Zipporah Films

Interview: Frederick Wiseman Talks Crazy Horse, Career, and More

Can you tell me a little more about the upcoming university project?

It’s shot already. It’s about Berkeley. It’s about the administration at Berkeley, the teaching, and the student life. It’s a movie about one of the major American universities. Berkeley’s one of the best universities in the world.

Over what time period did you film that?

In the fall of 2010.

So that was before the whole Occupy movement came about.

Yes. There was nevertheless student protest there, as there always is. I had access to everything that was going on. I have a lot of material and I’m busy editing that.

A three-part question: How long did you film around the Crazy Horse premises? How much footage did you compile? And how lengthy was the editing process?

Ten weeks. 150 hours. A year.

Has your process altered significantly since you started making films?

I’d like to think I’ve learned something about how to make them. But basically the technique is the same: Sit in the editing room and fiddle around with the choices until the film’s finished. I’ve edited all my films myself, and I’d like to think that as a consequence of doing that—you know, it’s not for me to make the judgment that the editing is better, but I’d like to think it’s better.

How do you view the correlation between the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet company in La Danse and the girls of the Crazy Horse?

In both cases they are dancers who have been classically trained. Or at least the dancers at the Crazy Horse, if they haven’t been classically trained, have gone to dance conservatoires, so that they’re trained in either modern dance or ballet. For one reason or another, competition is very stiff to get into the major dance companies. The girls who didn’t make it into the Paris Opera Ballet or other major ballet companies, they like to dance! For them it’s a job, a job where they can continue their dance career. And they don’t think there’s any big deal about appearing naked, as indeed there isn’t. They’re very well protected by the Crazy Horse. They all have stage names. The mythology of a place like the Crazy Horse is that the girls are all call girls, but of course they’re not. They’re nice, sensible, intelligent women who are leading normal lives. Attractive women of 20-to-30 years old.

The dancers at the Crazy Horse rarely give vent to personal feelings except on occasion in groups backstage. Was this a conscious decision you made during editing?

There wasn’t much conversation among them. When I was there, they showed up for rehearsal, usually around 11 or 12 o’clock, they rehearsed a new show in the afternoon, and then they performed at night. There really wasn’t much chitchat. It’s a very professional scene. Had there been any really interesting conversations that I heard, I would have included them in this film. It wasn’t a question my deliberately excluding them. I just didn’t find them!

Throughout the film, we only catch glimpses of Roman and Slava, tap dancing twins, who seem to be the only male performers on the premises. What was their function in the revue?

And the illusionist. Roman and Slava performed five nights a week. I found it quite interesting that, at a place like that, none of the dance numbers in any way express heterosexuality. All the dance numbers suggest either lesbianism or masturbation.

Certainly the numbers that end up in the film do.

I didn’t leave any out that suggested heterosexuality, there were none.

Do you think this has something to do with presenting the women as a kind of screen on which the average patron projects their own personal fantasies?

I don’t know what the explanation is. To some extent, it’s what you’re saying. It has to do with somebody making a judgment that those are the kind of fantasies that the public is interested in seeing. It’s a correct judgment to some extent, because the place is full every night! The Paris Opera Ballet is full every night too, and a lot of the great ballets concern the relationship with men and women.

There’s a moment in the film, in fact, where the choreographer mentions that the girls seem to have difficulty doing the routines that require them to caress each other or simulate…

They don’t like to touch each other. That’s a key scene in the film. I found that very interesting.

That scene also highlights the seemingly inevitable tug of war between artistic aspirations and the commercial necessities of the establishment.

Exactly.

Do you have any feelings about which side ultimately won out?

Oh, I think the establishment won out.

Was Philippe Decouflé ever able to shut the premises down long enough to institute the changes he wanted?

Not the ones he talked about in that meeting. He didn’t have the same control. He has his own dance company, which I’ve seen perform, where he has complete control. Here he’s an employee. And he argued hard for what he wanted, but he didn’t always win.

You mentioned earlier that films are important to you. Can you mention some of your favorite fiction film directors?

As they say in Casablanca, “The usual villains.” Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Godard. Some of the Japanese directors. You know, the same people everybody likes as feature film directors. And among documentary film people I like, Marcel Ophüls and Errol Morris.

Are you in any regular contact with Errol Morris?

Yeah, Erroll’s a friend of mine. We both live in Cambridge. So we see each other from time to time. And I see Ophüls from time to time. Do you know Ophüls? He’s a great filmmaker, though he hasn’t worked much recently.

Sure. The Sorrow and the Pity. And he also did Hotel Terminus.

Hotel Terminus is one of my favorite movies of all time.

So, out of the generation of art-house filmmakers you mentioned, is there one film in particular that had a particular influence on you?

None that I would say. This whole question of influence, it’s hard to track, it’s so indirect. But a lot of them I liked. I admire the imagination and integrity that went into making them. For some reason, as I said before, I’ve been more influenced by books than I have by movies.

I read somewhere that you went to a lot of movies as a child and young adult. What are some of your earliest recollections of filmgoing?

My earliest recollections of films are Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers. I think the Marx Brothers have been a source of inspiration always.

Duck Soup is one of the great films.

Duck Soup and A Day at the Races. Can’t beat them. As far as I’m concerned, they’re both documentaries.

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