'If You're Pretentious, Be Obviously Pretentious': An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

The National Gallery filmmaker talks about cultural elitism, film vs. digital, and the challenges of bringing artwork to life on screen.

Still from "National Gallery"

National Gallery, in theatres today, spans 173 generous minutes, but its fascination proves inexhaustible: you leave feeling as though an eight-hour cut would have been no less reasonable. It helps, of course, that filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's subject and setting here is London's illustrious National Gallery, which lends itself uncommonly well to leisurely perusal. Nonetheless, it's a testament to Wiseman's perspicacity as documentarian that the film never feels like a mere guided tour, whisking us along from the requisite pleasures of the gallery's exhibits to the lesser-known arcana his privileged access affords. Private classes, administrative debates, peripheral construction—every aspect of the gallery is on bountiful view. As an assemblage of remarkable images and ideas, the film is as well-curated as the gallery itself.

One of Wiseman's pressing concerns throughout the film is the nature of the gallery's identity: to what degree must this historical institution strive to prove its continued relevance in a culture beset by decaying values and decreased attention spans? The future of the gallery—the tenor of its mandate, the scope and direction of its curation, and, most urgently, the increasingly precarious state of its public financing—is the question that looms over everything. But for all its rigor as a study of a cultural landmark, the film bristles with simpler pleasures. Best of all, though, is a behind-the-scenes look at the restoration of a major Caravaggio, whose familiar veneer is penetrated by X-rays to reveal an abandoned and never-seen commission underneath. This extraordinary sequence—presented, as is customary in Wiseman's cinema, without any editorial comment—is typical of the film's quiet mastery: Though his guiding hand can be felt in every image and every cut, the reticent director rarely announces his presence behind the camera, so it is a rare treat indeed to hear the man himself discuss his work in person. We sat down with Wiseman before National Gallery's North American premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival in September.


Calum Marsh: I loved the film.

Frederick Wiseman: Thank you. That’s a good start.

Has anyone ever sat down and told you they just didn’t like the film at all?

Not that directly... but I knew.

I wanted to begin by asking what you think is the central tension within the gallery as an institution.

Well, I was more concerned about the relationship of the paintings to our experience... well, I was concerned about a variety of aspects. I wasn’t particularly interested in the power struggles within the gallery—some of them are suggested in the movie, but that seemed to me less interesting than what the paintings suggested about human behaviour. So one of the themes of the film is how to read a painting, and what reading a painting tells us about the relationship between paintings and our ordinary experiences. Because the subjects of the paintings are all the major human experiences: love, death, war, religion. So that’s one aspect. There’s also the aspect of how our stories are told.

Given the importance of the art itself in the film, obviously as a visual subject but also a theme, how did you approach the challenge of filming art cinematically?

I decided for the paintings that I wanted to shoot them, when it was possible, without showing the frame, and without showing the wall. I wanted the painting not to become the object. Eighty-five percent of the time, it was possible to do that—sometimes the painting was too rectangular, et cetera, so you couldn’t get the painting without the wall. But also, once you’re inside the painting, I wanted to break it up, in a sense, into sequences, because when you look at a painting it’s simultaneous, and film is linear. So I wanted to see how you could present the painting in a linear film. It’s also related to one of the things I made the film about: it’s how you tell a story, how you tell a story in different forms. Painting, you see the story all at once, yet in a movie or in a novel or something…

Which is what the gentleman, the tour guide early in the film, explains at one point, to the children.

Yes, that’s right. Exactly. So the film deals with different ways of telling a story. The tour guides tell a story with words. We can still make eloquent forms where stories are told with words: novels and poems.

How do you decide the rhythm of shooting, to choose the length of time you show a painting on screen?

Well, everything is shot much longer, because first of all, I don’t know which paintings I’m going to use, and second of all, I don’t know how long it’s going be necessary to hold a shot. Sometimes you only have to shoot for 60 or 70 frames, and sometimes you want to hold it longer because you want to continue to look at the painting, because you want to see the relationship between the words that are being used to explain the painting and the painting. If the shot’s too short, you miss that. For instance, the Samson and Delilah [by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens], the shots of Samson and Delilah were not only broken up into parts, but I wanted to hold the shot long enough. So, when shooting the paintings, it was always overshot. It wasn’t 60 or 80 frames; it might be 300, 400 frames.

And the rhythm is decided in editing?

Well, you want the choice in the editing. The rhythm is obviously related to the length of the shot, and the relationship between the picture and whatever words, if there are words, underneath it.

You’ve shot digitally for a while now, but given the importance of aesthetics to this particular film, did you ever consider shooting on 35 mm?

Well, I think it looks quite good—I happen to still prefer film, although I can’t do it; it’s a sentimental wish. But 35 mm film is finished. It might make a comeback, but the labs don’t exist—or there are a few labs, but not many. It’s too bad. I like film, I like editing on film, and I like the look of film. But to be fair, the digital cameras are catching up. We used a Red Epic on National Gallery; we used a Sony Camera on At Berkeley. The things you can do on colour correction, where it’s necessary—it’s not often that necessary, but it was particularly necessary in National Gallery, because I didn’t want to distort—I mean, in colour correction, you can make blue red! The thing you had to do with National Gallery is make a colour as close to the original as possible. Of course, what the original is is a metaphysical question! It depends on the light! It depends if it’s daylight, it’s the time of day; it’s if it’s electricity, the kind of electricity; your vision, et cetera, et cetera. But I had a standard, because the National Gallery published books full of all the paintings there, so I had those books with me, and I asked the colour grader to go to the National Gallery to have a look, so he had his own sense of the paintings. But I mean, the colour grading for National Gallery took two weeks.

One of the questions the film poses is the degree to which the gallery must compromise itself to improve its public image.

Yes, or to reach a large public—that argument is presented most clearly in the film in the sequence with the director of the museum and the head of marketing. It’s an old argument that transcends the museum. It’s an argument of popular culture versus so-called “elite” culture. In that argument, I personally come down on the side of—the film doesn’t come down on either side—but I personally come down on the side of tradition. I agree with the museum director. I like the idea—he says he wants to take risks. He’d rather have a terrific failure than a mediocre success, and that’s something that I admire.

I hope it comes across that I think it’s a great gallery. I mean, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t think that! It would only be a reflection of my poor judgment if the film said anything different.

I think the upper limit of his view is that you can get into an elitist attitude—there’s a question of whether the gallery should be promoting itself to “the right kind of people,” perhaps.

I don’t think it’s “the right kind of people,” rather than the right kind of promotion. I think the director of the gallery liked as wide a swath of people to come in as possible. I think his feeling was about the way you appeal to them. There’s a real distinction there. It’s not quite the same distinction as in Hollywood, where they put electrodes on the target audience to see what works, and change the ending or the structure of film if the blood pressure of the test audience isn’t right… I don’t think he was elitist in that sense. I think it was rather that he wanted to bring the audience to the quality of the paintings, and not condescend to them.

Is that argument different now in any way because of the time that we’re in, or has it always been the same?

Well, I guess it’s always been the same argument. Because of the change in media, you can reach more people now, but I think that’s a traditional argument. He was in no way saying the painting was for an elite. He was saying, I want to reach people, but I don’t want to reach them in a way that condescends to them.

He doesn’t want to compromise the identity, I suppose, of the art itself.

Yes, and I want the exhibitions at the National Gallery to be high standard. At least, I have a hard time objecting to that.

Do you think the gallery—and not just this gallery, but the gallery as an institution in general—has an obligation to make itself seem relevant to younger people all the time?

Well, this whole issue of relevance…I think it has an obligation to interest people in the gallery and in the tradition it represents. I mean, the National Gallery has one of the great collections of the world, even though compared to the Louvre, the Prado, the Met in New York, it’s small—only 2,400 paintings. But it doesn’t have sculpture, and it doesn’t have other art. I think part of its mission, really, is to transmit the tradition, and to figure out ways of educating people, and I think their educational department was superb. The people who gave those tours were really good! They have a programme to bring in students, and the schools want to bring in students. It’s a two-way street. The schools want to set up the tours, and the National Gallery wants the tours to exist, and they’re educating people, particularly now, in the grand tradition of painting, and I think that’s great. It’s hard to do, because there’s a lot of interest in video games and comic books, but they take that obligation quite seriously. Also, it’s a national museum! It’s free! It’s supported by different branches of the government.

Does the film itself effectively serve to show people the merits of the gallery in that way? Is that your primary intention?

Yeah, and I hope it comes across that I think it’s a great gallery. I mean, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t think that! It would only be a reflection of my poor judgment if the film said anything different.

It’s interesting as a comparison to [Wiseman’s 2013 film] At Berkeley, for example, which offers a much more critical take on an institution that has many great merits as well. Well, maybe “critical” isn’t the right word...

Well, Berkeley was in crisis; certainly it shows the crisis. From my point of view, there’s nothing in the film that diminished the university. It showed people who cared about the university trying to maintain the integrity and standards of the university in a very difficult moment [as Berkeley’s public funding plummeted to record lows, resulting in a financial crisis yet to be fully resolved]. But the National Gallery, while the budget may have been cut some, it wasn’t cut the way Berkeley’s budget was cut. I mean, where they used to get 50 or 60 percent of their money from the state, when I made the movie, they got 16 percent, and when the movie was released they gave them nine or 10 percent.

That question of budget always seems to be looming over these films about institutions. Did you know going in that budgetary issues would be part of your focus?

Well, I didn’t really know enough about it when I went into it; I’d heard a little bit about it. Similarly, at Berkeley, I knew that there was a financial problem, but I didn’t know the depths of the problem until I went to the chancellor’s cabinet meeting—which, by chance, happened to be the first thing we shot. We started the week before school started, and that’s when they had the retreat with the chancellor’s cabinet, and so it came up, and so when I learned about it, I asked for permission to follow it.

I guess the obvious question is why this gallery in particular.

Well, the principal reason is that they gave me permission. The second reason, which is equally true, is that it’s one of the great galleries of the world, and relatively speaking, it’s small. I don’t know how many pieces of art and objects, so to speak, the Louvre has, but my guess is it’s 10 times as many, maybe 50 times as many. It’s more manageable, and no sculpture, no vases...

Would the film, do you think, be fundamentally different if it were shot in the Louvre?

Well, I don’t know enough about the Louvre, but I mean, you couldn’t do the Louvre in one film. Philibert did a film about the Louvre, but it’s about one aspect; one of the things for me about doing a film at the National Gallery is that I covered more. There are 2,400 paintings here and there are 250 in the film, but I was also able to do restoration, and the scientific and educational department.

I didn’t like ballet films where you saw elbows, and hands, and feet; you often didn’t see the relation of the dancers to each other. You didn’t see the whole scene. You didn’t get the choreography. The filmmaker was trying to do something where they used the choreography for his or her own purposes, whereas I wanted you to see the choreography.

Were there any cinematic reference points for you, as far as shooting in a gallery, and shooting art in that way?

The rest of it was shot in the style that ordinarily I use, but the big issue was how to shoot the paintings. I had an idea before I started as to the way I wanted to do it, and the idea was really linked to what I did with La Danse. I’d seen a lot of dance movies that I didn’t like, because the filmmaker shot the dance at the service of film, and I thought it should be the other way around. The film should be at the service of the dance. In other words, the films that I didn’t like were ballet films where you saw elbows, and hands, and feet; you often didn’t see the relation of the dancers to each other. You didn’t see the whole scene. You didn’t get the choreography. The filmmaker was trying to do something where they used the choreography for his or her own purposes, whereas I wanted you to see the choreography. It’s not that the shots were never broken up, but mainly the shots were wide shots. So it was a question of doing the same thing in National Gallery, but I had to think through the issue in advance as to what I thought was the best way to shoot.

It’s interesting that there has to be a cinematic aesthetic, but also you’re talking about a different medium entirely.

Right—how to transform one medium to another. There are a lot of dance films that I don’t think do that successfully.

So in terms of the gallery—obviously you’ve got this trove of experts, all of this expertise as far as how the paintings should look at your disposal—was there any consultation about how you were going to shoot it?

No. They didn’t even know. They didn’t see it. They didn’t see the movie until it was done, and I mean really done. I sent the National Gallery a DVD of the finished film. That was clear from the beginning—I always make it clear—that the place has no editorial control.

And did they respond to that?

They like it! They liked it a lot. I was very pleased. Better that than they didn’t like it…

How long did you shoot there for?

Twelve weeks. Every day. I missed one or two.

And just total freedom to shoot it?

There were parts there were some caveats, but generally speaking yes. And that’s not unreasonable, because some of the stuff was private. I don’t think I have an absolute right; I try to get as much access as I can, and I think I got access to 95 percent. Sometimes I get access to 100 percent. But people have a right to their secrets.

I assume that when you have that much access, there’s no real compulsion to try to surreptitiously get more.

Oh, no. First of all, you can’t do that. Second of all, it would be contrary to the whole spirit of the thing. I don’t like being sneaky. I don’t do exposés. There’s some of the internal politics of the gallery in the film, but I was much more interested in what the paintings said than which cleaning ladies didn’t like each other. What the paintings tell you about human nature, or what they suggest about human nature, is to me much more important than which curators get along or hate each other, because in any group of people those kind of antagonisms exist. I wouldn’t want the paintings to defer to the film. If you’re pretentious, then be obviously pretentious!