Originally Published Nov. 9th 2010
All words: Jeff Jetton
All photos: Chris Svetlik
Catching my breath between rounds of jumping rope and punching a bag, I asked the gym’s proprietor, Dave, what the deal was with the film: apparently, some big-shot documentarian had made a film about a boxing gym in Austin and it was opening in some new theater over near Georgetown.
That documentarian happened to be one Frederick Wiseman, one of the most prolific and well-renowned filmmakers of the past fifty years. He’s made at least forty films, many to great acclaim, including La Danse and Ballet. Wiseman’s Titicut Follies explored the plight of occupants of Bridgewater mental hospital, and in the process earned a reputation as the only film ever to be banned in the United States on grounds other than obscenity, immorality or national security.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26CjZBGYoKI
At BYT, we’re not about to tempt fate. When you’re working out in a boxing gym and you find out that one of the world’s preeminent directors is in town ‘promoting’ his new boxing movie a few days ahead of Washington D.C.’s biggest boxing events, Fight Night, the Universe is begging you to act. There was no choice in the matter. We HAD to call up Wiseman and get him down to Downtown Boxing Club for an interview (or a sparring match, but we’d take what we could get, since getting an eighty year old filmmaker into the ring to trade jabs might be asking a tad much).
Wiseman burst through the door of the gym on a blustery Saturday morning fresh off the DC premiere of the film he’d come to talk about. We sat him down near the corner of the ring and immediately peppered him with questions.
BYT: So you live in Boston. How long have you been there?
Frederick Wiseman: Probably, let’s see, fifty-two years.
BYT: Where were you before that?
Frederick Wiseman: I grew up in Boston but I came back to Cambridge in 1958. I lived in Paris for a while. I was in the army and I lived in Paris for a while.
BYT: And how long were you in Austin filming Boxing Gym?
Frederick Wiseman: Shooting was six weeks.
BYT: How much footage did you get?
Frederick Wiseman: About ninety hours.
BYT: That’s a lot of footage to edit.
Frederick Wiseman: Yeah, it is. Some films I’ve had up to a hundred and fifty hours of footage!
BYT: How do you go through that much footage?
Frederick Wiseman: [sighs] I just sit there and do it. I make up a log. Each shot is given a number, technical information about the roll number. Camera roll number, sound roll number, principal information about the shot. Then I just look at all of the footage. First pass I only made about 50% of it. Then I edit the sequences that I think might make it into the final film. That usually takes me about six months, at the end of that – six or eight months I do the first assembly. That I can do in three or four days, because at that point I know the material very well. I can’t edit in the abstract, I have to see how things fit together, and that first version comes out to be about thirty or forty minutes longer than the final film. Then I work on the internal rhythm of the film within a sequence and between the sequences, and I try to shape that and I usually eliminate thirty or forty minutes. When I think the film is finished I go back and look at all the rushes; anything I’ve left out and review that because I often find material that introduces something better or is a better transition or a better sequence.
BYT: So cutting out that last half hour – is that pretty difficult?
Frederick Wiseman: It depends, the whole thing is a very intense process. you have to know the material very well and you have to be very persistent and you have to work at it because it doesn’t happen by chance.
BYT: Were you classically trained in film? You went to law school at Yale…
Frederick Wiseman: I went to law school, but my little joke about law school is that I was physically present. I had a knack for editing, that’s all, and I love doing it. I never went to film school. Film school is a crock…
BYT: Say that again into the microphone…
Frederick Wiseman: FILM SCHOOL IS A CROCK, generally. [everyone laughs]
BYT: All these people spending forty thousand…
Frederick Wiseman: They’re spending forty grand a year! You know, they’d be much better off making their own films. Okay, it’s different, certainly, if you’re going to do documentaries. If you’re going to do Hollywood movies there’s much more to learn about lighting, etc., the technical stuff. If you’re going to do documentaries, you’re better off just going out there and doing it.
BYT: So you’d just suggest going out and doing it. I’ve noticed that your movies typically eschew traditional methods such as interviews and voiceovers.
Frederick Wiseman: I never do any of that. It’s all unstaged footage edited into some kind of narrative form.
BYT: So that’s your style. Have you ever tried anything different?
Frederick Wiseman: I made a fiction film that was different. Which was called “A LAst Letter” in 2002.
BYT: Any designs on doing that again?
Frederick Wiseman: Yeah! This was a film that was based on a chapter of a Russian novel called Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, which I did originally as a play in Paris. It was well received, so I was able to get the funding to do a movie in France with the same text as the play but done quite differently than the play.
BYT: Speaking of getting the money, I noticed that Boxing Gym was partially funded by PBS.
Frederick Wiseman: All of my movies are partially funded by PBS. They get the right to broadcast it for the money that they put up. They have the right to broadcast it four times in three years, I believe. But I have the right to show the film theatrically before it’s broadcast. It’s opening all over the country in art house theaters.
BYT: I noticed an underlying theme in the movie of the rhythm, the beat of boxing.
Frederick Wiseman: That’s the music of the film.
BYT: It really is. Jumping rope or hitting bags or punching or the dinging of the bell. There always seemed to be a percussion…
Frederick Wiseman: It’s a score by Philip Glass [laughs].
BYT: Can you speak a little about the process? About what percussions you…
Frederick Wiseman: It’s difficult to talk about it in the abstract, it’s a question of the grand fiddle. I see what the sounds are like that work. A good part of it is just the natural part of the scene. The fiddle of it was in the overlapping sounds between the scenes. The continuity between the scenes and what you could do between the level of the sounds in the mix.
BYT: The background noise wasn’t always natural?
Frederick Wiseman: No sounds were added from other sources. It was always the natural sounds from the gym.
Frederick Wiseman: What happens for instance is, scene one is somebody hitting the bag, scene two might be somebody skipping rope, so you carry over the sound from scene one under the sound of somebody skipping rope and you start the sound of somebody skipping rope under the sound of somebody hitting the bag. I used the sound of the clock a lot. In the same way, it was the sound of the clock, but I might make the cut, the sound of the one minute clock in one scene and the sound of the thirty second clock the sound in the next scene. It’s still the sound of the clock in the gym.
BYT: I wrote down bells, bags and boxing gloves, because that seemed to be the soundtrack of the movie. Let’s go back to the source, how did you find this gym?
Frederick Wiseman: I found it because I’m in Austin a lot. I was in Austin and I was telling a friend of mine I want to do a film about boxing and he asked if I’d ever heard of Lord’s Gym and I said no. So I called up Richard and made an appointment to see him. The moment I walked in I knew it was the right place. One because I liked Richard [Lord] and two because I loved the look of the place.
BYT: How was filming with Richard [Lord]?
Frederick Wiseman: It was great, he was great. He never looked at the camera, nobody ever looked at the camera.
BYT: Yeah, you’d think that people would look at the camera.
Frederick Wiseman: It’s very, very rare. Nobody ever looks at the camera. I don’t understand it. I mean, I’m not looking at the camera.
BYT: So did you have to get releases from everyone?
Frederick Wiseman: Everybody has to sign in when they come to the gym, and I put a couple of notices there, saying we’d be filming. So when you sign into the gym you’d know that we were filming, and nobody had a problem with that.
BYT: So how does this rank in terms of favorite movies that you’ve made.
Frederick Wiseman: Well, I don’t rank them, it’s like asking which of your children you like the best…
BYT: My mom always said she liked me the best.
Frederick Wiseman: Well what did she say to your brothers and sisters? [laughs]
BYT: Same thing!
Frederick Wiseman: I tend to like the most recent one the best because that’s the one I worked on the hardest most recently. It’s fickle, though, because it always moves on to the next one. The reviews have been terrific on this one.
BYT: Can you talk about your influences in film for a moment?
Frederick Wiseman: I don’t know. I leave the issue of influences to critics. I think to the extent that I’m aware of influences, I’m much more influenced by books that I’ve read than movies that I’ve seen. I like [Samuel] Beckett a lot. Whether I’ve been influenced by him, I don’t know. I like the 19th century American novelists.
BYT: Favorite boxer?
Frederick Wiseman: My favorite boxer is probably a choice between Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. The last fight I watched was Mayweather v. De La Hoya.
BYT: I noticed the Virginia Tech shooting played a role in the movie, it kind of put a time stamp on the film, but it wasn’t quite apparent right away what they were talking about.
Frederick Wiseman: That’s an important scene in the film, the scene discussing the violence. Boxing is a sort of ritualized violence, Virginia Tech was murder which is also a type of violence. The theme of violence is something that cuts across a lot of my movies. I guess because people are violent.
BYT: You made your first film in 1963, almost fifty years ago…
Frederick Wiseman: First film I worked on was 1963, the first film I made, my own film, was 1966…
BYT: But you’ve been in the filmmaking business for almost fifty years, quite an impressive span, how long do you think you’ll keep doing it?
Frederick Wiseman: Until I collapse! Filmmaking is a sport, you gotta stay in shape. I stay in shape and keep working!
If you’re interested in learning how to box or just want to get in shape, Downtown Boxing Club in Blagden Alley can help you out. For more information see their website here.