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Frederick Wiseman Explains Why He’s Finally Making His Documentaries Available for Streaming

Director Frederick Wiseman attends the photocall of the movie 'Ex Libris - The New York Public Library' presented in competition at the 74th Venice Film Festival on September 4, 2017 at Venice Lido.  / AFP PHOTO / Tiziana FABI        (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Frederick Wiseman.
Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images

Frederick Wiseman may have had fewer hits than the Fab Four, but the announcement that the legendary documentarian’s works are finally coming to streaming services is the cinephile equivalent of the Beatles arriving on iTunes. Wiseman, who received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Award in 2016 and is up for a Cinema Eye Honors award tomorrow night, is one of the great documentary filmmakers—which is to say, one of the great filmmakers—in U.S. history, but his movies, which are often too long for conventional theatrical release, have been difficult to see, especially as more and more people have found themselves doing without DVD players altogether.

That is all set to change as Wiseman’s filmography—nearly 50 movies, spanning the years from 1967 on—makes its way to Kanopy, a streaming service that offers membership through local libraries and universities. (There’s no firm date when Wiseman’s movies will arrive, but he says it should be sometime in the spring.) It’s a particularly fitting partnership given that Wiseman’s latest documentary, Ex Libris, surveys the New York Public Library as it takes steps towards the digital future. Like most of Wiseman’s documentaries, the movie feels both sprawling and intimate, traveling to dozens of the NYPL’s branches as it explores the vast reach and profound effect of one of our most treasured public institutions, and the challenges it faces in a world where the promise of infinite access so often turns out to be a hollow one.

I reached Wiseman at his home in Paris to ask him why his movies are finally coming to streaming after so many years, and whether the advent of digital has changed his filmmaking process for the better.

So how did the Kanopy deal come together?

I have a small distribution company, which I’ve had since 1970. Kanopy contacted Karen [Konicek at Zipporah Films] and asked if we were interested. We were already in the course of setting up our own streaming site, and thought that this would be a good thing to do because Kanopy has the experience in reaching the library and the university, which are a good market for my movies.

Is it going to be all of your movies?

It’s everything.

There’s established canon of your films: Titicut Follies and High School, more recently La Danse and In Jackson Heights. But there are so many that many people haven’t even heard of, let alone seen. Are there movies you’re particularly excited about people finally being able to catch up with?

I like Essene, which is a movie about a Benedictine monastery. I like Sinai Field Mission. I think both of them are very funny. And also Primate. I think a lot of them are well-known. The movies that are most popular are some of the older ones and some of the newer ones, but there’s a whole group from the ’70s and ’80s that I don’t think are particularly well-known at all.

You’ve been considered one of the great documentary filmmakers in the U.S. for decades, but it’s been difficult for many people to actually see your work, especially the older movies. Has that been frustrating?

They’ve been available on DVD now for about 10 years. It’s not been a lack of interest on my part. It’s been a lack of offers. For example, they were late getting out on DVD, and they were only put out on DVD when we put our own editions. Before that, the kind of offers that I would get were laughable. One of the smartest things we ever did was to put out our own DVD editions in America, because while we don’t have the resources of some of the other companies, the fact of the matter is the other companies offered … nothing! So to speak. By putting the DVD editions out ourselves, if people bought it, we got the money. And it turned out to be an enormously good market, just doing it on our own, the main publicity being through websites and people writing about it on the internet.

I imagine those sales have declined recently, though.

DVD sales? Yes, of course they’ve gone down.

A lot of people don’t even own DVD players at this point.

Right, that’s absolutely right. That’s one of the motivations for making it available through Kanopy and for us trying to set up our own streaming site.

It’s fitting that this comes on the heels of Ex Libris, which is in part about how libraries are dealing with the transition to the digital world. How do you feel about people accessing your movies digitally?

The honest answer is that I think any movie looks better on a big screen. But I’m excited to have the movies available, because not everybody can watch them on a big screen, and they’re not easily available on a big screen. So given that, I’m pleased that people will have a chance to watch them on their home television sets or their computers, or however they want to watch them. Better they see them than not see them.

You’ve talked about how Ex Libris has become an anti-Trump film, but that obviously wasn’t your plan when you started filming. What motivated you to make a movie about the New York Public Library in the first place?

The decision wasn’t made on the basis of any profound analysis. I sort of thought one day, “Well, I haven’t done a library yet.” So I called up Tony Marx, who’s the head of the New York Public Library, and asked whether I could come see him. I told him why, and I had a meeting with him, and he said yes—much to my surprise, actually. It was as simple as that. I didn’t really know much about libraries or the issues that they are currently facing, I just thought a library would be a good subject.

So the fact that two of your last four movies have been about a library and a university and you’re now making your films available through a service used by libraries and universities is just a coincidence?

It’s just chance, like so many other aspects of my films. The fickle finger of fate.

Has the transition to digital changed the filmmaking process for you?

No. There’s a lot of bullshit associated with that. The cost of the shooting of the film has gone down, but the cost of the postproduction has gone up. When I did the color grading on film, I did two, maybe three passes with a grader. Color grading digitally, numerically, takes two weeks, and the result is extremely good, but the costs are much greater. And I don’t edit the films any fast in digital. The only thing that’s different, and it’s not necessarily a good thing, is you can recover the shots faster. The choices are the same. You still have to think about the material. For me, it wasn’t lost time when I had to go to the wall, find a roll of film, put it up on the Steenbeck, find the sequence I was looking for, because the time to think about what I was doing was built into the time it took to thread it up and to find the right sequence. Someone once wrote a review of one of my films saying it would have been a better film if it had been edited on an AVID. That was absolutely hysterical. Because it showed absolutely no knowledge of what filmmaking is about.

The Kanopy deal is poised to make your movies available to so many people who’ve heard of your films but not seen them, or even haven’t heard of them at all. Is that exciting for you?

That’s what I liked. I like the idea of a whole new generation. The library aspect of it includes people of all ages, but the university aspect of it is a whole new generation who probably know nothing about my movies. It’ll make it possible for teachers to assign them and for people to see the rest, whatever amount they want to see.

Or if they want to see even more of your movies, just skip class.

I’m all for that.

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