Frederick Wiseman and “Crazy Horse”

Frederick Wiseman, director and editor of CRAZY HORSE. Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

“I don’t do any research in advance.  The shooting of the film is the research,” documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman told me recently.  I had the privilege of sitting down with Wiseman to discuss his large body of work, in particular his new documentary “Crazy Horse,” which opened at Film Forum on January 18.

We had a wide-ranging conversation that went from the current “Crazy Horse” back to Wiseman’s breakthrough 1967 documentary, “Titicut Follies.”  We discussed lighting (Wiseman does not use any), shooting digitally verses shooting on film (“Crazy Horse” is the first Wiseman “film” to be shot digitally) and the nature of “truth” in documentary filmmaking (Wiseman dismissed “cinema verite” – true cinema – as a “bullshit French phrase”).

Wiseman said that he typically shoots 100 hours for one of his documentaries.  As for the “truth” Wiseman explained, “I figure it out in the editing.  I don’t start with any theme or point of view.”  He went on to explain, “My films all have a point of view, but that is expressed through structure.  The model for me is more a novel or a play than it is a TV news documentary.  I think all of my films have a distinct point of view and a narrative structure, but it is expressed very indirectly.  I try to cut them in such a way that the viewer has enough information to understand what’s going on but has to make up his mind about what’s going on even though, if they want to think about the way I put the films together, they’ll see what my point of view is.”

“Crazy Horse” concerns the eponymous world famous Parisian nude dance revue.  “I’m interested in dance,” Wiseman said.  “If you count ‘Boxing Gym’ (2010), at least a film partially about dance, ‘Crazy Horse’ is the fourth film on dance I’ve done.”  The others are “La Danse” (2009) and “Ballet” (1995).   “When you’re making a movie about dance,” Wiseman continued, “you’re trying to tell the story through movement and not words,” as opposed to a film like Wiseman’s 2007 documentary “State Legislature,” which is more about words.

As for the “Crazy Horse” nude dancers, Wiseman explained that they are all professionals who did not mind being filmed.  “There’s a mythology that they’re all call girls,” Wiseman said.  “They’re all women who went to dance conservatoires and, for one reason or another, did not make the big dance companies.  They’re normal 20 -30 year olds with boyfriends or married or whatever.  They like to dance and they get paid well and they’re well protected by the Crazy from ‘Stage Door Johnnie’s.’”

Regarding the difference between French and American attitudes toward nudity Wiseman said, “This business about nudity is really strange because everybody knows.  You know from your childhood on, if you have brothers or sisters, what the same or other sex looks like.  What’s the big deal?  Janet Jackson’s nipple shows for a half a second at the Super Bowl and the network feels it’s going to lose its broadcast license.  It’s crazy.”

“A lot of my films have to do with the various uses to which the body is put,” Wiseman said.  “‘Domestic Violence’ (2001) is about violence to bodies, ‘Titicut Follies’ is about incarceration of bodies, “Near Death” (1989) is about the death of the body.”

We discussed “Titicut Follies,” Wiseman’s documentary about the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, in which mentally ill men were cared for in appalling circumstances.  I asked him why an institution that was abusing its patients would ever allow a film crew on the premises.  Wiseman explained that the institution did not see itself as being abusive.  “They had no idea.  That’s why you get to make these kinds of films.  I think it’s true of all of us.  We don’t necessarily see ourselves the way other people do.”

On shooting digitally Wiseman explained, “That’s because I can’t get the money to shoot on film.  For example you can shoot 48 minutes on HD (high definition video) for 40 dollars.  For the same 48 minutes on film, by the time you buy the film, process the negative, make a one light work print and sync it up, you have spent 1100 dollars. It’s a big difference.”

Returning to the theme of truth, for “Crazy Horse” Wiseman said he shot 150 hours and that the finished film is a little over two hours.  I asked Wiseman if, with such a large shooting ratio , 75:1, what we are seeing in the finished film is the truth.  “What’s the whole truth?” he replied.  “I make no claim that my films are the truth.  They’re my version of the truth.”

“Crazy Horse” will be at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, until February 7.  Please visit for show times.

For more information on Wiseman’s films, including purchase and rental, visit


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on January 23, 2012, in Documentary, New and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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