Interview: Frederick Wiseman on A Couple
This article appeared in the November 11, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
A Couple (Frederick Wiseman, 2022)
“If the world could write itself,” Isaac Babel once remarked, “it would write like Tolstoy.” Something similar could be said about Frederick Wiseman, the legendary nonfiction filmmaker who has studied almost every institution that has meaningfully shaped American civic and social life over the past 60 years, including penitentiaries, schools, municipal governments, community organizations, and cultural foundations. Like Tolstoy, Wiseman often works on a vast scale, sometimes with hundreds of people appearing in a single film. Less frequently acknowledged, but just as remarkable, is his ability to capture the attitudes and predicaments of individuals as not just the effects but also the instruments of the systems in which they find themselves.
Wiseman’s new film, A Couple, in theaters this week, is an example of this latter tendency. It departs from the typical Wiseman project most obviously in that it is a narrative feature (only his third to date), with a script adapted by the director and his collaborator Nathalie Boutefeu from the letters and diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, Count Leo’s wife. Though a footnote to history—unless we’re speaking of the history of famously miserable wives—Sophia was a writer and artist in her own right, not to mention the mother of Tolstoy’s 13 children, the manager of his estate, and the copyist of his literary work. Here her words are performed by Boutefeu in a seaside garden on Belle-Île, an island off the Brittany coast. The garden setting, in the full riot of spring, is more than a metaphor. Like a chorus, it holds Sophia and rails with her, while also offering moments of unexpected friction—at one point, she has to shout to be heard over the waves crashing below.
Institutions in Wiseman’s films are more than settings: they are lived experiences made and remade in every small conflict and negotiation among the individuals that occupy and operate them. Marriage, of course, is also an institution. The irony of Tolstoy’s far-reaching gaze is that he missed the person who was closest to him. Seen here, through Wiseman’s eyes, Sophia is alive with protest and pain, as constant and volatile as the sea. Sophia originally wrote her diary as a first-person account, mentioning her husband in the past tense as “he” and “him.” Wiseman and Boutefeu have switched the perspective to the second person and the tense to the present, so that she is now addressing her husband as “you.” Every sentence in this film is an assertion, a lament, or an accusation, sometimes all at once: “your life is intense and rich, and so is mine.”
Last week, I spoke with Wiseman about A Couple via Zoom, with me at home in New York and him in the back seat of a car in Paris. There were the typical connection issues—“I’m holding the phone to my nose,” he declared at one point—but they interfered only minimally with our conversation, which was typically brisk, to the point, and full of good humor.
I wanted to start by talking about Tolstoy, who happens to be one of my favorite authors. I’ve often thought about Tolstoy in relation to your work, as an observer of social life and institutions—life on a large scale as well as on a small, human one, down to the inner experience of the individual.
My admiration for him as a writer knows no bounds. I did this project because Nathalie Boutefeu—with whom I had previously done a play based on Emily Dickinson—was reading Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries and suggested that I read them. We both came to the conclusion that there was perhaps a movie in those journals about their marriage. Then we both read all of the journals, his letters to her, and I also read a couple of novels she wrote. What we did was basically select passages from the diaries, the notebooks, and the letters that we thought reflected the couple. The text in the movie is in no way related to the real order of the events. It’s a synthesis… We worked on it together on and off for eight months and shot the film in May of 2021.
I’m actually wondering if you could hold the phone… it seems maybe something’s covering the microphone.
I’m holding the phone to my nose.
The last part came through very clear. [Laughs] For the film, you changed the text from the first person used in the diaries to the second person. Does that mean it’s addressed to Sophia’s husband, or some other “you”?
Some of it is addressed to her husband, and some of it isn’t. We did it all in the present tense, though most of it was written in the past tense. We changed it to give it a contemporary feel, because the situation, while related to married couples in the 19th century is, alas, also very contemporary.
Why did you feel this material needed to be made into a film, as opposed to something made for the stage or some other format?
A film can be shot from a wide variety of angles and provides the opportunity to locate [the action] physically. If we had tried to do it on the stage, it would have looked cloying. The garden participates in the conversation. It is a third character in the film.
What does it mean to set Sophia’s expression about her marriage in the midst of spring? I couldn’t help but think of the oak tree in War and Peace, which is a symbol of endurance and regeneration.
It needed to be Spring in the garden for very practical reasons: the garden is in full bloom and very beautiful. I wanted to suggest the beauty of the natural world and the violence that also exists within it, because the daily life of the garden is the Darwinian struggle for existence. The struggle for existence in the garden exists simultaneously with the struggle between men and women, between Sophia and Leo, which is also also an aspect of existence in nature.
You often record sound yourself on your shoots, manning the boom mic instead of sitting behind the camera. I’m interested in that choice, because it’s not typical for a director. Does the way you record mean that you listen, more than look, during a shoot?
In this movie I did not do the sound. In all my documentaries I’ve done the sound, but in this movie I didn’t want to do it because I was too busy with the performances. I also didn’t do the sound in The Last Letter . As far as documentaries are concerned, during the shooting, I’m conscious of both the sound and the picture. Unlike a documentary where there’s no opportunity to reshoot, in the fiction film we can do it a number of times with different framings and angles.
You’ve said before that you don’t like the term “documentary.” Did this project, being something other than a documentary, give you a different understanding of your practice?
It’s just different, that’s all. In my other films, nothing is staged. Here, everything is staged. I never ask anybody to do anything in the other films. Here, there was a written text. I don’t like the word “documentary” because it comes with a tradition of something that’s meant to change you and be good for you and wake you up. I much prefer the word “movie,” but that’s a minor point. In my documentaries—for lack of a better word—I try to create a world through showing many people. In a movie like In Jackson Heights or At Berkeley, there’s at least a hundred people, or probably more. Whereas in the fiction films I’ve done, it’s the reverse: I try to create a film from the life of one person.
I saw some moments that one could call “documentary,” moments of unpredictability, in A Couple. There’s a scene where Nathalie is throwing petals from a flower into a creek, and she seems startled by something. I wondered: did she get her finger pricked by the stem? But it didn’t seem staged. There are a couple of moments like that that feel really spontaneous.
Some of it was improvised, although not much of it. I’m glad to hear you say it appeared to be spontaneous, because it was planned. That’s a tribute to Nathalie’s acting.
When her scarf is snagged on the branches—
Oh, that’s an accident. When she trips it’s an accident, and I kept it because I thought it worked.
The way institutions come across in your films has to do with the negotiations between people at every scale of the system. Thinking about A Couple, does a marriage also primarily consist of a series of negotiations?
Marriage, if I’m going to relate A Couple to my other films, is the institution that’s the subject of the film.
I wonder why you didn’t call it A Marriage, or something else? The film’s title, A Couple, would seem to set up a somewhat different expectation of how two people relate to each other.
I don’t know, I like A Couple. A couple of what? A couple represents a marriage, people who live together, a couple of people.
They have a working relationship, too.
She transcribed most of his writing, raised the children, and kept track of the family finances. She fulfilled most of the daily activities that are usually shared between couples. I didn’t want to call it a dysfunctional couple.
It seemed imbalanced, certainly.
They did have 13 children, so there were moments of passion.
I’m curious how you know when to cut. I know a lot of your films come together in the editing room.
It’s hard to answer that question because it’s related to my whole response to the sequence—emotionally, physically, visually. On the one hand, I’m interested in contrast and in establishing a rhythm. A movie has to have a structure and a rhythm, in the sequence and between sequences… I laugh because I don’t know how to describe it more than what I’ve said. It’s so subjective—not something I’ve ever tried to put into words. Basically I’m tapping my foot and listening to what’s going on in my head.
I’ve heard editing described this way before, something more like music and intuition than laying things out analytically.
It’s both. Sometimes I arrive at a cut through logic, and other times it’s through intuition. I’ve learned to pay attention over the years to the thoughts at the edge of my head, to my associations. Oftentimes I get my best cuts that way, or what I think are my best cuts. I’ve also dreamt cuts. I’m taking a shower and suddenly, the solution to a problem I hadn’t adequately resolved comes into my head because my subconscious is working on the issue. So it’s not just formal logic that is important. I have to think, whether it’s delusional or not, that I understand every sequence in a movie, why I’ve chosen it and how I’ve edited it, it’s place in the structure and what it represents in a literal and abstract sense. Even if I may have dreamt a sequence, I have to be able to rationalize it.
I could go through every movie I’ve made and explain to you why every shot is there, what I think the sense of the sequence is, how it’s related to the sequence that precedes it and follows it, and how the first 10 minutes of the film are related to the last 10 minutes of the film. That’s something I have to be able to do before the film is finished. I’ve never done it out loud, with anybody present. But I demand that of myself and that’s how I know that I’ve done the best job I can with the material I have, and the editing is finished.
What’s your shooting ratio?
On this the shooting ratio was low. I had about 40 hours, and the movie’s only an hour. So, 40 to 1. My shooting ratio is usually 60 to 1. But this is not comparable because the same scene was shot many times, in different ways, so I would have material from which I could edit the sequences.
Do you have plans to continue working in fiction?
I have no idea. My life is governed by chance. I do what I feel like doing at the moment, an idea that occurs to me at the moment, something I stumble across or see or hear about. I’ve given in and relaxed in accepting the enormous role that chance plays in my life.
Genevieve Yue is an associate professor of culture and media at the New School and author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2020).