Frederick Wiseman. Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films.
Inside Thirteen recently spoke with master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman about La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, a captivating look behind the scenes of one of the world’s greatest ballet companies. Here, Wiseman discusses the Paris Opera Ballet’s contributions to ballet, differences between American and European ballet, and subjects that inspire him as a filmmaker.
Enter our giveaway for a chance to win tickets to an upcoming performance by the Paris Opera Ballet at Lincoln Center!
Mr. Wiseman answered our questions via email.
Inside Thirteen: Why did you choose to make a film about the Paris Opera Ballet?
Frederick Wiseman: I love the ballet. The Paris Opera Ballet is one of the great dance companies of the world and it was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to work with them.
In this excerpt from “La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris,” witness a meeting between Director of Dance, Brigitte Lefevre, and choreographer Emanuel Gat as they discuss casting for a piece by Mats Ek.
IT: As the oldest national ballet company in the world, what impact has the Paris Opera Ballet had on ballet internationally? Are there any influences or traditions that can be directly tied to the company?
FW: The French all but invented ballet and the POB has always been a source and inspiration for dance worldwide. The Russian and Danish traditions, for example, were both based on the French school: without the French we would not have La Sylphide, Giselle, Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. For a more complete answer to this question please read Jennifer Homan’s history of ballet, Appollo’s Angels.
IT: After your experience with the Paris Opera Ballet and previously with the American Ballet Theatre for Ballet, do any significant differences stand out to you between ballet in America and ballet in Europe, either in the rehearsal/production process, or the technique itself?
FW: The rehearsal process was quite similar. The major difference is that the Paris Opera Ballet has always received a large annual subsidy from the state while the American Ballet Theatre needs to constantly solicit funds. They are never sure of their annual budget, which is a major obstacle to long term planning.
IT: Do you have a favorite ballet of the performances and rehearsals you had the chance to sit in on for La Danse?
FW:Genus, by Wayne McGregor.
Dancers Marie-Agnes Gillot and Benjamin Pech rehearse “Genus” with choreographer Wayne McGregor.
IT: Your films have covered a wide variety of subjects, from the Memphis Juvenile Court to a boxing gym in Texas. What attracts you to topics for your films, and are there any that you find yourself particularly drawn to?
FW: I am trying to do a series of films about contemporary life as it finds expression in the necessary institutions in our society. I am attracted to subjects that are complex and where the complexity can be expressed in a film form.
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Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for Inside THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly Eastenders e-newsletter, and an Eastenders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.
We have all watched those sumptuous dinner scenes in Downton Abbey, but how many of you have wondered what it would be like to step through the looking glass and join them at the dinner table? And which character specifically would you want to join? I’d bet a lot of you would choose Mr. Bates. Even Daisy has said she’s always thought him to be a ‘romantic figure’. So what would it be like if he had the night off from his duties at the Big House, and could spend it relaxing, with someone else (i.e. you) waiting on him for a change? Well, one New York fan recently got that chance! You may have read that the Origin Theatre Company had a charity auction where people could bid on a special dinner date with Brendan Coyle, the actor who plays Mr. Bates. But you haven’t read the real story, until now…
First, let’s find out something about The Origin Theatre Company, which created this opportunity for one lucky New Yorker. I asked a few questions of George Heslin, its founder and creative director:
E20Launderette: Tell me a little bit about the Origin Theatre.
George Heslin: I founded The Origin Theatre Company in 2002. We looked at award winning playwrights all across Europe and we discovered that they have difficulty gaining access to the American market. Our mission became to launch award winning playwrights here in the United States. In ten years we have launched forty European playwrights. Ten years ago, we were the first company to produce the work of Enda Walsh, who just won eight Tony Awards for ‘Once’. His career began at Origin. And there are many other stories like that. Also, five years ago I started the Irish Theatre Festival here in the city. Held in September, it’s called First Irish and it’s a festival dedicated to Irish playwrights. In the last four years we have presented plays by 64 Irish playwrights in fifteen venues across the city.
E20: How did Brendan Coyle get involved with the Origin Theatre?
GH: My background is acting as well as directing, and twenty years ago Brendan and I worked together in the West End of London. We did two projects together. One was called ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ by Irish playwright Brian Friel. And we did a play called ‘Eligies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens’, by Billy Russell, an American playwright. Brendan and I became friends and we have remained in contact.
E20: Whose idea was the auction?
GH: It came up as a suggestion from a board member at a recent meeting, and somebody said, ‘don’t you know Brendan Coyle?’ I said yes, and I have to be honest, I didn’t realize how well known he was. (laughs) So we reached out to Brendan, and we had an auction prize of dinner at Claridge’s in London. Then we asked him if he would come to our fund raiser here so he did. And while he was here he announced that he was becoming our honorary patron so he’s very much a part of the family now.
E20: And the winning fan was supposed to wait on him?
GH: Yes. The idea was, you spend an evening with Mr. Bates, read him your favorite poems, you get to take him to dinner, you get to drop him home in a taxi, that kind of idea.
E20: Are there any plans for him to appear in any productions here?
GH: We’re definitely in talks at the moment. We’re probably going to do some readings later in the year, and then we’re looking at doing a production with Brendan, but nothing is confirmed yet.
The current production at the Origin Theatre Company is ‘Tiny Dynamite’, by Abi Morgan. If you’d like to find out more about the company or any or their productions, please check out their website.
OK, that sounds promising! But of course Mr. Heslin can’t confirm if Brendan will be jumping the pond any time soon: We all know that Bates has to get out of jail first! And if you’re keeping score, that’s now two Downton actors with plans to possibly tread the boards here in NYC. I say, keep them coming!
Sandra Doshner, winner of Origin Theatre Company's charity auction, with Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle after a carriage ride through Central Park. Photo courtesy of Sandra Doshner.
And now, let’s meet Long Islander Sandra Doshner, who participated in the auction and put in the winning bid of $20,000 for that dinner date with Bates:
E20Launderette: How did you hear about the auction?
Sandra Doshner: There was a piece in the Daily Mail in London that got posted on one of the fan Facebook pages the week before. At first it was supposed to be a meet and greet event, but then they added the dinner auction.
E20: What made you decide to bid?
SD: Placing a bid and deciding to go for the win were new experiences, but it was time to jump into the deep end of the pool. I wanted to meet the creative artist who had nailed the pivotal scene of Downton Abbey Season 2 with two words of dialogue and two tears. Everyone else in that scene were reacting to his anguished tone, expression and demeanor. It was fantastic.
E20: What scene was that?
SD: That was the courtroom (verdict) scene.
E20: Have you ever done anything like this before?
SD: This was my first time at an auction of any kind, but the time was right for risk taking and new adventures. And since it was for charity, and the prize was so special, I thought, why not take a chance?
E20: Is Bates your favorite Downton Abbey character?
SD: Yes, Mr. Bates is my favorite character. Julian Fellowes wrote the role with Mr. Coyle in mind, giving the show its lynchpin and conscience, with a stoicism taken to a degree just shy of emotional repression. Mr. Bates is the everyman in this social class study that is a microcosm of history and society. I always feel that Lord Grantham is the heart of the house while Mr. Carson is the rudder that keeps it true to its set course. But I really think that Mr. Bates is the moral compass. I am a fan, and student, of Downton Abbey. I say this to address the media labeling me Downton‘s #1 and biggest fan.
E20: Can you tell me a bit about your experience with the tabloids after this event? Did the media label you Downton’s #1 fan in a disparaging way?
SD: I took it that way. But I don’t think you can classify me as that. We don’t know, there could be people who are really into it…
E20: And dressing in costumes.
SD: Exactly. Or have more memorabilia than can fit in their house. I think I’m more of a student of the show than just a fan. I never expected the feeding frenzy that accompanied the initial release of my story. I had one phone interview and I gave my answers, but I told them what questions I wouldn’t answer. They made up answers anyway and we were off. The story went worldwide. Both the press coverage, and the public response, turned the whole thing mean, nasty and personal. It was bad enough that it almost soured a rather wonderful experience for me.
E20: Is there any other Downton Abbey actor you’d like to bid on for a similar date like this?
SD: They are all wonderfully talented actors, and I would love to meet each one and spend days chatting with them all. But once you’ve done something like this once, doing it again couldn’t be nearly as special. All the spontaneity and excitement would be gone.
E20: What did you two talk about on your dinner date?
SD: Anything and everything. It was a wide array of subjects and there was no lull in the conversation.
E20: Did you ask him any questions about the show?
SD: Just a little bit about Downton Abbey. Just general things. I didn’t think I should ask him specifics about the show because, first, I know they’re not supposed to talk about it – not that he was ever going to reveal any secrets about the show. He knows better. And second, I like to be surprised by the show, so I wouldn’t want to spoil any secrets for myself!
E20: Was the dinner date all that you hoped it would be?
SD: Absolutely. I entered the event with no pre-conceptions about how it would play out. The photos, the carriage ride with my reading poetry, drinks and a magnificent dinner at Per Se, all took on a surreal quality. Mr. Coyle is very charming, and a great dinner companion. He put me totally at ease. So aside from the evening flying by at what seemed like warp speed, it was more than I could have imagined it to be.
E20: You read him poetry? Did he read any to you?
SD: That was part of the set-up for the date: You had to read him poetry while taking a carriage ride through Central Park.
E20: Oh, so they told you to read him poetry?
SD: Yes, that wasn’t my idea. (laughs) But hey, I can do it. Why not? I mean it would have been nicer if he was doing the reading, but it was role reversal.
E20: Yes, it would have been nicer hearing that Irish lilt reading the poetry.
SD: Yes. But no, it was my Brooklyn accent reading the poetry. (laughs)
E20: I’m glad we could get that clear because the press mentioned you reading him poetry and I thought, that’s weird. They never explained that that was to be part of the date set-up. That’s a very important part of the story!
SD: Yes, it is! That’s why I said it was taking a risk. If you let your mind think, ‘this is an award winning stage actor and I’m reading him poetry’, you wouldn’t do it. But you just had to wing it.
E20: What other British shows do you watch?
SD: My history with Masterpiece and the British period dramas goes back to Poldark. I couldn’t really pick one favorite. The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead, I Claudius, and A Piece of Cake are right up there. And, of course, I love the comedies. My favorite will always be As Time Goes By. Even though I know all the dialogue, I still love to visit with Jean and Lionel. Other favorites include The Vicar of Dibley, Fawlty Towers, Mr. Bean and Monty Python.
E20: Are you a supporter of THIRTEEN and WLIW?
SD: Yes, I’m a member. It sounds like one of the commercials, but I don’t watch television much. I’m a sports nut, I’ll watch sports, but for television, I’m not interested in Snooki, the Kardashians, Housewives. I’m not going to waste my precious time with those shows. No, no, no, no, no. Give me The Jewel in the Crown, please. Give me Brideshead again.
E20: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this experience?
SD: I want to thank you for this opportunity to tell the story in my own terms and be sure that it won’t be turned into something that is wasn’t. It’s really been a great experience and I now highly recommend taking a chance like this to do something you really want to do. Go for it!
E20: Thank you for taking the time with us!
So Downtonians, if you could spend an evening in Sandra’s shoes and have dinner with one of the characters (or actors) from Downton Abbey, which one would it be? Please tell us below.
And stay tuned for my next Dispatch, which will be a veritable jumble sale of Downton Abbey news as well as a preview of some new British programs that those THIRTEEN truffle hounds have dug up for us! See you then. TA!
Independent Lens resumes their schedule with the broadcast premiere of We Were Here, a documentary that was short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar and directed by David Weissman, whose earlier films include The Cockettes. Here, Weissman discusses his inspiration for the film and why he chose to make it at this point in time.
We Were Here premieres June 20 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.
What led you to make this film at this point in time?
A younger boyfriend who had heard me speak many times about my experiences living in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic suggested that I make a film. I realized that there hadn’t yet been a film that explored the enormity of that history in a reflective way, and felt that it should be done by someone who had actually lived through it.
What impact do you hope We Were Here will have?
I hope that We Were Here offers a cathartic validation for the generation that suffered through, and responded to, the onset of AIDS; that it opens a window of understanding to those who have only the vaguest notions of what transpired in those years; and that it provides insight into what society could, and should, offer its citizens in the way of medical care, social services, and community support.
What challenges did you face in making the film?
We Were Here attempts to evoke an epic history through the voices of only five people, and accompanying archival material. Because of the enormity of the subject matter, my choice was to try to evoke a sense of time, place, and circumstance from a very human vantage point, rather than to attempt an encyclopedic factual history. The biggest challenge there is that the history itself needs to be adequately documented, the opportunity is to capture the human experience in a way that a simply informational film can’t adequately do.
Who do you think this film will most resonate with?
We Were Here, though it deals with how a specific historical experience played out in a particular city, speaks to basic human experiences that transcend the AIDS story itself. It speaks to how individuals, and how a community, responded to an unimaginable crisis. This is something that almost everyone will face at some point in their life, in one form or another. But more specifically, the film certainly will speak to the generation that was most directly affected by the onset of AIDS, and the current generation – particularly of young gay men – who remain at high risk, and know little of the history of AIDS, and how we got to where we are today.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I selected interviewees who were emotionally open and deeply thoughtful. The fact that I’d also lived through many of the same experiences allowed for a very deep conversation which I don’t think would have been possible if the interviewer was looking in as an outsider. Also my cinematographer Marsha Kahm and sound recordist Lauretta Molitor also lived through those years, and helped create a safe and compassionate environment for the interviewees.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
I’m sure if I looked back at the original interviews there would be plenty that I’d wish were still in the film. And there are certainly countless aspects of this complex history that the film isn’t able to address in 90 minutes. But I feel we were very successful in using creating an epic sense of history in a very intimate, personal way, which is exactly what I wanted to do.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Oh, there are so many … There’s a section in the pre-AIDS part of the film where Paul Boneberg is talking about a 1979 rally on Castro Street for Harvey Milk’s birthday the night after the White Night Riots. There are some beautiful photos of the crowd by Danny Nicoletta, and as the camera pans across the faces, Paul says, “We had no way of knowing that already AIDS was among us, probably 10 percent of the men in that crowd were already infected…” That section always makes me cry.
What has the audience response been so far?
What’s been most gratifying for me is that across the board, audiences and critics are expressing surprise that ultimately the film isn’t depressing, that it’s hugely inspiring and filled with love and compassion. For the interviewees, it’s been hugely validating to gain perspective on who they were in those years, who they’ve become because of their experiences.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
I’m not always motivated – sometimes I dread getting inspired because the process is so daunting. But like all doc makers, I can get overtaken by the sense that there’s a story that MUST be told, that if I don’t tell it maybe no one else will … and that I’m the right person to tell that particular story.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
It’s the perfect venue – freely accessible to anyone, presented without commercial interruption, and with integrity.