Frederick Wiseman is an American filmmaker best known for producing and directing nonfiction films depicting institutions and locations, such as recent works In Jackson Heights (2015), Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017), Monrovia, Indiana (2018), and City Hall (2020).
Born in Boston, Wiseman remains partially based in Cambridge via his production company Zipporah Films. His work has most recently been the subject of local retrospectives at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2017, and at the Harvard Film Archive in 2018 as part of the Norton Lectures in Cinema program.
Wiseman’s latest feature, A Couple (2022)—his first scripted film since The Last Letter (2002)—opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre this Friday, December 2. Adapted by Wiseman and co-writer/performer Nathalie Boutefeu from the writing of Sophia Tolstoy, A Couple depicts Tolstoy (Boutefeu) in a garden off the coast of Brittany reciting a monologue that primarily consists of messages addressed to her spouse Leo (and quotes from his responses).
Wiseman and I spoke via Zoom last week, from Paris and Brighton respectively. The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
DIG: By my count you’ve now produced three features outside your traditional nonfiction mode, all of which depict performances by an individual woman. Is there something that appeals to you about doing fiction or adapted work that specifically features women actors as opposed to male actors?
FW: I think it’s just chance in the subject matter. For instance, I wanted to do that chapter from Vasily Grossman’s novel [Life and Fate, adapted as The Last Letter], and that’s a letter written by a woman, so it seemed natural to use a woman actress. And for A Couple, it’s Sophia Tolstoy’s point of view, which again requires a woman.
Maybe if I do a movie about Ted Williams, I can get the late Carl Yastrzemski to play the part.
There’s no film I would line up for quicker. But to the larger point, isn’t this tendency also true of the stage productions you’ve done, like the Beckett play [Oh les beaux jours]?
It’s quite difficult to put on a play anywhere, particularly so in France. I’m a great fan of Beckett, and the Comédie was interested in Oh les beaux jours, and I was interested in Oh les beaux jours, so that coincidence of interests resulted in my directing the play with Catherine Samie in it. And Catherine was a natural choice because I knew her both from the time I made the movie about the Comédie, and because I previously done The Last Letter with her.
Part of why I open up along these lines is because I’ve been thinking about the funny contradictions of this film’s title, A Couple. Which for one thing, suggests a universally resonant vision of a union between two individuals, but then presents that vision entirely from the perspective of one woman on her own. Is there a sort of ironic quality to that, or am I perhaps misreading things?
No, you’re not misreading things.
When did the title come into the picture?
Early in the project.
To rephrase, your film and its title seems to suggest the truth of A Couple can only ever be understood from one side. Were you exploring the idea of an essential divide in all interpersonal dynamics?
I think it would be presumptuous of me to make a generalization about all personal dynamics. I’ve noticed they’re always complicated and not one-sided.
On a surface level, A Couple depicts what we might call a very traditional 19th or 20th century relationship dynamic—that of the grand creative patriarchal husband and the overlooked mistreated wife/mother/editor/assistant/housekeeper/etc. Did you make the film with the perspective that this dynamic is now antiquated, or with the perspective that it’s a modern reality you’re reflecting an older instance of?
Could you imagine having made this sort of film around a different historical figure who had experienced similar circumstances, or for you is the nature of this project completely specific to Sophia Tolstoy?
Well, I didn’t do a survey of married literary couples. Nathalie [Boutefeu] was reading the Sophia Tolstoy diaries, and she suggested I read them, so I did, and we both thought there was a movie there. I didn’t explore anybody else.
I ask because to me the film suggested at least a distanced reflection on many of the dynamics that played out among contemporary star-level storytellers during the past five or six years, with relation to the #MeToo movement, and its French equivalent [#BalanceTonPorc].
I’m hesitant to draw a direct line between the dynamics portrayed in A Couple and the specific instances of violent crime that motivated those movements. But I am curious if that was a connection that you and Natalie were conscious of at any point during the production.
We were certainly aware of it, but generally speaking we were interested in the difficulties that exist amongst people who choose to live together, and not just what may be represented by #MeToo. I don’t think the choice had anything to do with contemporary [issues]. It had to do with our observation of couples that we know, and was not related specifically to #MeToo or any similar movements.
Part of what suggested that context for me was the film’s presentation of Sophia’s monologue as an “open letter.” In fact, one could say that in conjunction with the original publications of her diaries, A Couple reframes at least some writing that wasn’t originally public into an “open letter” that’s now part of the historical record.
The open letter concept was so crucial to #MeToo and its related movements, as were questions about who gets to make statements in the public forum, and questions about who is truly heard when those statements are made. Does it seem accurate to say that A Couple makes a statement by allowing Sophia to make her statement?
That seems accurate, but I don’t think it’s particularly related to #MeToo. She also quotes him [Leo Tolstoy] a fair amount in the movie.
Also capturing the public consciousness simultaneous with these movements was the idea of going into literary history and film history to find woman artists and woman artisans whose contributions were undervalued in their own time—like for example Sophia’s transcription and editing. Was that a mission or subject for this project?
I think it’s an incidental result of making the movie, to encourage interest in her work. She wrote two novels, which are pretty good. They’re not the same level as Tolstoy, but they’re good novels. I think the film’s interest is more in their relationship.
I want to ask about the function of establishing montages and compressed time, especially in your recent work. It would be easy to draw a line from the way A Couple suggests a full day [with bookend shots of dark skies] to the way that City Hall, Ex Libris, and In Jackson Heights all suggest the passage of a few days by cycling from day to night to day to night and so on. But it seems to me that these two examples are serving very different functions in the respective films.
Nathalie and I didn’t pay any attention to the order in which the diary entries were originally made, or when the letters were sent. What we basically did was to treat their diaries, letters, and correspondence as [film] rushes, and take from them what we needed to construct a film.
In fact, I think in the film you don’t know whether it’s taking place in one day or several days. Those shots of the moon do reflect the passage of time, but there are also changes in costume. The logic of the film, as presented in the opening and closing sequences, is that she is writing [what is heard as the monologue]—and she may well have written that in one night, but she’s making reference to events over a period of time.
My experience of your films has always been so much about the need to put different scenes together in order to interpret and understand the whole. Yet my experience of A Couple, at least on first view, was slightly different—it felt more impressionistic and all-encompassing, as if individual scenes could represent the whole. Could you talk about structural nuances you found in the editing room and, and what the shape of the film looks like to you?
Unlike the documentaries, I knew what the structure of the film was before we started shooting, because we’d written the script. And we followed the script in the shooting—we pretty much shot in the order it was written. But that has nothing to do with the way it was edited. The editing issues had to do with my selection of shots both within a sequence and between the sequences.
For example, each scene was shot in a variety of ways. Something I wouldn’t have done, but can suggest here as an alternative for discussion purposes, would be to shoot each scene with a single wide shot of Natalie reciting the text. But I planned and carried through the plan to shoot in a variety of ways so that I would have some choice in the editing within each scene.
The sequences in the garden were planned in the sense that I knew the garden, because the owner of the garden is a friend of mine, and I’ve often visited her and stayed there in Belle-Île. For some of the scenes I picked a location in advance, and for others I picked the location the same day of the shoot while I took an early morning walk through the garden—to see what happened overnight, which flowers were blooming, if a tree had fallen, or whatever. And sometimes I spotted a location that I hadn’t looked at before. So the sequences were shot in a combination of places that were determined either before the shooting, or the day of the shooting.
Let’s talk more about the garden. I worked for many years as a security guard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in our hometown—
—so you’re responsible for the theft of the Vermeer?
I was born in 1990, the same year as the theft, so I was much too young to have committed it.
My point in bringing up the Gardner is that it made me extremely aware of the established symbolic references that certain flowers carry with them. What was your knowledge of flora and fauna going into this movie?
I don’t have any special knowledge of flora and fauna. It was more what visually appealed to me.
I noticed for example a cut to lilies, which are often symbolic of both love and grief, following a recitation on anguish. In terms of both staging and editing, was that kind of thing coincidental?
Sometimes it was coincidental, and sometimes not. I have a superficial knowledge of the symbolic significance of some flowers.
What of that knowledge came up during the production?
The lilies for one example, and the roses. But my principal effort in selecting the garden shots was to illustrate the beauty of the garden, to inform the viewer about the life of the garden, and to provide transitions that were useful from a structural point of view.
Were there specific painters who provided influence on the visuals of the film?
I have an amateur interest in painting, I don’t have vast knowledge. I know what I like, as the cliche goes. For example the other afternoon, I spent a very happy three or four hours in the impressionist collection of the Musée d’Orsay, which is fantastic.
When I look at a painting, I try to look at it from a structural point of view, and also from a formal point of view, considering the use of color and all the obvious things.
It strikes me to hear you bring up impressionist painting because in watching A Couple I was definitely reminded of some works by Monet and Manet. Obviously the digital photographic texture is very different…
Monet painted in Belle-Île, in fact. I don’t know if it’s the very same cliffs in water, but close to it. I saw them in the Musee d’Orsay the other day.
One last question about A Couple. I saw you considered placing a passage from Leo Tolstoy over the end credits—can I ask what passage that might have been?
I don’t remember exactly, but it was a very angry passage where he denounced everything about her. I didn’t think it was necessary, so I didn’t use it. I didn’t even record it—it was something we talked about as we wrote the screenplay, but it was never in the film.
You’re currently doing restoration work on your catalog of 16mm and 35mm features. I know you hear this same question every one or two years, but I still feel like I’d be derelict in my duties if I didn’t ask you about potential distribution for your unreleased 2005 film The Garden, or any other treasures from the Zipporah Films archives.
I hope The Garden will be released sometime in the next year.
I haven’t quite finished the restoration and color grading work yet. There were 32 films that were shot on 16mm, and one film shot on 35mm, and I’ve now done 19 of them. I’ll be finished this spring.
Across those 19 you’ve already done, are there any new feelings or reactions to specific films that you’d like to share, or that have stuck with you?
It’s rare that I look at a film after it’s finished, so I hadn’t seen some of the films for 40 or 50 years. It was a trip down memory lane. Although I do tend to remember the films quite well, because I spent so much time editing them. In some cases, I’ve seen things that I might have done differently. And in some other cases, I’ve seen what I now consider to be outright mistakes. I think I’ve learned most about how to make a movie because I edit my own movies. When you edit, you get to know the material inside out—because you have to, in order to make the hundreds of thousands of choices that are involved.
It was funny: I enjoyed looking at them, but mainly it brought back all kinds of memories of events during the shooting, people I met, and that sort of thing.