Since his 1967 debut, Titicut Follies, a scathing exposé of the inhumane conditions inside a Massachusetts institution for the criminally insane, Frederick Wiseman has acquired a reputation as the dean of American documentary filmmakers, amassing a body of work (37 documentary and two fiction films) that’s truly astonishing in its breadth and depth, a tragicomic institutional chronicle of the way we live now. His latest “reality fiction” (Wiseman’s preferred genre rubric) is Crazy Horse, which debuted at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. Crazy Horse explores the eponymous Parisian nude dance revue as a site of “frustration and imagination,” to quote one of its proprietors. On the occasion of Crazy Horse’s U.S. theatrical premiere this week at Film Forum, Slant had the chance to talk with Wiseman about, among other things, working with William Castle, the clash between art and commerce, and the documentary power of the Marx Brothers.
I’d like to break the ice by asking about a footnote in your filmography. I’ve read that in the early ’70s you wrote an adaptation of The Stunt Man in conjunction with horror producer William Castle. How did that come about?
Castle contacted me. I knew Paul Brodeur, the author of the novel, so Castle contacted me and asked me if I was interested in doing it. And I did write a screenplay, but it was not the screenplay that was used for the movie [as written and directed by Richard Rush].
What was your contact with William Castle? He’s a figure of some notoriety in film history.
Well, he was perfectly charming with me. I think he didn’t like the screenplay, so he went on and got somebody else to write it. I didn’t have any big fight with him. I had some funny scenes in there. It was my first and basically my last foray into the Hollywood scene. I had no real interest in returning.
Looking back over your body of work, is there one film—or even one particular scene—that continues to haunt you?
No. Well, there’s some scenes that I think are very funny. Haunt me? No. Some scenes that amuse me a lot. There’s a scene in the film I did about the monastery [Essene]. Actually, I don’t particularly want to describe it, because it will ruin it for somebody who sees the film. I’d rather answer the question in a general way, because the moment I describe the scene, it sort of kills the joke.
Have you kept in touch with the subjects of any of your films, if only to keep tabs on what has or hasn’t changed with them?
Some. I’ve kept in touch with some of the people from the Comédie-Française, and I’ve kept in touch with some of the people at the Paris Opera Ballet. And that’s mainly because I have some common interests. I’m interested in acting and directing, I’m interested in choreography and dancing. Not dancing myself. [Laughs] Those are the only two films where I really kept in touch. For all the other films, I always show it to the participants before it’s broadcast, or at least those of the participants that I can find. For a film like Welfare, it’s pretty hard to round up all the people a year later.
What are some documentaries or documentary filmmakers that had an influence on you personally?
I think I’m more influenced by books I’ve read than movies I’ve seen.
Well, I’m not saying that it’s a direct influence, but I read a lot of novels. The way that I structure my films is related to writing. It’s related actually to fiction filmmaking. Because while the relationship between fact and imagination is different in a documentary movie than it is in a novel, I have the same kinds of problems in the editing, the characterization, the passage of time, abstraction, metaphor, the relationship between the literal and the abstract, that a novelist or a playwright might have, more than a fiction filmmaker has. I don’t do thesis-oriented films. I discover the films in the editing, and it’s in the editing that I have to figure out what the material means.
Certainly your films have the kind of sprawling, multi-character storylines that are reminiscent of 19th century novelists like Dickens.
It’s the 19th century novelists that I like.
What interested you in making a documentary on the Crazy Horse?
I’d been living in Paris, I’d finished La Danse. And I’m very interested in dance. Crazy Horse is the third formal dance film I’ve made. You have Ballet, La Danse, and also Boxing Gym, in a sense, is a film in part about dance. I was living in Paris, so I was looking around for something else to do there. I was always interested in a nightclub, and a friend of mine took me to the Crazy Horse. I discovered they were rehearsing a new revue, the first new revue in a number of years, and so I went one night and I liked the dancing that I saw. I met the choreographer [Phillipe Decouflé] and the owners of the Crazy Horse, and they said okay, so I started shooting a couple of weeks later.
Many of your recent films, especially those shot in France, have shifted emphasis from examining public institutions to exploring institutions involved with the performing arts. To what do you attribute that shift?
Basically, I’m trying to do movies about as many subjects as possible. I don’t think that I’m restricted to making movies about obvious social issues, like Welfare or Juvenile Court. My goal is to make as many different films around as many diverse kinds of subjects as possible. My first performance film was Ballet, which was in ’92, then I did Comédie-Française in ’95, and then La Danse in 2007. Crazy Horse was shot in 2009. In between Ballet and La Danse, there was Public Housing, State Legislature, High School II, and the two Domestic Violence movies. So I don’t think it represents any shift. It’s simply a deliberate extension of subject matter. My next film’s about a university. I think, to some extent, the fact that I have made some performance films has been misunderstood, because it means that some people have classified me, in my view incorrectly, as somebody who just makes films about obviously social subjects. And in fact a movie about a ballet company or a theater company is just as much a social subject as a movie about a welfare center, in my view.