At Berkeley is shot on a Sony HDW-F900, which is basically the same weight as the Aaton. Another film that I did which was shot on the Red, which is bigger than the Aaton—

NOTEBOOK: —which film?

WISEMAN: One I’m working on now, about The National Gallery in London. The Red is not designed for handheld, it’s heavy, particularly for shooting 4k. There isn’t really a digital camera that’s comparable to the Aaton. The guy who designed the Aaton has designed a digital camera, but had financial trouble, so it’s not really great.

NOTEBOOK: You were saying earlier, I think you used the term you lead the camera with the sound.  Are you thinking first in sound as opposed to visuals?

WISEMAN: It depends on the subject matter. Some films are more dependent on words and some more on images. La Danse is a movie that is less dialogue-based than At Berkeley, but I’m still picking out what’s to be shot.

NOTEBOOK: Let’s say in a film like Boxing Gym

WISEMAN: The stories of La Danse and Boxing Gym particularly are told in the pictures.

NOTEBOOK: But I think it’s also an aural thing, the sound in Boxing Gym is so important, the smacks, punches., and squeaks.

WISEMAN: That’s part of the story, absolutely. I worked very hard on the sound editing because the squeaks and punches and ropes, the time clock…it’s a Phillip Glass score.

NOTEBOOK:Is the sound direct, or is there sound manipulation?

WISEMAN: It’s not all direct, it’s mainly direct, mainly sync—except for the transitions, like in Boxing Gym the shots and sequences were all extremely short, so one of the ways I was able to build up a pattern of sound is, doing something I do anyways but did more for Boxing Gym, overlapping sound, extending outgoing sound and starting incoming sound earlier. It’s not natural, it’s still from location, but the fact is the cuts may be days apart.

NOTEBOOK: Has editing digitally changed your process of structuring a film?

WISEMAN: In terms of the final film, there’s no difference. You still have to think your way through the film, the machine does not do the thinking. You have no more options on the Avid than you do on the Steenbeck. It’s a function of the mind not the machine. The machine doesn’t create options. Only in the sense that you can do fades on an Avid you can’t do on a Steenbeck, but that’s almost irrelevant.

The big difference for me on the Avid is that you can find the material faster. That is not necessarily a benefit because with the Steenbeck you have to go the roll, reroll it, blah blah, it’s not wasted time because you’re thinking about the material even when you’re rolling down, you’re reviewing the intermediary material.

NOTEBOOK: I would think that the amount of time editing with analogue, and the tactility of selecting something, really changes the way one engages with the options.

WISEMAN: I just slow down. Nothing compels me to do something until I’m ready. I hate editing digitally. At the risk of sounding pretentious, there’s something artisanal about handling the material. I liked it and it was a question of learning something completely new, but in terms of the end result it takes about the same amount of time, about a year.

NOTEBOOK: Since you said pretentious, if I may ask a pretentious question: do you feel like there’s a profound difference between shooting something on film and shooting on digital?

WISEMAN: The quality isn’t close.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like the relationship between the camera and the subject or you and the subject—

WISEMAN: —there’s an enormous amount of garbage about that.

NOTEBOOK: I’m sure there is but the reason I ask, I just feel as a film goer coming into this age that people are taking digital for granted for the most part, that the question should be asked before people forget to ask. Just a few years ago, nearly all the films were projected on film at Cannes, and now there’s nothing on film, Toronto is showing one new feature on 35mm. Projected digitally, you often can't even tell if something was photographed on celluloid—

WISEMAN: —Well in the color grading you can also give it a “film look.”

NOTEBOOK: Right, which I’ve also seen. In fact there’s a films that, while shot on film, because the stocks no longer looks like film they add effects or process it in post to make it look more filmy. I just want to make sure I’m asking these questions. Soon everybody will be shooting, editing, and projecting on digital, and I want to know if you feel like you have a different relationship with the craft.

WISEMAN: You’re trying to get the material the best you can, the digital look isn’t quite as good, you can fix it up a bit in color grading, so it looks pretty good and beyond that…

NOTEBOOK: For your career, the kind of films you make would benefit from existing on film because it’s a material that can be archived with greater ease—

WISEMAN: —Now that’s a real problem! The question of preservation and I’m trying to inform myself…there are different views on how long digital can last, 50 years, film can last longer, maybe 100 years, but unless the cost of archiving goes down, it may be better to still try and shoot on film.

For example, I want to make my films available on VOD, and those companies want a digital master. Most of my films are shot on film, I’ve got the original A + B, the fine grain and a two-bit negative—good basic materials but it costs about 30000 to make an HD master, and I’ve got 40 films, and they’re not going to pay for it! I’ve got another problem, with the 3 films I’ve shot digitally; do I transfer them to 35 or 16 negative to preserve them??

NOTEBOOK: That’s probably cheaper?

WISEMAN: I don’t know. I had, for La Danse, a 35mm negative but it cost 40000 euros.

NOTEBOOK: One thing I was thinking about in regards to you shooting in these classrooms is that this is a generation that’s used to being filmed. I was thinking during the student protest march about how many people were shooting things on cameras and that 20, 30, 40 years ago it was unusual having a camera in a classroom, and it still is, but recording things is more normal.

WISEMAN: I don’t notice any difference. It’s always been very easy to get the material. It’s been very rare that anyone looks at the camera. It’s very rare that somebody acts for the camera.

NOTEBOOK: So as just one unit on the Berkeley campus, you couldn’t shoot more than one thing going on simultaneously. The student protest, and the staff’s reaction to it, are happening in two different places that you can’t cover at the same time.

WISEMAN: Right, it was just the three of us.

NOTEBOOK: Having to go back and forth.

WISEMAN: That’s one aspect of it being a sport. Fortunately, the administrative building was right next to the library but still it was a sprint of a couple hundred yards.

NOTEBOOK: One of the things I really liked in the film with its plentiful interstitial scenes of just the buildings is that you get a sense of how large a campus it is. With the disparate buildings the geography is quite confusing, and you do get a sense of the very fragmented spatial arrangement of the place. You don’t get the unity of student body or its administration.

WISEMAN: No, it’s too big, there are 35000 students.

NOTEBOOK: How did you go about choosing the classrooms?

WISEMAN: It’s no way meant to be representative. I pursued teachers or subjects I thought would be interesting. I forget how many there were, maybe 8 classroom sequences in the film and there are something like 5000 courses being taught. I tried to vary it: philosophy, science, English, history.

NOTEBOOK: Correct me if I’m wrong but the majority of the footage was administrative not of students, in terms of time spent in classrooms vs. meetings, etc?

WISEMAN: Yeah, more meetings, I’m not sure.

NOTEBOOK: I felt like it was 1/3 to 2/3, the running of the school being almost of a greater importance.

WISEMAN: Certainly that’s a major subject. I didn’t add up the comparative times.

NOTEBOOK: Did you find the administration of equal interest as the student activity?

WISEMAN: Equally interesting, yeah. The administrative footage was original material because I don’t know if anyone had had access to that before.

NOTEBOOK: It’s unique access that you had.

WISEMAN: I think the reason I got permission was because of budgetary concerns. I think the chancellor took a gamble to give me permission, but I think he did so because he wanted people to know the problems they were having, and resolving the issues, and how they were in fact successfully resolved.

NOTEBOOK: The last feature of yours I saw was Crazy Horse and—

WISEMAN: —A bit of a different subject!

NOTEBOOK: It is different but I feel like that a large portion of it was similarly about how to run and maintain an administration and budget and at the same time keeping integral values—

WISEMAN: —the brand. That’s absolutely true, it’s a good comparison, somewhat disparate worlds.

NOTEBOOK: [laughs] Somewhat. At Berkeley was shot in 2010: in editing this over the last couple years do you feel there’s a distance between that world and the one we’re in now?

WISEMAN: It took 14 months to edit but I interrupted it a couple times. I had to finish Crazy Horse and I had a chance to shoot another film that I wanted to do before permission evaporated. I’m sorry I had to stretch it out over so long but I did.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel a distance in time or does it still feel like the present?

WISEMAN: Once you get into the material you have to be absorbed in order to make it. The editing is quite intensive work.

NOTEBOOK: One of the things that struck me, and maybe it’s an over reading, but it seemed like almost all the classroom sequences you selected were analogous or allegorical to student bodies, either the justification for how the student body interacts with the education system or what the student body is supposed to be doing upon exiting the education system. It’s all fundamentally about the responsibility of the students as leaders—even in the discussion of the star systems or robotics it was about behavior you can adopt and carry forward.

WISEMAN: I don’t think that’s over reading.

NOTEBOOK: At a certain point in each of the classroom sequences it felt like a given scene passed through a question of what it means to be a student at Berkeley at this time. "Why are you here and what will you do after?"

WISEMAN: As I say, I think you understand what I was trying to do. It’s true in all the films, there’s the literal aspect but then through the choice of sequences and the order of sequences you reach your more abstract and metaphorical aspects, and the film really exists in that relationship between the literal and the metaphorical, and to me what you just described is an example of that, but it’s something I work on very hard and that’s I why I think, at least in my view, my films are novelistic.

NOTEBOOK: Even fictional in a way?

WISEMAN: Yes, even fictional, I think of them as fiction, not in terms of what happens didn’t take place but fictional in terms of their structure and point-of-view and the approach to the material is more like a novelist than journalistic approach.

NOTEBOOK: In what sense?

WISEMAN: A journalist would start off with “who? What? When? Why?” and wouldn’t be interested in the abstract issues or at least much less interested. I’m interesting in both. I don’t express opinions directly, I express them indirectly by choice and by order and I let…you have make you the viewer make their own judgment about what’s going on in the same way a novelist tells you what to think about the characters, to an extent directed by what they say and what they do, and that’s what I think I do in the movies.

NOTEBOOK: Did you sense there was a unity between the administration and the student body while filming or did you feel these were two separate worlds that happen to exist?

WISEMAN: The administration made a big effort to be in touch with the students through student discussion groups, some of which you see in the film, and the head of a student government was in constant liaison with the administrators. So, the answer is I didn’t think they were two separate worlds, and there was an enormous effort to ensure that which I thought more or less succeeded.

NOTEBOOK: At least from my experience at university, the administration thinks that they’re in contact, and makes an effort to be, but you don’t feel the reciprocal sense from the students that that’s the case. That scene towards the end with the discussion of race bias in classrooms, I thought that was one of moments where I felt there was a dialogue going on between how the school was being run and how it was being attended.

WISEMAN: Right, yeah, exactly, that’s why it’s there.

NOTEBOOK: But the way it’s constructed, you tuck it away in this building. I was surprised that many of these discussion sequences you would lead into it with an establishing shot of the building and when you left it you would return to an establishing shot of the building. With the space of the campus, it potentially fragments or isolates these discussions.

WISEMAN: They are and there’s no way of knowing how genuine—one assumes it is—but there’s no way of knowing how genuine the sentiments being expressed are.

NOTEBOOK: The then-chancellor of the school seems to be everywhere. I thought it was almost a joke by the end of the film, there would be a long meeting sequence and eventually then you would cut to an angle revealing he’s been there watching the whole time, like he’s this omniscient presence. He seems so calm and in control, he’s a very strong character.

WISEMAN: From what I saw, he commanded the situation. What impressed me most about him, aside from his obvious intelligence, is he cared, and that’s really nice. He cared about low-income students, and middle class students, and he was in a position to do something about it and he did. There are a lot of people who think the only true subject of documentary films are unpleasant things and nasty people, but it’s just as important to show people who are intelligent, sensitive, and responsible.

NOTEBOOK: It was very moving when he was genuinely incensed that students who were protesting fees didn’t even know the statistics, which had changed positively. What was your impression of the protest?

WISEMAN: My impression is what you see in the movie, what did you see?

NOTEBOOK: It seemed like it was going OK until the students started talking!

WISEMAN: [laughs] That’s the problem!

NOTEBOOK: It reminded me so much of Occupy Wall Street, which happened just about a year later. The confusion that the students feel as a unified body is not something you sense in the classrooms, it’s in their group protest. When they’re in the classrooms they’re different people with different opinions but the moment they’re together and given a microphone…

WISEMAN: They’re intelligent, but…

NOTEBOOK: How did you come to choose Berkeley?

WISEMAN: I wanted to do a public university. Berkeley is the major public university in America and one of the best in the world. That combination made me want to do Berkeley and I had no idea they would give me access. I wrote a letter and they immediately wrote me back and invited me to come talk to the chancellor. I had lunch with him and provost and after lunch they said OK. It was amazing access, but that’s the chancellor and to some extent that’s Berkeley. I was very grateful. They didn’t see the movie until it was absolutely finished.

NOTEBOOK: How did they feel about it?

WISEMAN: They liked it a lot.

NOTEBOOK: Does that make you happy or does it worry you if everybody’s pleased about it?

WISEMAN: It gets to what I was talking about before—

NOTEBOOK: —it can’t all be critique and revelations of horrors…

WISEMAN: Not every place is Bridgewater in Titticut Follies. Since my overall goal is to make as many different films about as many different subjects and aspects of human behavior, I feel somewhat awkward because sometimes I feel I’m being put on the defensive because I don’t expose or attack. If a place is really good why is that not just as important a subject?

NOTEBOOK: My sense also is that the university was shown in the film to be such a complex organism that one couldn’t say that it was either great or terrible. It’s so complex it was a statement in itself. There’s so much nuance to every discussion and decision.

WISEMAN: Exactly, but I think there was an overarching sense of competent people trying.

NOTEBOOK: What about the decision not to show dorm life?

WISEMAN: I mean, again, in four hours, still, it’s a limited time. I had some nice footage of freshmen moving in but in terms of relative interest it became too much of a travelogue. I make no pretense of suggesting that it’s everything that goes on: I call it “At Berkeley” instead of calling it “University” or “Berkeley” because I wanted to avoid the vague implication that it was everything.

NOTEBOOK: It’s a visit.


NOTEBOOK: Were the majority of the classrooms you visited like the small seminar-style discussions you often show? You cut to the astronomy class at the end and I thought, “this is the only lecture I’ve seen.”

WISEMAN: There were plenty of big ones too, but the ones that had the most interesting discussions were in the small classes. That’s where you have the opportunity to hear the students. There was a little bit of discussion in that astronomy class but there were 750 people in it.

NOTEBOOK: How did you decide to order the classroom scenes? Is it a matter of opposition within the content?

WISEMAN: Working out the structure is always the most interesting part. In addition to finding themes and what the point-of-view of the film was I had to work on the rhythm, which is not quite the same thing that I didn’t want to have two long talk sequences follow one another.

I tried in my particular way to express the theory in the editing was to cut it at right angles, in a sense to always make the next scene a surprise, different. After a long talk scene in the beginning, thirty seconds later there was a song. It would’ve been difficult to predict which kind of a scene would follow, so if it was a surprise it made it easier for the viewer, and me, to get into it, because there is a lot of talk. I had to weave my way around that and at the same time have something consistent for the themes, the rhythm and the structure.

NOTEBOOK: Would you say the rhythm comes first? Or is it organized by theme and rearranged?

WISEMAN: Both, really. I am concerned about avoiding didacticism. I’m very interested in working out what is in my mind the dramatic structure, getting back to my point of being a novelist. I have to work very hard indirectly through the structure, make sure I’m not hitting the viewer over the head with a point-of-view and also to make something that has its own rhythm. It has to work as a movie, whatever that means. To the extent that it works for me and can transfer to somebody else, it works.

NOTEBOOK: When you were thinking of the dramatic structure of this film…can you talk about that?

WISEMAN: I’d rather avoid it!

NOTEBOOK: You don’t want the film to be didactic—are you seeing the documentary form as an open text?

WISEMAN: Not open in the sense that it doesn’t have a point-of-view or well defined points-of-view. Whenever you deal with reality as a subject, it should be complicated and ambiguous, and it shouldn’t…if I could express the point-of-view of the film in twenty-five words or less I shouldn’t make the movie.

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