TORONTO — You’d better be in good physical shape if you’re going to work with Frederick Wiseman. The 85-year-old documentarian, who lives in Cambridge and Paris, has a reputation, even while loaded down with sound equipment, for hustling through buildings and down streets when he sees a good shot for his longtime cinematographer John Davey. In Wiseman’s words, “John shoots, and I do the sound. I lead with the mike.”
Just the act of interviewing him can be challenging if you’ve missed any cardio workouts. After his newest film. “In Jackson Heights,” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Wiseman entered the lobby of an apartment building, said hello, bounded up a long flight of steps to a suite, settled into a chair, and leaned forward, eager to chat about this most recent addition to his ongoing series of neighborhood and institutional studies.
Up through his 2013 film “At Berkeley,” Wiseman’s documentaries were produced by PBS and presented by New York’s WNET Thirteen. Starting with last year’s “National Gallery” and continuing on with “In Jackson Heights,” the PBS productions have been presented by WGBH 2.
Scheduled for seven screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts between Nov. 18 and Nov. 29, the 190-minute-long “In Jackson Heights” follows Wiseman’s usual formula of just letting people and place tell the story, or stories. No questions to the film’s subjects are heard; they’re simply shown going about their everyday activities. This vibrant, multiethnic section of Queens, New York, is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America. There are 167 languages spoken, and there are organizations ranging from the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights to the Queens Center for Gay Seniors. Wiseman’s camera gazes at crowds of people moving along sidewalks, then stops to focus on street signs that let you know where you are, and on signs on storefronts — some in Spanish, others in Arabic — that provide the flavor of the neighborhood.
The film also gets up close and personal with a number of residents, including politicians, business owners, religious leaders, community organizers, musicians, and even friends just getting together for coffee. It’s through these people that Wiseman presents Jackson Heights as a place of relative harmony. It’s not problem-free; there are tense discussions about school redistricting, economic development, and the homeless population. But there don’t appear to be any overt racial or civil liberties issues; a gay pride parade goes off without a hitch, and it’s a bit of a shock to catch a first glimpse of a police car just past the two-hour mark.
“In Jackson Heights” is Wiseman’s 40th film. His reason for continuing to make them: “There’s a wide variety of human behavior out there. One of my interests is documenting as much of it as I can.”
Q. How long have you had the idea for this film?
A. When I’m finishing a movie, in order to avoid postpartum depression, I have to figure out what I’m going to do next. I sort of have a running list of ideas in my head. Sometimes I revert to that list, but sometimes something will just pop up. I was initially going to do “In Jackson Heights” in 2007, but then I got permission to do the Paris Opera Ballet [the resulting film was 2009’s “La Danse”] and I figured Jackson Heights would still be there, and the permission from the Paris Opera Ballet might not. So I did that, then that led to some other films. When I was finishing “National Gallery” in the winter of 2014, I was thinking about what to do next, and I remembered “In Jackson Heights.”
Q. Did you consider any other New York neighborhoods?
A. No. I had walked around Jackson Heights for one day in 2007, and what I saw was visually great! I didn’t know much about what was going on, but the idea of making a movie about the new generation of immigrants in America really appealed to me. As I’ve said before, the shooting is the research, and it’s a daisy chain: one thing leads to another. And a lot of luck is involved. For instance, there’s the sequence with the group of Southern Baptists sweeping the street. I was walking along, and I heard these women with very pronounced Southern accents. I asked what they were doing and they said they were on a mission to help keep the New York streets clean. As they were sweeping, this other woman came up and asked them to pray for her father. We were already shooting, then she came up, and it was just dumb luck!
Q. What was your first step, after walking around the neighborhood, in making the film?
A. A couple of my friends lived in Jackson Heights. One of them knew a lot about what was going on there, and he and his wife supplied me with a list of all the community organizations. So before I started filming, I contacted some of them. Some responded, some didn’t. But even with those who didn’t respond, I just went in when I was there, and met the people.
Q. You often use close-ups of people’s faces. Are you more fascinated by the faces or by what the people are saying?
A. Well, both. I like to use good shots of people’s faces. But what they’re saying is also important, so sometimes you use one rather than the other. In “In Jackson Heights” there are lots of shots of people’s faces. Maybe different viewers have different fantasies as to what stories they tell, but they do suggest a story. Sometimes the story is explicit in the sense that people are talking, but sometimes it’s not.
‘The idea of making a movie about the new generation of immigrants in America really appealed to me.’- FREDERICK WISEMAN
Q. What was your first step in the editing process this time?
A. It’s always the same. I look at all the rushes. In this case there were 120 hours. That takes six or seven weeks. I make notes about the sequences, then I edit the ones that I think I might want to use in the film. It’s only when I have all of those edited that I begin to work on structure, and the themes begin to emerge. I make the first assembly in three or four days, then I can make the changes about what I want to use and the order in which I want to use it. That might take another four or five weeks. That’s when I’m figuring out the themes, the point of view, and the rhythm. The whole editing process on this one took about 10 months.
Q. Has it gotten any easier to make these films?
A. No. It’s still hard to get the money. That’s the worst part of it. And it’s work! But it’s very interesting work, I don’t find it to be a strain, and I love doing it. I love making documentaries because it’s intellectually demanding and physically demanding. You have to be in shape, both to run around and make the movies, and then to sit for 10 months in a chair editing them. But it’s fun because it’s completely absorbing.Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.