43 years after ‘Titicut Follies,’ it’s Berkeley, the movie

Frederick Wiseman turned 80 in January, just in time for the launch of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s yearlong celebration of his singular filmmaking career. By December, the museum will have screened 35 of his documentaries — and one rare foray into fiction — going back to 1967’s Titicut Follies, a chilling, controversial look at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Mass., kept from public view by the courts for more than 20 years.

Wiseman was on hand for the retrospective’s kickoff, which featured a screening of Basic Training, released in 1971. But he was already looking ahead to his next project. The peripatetic, Boston-based director arrived in Manhattan fresh from a business trip to UC Berkeley, the institution he’d targeted as the subject of his 39th film.

He eventually scored the equivalent of an all-access pass into the inner sanctums of Berkeley’s administration, and started shooting in mid-August. For the past four weeks, he and longtime cameraman John Davey have been doggedly capturing the sights and sounds of the campus, turning up at everything from closed-door sessions of the chancellor’s cabinet to Lunch Poems and Calapalooza. Over the next several months he expects to log some 250 hours of footage, which he’ll painstakingly trim to feature length — for Wiseman, anywhere from 75 minutes to six hours. Whatever the length, the finished film will air nationwide on PBS sometime in 2012 or 2013.

Meanwhile, the picture of Berkeley he’ll end up presenting to the world remains a mystery — including, characteristically, to Wiseman himself.

“It would be pretentious, and a mistake, to even begin to suggest what the themes of the film will be at this point,” he says, taking a break from shooting to sit for an interview in a Sproul Hall meeting room. “Because I never know until I’m well along in the editing. It’s only after I’ve edited all of the candidate sequences that I even begin to think about the structure. And that’s usually seven to ten months into the editing.”

It’s safe, at least, to predict what the film won’t be: a polemic on higher education. Wiseman famously eschews voiceovers, interviews, interpretation and other standard tools of the documentary trade. And while themes of race, class, gender and power crop up frequently in his work, his sensibility is less Michael Moore than Samuel Beckett, whose poetic, absurdist Happy Days he’s directed, in French, at La Comédie-Française. (Wiseman made a documentary about the 300-year-old theater company in 1996.)

Popular conceptions aside, “I’ve always been interested in the complexity and ambiguity of experience,” he says, whether it’s U.S. soldiers training for Vietnam, terminally ill patients facing death, or world-class dancers rehearsing for the Paris Opera Ballet.

“For some people, I have a reputation of doing gritty subjects and exposés. And as far as I’m concerned, neither of those is true,” Wiseman says. The Bridgewater prison was “a horrible place. If the film didn’t show how horrible it was, it wouldn’t have been a good film, or a fair one.”

Even so, he regards it today as “a bit too didactic.”

From Bridgewater to Berkeley

Follies, the first film Wiseman directed, marked the beginning of a 43-year exploration of (mostly) American institutions. Using only available light and sound — and determined never to influence the “action,” mundane as it often is — he’s spun uncommon drama from commonplace daily life in high schools, hospitals, the welfare and juvenile-court systems, the meatpacking industry, a primate-research center, a Midwestern police department, the U.S. Army, a Chicago public-housing development, the Belmont Park racetrack, Madison Square Garden, the Idaho Legislature, and whatever else has piqued his unbounded curiosity.

A ballet lover who lives much of the year in Paris, in 2009 he released the French-language La Danse, a backstage look at the Paris Opera Ballet. His take on a different kind of choreography, Boxing Gym — generic titles being a Wiseman trademark — will debut in New York later this year.

Berkeley, he says, fits well with the mosaic that is his life’s work. “I wanted to do a university,” he explains. “And by anyone’s standards, anywhere in the world, Berkeley is one of the great universities. I always try to pick a place that’s a good example of its kind. It’s more complicated, and it’s more interesting.

Fred Wiseman

Wiseman at work. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

“Even Bridgewater, relative to other prisons for the criminally insane that existed at the time — it was the Ritz Hotel,” he adds. “Which tells you how bad prisons for the criminally insane were.”

Wiseman, who practiced law in Boston and Paris before turning to films, waged a decades-long battle over Follies. The man who had opened the prison gates for the novice director — Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Elliot Richardson, remembered today as a hero of Watergate — “loved the film when he saw it,” but turned against it once the early reviews rolled in. “He thought his political career was going be jeopardized,” Wiseman says, “when it was discovered that he’d been instrumental in my getting permission.”

Citing inmates’ privacy rights, a judge quickly ordered all prints of the film destroyed. Wiseman succeeded in having that ruling overturned by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which allowed Follies to be viewed by doctors, legislators and other interested professionals, but prohibited screenings for the “merely curious” public. Although the ban was relaxed over the years — the result of pressure from Wiseman’s lawyers — it was not until 1990 that it could be legally shown to general audiences.

“I’m very persistent,” he deadpans.

Berkeley executives were far more cooperative. “I just asked,” says Wiseman, crisply summing up the process of obtaining permission to film here. He sent a letter to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, “the first person at any university I approached. And he sent me an e-mail back right away, saying, ‘Come and see me.'”

Wiseman, who had spent time on campus before — including a brief stint as a visiting lecturer at Townsend Center — flew out in January, and the two men had “a long discussion” about the project. They were joined for a working lunch by George Breslauer, Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost.

Wiseman soon got the green light. When he requested a liaison — someone who knew the campus well, and could help to arrange shoots — Birgeneau proposed John Cummins, who served as chief of staff to four Berkeley chancellors until his retirement in 2008.

“Berkeley’s an enormous place,” Wiseman explains. “Ordinarily, when I work in one building, like a juvenile court or a welfare center or even a hospital, I sort of go in, stick my nose in the air, wiggle my ears and talk to people and make notes on their suggestions and get an idea what’s going on. But this is much too vast.”

The rules of engagement are simple, and much like those for the rest of his films. Since Berkeley is a public university, many events and meetings require no special permission to record. For private meetings, Wiseman, with Cummins’ help, will obtain releases from any individuals he may want to include in the final film. If people prefer not to be filmed, he’ll honor their wish.

“The chancellor and the provost have been extremely open,” he says. “I told the chancellor originally that I wanted to make a movie about how Berkeley was run, and about the administration of a large university, and he’s making it possible for me to do that. Obviously, there are some things that are confidential or private, and I respect that. But they’ve been extremely generous in opening up and letting me participate in meetings and conversations and events. I’ll have enough material to make a 20-hour movie. I mean, it’s overwhelming.”

Although he usually works in 16-millimeter, Wiseman is shooting the Berkeley film on HD video, which is far less costly — especially given the hundreds of hours he plans to shoot, lavish even by his standards. “There’s only one basic rule in this kind of shooting,” he says, “and that is: When you turn the camera off, the interesting thing will happen. And particularly in conversations. So you have to take the risk — and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a worthwhile risk — of shooting a lot.”

He serves as his own sound man — mainly because he enjoys the task, but also because “it gives me more flexibility to pick what to shoot.” Once he’s through filming he’ll effectively barricade himself in the editing room, first trimming individual scenes and later imposing a structure, manipulating the order of events and conversations and giving the film a distinct, compelling rhythm.

‘Reality fictions,’ or not

That manipulation is why he rejects labels like direct cinema and cinema verité — “a pompous French term” without meaning, in his view — or even “reality fictions,” a tag he came up with himself.

He coined the phrase “as a joke,” he says, back in the days when Truman Capote was describing In Cold Blood, his novelistic account of a multiple murder in Kansas, as “nonfiction fiction.” But he concedes there’s a reason the term continues to resonate.

“The films are based on unstaged events,” he says. “But they are ordered in such a way that the film, I hope, has a dramatic structure. Also, the sequences are edited. It’s rare that I use a sequence in its original form. A sequence as it takes place may be an hour. Fifty-eight minutes of that hour may be shot. I may end up using six minutes. It’s rare that I use a consecutive six minutes.

“I try to edit in a way that’s fair to the original, but also in such a way that it appears as if it were taking place the way you’re watching it. And that’s fiction, in a sense. And even if I used the original 58 minutes, it would be different than the way you would be watching it with your own eyes, or hearing it with your ears. Because [as the filmmaker] you’re making choices about the way it’s shot, what you’re looking at, and the way you’re putting it together.”

How, then, would he describe what he does?

“I make movies,” he says.

And so he does, year after year, racking up honors and awards including, later this month, a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. You’re not likely to find the films at your local video store, but a number can be viewed at the Media Resources Center in Moffitt Library. DVDs are available for purchase through Wiseman’s own production company, Zipporah Films.

As for his Berkeley movie, he promises to have some screenings here before it’s broadcast on PBS.

For now, though, should you encounter an older man wielding a boom microphone anywhere on the Berkeley campus — and we do mean anywhere — just act natural.