Boston-born documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman talks about his new project, Crazy Horse, which he shot in the legendary erotic cabaret club in Paris.
Last year, Boston-born documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman was awarded the first “living legend” award at The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) last month. Wiseman was back at IDFA with his new film, Boxing Gym (sold by Doc And Film). Now in his 80s (he was born on Jan 1, 1930), Wiseman is now arguably more fussed over and feted by festivals and distributors than at any previous stage in his career. His 2009 film La Danse, about the Paris Opera ballet, screened in Venice and Toronto and sold all over the world.
Wiseman’s new project, Crazy Horse, is represented internationally by Celluloid Dreams. He is currently editing the film, which he shot in the legendary erotic cabaret club in Paris.
One constant through Wiseman’s work has been the exploration of violence. Wiseman’s first documentary, Titicut Follies (1967), was about a prison for the criminally insane. Law And Order (1969) followed the Kansas City Police seeking to contain violence. Juvenile Court (1973) is about how young people who’ve committed acts of violence are punished. Domestic Violence (2001) is about violence in human relationships. He has also made several films exploring the military and its relationship with violence. As he puts, “I didn’t discover that violence exists in human behaviour but I’ve had the opportunity to record some of its manifestations.” Perhaps ironically, then, Boxing Gym - which explores the daily routine in a gym in Austin, Texas - is one of his gentlest and most uplifting films.
Boxing is a violent sport but the mood of Boxing Gym seems very benign by comparison with some of your other documentaries. From the kids to the trainers, everyone seems so “nice.”
It is showing what goes on in the gym. These are not professional fighters. Only a few people in the movie are professional fighters. The rest are those interested in boxing as a sport or as a way of staying in shape. But underneath all that is the reality that boxing is a violent sport. These are all nice people who are learning how to do that violent sport.
What about boxing attracted you?
It’s a very disciplined sport. That attracted me. It requires people to train a long time and to have control over their bodies. To some extent, it is the same thing that attracted me to dance. There is some relationship between boxing and dancing. The same kind of dedication and discipline and hard work is required.
What took you to that particular gym?
I didn’t really make a survey of gyms and pick that one. I heard about that gym, went to it, liked the way it looked and liked Richard Lord the owner, who you see in the film. He gave me permission and a couple of months later, I started to make the ilm. It was as simple as that. I was only there for six weeks. For La Danse, I was there (at the Paris Ballet) for 12.
Have you been surprised by how widely La Danse was shown at festivals and how many distributors picked it up?
I was pleased. I liked the making of La Danse, I liked the film and I have great admiration for the dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet but I have no idea what is commercial and what is not commercial. That’s not my forte. My real interest is in making the films.
What took you to Crazy Horse? Was it somewhere you frequented?
You mean during my sordid youth? I went to the Crazy Horse once, in 1957. My father-in-law took me. I thought it was an amusing place.
There were lots of beautiful girls doing erotic dances. Then, in the spring of 2009, I went back to the Crazy Horse to determine whether I would make the film.
Are there places like The Crazy Horse in the US?
I don’t know because I don’t go to them. There is a Crazy Horse now in Las Vegas but that’s only in recent years. In Boston, there used to be a lot of vaudeville and burlesque houses but they don’t exist any more.
I don’t think there is anything as classy and elegant (as The Crazy Horse) in the US. The dancers are all trained in dance/ballet conservatoires and are just not good enough to get in the major companies. What I did was follow a new show that was being put together by Philippe Decouflé, a very well known choreographer. I followed the rehearsals. The women who worked there were good dancers.
They happened to dance to some extent naked but that doesn’t mean they are not good dancers.
Is that distracting to you as a filmmaker?
Well, I have no objection to looking at beautiful women, dressed or undressed.
How had the club changed since you first visited in the ’50s?
The ownership had changed but the spirit was the same.
You made The Last Letter a few years ago but you’ve generally avoided fiction.
I’ve written the scripts for some American fiction films but I’ve never been able to get the money. I pursued it for one for a while but it’s a pain in the ass. You spend two or three years chasing the money for a fiction film. In that time, I could make three documentaries. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful use of my time. And I don’t like the people you have to deal with!