The legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has released his latest project — “City Hall” a four-½ hour look at the inner workings of Boston City Hall. Wiseman, 90, the recipient of numerous honors in a long and storied career, managed to wring improbable poetry and poignance from a building rarely associated with those qualities.
Wiseman, who said he’s looking for his next project, which he hopes to start filming this summer, talked about “City Hall” in a telephone interview last week.
Q. What was the genesis of this project?
A. As you know, I’ve been doing a series on institutions. I thought City Hall fit very well into the series that I was doing. I hadn’t done anything about it. Then, in spring of 2018, I was thinking about what I would do next. And so I wrote letters to six mayors. Two of them said no, three didn’t answer.
The letter I wrote to Mayor [Martin J. ] Walsh was opened by the secretary. She opens all his mail. By chance, she had seen and liked some of my movies. She in turn gave it to [Director of Policy and city arts maven] Joyce Linehan, who you probably know. Joyce had also seen and liked some of my movies. So she got in touch and asked me to come in and talk to them.
I had cast my net to find a city. While I had hoped it would be Boston, I had no idea who would say yes.
Q. I know a lot of your work is focused on institutions, but were you concerned that a film about City Hall might not be — for lack of a better term — dramatic?
A. I’m always going to take the risk. The metaphor that I use, it’s like Las Vegas. You roll the dice and see whether you win or not. You don’t know for a long time. And also, you can deceive yourself about whether you won. It’s always a risk. I just take the gamble that if I hang around long enough, I’ll find enough sequences that I, at least, find interesting.
Q. I love that the film opens with the workers manning the city hotline doing constituent service. Why start there?
A. Because it instantly showed the diversity of issues that the city had to deal with. And it also showed that the city provided a means for citizens to ask questions, or register complaints, or request services. So I started with that for all of those reasons. I also thought it was funny.
Q. Obviously, the central figure in this film is Marty Walsh. What was your sense of him going into the project, and how did it change?
A. I didn’t know a thing about Marty Walsh. The last 18 years or so, I’ve spent half or three-quarters of the year, sometimes the whole year, in Paris. So I really knew nothing about Boston politics. I did when I was a kid, when I was younger. [Born and raised in Boston, Wiseman lives in Cambridge.] So I started with, excuse the cliche, an empty slate.
Q. One scene I was really stuck by depicts a Veterans Day event in Faneuil Hall, in which veterans of several wars describe their experiences. On the surface it seems like this mundane ceremony, but it takes on this real emotional weight. Why were you drawn to that, and what do you think you were able to capture there?
A. Faneuil Hall has all kinds of resonance for American history. It’s Veterans Day. The sequence starts with paintings that suggest some of the early aspects of American history — the Pilgrims, George Washington crossing the Delaware. I use those shots to provide echoes of American history.
And then, it’s Veterans Day and there are veterans there from the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan. A shorthand way of describing the origin of war is the absence of government.
It’s a stark reminder of what happens when there’s no civil way of resolving conflict.
You have the veteran from Iraq who gives a very vivid description of thinking he was going to die, yet remaining in Iraq and going back to fight.
It’s a very moving story when the nurse from the Second World War talks about the man who lost both his legs. She tells the story of the letter he wrote to his wife and who responds that she’s just glad he’s still alive and will welcome him back home. I found those extremely moving stories, in addition to some of the abstract ideas that are suggested by the cumulative impact of the stories.
Q. In a few places, Walsh talks about how he’s evolved as a mayor. Were you surprised by how unguarded he was, and did he get more comfortable as shooting went along?
A. No, I think that’s the way he is. I think that’s what he learned in [Alcoholics Anonymous]. As he describes it, and friends of mine have described it, you get up and you tell your story. He told his story to the veterans, to encourage them to seek help. I heard him tell [his] story several times. It was appropriate every time he told it — he wasn’t doing it to indulge himself.
Q. What were you not allowed to shoot? What were the ground rules?
A. That I had access to everything, but if someone didn’t want a particular meeting shot, or a particular encounter shot, that I would respect that. I stayed away from the political-strategy kind of meetings, because that wasn’t the subject of the film.
Q. The subject of the film is City Hall, but it’s really a panoramic view of the city as a whole, wouldn’t you say?
A. Yes, exactly — as seen through the services offered by city government. City government touches our lives, in a more intimate way, than any other form of government. More than state or federal government. Births, marriage, deaths, fire, police, public health, homelessness, and that’s just the beginning of the list — you could add 50 more. I wanted to have the film suggest the diversity of service, both in how it’s performed and the planning that goes into it.
Q. Toward the end of the film, Walsh gives a State of the City speech where he talks about the importance of city government. Is that what the film is really about — democracy with a small ‘d’?
A. Yes, I think that’s what the film is about. It’s not the only theme., but it’s certainly a principal theme.
Q. What do you think of as the other themes?
A. A major theme is why is government necessary? What purpose does government serve? The ordinances of the city, they provide basic norms and standards of conduct. Someone wants to open a restaurant, they have to meet certain health standards to be approved by an inspector. Someone wants to construct a three-story house, there are certain standards. You can’t construct it any old way. Those are all standards that are necessary if people are going to live in a civil society. It’s about democracy, but it’s also about the need for law, and the need for rules, and the need to enforce those rules.
Q. The film closes, as it opens, with the City Hall employees in 311 answering emergency calls. What’s the statement there?
A. It never stops. The demands, and the need for services, are eternal and endless. Some of the requests are funny. I’m not averse to a little comedy from time to time. Rather than having someone say “the demands on city government are endless,” it’s suggested.
The whole point of this kind of film is that you experience the events. And then it’s up to you, the audience, to draw the inference from what you’re seeing and hearing.
Interview has been edited and condensed.