How To with John Wilson: An Intimate Basement Interview

How to with John Wilson
October 23rd 2020

Screen Slate doesn’t usually hype new HBO shows, but How To with John Wilson is not a typical HBO show. It’s a port of Wilson’s distinctively personal variety of vérité filmmaking from an aggressively non-commercial distribution model to a platform with major exposure, a port with all the character-imparting bugs of the original but with improved graphics (MiniDV to 4K).

Wilson’s chief body of work is a series of “video tutorials” that he has been uploading to his Vimeo page, John’s Movies, since 2012. They range in scope from “How to Walk to Manhattan” to “How to Live with Regret” but quickly transcend their purported topics to become meditations on social conscience, the transience of things, and the ultimate vanity of all human endeavor. The HBO version feels the same in practically every respect, except with a better travel budget. And although Wilson hops around the continent, from Cancun to the Rocky Mountains, he always returns to the place that his work, at its core, is a series of “Do you like me?” notes to: New York City.

Wilson Pumpkins

I visited Wilson at his house in Ridgewood, where he had built a contagion-proof “indoor interrotron” out of a windowpane, a barstool, and a daybed in his basement. I sat him down and asked him the hard-hitting questions he wanted to hear.

Wilon Interotron

Cosmo Bjorkenheim: In the episode “How to Put up Scaffolding” you went into some New York history and some New York local law, and I noticed a couple of other things that were different about this episode than the previous work I've seen you do.

John Wilson:  Yeah. I think you actually learn something during this episode.

CB: In this one we're focusing on the scaffolding industry and how little accountability there is, and what sort of legislative windfalls made it possible for it to balloon into this behemoth industry. Are you gonna keep going in that direction in future work?

JW: I want to if the subject matter doesn't feel like it's been exhausted, you know? With stuff like small talk, or memory, they are kind of big umbrella topics. I like that "Scaffolding" is the most straight story, it sticks to the subject matter pretty closely the whole time. And, you know, I do fit the metaphor in there of scaffolding being this thing that represents something else to each person, where it's something that you've been doing for too long that you dislike. It was so much fun to research, especially the movie section. The “scaffolding in cinema” was like the Los Angeles Plays Itself part of this season, that I just wanted to indulge in for as long as I possibly could.

CB: Yeah, that section was a revelation. That’s something that you've dipped your toe into in previous work, like I've seen you film a TV screen here and there, but this is the first time you've systematically mapped out a motif in movies, and I love that.

JW: My editor Adam [Locke-Norton] had a lot of fun with that, too. He was really good at finding the funniest scaffolding scenes and putting them end to end and I just wrote a V.O. to go over it. But we had a bunch of assistant editors—LJ [Frezza] was one of them—looking through movie after movie trying to find good scaffolding shots. I feel like the scaffolding episode flexes a muscle that I want to continue to flex. I want to be able to completely switch gears and go into a different genre, or embrace a different trope, to go from Ken Burns to Frederick Wiseman to Bob Vila to Agnès Varda and back again. I loved being able to quote all the actual movies, because I wanted to prove that there were no real rules to this format that I was experimenting with. It's liberating because I wanted to prove that this could be whatever it wants to be.

CB: Yeah, it went from some kind of video journal personal observational documentary to something a lot more eclectic.

JW: But also very traditional documentary. Some of the most formally traditional stuff is really fun to dip in and out of. And then you can go off the deep end and it gets funnier the farther away you get from that.

CB: When I went back and looked at some of your older work, the first time I noticed you leaning into the more traditional documentary format was in "How to Act on Reality TV." That feels visually very different from any of the other stuff. Did you feel like that one was a big departure?

JW: "How to Act on Reality TV" was like—it was like a bowel release. I just wanted to shut up for a minute and let the material speak for itself, just do a pure vérité-ish experiment and leave the world of tutorial. It is still instructional, but it's got a different protagonist, which I liked. I try to brainstorm and to try to change things up. If I get the opportunity to make a second season, I want to have a capsule episode like that, where it's formally completely different from everything else but still has the same mood to it.

CB: Do you feel like if you're gonna do this again, this totally switching exclusively to a new idiom for one episode, would you consider doing it for the Los Angeles Plays Itself archival footage genre as well? Can you imagine doing an entire episode of that?

JW: I would love to, and I did write one or two other Los Angeles Plays Itself-esque sections into the series, but they didn't perform as well as the scaffolding one did. [Executive producer] Nathan [Fielder] wanted to do something once really well and then not return to it. He wants every joke idea to feel new to the viewer and not like we're revisiting anything, even visual motifs, like having too many awning jokes. He kind of wanted to keep everything fresh and make sure that you were in constant disbelief and constantly surprised by what you were seeing.

Wilson Switch

CB: I was wondering about the workflow. In "How to Clean a Cast Iron Pan" and "How to Walk to Manhattan," it feels like you edited something together first and then you just did a one-take voiceover where you're surprised at what comes up. Did the involvement of more camera people and more writers affect that flow?

JW: We did have a formal writers' room for the show, but it was more research-based. We would just have long conversations about these tentpole subjects, and I would also be shooting the whole time. I would come back with a piece of footage or some news about the subject we were talking about, and we were just like, Okay, so how do we use this one-of-a-kind piece of footage that he just captured? Like the cab that drove into the scaffolding in the scaffolding episode. [Associate producer] Clark Filio was biking around Manhattan and told me about that. And I immediately got on the subway in Ridgewood, went all the way to 42nd Street and went and filmed this whole cab scene. And then I come back to the writers room with that and it's like, Okay, how do we turn this into a punchline? So a lot of the writing still originates with the material.

Whatever the best, funniest, most inherently comic or perplexing material is, we've tried to build towards that. And if we have to shoot a bunch of stuff to get to that joke, that's where the B-unit comes in. I shoot probably three quarters of the show and the other quarter is shot by this extremely talented, versatile team of shooters, like Leia [Jospe], Chris Maggio, Britni West, Sandy [Soohoo], Nellie Kluz, and Nate Truesdell. Nate and I were talking about how Five Guys is funny, that's a funny awning. Maybe we could use that. And then we thought, Oh, New York is so big, there's probably a lot of "Guys" restaurants. So he went on a scavenger hunt to try to find One-through-Five Guys on awnings. And that became that joke. Everyone's contributing, we're all trying to think of the funniest way to use real material, because the heart of the show is that you can believe the images.

Scaling up has been really cool. I would usually take like a year to make 10 minutes by myself, but we have to make six 30-minute episodes over the course of the year now and it just takes a machine of people. But it hasn't really been that hard to preserve my voice throughout it because I'm still writing almost everything. Some of the changes are up to the last minute of the edit, things that we just place in. The final V.O. track has to be one of the last things that happens to the actual edit. Nathan Fielder and the editor and I—and [Michael] Koman and Alice [Gregory]—will debate wording and just make sure the grammar is right sometimes. But I like to try to improv while I'm recording the V.O. because I think that gives it the most life.

CB: I remember having the same feeling when I saw "How to Make Small Talk" a while back. I'm really surprised, kind of astonished, that post-scaling-up you were able to preserve the voice and mood of the far more personal shoestring versions of this.

JW: Well when we made "Small Talk," we finished off a version of the pilot and once we finished watching it, I was just so sad and so upset, and Fielder was just like, What's wrong? and I was like, This, just, this isn't mine. And I had to go into a hole by myself with all the material and sit for a few days and try to write and make sure that it was personal. And then I reemerged, and we had to kind of workshop it from scratch again, to make it feel personal, because it is super delicate. I couldn't stand watching something that didn't feel sincere. It's obvious to me when I'm being puppeteered in the tone of my voiceover. And I don't want it to feel inauthentic. So at the end of the day, I need to make sure that I actually believe everything I'm saying, that's the most important part.

CB: I feel like, in your work, there's a tension between the desire to catalogue trivia and to turn it into something else that says something about the city more broadly, or even America more broadly. But really the moments that I find myself treasuring the most in your work often is this meticulous cataloguing of these little trivial moments.

JW: Yeah, but it's also — Fielder kind of taught me restraint in a way. I could just go endlessly with these things, and I think that he made sure that I only use the best stuff. At the end of the day, even if the work fails as a memoir or a comedy, I hope it still succeeds at the very least as raw footage of New York and all these little things that are fun to notice. And that's why I wanted to keep all of the material kind of naked, so it can be pulled for archival purposes.

CB: Yeah. I find myself often wishing that there was a director's commentary version of this where—

JW: [Laughs] Like a V.O. over my V.O.?

CB: Yeah, you're V.O.'ing over your V.O., completely killing the novelty of anything that comes up by explaining what the context for everything was, because there's some inexplicable moments that there's just a fragment caught and you have no idea what came before and after or why this was happening. Like I forget which episode starts with the NYPD flipping a car right side up.

JW: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah! I was laying in bed, it was probably seven in the morning and I get a Citizen notification on my phone, and it just says “Overturned car at Wyckoff and Menahan” or something, in Bushwick. And I just immediately get on my bike and I almost fall off, you know, I have my camera, and I just bike over there. And the very first frame of that shot is the moment I started recording when I got there. They had just started flipping the car once I got there. And then it was actually a whole scene. Right after the car was flipped, some random guy came up and started trying to fist fight the police officers, and they immediately arrested him and it became this really dramatic scene. And I filmed the whole thing, but obviously only the car-flipping made it into the scaffolding episode. But each shot, I would love to talk at length about each one.

CB: I can envision a live event where you're going through one episode for like two and a half hours and pausing after every shot and telling the story of it.

JW: But the whole thing is a bit of an illusion, too. Not that anything's fake, but if you add a few frames to any one of these shots, it may totally shatter and demystify it, and that's why sometimes the shots are the perfect length. Knowing too much might actually blow it.

CB: It feels like the editors' craft really comes through in a big way in these, because the timing of the punchlines and the whole structure is just so clearly determined by the pacing of the editing. It really feels like the editors are really key in determining the feeling.

JW: I had to teach Adam and Tessa [Greenberg], my other editor, the language, which they picked up pretty quickly. Adam edited all of Nathan for You, so he had this very specific skill set, which I wanted desperately, and I think he delivered in a huge way. He likes kind of testing your patience sometimes.

CB: There's a lot of moments where you keep your camera on somebody for long enough and they just start saying something completely—

JW: Like alien impregnating?

CB: Exactly. That's one of the constantly surprising elements of the show, that you'll meet somebody in a certain context and then it turns out that there's this whole dark underside to this character. Like risotto guy with the aliens in Roswell. Is that a deliberate choice? That you're kind of a psychoanalyst with a camera and you just leave it on somebody for long enough and let them start revealing things about themselves that they couldn't have anticipated getting into?

JW: I think there are a number of factors that contribute to that. People aren't used to having a conversation with the cameraman. Sometimes I'll go through an entire interview and people will be like, So who's the host? And I'll be like, Oh, it's—I'm the host. It's my show. And they're like, Oh, I just thought you were a really talkative camera man. Which I think is why some people don't take me seriously and will open up sometimes. So yeah, being the technician in a Nick Broomfield kind of way I think is kind of cool, how he's always got his boom mic on him. In documentaries and shows today they cut away from people too fast. You know, you want to be able to sit with someone for a little longer and they kind of reveal who they actually are the longer you record them. If you added two seconds to every shot of every reality TV show, it would be an awkward mess and you would see how truly weird a lot of these people are, but everything is over-edited these days and we just don't get a good sense of who people are anymore.

CB: One theme that runs through everything that you've shot is the NYPD, what a ubiquitous presence they are in New York and the kind of shenanigans they get into. I feel like “ The Road to Magnasanti" has the first really strong thesis statement about the NYPD, that long sequence of—

JW: All their vehicles and them arresting hot dog vendors and stuff?

CB: —but you've never dedicated an episode to them. Do you feel like you're resisting the urge to more directly deal with that?

JW: I think that other people are dealing with it in much sharper ways. You know, I like to include a lot of police officers because that's just part of depicting New York accurately. You know, you're under the constant supervision of these walking punchlines. I really like including them because they're always doing something goofy and I want to make sure that they feel observed. I was thinking about maybe making an episode about cops, but I don't think I'd be able to bite my tongue if I made an actual episode about them.

CB: To go back to “The Road to Magnasanti” for a second, I feel like you captured a moment of New York's history in that film. All the trends of overdevelopment and social atomization that you depicted in it are obviously still with us, but I feel like the New York that I see in “The Road to Magnasanti” is very different from the New York that I see now. I was wondering if you had thought about that shift?

JW: I mean, they never stopped building luxury developments all throughout the pandemic, you know. We're still approaching Magnasanti levels of development and alienation. But I also think New York is more interesting now than it’s been in over a decade. I get up and I just go out and start filming everything I see, and everything feels new again. They have these really ingenious setups all over. You walk outside and there’s nowhere to park anymore, everything is a box on the street. On the same street you’ll have a restaurant and then a sukkah and then some ConEdison monstrosity plywood box, and I don’t know which one is a restaurant or a religious ceremony. A sad but great thing about New York is that it’s the highest turnover of any other city, whether it’s architecture or people. That makes the material that you shoot so much more valuable because it feels like you’re capturing something that will never appear again in this form. Each thing you shoot becomes supercharged with the threat of turnover.

CB: So much of your show and your previous work is obsessed with documenting the temporary, ad hoc aspect of life in New York, whether it’s scaffolding or homemade anti-animal devices, and I feel like the new New York is so rife with that kind of ad hoc construction and slapdash solutions that I imagine that it’s a paradise for you to walk around in.

JW: One thing I’ve noticed is that all of the restaurants are sharing the same space as the trash now. I have so much footage of mattresses leaning up against fine dining places. I was in the West Village the other day, and the Village Tavern has five flat screen TVs with tripods all set up in the most awkward way with nasty cables, and it’s all at the service of these two dopes watching a soccer game. It’s sad that it’s every man for himself right now, but it’s also led to some really visually exciting stuff.

CB: It’s a mass generalization of the decorating-the-scaffolding-outside-my-store phenomenon.

JW: Exactly. I want to use it in something, but I want to come at it from a different direction. I don’t want it to just be a one-note thing about outdoor restaurants. The way that they’re constructed should teach me something else about something I’m going through.

CB: The only repeat shot that I’ve seen in your whole corpus is Francy Restaurant.

JW: Well, it’s a bit of fan service.

CB: Is it an easter egg?

JW: It’s for the people that enjoyed it the first time. It’s like seeing an old character, it’s like seeing agent Coop again.

CB: In “How to Split the Check” I was pleased to recognize one of the locales, which was Metro Diner on 99th and Broadway. My grandma lived around the corner from it for decades and we used to go there all the time.

JW: We had a total restaurant blitz. We had people in restaurants all over the city filming hours and hours of really dry footage of people going through all the motions of dining. Metro Diner was one of the restaurants that was OK with us filming all their customers all day, which was kind of rare. But when we had the opportunity we exploited it.

CB: Has a subject ever assaulted one of your second unit camerapeople?

JW: Chris has been spit at, I’ve been pissed on.

CB: We’ve talked about some of your influences, like Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself which we’ve talked about a lot in the past and I know that it was a big one for you.

JW: Also some of your own personal work I would say is an influence. The way that you make the New York compilations, like “Not New York” of things being faked as New York. I think we share a similar obsession. I think I was making the scaffolding episode around the same time as you were having your event at the Reliquary and it was great to absorb all of this great stuff from someone with the same exact mindset and set of skills.

CB: I feel like it’s all part of the same project of cataloguing all this trivia about New York and representations of New York and seeing if they add up to anything.

JW: It didn’t end up making it into the episode, but there was that one clip that you had of a fake New York [from Street of Chance]. The whole plot of the film was that a guy is walking down the street and scaffolding collapses and he has a concussion and amnesia and he can’t remember anything. So the whole plot is because of scaffolding failure. There’s so much scaffolding shit. Like there was a version of Jesus Christ Superstar we found where John Legend stars as Jesus and the whole set is scaffolding and he’s crucified on scaffolding. We tried to fit it in but the imagery was just way too loaded and we ended up using the porn instead.

But influences? Yeah, there’s a lot that goes into it. It seems like a simple format but I just wanted to be able to mash together all these documentary styles at once. Like just giving someone a mic, man on the street—that’s broadcast journalism. It’s its own artform. Then you have Ken Burnsy kind of stuff. Then you have The Decline of Western Civilization Part II. Incredible. I was just listening to a podcast with Penelope Spheeris. She was on Marc Maron’s podcast, and he was like, What’s your number one influence? and she was like, Frederick Wiseman, and then just goes on to talk about Frederick Wiseman. That was so amazing to hear, that she was on the same wavelength as I hoped she would be. There’s that one scene where she’s interviewing Ozzy Osbourne as he’s making eggs and talking about all this depraved stuff and that’s when I realized, oh, it makes it way more dynamic when your subject has something to do when they’re talking to you. They feel less awkward. Or if they have a microphone to hold. It gives them something to do with their hands. It feels like they understand the relationship, and there’s less artifice.

CB: My last question is, have you heard any good jokes lately?

JW: The one that I just heard today was, “I told my doctor that I broke my arm in two places and he told me to stop going to those places.”

CB: Thank you, John. I appreciate your time.