“I Don’t Have the Prosthetics Team Sacha Baron Cohen Does”: John Wilson on his HBO Show How To with John Wilson
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John Wilson films How To with John Wilson (Courtesy Zach Dilgard / HBO)

In his short films, compulsive shooter John Wilson combines nervous voice-over with an impossible amount of non-fiction books. The joke often alternates between the unexpected metaphorical juxtaposition of the dialogue with recordings from its huge archives and sometimes nerve-wracking encounters with various eccentrics. This seemingly free-form structure, in which Wilson's voice combines many different elements, was established in short films with titles such as How to Walk to Manhattan and How to Keep Smoking. Now it has been expanded into the six episodes of the first season of his HBO series "How to With John Wilson". Nathan For You & # 39; s Nathan Fielder is an executive producer, and the family resemblance is evident in sometimes nerve-wracking encounters with strangers – e.g. E.g. an anti-circumcision activist who likes to undress on his bed and show off his foreskin stretching device. But the six episodes of How To keep twisting in other unexpected directions that hide their intentionally innocuous titles (the first is titled "How To Small Talk") – it's invigorating and surprising, a new direction for television comedy . The series premieres this Friday, October 23rd at 11 a.m. ET.

Filmmakers: What was it like to scale from your shorts to this TV series?

Wilson: It was definitely a challenge to make a more ambitious version of my internet shorts. It usually took me about a year to do ten minutes – working at my own speed and editing everything myself. Usually after about a year I know that I have enough material and funny moments and story to cut it all together. But with the show it was different because we had to scale and there is obviously a schedule that we have to stick to.

Basically, I always film everything I do as long as it's interesting. The writing process for the show took place parallel to the shooting. I'll have a few topics in mind as I walk around New York, whether it's scaffolding, or splitting the check, or small talk or memory. I have all these different concepts in my head mixing up every day and I try to think about what can possibly relate to each topic in my life. I knew initially that I wanted to do an episode about scaffolding, so I spent the whole summer before COVID under scaffolding, studying scaffolding and filming scaffolding myself. While I was filming, there was a breakdown somewhere, or some funny decoration, or I met someone with a scaffolding fetish. We work backwards from the good footage. So when I record a one-off thing, we usually try to figure out how to write a section up to that point to support it. I try to fill the gaps between the strongest moments with meandering thoughts.

In my old stuff, I would shoot 100% of it myself. Now I shoot about three-quarters of the way, and the other quarter is shot by a team of people from the second unit who are basically shooting for sections that I want to fill in. Let's say the scaffolding again: I've had people going out and also filming scaffolding, like the different ways it's decorated. I tried to get as many people as possible to film every day. Some days they may come back with nothing, but other days they come back with something out of the ordinary and we have to try to find a way to reconcile that. Usually all of the main stories I film and all the little things in between is a mix of my stuff and the second unit. But everything is real, and I really want to stress that – even with an HBO budget, the money was used to make sure it was real. I knew it would take us a lot of time filming and exploring, and that costs money. It's just a numbers game: the more time you have on the road, the higher the chances you will get something unique.

Filmmakers: Was everything shot on the show for the show or is there reused footage from your archives?

Wilson: 95% of it was shot for the show, but I've retreated back to my archive of iPhone footage. Everything has been on the table from my childhood until now, but we happened to shoot a lot of new things. A good percentage of the show is shot on iPhone. I shoot most of it on an FS5, but I wanted to make sure we could use iPhone stuff. That's just the nature of the show: we need to allow a recording device that is best for spontaneity. If we were to remove the iPhone from the show's aesthetic, we would cut a link off.

Filmmakers: I'm not sure I wouldn't have noticed that it was iPhone footage. Did HBO object?

Wilson: You would think HBO would care about the quality of the footage, but they don't. That's the great thing about the show: whatever was naturally recorded feels the most real. When I'm on my own birthday and filming it, I won't bring a large crew, just film with an iPhone.

Filmmakers: Can you walk me through the show timeline?

Wilson: We started formal production with the pilot in March 2019. The show was lit green in August. We shot through winter and into spring, ending around the time COVID started.

Filmmakers: Was there a framework for each episode before you started, or did you go through all six at once?

Wilson: There was no frame. We had to make up for everything as we moved on. I had my own weird method trying to scale, but there are a lot more things you have to do. There would be days during production when I just walk around and a man follows me. I look like I'm alone, walk into a shop or someone on the street and ask them what their jacket says, then talk to them for an hour and a half. After that, you have a team of people who come in and get clearance from them and make sure everything is okay. Then they realize what the show is. A lot of people don't know that I am the host. Usually a cameraman doesn't talk to the subject – usually that type of person loses their job, you know? I think it's kind of disarming when the cameraman is the host.

If I photograph people doing something funny on the street, either I or a field producer will go up to that person and tell them they were filmed for a documentary show about New York and we get a release. Pretty much everyone says OK, which surprised me – people react surprisingly well to the messages they filmed, as long as you're on par with them, telling them exactly what the show is, like, "Oh, I'm doing one Episode about small talk and you've had small talk on the street. “It is harmless if you tell them what it is because people's imaginations can go wild when you tell them they were filmed. You need to calm them down and tell them exactly what context you want to put them in. Confident this is a bigger, weird joke, usually for me.

Filmmakers: Does anyone ever ask to see the footage?

Wilson: Uh, not really. (laughs) Sometimes when you tell someone that you filmed them, they'll be asked and often I'll just show the footage and they'll say, "Oh, that's funny." All of these clips are a bit low-key on their own, but they're charged up once you fit them into this larger poem.

Filmmakers: As in your short films, there are plenty of jokes where your voice-over is over images that are puns, metaphors, contrapuntal, or otherwise non-literal illustrations of what you are saying. This is not a standard for the visual language of television comedy. Did that cause friction?

Wilson: I think HBO knew what they were getting into when they lit the show green, and knew that once they got the cut, the dailies would get an entirely different meaning. They had no idea how this material would be reinterpreted. So there was no real friction there. You can try to write really basic things in advance, but actually (it's about) sitting down with the footage and combing through days and days trying to find the funniest, most naturally interesting moments and trying to make a fun one Pun for finding shot, then working backwards from there. There is a hidden joke in everything. If you spend long enough on a piece of footage, you may find something fun about it.

Filmmakers: There's a passage about how untenable New York City is for many of its residents. If there's a bigger arc beyond the character of John Wilson, it's about whether or not it's sustainable to live here.

Wilson: I think it's an ubiquitous part of New York life, all these contradicting things. I wanted to represent New York as accurately as possible. That means showing a lot of cops doing silly things, huge piles of garbage everywhere you look – all the agony and ecstasy of New York City. I wanted to be able to show this spectrum on the show. A lot of fictional shows I see about New York try and try, but it's not the real New York, it's still fake. Even the most realistic depictions of New York on a fictional narrative show are unsatisfactory to me, and I feel like it doesn't really give me the actual New York that I see when I walk out my front door.

I was in Los Angeles a couple of years ago and went to a part that I had never been to before. I said, “This is one of the most filmed cities in the world. How do I know nothing about this part? I've never seen this before. "This is how I feel in New York sometimes. All the raw material is there, you don't have to dramatize it. That's why it's so easy to make a film in New York for nothing interesting: it already feels valuable even though it doesn't cost anything because it has that inherent value. There is so much sales in New York – more than any other city as it feels – which is tragic, but also makes what makes it my favorite subject because I am just myself take care of filming these things go away. As a conservationist, this city is like candy to me. Even if the show fails as a memoir or comedy, hopefully it will do well as the raw material of New York City in a very specific time.

Filmmakers: Can you talk about the structure of each episode? The first episode starts with a voice-over segment opening up and then goes into Travelogue Mode, which you can expect to show the structure of each subsequent episode. However, the second episode focuses solely on scaffolding.

Wilson: The theme definitely determines the shape. I love doing this type of documentary because there are no rules. It's a little sandpit for me to play with as many documentary tropes as I want, and I love them all. In "How to make small talk" I was able to do my more anthropological planet-earth thing, where I film people touching each other or making small talk on the street. But it's also a memory in a strange way. There is a travel report, which I also really enjoy doing. But in "Scaffolding" I have all of the "Scaffolding in Cinema" (assembly of scaffolding in the films). That was my Los Angeles Is Playing Itself section. I'd written a section like this in a few episodes, but the framework was the best and we didn't want to repeat ourselves. Nathan (Fielder) particularly emphasized that at the time, if it felt like we'd seen something before, we tried to take it out, so everything you saw felt completely new and you never really knew what would come next.

Filmmakers: Nathan obviously has experience working with a legal department and creating sophisticated scenarios. Have you changed the way you work because you had access to more of these resources? You have already put yourself in some difficult situations in your previous work.

Wilson: Our lawyers – Nathan's lawyers from Nathan For You – were amazing. Nathan really goes to bat, he really hates losing a legal argument, and we spent a lot of time talking to the lawyers to make sure everything was okay. I wasn't expecting to get away with as much as I would on a channel like HBO. There wasn't much accountability with my old stuff because I didn't expect anyone to see it, and it was pretty harmless and self-published. I didn't have a legal department to worry about and when I got sued it was just my problem. But HBO also came out with the Michael Jackson documentary (Leaving Neverland) just before we started filming How To, you know? Taking over the Michael Jackson estate is insane, and that seemed like very little legal liability compared to anything like that.

Filmmakers: While I refuse to go the anecdotal route, I would like to ask about the foreskin extender type.

Wilson: I'm not good with blood or anything, but it wasn't surgical, it was just a stretching device. I saw the device when the anti-circumcision guy told me about it. I looked up the device and was able to see how it worked. So I wasn't shocked to see it in person. I was just glad he was so open to me when I was filming so intensely. It's a product demonstration for him too, you know? It is his dream platform. I wonder if he will become an extremely successful manufacturer of (foreskin) restoration equipment. I don't have one myself. He offered to give me one, but he wouldn't give me one if he wasn't able to measure my flaccid and erect penis and I couldn't do that while we were shooting (laughs) so I never have get one. But maybe one day. I feel fine without it I guess.

Filmmakers: Has your approach to voiceover recording changed over the years?

Wilson: I feel like you hear my diagetic voice on the show more than ever before. I think it works fine. The quality of my voice (in both modes) is so great that you can tell what's going on. I was embarrassed by my voice very early on, so I put on a little more character. As a speaker, I feel a lot safer. I wasn't like that at first.

Filmmakers: I was scared to see you on the screen.

Wilson: I'm not really against being in front of the camera, I just don't find it very interesting to watch. I also think it's harder for me as a documentary filmmaker when people know what I look like, and I'd rather not let people know if I don't have to. But I don't want to pretend I'm that masked magician. I don't want to be obnoxious this way.

Filmmakers: It's funny because after talking to you I'm going to watch the sequel to Borat and it's like on earth how on earth are you getting captured by Borat at this late point in time?

Wilson: Yeah … I don't have the prosthetic team that Sacha Baron Cohen does.

Filmmakers: Their production was just ending when the lockdown occurred.

Wilson: The moment COVID happened, all production was stopped. At that moment, around March 14th, I knew that I might be the only production that could still shoot because I was 100% responsible myself. I could downsize to one person doing the whole show and it wouldn't look any different. I felt like I had to go ahead and get myself into some scary situations. But we all did – we all went to get groceries properly when the virus hit. This week's supermarket rush was probably the biggest super spreader event you know? Nobody wore masks, everyone was inside. My favorite piece in the world is art that was made in really massive historical moments. That's the 9/11 thing: You make a documentary about some firefighters in Lower Manhattan, then it becomes a traveling document about what people are doing on the street. We received the same diet with COVID media, but I hope more is emerging from people's individual experiences at this moment.


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