Since his first documentary, “Titicut Follies” in 1967, Frederick Wiseman has been averaging one film a year, rivaling Woody Allen as America’s most prolific auteur. At 84, the Cambridge filmmaker keeps getting busier and better.
His new documentary, “National Gallery,” like all his movies, scrutinizes an institution and reveals its inner workings and essential humanity — or lack thereof. This time, he examines the great London art museum of the title, and he and the viewer get to savor some of the world’s greatest paintings. But he also looks into what happens outside the frame and behind the scenes, revealing a complex creative environment not unlike that of filmmaking itself.
“National Gallery” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts beginning Wednesday through Dec. 28; Wiseman will be on hand to discuss the film after the 12:30 p.m. screening on Nov. 16. On the phone from New York recently, he talked about his new film, his methods, and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement he picked up in July at the Venice Film Festival.
Q. Congratulations on the award. Did it cause you to reflect on your career?
A. I did stop and think that I’d been making films for a long time and that this is a nice recognition of what I do. I work a lot and enjoy it, and I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. I was lucky I found something I really like. Though it’s always difficult to raise the money, the actual details of making the movie are fascinating. I have a new subject every time and it gives me something new to think about.
Q. Shooting a film in the National Gallery must have been a treat.
A. It was. I was in the Gallery every day for 12 weeks. I had about a year to edit the movie and had the opportunity to look at the paintings again during that time. There were some artists I went back to a lot, like Titian and Rubens. And I like Turner. There are so many great paintings. It’s almost ridiculous to pick among them. I didn’t know much about how a big museum was run, so I learned a variety of things. I learned more about how to read a painting. I learned the problems involved with restoration, which I knew nothing about before.
Q. In one scene a curator compares putting together a museum show to making a mosaic. And one of the docents tells visitors that every painting tells a story. Do you see parallels in those processes to filmmaking?
A. My movies are mosaic narratives. Or narrative mosaics. They have a dramatic structure. They’re made up of sequences that are shot over a period of time and organized thematically in the editing and I discover the structure only towards the end of the editing. Then the film is finished and I start thinking about another one. Because there are so many subjects that haven’t been treated on film and I’m trying to get to as many as I can.
“National Gallery” trailer: