Moving to HD, the Fuss over Nudity, and the Idea of "Reality Fiction"

Top: Dancer Baby Light with Choreographer Philippe Decouflà©

Out of Frederick Wiseman’s 37 documentaries, Crazy Horse, his portrait of the long-running French burlesque club, may be one of the few that could honestly be described as fun, as rewarding and accomplished as they all are. Captured in lush HD, it depicts the songs and dance numbers of the Crazy Horse, alternating them with backstage drama and showing the amount of work it takes to give the audience pleasure. Wiseman may be best known as a pioneer of the cinema và©rità© school of documentary, which minimizes the director’s presence, but here, he comes close to Busby Berkeley territory, as he acknowledges in the following interview. Working for the first time in HD, he shows new possibilities in the medium, as Crazy Horse matches the color and beauty of 35mm.

Note: Trailer contains nudity.

Few of Wiseman’s recent films have received wide distribution, although La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet was a minor arthouse hit, and Netflix, despite his repeated efforts, doesn’t carry them. All of them are available on DVD directly from the director at

Frederick Wiseman

Did you edit Crazy Horse yourself?

Yes, I always do so. For the kind of films I make, you make or break them in the editing room. You can have good material and screw it up. You can have mediocre material and improve it. Since there’s no structure or thesis that I have in advance, I discover the film as I edit it. Only by knowing the film intimately can I make these choices, so I have to do it myself.

The lighting of the Crazy Horse performances is remarkable. Did you add anything to it?

No. It’s all the Crazy Horse lighting. I took advantage of it, but nothing was added.

You stuck with 16mm and 35mm until this film. Why did you switch to HD?

I couldn’t get the money to shoot on film. There are no advantages to HD that I can see, except that it’s cheaper. It wasn’t really a different experience, except that I had to edit on an Avid. The choices on Avid aren’t really any different from those on a Steenbeck. You can access the material faster, but that’s not necessarily an advantage. I tried to give the movie a cinematic look in the color grading.

The colors are very lush, and I believe that it’s being shown in 35mm in New York.

It’s been blown up to 35mm for theatrical exhibition. If I had the choice, I would continue to work on film, but I can’t afford it. You can shoot 48 minutes on HD for 40 dollars. On film, that costs 1100 dollars. So that’s a big difference. On HD, you have instant rushes. On film, you have to buy it, process the negative, make a workprint, and all that.

How many hours of video did you wind up with, and how difficult was it to whittle it down?

150. It was no more difficult than it ever is. It took a year of editing to whittle it down. You have to be patient. A lot of the material is interesting, but you have to evaluate what you’re trying to do.

At what point in the filmmaking process does it become evident how long the film is going to be?

When the film is finished! No, it’s true, because the first assembly of the film is usually 30 or 40 minutes longer than the final version. I don’t set out with a running time in mind. The shortest film I’ve made is 73 minutes, and the longest is six hours. I don’t make films to match the needs of broadcasting schedules. I feel like I have a responsibility to the people who’ve given me permission to represent their experience, so therefore it has to come out at a length that does so.

What attracts you about filming institutions like the police, military and courts?

It provides a framework. It’s like the lines and net on a tennis court. Everything that takes place in this building or group of buildings that represent the institution is fit for inclusion. Everything outside is not.

Was there anything you captured during the Crazy Horse shoot you found creepy or disturbing?

I didn’t find anything creepy, and I wouldn’t use the word disturbing. Interesting is closer to it. People try to create erotic fantasies that have commercial value. I was struck by the fact that none of the numbers at the Crazy Horse suggest heterosexual sex. No men and women dance together, for example. The only men in the acts there are tap dancers or illusionists. Most of the numbers suggest either lesbianism or masturbation.

Were you familiar with the Crazy Horse before the project came about?

I was there once, in 1957.

Crazy Horse reminds me of Hollywood musicals. Did you ever think of it as akin to a backstage musical?

Yes. I didn’t think I was paying homage to any specific films, but I like Hollywood musicals and I was thinking of some of the Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley films I’ve seen.

It seems to me that there are films where you’re quite critical of the institutions you’re depicting and others where you’re much less so. Do you see your films that way?

Well, I think the point of view of the film is a reflection of what I find. To take an extreme example, the Bridgewater mental hospital , where I made Titicut Follies, is a horrible place. At the Paris Opera ballet, where I made La Danse, I have nothing but respect and admiration for the dancers and administrators. The film shows that.

Have you ever find it hard to keep up such a prolific pace?

It’s a sport. I try to stay in shape. You’re running around carrying heavy equipment for 12 hours a day for eight to 10 weeks. You have to be alert. I work out a lot. I used to play tennis, although I can’t do that [any more]. I exercise. I’m as compulsive about that as I am about filmmaking.

It seems to me that Crazy Horse may be one of your most controversial films, because of the amount of female nudity. I’ve seen it criticized by both conservative Christians and feminists on Twitter.

I haven’t seen any of that. I don’t understand all the fuss about showing naked people. All men and women know what naked men and women look like. We know what ourselves look like in the shower. If you’re in a relationship, you’ve seen your partner naked. You’ve probably seen your sisters and brothers naked.

You’ve resisted calling your films documentaries. You prefer to call them “reality fictions.” Why is that?  

That was a joke! More than 40 years ago, someone was doing an interview with me. It was around the time Truman Capote’s  In Cold Blood  came out. He kept referring to it as “nonfiction fiction.” As a joke, I told this interviewer my movies are “reality fiction.” It got used in the headline of the article and picked up. There’s a certain amount of truth in it, because the structural aspect is fictional, but they’re entirely based on real sequences and events. I was fooling around, because I didn’t like the term cinema và©rità©, and the joke has stuck.    

All photos courtesy of Zipporah Films.