TORONTO — Frederick Wiseman’s prolific body of work — let’s just focus on his three dozen feature-length theatrical documentaries — has come to be known as fly-on-the-wall filmmaking. He picks a subject, sets up a camera, lets it run; sets it up somewhere else, lets it run. Over and over. Then he winnows the footage during a lengthy editing process.
Though he never went to film school, Wiseman is widely considered to have reinvented the art of the documentary. He usually uses just one camera, which he runs himself, and keeps his crew down to one person on sound and an assistant. No questions are asked of or answered by his subjects onscreen; the stories just unfold, seemingly organically.
“I was always a film nut,” said the tireless Wiseman, 83, when his newest documentary “At Berkeley” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September (it opens at the Museum of Fine Arts on Dec. 4). “And I always wanted to make movies, but I didn’t do anything about it. I went to law school, but never practiced, and I taught at BU Law School for a while, but I intensely disliked teaching law. When I reached the witching age of 30, I figured I’d better do something I like. That was it.”
His first film, the still controversial “Titicut Follies” (1967), about horrific practices at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, turned out to be the first entry in what Wiseman, a longtime Cambridge resident who grew up in Brighton, calls his “institutional series.” Other titles, the subjects of which are quite apparent, have included “Basic Training” (1971), “Welfare” (1975), “Racetrack” (1985), “Zoo” (1993), “Public Housing” (1997), and “Boxing Gym” (2010).
“I thought a university would fit really well into the institutional series,” said Wiseman. “I wanted to do a public university, so I wrote a letter to the chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, and he answered me right away. He’d seen some of my movies and he said come on out and talk to me. So I did. I had lunch with him and George Breslauer, who’s the provost, and at the end of the lunch, they said OK.”
That lunch was almost four years ago. Wiseman had to finish one movie, then make another one before heading west to train his unblinking camera on the people and goings-on at the University of California, Berkeley. Wiseman’s timing was good. He not only caught everyday college activities, both inside classrooms and libraries and outside on quads and campus pathways, he also happened to be around for student protests (demands for free tuition) and for administrative meetings on the school’s ongoing fiscal difficulties. All of that added drama was simply a right time, right place situation.
“I didn’t pick the school because of the financial problems, I picked it because it was Berkeley,” said Wiseman. “It’s a great university with a great history. But when I heard about the financial problems, I asked if I could have access to the meetings where they discussed it, and Birgeneau said yes. He was extremely open. I mean, he took a risk!”
Birgeneau, who retired as chancellor last June and is now a professor of physics at Berkeley, spent 25 years at MIT (1975-2000), first as a faculty member in physics, later as dean of science, before moving on to become president of University of Toronto and then taking the post at Berkeley. Reached by phone at his office, he said he had no second thoughts about letting Wiseman make the film.
“But every single person around me did,” he said, laughing softly. “I liked him, and thought he was an honest person. I remembered him from ‘Titicut Follies,’ I’d loved his movie ‘La Danse’ [a chronicle of the Paris Opera Ballet], and I knew he was a formidable filmmaker. Yes, it was a risk letting him into our meetings, but I felt that the risk was worth it. I’ve since discussed this with a lot of university presidents, and I’ve not yet found anyone who would have agreed to let Fred inside the door.”
Wiseman, who comes across in person as serious, jovial, and inquisitive, has gotten inside a lot of doors that might have been closed to others, likely because of his attitude and his ability to make people relax.
“I didn’t do anything differently this time,” said Wiseman of his approach to his subjects. “The only formal technique that I’m aware of is that I don’t [lie to] people. I try to be very straightforward about what I’m doing. I always explain what I’m doing: ‘I’m making a movie for PBS, and maybe for theatrical distribution, about the University of California at Berkeley. I’m spending three months here, accumulating a lot of footage, and I don’t know what the themes of film are going to be yet.’
“That all has the charm of being true,” he added. “I discover the film in the editing, and I always have.”
In fact, Wiseman did shoot for 12 weeks, ending up with 250 hours of footage. He then spent 14 months editing the running time down to four hours.
Birgeneau, who describes the finished film as “remarkably even-handed” and “an unusually balanced view of the university and how it operates,” still seems surprised at how easy it was to have Wiseman always around.
“That’s Fred’s special skill,” he said. “He has a way of melting into the background. I would say so much so that one tended to forget him and his [two-person] crew in their entirety.”
Wiseman readily admitted that in many ways he made the film for himself.
“I knew very little about Berkeley to begin with,” he said. “I was really very interested in the way the university ran. I’m Curious Freddie. The film is really about what I’ve learned.”
And it was really on-the-job learning, with very little advanced research.
“Since none of the events in my films are staged, I find there’s not much point in spending a lot of time in the place [before shooting] because nothing that I’m seeing will be repeated exactly the way I saw it,” he explained. “What I try to do in advance is get a sense of the geography and a sense of the routine before I start shooting. So I know where the director’s office is, and I know where the entrances are, and I know what time it opens up. I can usually do that in a day.”
So did Wiseman, whose next documentary is on the National Gallery in London, think about making a film about any other schools, or was Berkeley always the one?
“I kicked around the idea of doing a university film for a while,” he said, “but I hadn’t done anything about it. Berkeley was the only university I approached.”
He was quiet for a moment, then said, “I did think about Harvard and I made some preliminary inquiries, but I was told that there wouldn’t be a chance.”
Really? Why would Harvard say no to Fred Wiseman?
“I think they’d say no to anybody,” he said. “The word I got back, very informally, was, ‘Forget it!’ ”