“You should never try to make a beautiful thing with cruel tactics.”
Stuff John Wilson Considers Cool:
All of Allan King’s Movies
Specializing in fake laughter
The abridged plot of You’ve Got Mail
How To With John Wilson is not a guy-in-the-street show, thank goodness. It’s a documentary, but isn’t telling a single story. It’s maybe more like a moving poem, a filmic essay in the vein of Chris Marker or Agnès Varda—meditative, drifting, with images at the forefront and a humorous, lighthearted voiceover to guide the viewer along. At the creative helm and behind the camera is John Wilson, resident of Queens and archivist of all the remarkable banalities of the five boroughs of New York City—and beyond.
The art in Wilson’s show lies in the edit. Every day life is made strange with his cuts, but reality never feels manipulated. Even though we’re watching life through a lens, the entire show seems to be asking us all to let down our defenses and show everything we got to one another.
I called John at noon on a Wednesday. He talks in the second person like his show’s voiceover, like a committed observer. I wanted to talk about You’ve Got Mail, the Nora Ephron movie about love amidst a storied age of used bookstores. I wanted to know if part of his project was to capture our continually disappearing city. If he thought it was true at all that New York exists in a constant state of regeneration, or if it’s always been and always will be ultimately the same. He hadn’t seen the movie. So instead I took a cue from his show—what could I discover by remaining open, enthusiastic, and follow a conversation without judgment to its very end, despite and in pursuit of the awkward?
PHONE RECORDER: This call is being recorded.
JOHN WILSON: Okay.
THE BELIEVER: Hi, is this John?
JW: Hey, what’s up?
BLVR: Good morning. How are you doing?
JW: Pretty good. Just looking through some footage I just shot, trying to make a bunch of selects and stuff right now while I have some downtime.
BLVR: You’re working on the second season already?
JW: I’ve just been shooting continuously since I wrapped. I guess I’ve never stopped.
BLVR: I haven’t even left my apartment today.
JW: Yeah, well, maybe you should become a video editor and you’ll never be bored.
BLVR: Actually, since watching your show, every time I do leave the house, I don’t bring anything with me, which is the opposite of what you do, just so that I can concentrate on looking. But then I don’t have any memory of what I see. At least I had the moment.
JW: There’s something to that. It’s a strange impulse. And I kind of wish I didn’t need this video camera as a crutch. But I feel this sense of loss when I don’t record. You know, when you think of a really good idea and then you forget the idea and it never comes back to you? It’s that feeling, even though you saw it and you experienced it. I don’t know, there’s something about [the moment] being gone forever that’s painful.
BLVR: My friend and I were talking yesterday about the experience of looking through old photos. Neither of us looks at old photos. We couldn’t figure out what it is about the past that disinterests us.
JW: You don’t feel any impulse to look through your old photos?
BLVR: No, never.
JW: Do you save them, though?
BLVR: So this all came up because two days ago, I spent three hours deleting photos from my Instagram account. It was nice to visit myself all the way back to, you know, 2013 or whenever it was that I started on Instagram. But I hadn’t looked at those photos since the day that I posted them. Then I was asking myself, What are these for if I’m just posting them to the void and I’m never even looking at them? They just exist to exist.
JW: It’s hard to say what permanent place, if any, they should have. You think all this stuff is permanent. Like, you thought all your MySpace photos were permanent because you posted them. It’s like, okay, yeah, of course, I’ll never lose these because they’re on MySpace. But now they’re impossible to access. I’m so curious to see what my profile must have looked like, but I’m also kind of glad I don’t have access to it.
BLVR: Or my first Livejournal account. Anyway, have you seen the movie You’ve Got Mail?
JW: I actually haven’t.
BLVR: Maybe we could still talk about it for a little bit.
JW: I mean, I can imagine what happens in it. I’ve seen it referenced culturally enough times. Unless there’s something super specific you want to talk about in it?
BLVR: I was thinking about it because in a lot of interviews you talk about how you’re obsessed with recording New York because it feels like it’s disappearing; you want to archive the small things in New York. And that whole movie is about a fake Barnes and Noble, a big bookstore called Fox and Sons, taking over a street corner in the Upper East Side and putting a small bookstore around the corner out of business. There’s also a love story.
JW: Who’s getting the mail?
BLVR: Well, the guy, who’s played by Tom Hanks, and the woman, who’s played by Meg Ryan, meet in a chat room and communicate through email.
JW: Cool. Do you think there’s a kind of a trail of crumbs that leads from You’ve Got Mail to my show?
BLVR: Yeah, both seem like documents of New York changing and the importance of keeping an archive to preserve something.
JW: Yeah, I like that idea as a subject.
BLVR: I have a couple other questions, too. I was curious if you really dump your food down the toilet.
JW: You think that was a prop toilet? No, that was my real toilet. I don’t know why that’s so shocking to people. I mean, stool is food.
BLVR: Well, there are a couple of moments in the show where I wondered if it was real or staged. Like the part in How to Have Small Talk where you put all of pillows in the hotel bathroom.
JW: Out of all the things, that’s the most outrageous? That’s the one that questions the show’s veracity?
BLVR: I’ve been crowdsourcing questions for you and yes, the people want to know.
JW: I’d love to see those forums.
BLVR: I imagine a lot of people latch on to stuff that to you might not think is that important. I was reading about laugh tracks recently. They started because with the live studio audiences, no one would know what joke to laugh at. So nothing was landing. Do you know the show Hogan’s Heroes?
JW: I’ve heard of it. I’ve never sat down and watched it.
BLVR: Yeah, me neither. Apparently, for the pilot episode, they shot one with a laugh track and one without. The one without the artificial laughter completely flopped. The one with the laugh track did really well. I just love the idea of counterfeit laughter. It also reminds me of what I assume is your process.
The guy who invented artificial laughter, I think his name was Charlie, he recorded a ton of different types of laughs and meticulously labeled them so that whenever there was anything potentially funny in a show, they could pick, you know, “guy who gets the joke early” laugh, and Charlie would go through his files, and insert the laughs wherever they’d want TV viewers to “know” when something was “supposed” to be funny.
JW: Yeah, it’s such a cool thing to specialize in. Someone did some experiments on YouTube I saw recently where they take all the laughs out of Friends, I think. When it plays it immediately transforms into an episode of like Twin Peaks. They’re saying really weird stuff. There’s all these really weird pauses. Without that laugh track to guide it, it just becomes this totally bizarre thing.
BLVR: How do you know how to make your jokes land?
JW: The writing process is extremely weird. It kind of begins with long discussions about these tentpole subjects. And then I just bring what I’ve been shooting into the room and I say, “This is what I just saw, how does this relate or not relate to the subject matter?” Then we build.
You have to shoot and edit and write all simultaneously for this show. Because when you take away one, it just kind of cripples the film. It needs to be this process of discovery that’s running on three cylinders the whole time. I go shoot all of this stuff, and follow whatever subjects for as long as I possibly can to their logical endpoint. And then there’s a final conform where I basically look at everything that I shot, everything that second unit shot, and try to find patterns in the footage, and then write jokes specifically to that, and then basically rewrite everything in the end.
BLVR: A multi-layered process.
JW: Yeah, just constantly dipping in and out because that’s the way that I’ve always done it. I always had the luxury of free time where I was doing everything. It could take me a year to find funny color patterns in the footage, or shapes, to make the little montages I like to make.
BLVR: Did you have to speed up since you were working with HBO?
JW: Yeah, but it really felt like everything ran its natural course. At the same time, though, miraculously, all of these real life events just happened to happen within a twelve to sixteen month period. There’s no way I could have predicted the Hard Rock Hotel collapsing in downtown New Orleans.
BLVR: What a strange circumstance.
JW: That was major moment in New Orleans history now that I didn’t really get as much media coverage as anything else at the time.
BLVR: Or going down Cancun and being at the MTV Spring Break, which I had no idea even existed anymore.
JW: It probably shouldn’t. I knew that I wanted to go book a trip for small talk fodder. And then I find this great lady who’s a travel agent, and she really opened up to me about her divorce and stuff. I love that scene. I thought that was basically it. And then I go on this trip, and then [Spring Break] obviously becomes the thing. It just so happened that that thread turned out to be the one that continued to the to the end of the episode. But in the first two minutes, I meet this child predator hunter, and I go with him to his house, and we’re about to go meet this pedophile, but then he bails. And that was the end of that story. But what if I met up with a pedophile? What if I ended up spending a week with a pedophile? Who knows where that would have gone.
BLVR: I was actually curious about that small talk episode, because I really like your interview style; you seem to let people talk without asking too many questions and let them ramble until we get somewhere. Is that a technique? Or, how do you draw people out in that way?
JW: I think I saw a comment on the YouTube video for the trailer for the show that was like, “It’s good to know that if I have that all I have to do is say is, ‘oh, wow,’ during interviews and I can get my own HBO show.” The way it’s cut I guess makes it look like really all I say is “wow.”
To me, it’s easier than it looks. You just have to let people talk. I don’t over direct people. It’s a style that I feel comes from genuine curiosity. Everything is so over edited these days. I want to do the antithesis of what you usually see on any kind of broadcast reality show or documentary interview. I keep the handles on it to let people speak in their own words, even if it is awkward, because you don’t get a good sense of who people are anymore in the media we consume. It’s because everything’s edited so poorly. If you added two seconds to every single shot of the Property Brothers it would be extremely weird. You would see how truly psychotic a lot of these people are. And but we don’t get a chance to see that. I try to do the opposite.
BLVR: I watch a lot of reality TV. It so obviously relies on editing to manipulate its audience.
JW: Me too.
BLVR: You do? Have you seen Married at First Sight?
JW: Someone may have shown it to me. I don’t know. What about it?
BLVR: The premise is they get married at first sight. Usually the story editors will write one episode of the weddings. But for whatever reason this season, they stretched the weddings out to two two-hour long episodes. So that’s four hours of watching these people drinking champagne together. It’s incredibly boring. But it’s supposed to, I think, make us care about these couples. Or maybe it’s because we’re told that the wedding is the climactic experience of our lives so why not give it four hours.
JW: It’s insulting, the kind of the kind of images we’re given. The fact that the people that make this content assume that we want cliches and we want these stereotypes, why does everything have to be so black and white with these characters? Why can’t they live somewhere in the middle?
BLVR: It becomes a loop. We’re fed these cliches, and we think that’s the only way that it can be. And then every once in a while, some anomaly comes up that breaks with the form. And that’s really exciting. Is there anything you’re watching now that you think Oh, my gosh, they’re doing it so well.
JW: On TV?
BLVR: Or anything, it doesn’t have to be TV.
JW: There are some filmmakers who do it well. I mean, I’m watching The Bachelor right now. I’ve been watching it every year for a while. But, what’s so interesting about this year is COVID. So the stakes are a lot higher, because if they get if they get voted off, then they could actually die. I feel like the consequences of not getting a rose are fatal.
BLVR: Oh my gosh, I never even thought of that. That’s really heavy.
JW: So not only are we watching some of the only people who can make out with strangers freely, but once they’re ejected from this paradise, it truly could take their life.
BLVR: This is my first time watching The Bachelor. I’m confused by the format.
JW: All these reality shows have a built-in sets of values, which is another thing I think it’s really interesting about reality TV. Okay, so the values in The Bachelor are vulnerability is good. A strong nuclear family is good. Having parents that have been married for a long time is good. Then there are all these negative values that they assign to people. I think it’s so funny that these shows don’t accept anything outside of this value system. With a home redesign show, if the name of the show is Good Bones or whatever then old stuff is the good thing. But then you have another show that’s all luxury houses. In that show, tacky new stuff is good. It’s so weird to shuffle between these programs and have so many conflicting sets of values but you’re expected to believe in every single one of them. The confidence with which they preach these values is always really crazy to me.
BLVR: Yeah, except with The Bachelor they do seem to throw a wrench in the value system with the Victoria character in this season.
JW: I was talking this about the other day. I think she’s just an actress. She’s a paid agitator. She’s a plant. I know that. You know they’re all influencers or entertainers. But she’s a very theatrical element of this season. She’s hired to basically be a pipe bomb. There’s clearly no chemistry between her and [the bachelor] Matt James. At least as far as I could see. They’re keeping her around just to have that character.
BLVR: Definitely. It’s just so obvious. I’m wondering if there are viewers out there who think that it’s actually possible that there’s chemistry between those two? She’s so ridiculous.
JW: I don’t know. She could go all the way. This is the beginning of the strange decade. A lot of upsets, a lot of first times.
BLVR: It’s true. Yeah. We shouldn’t predict anything.
BLVR: One show that I’ve been watching that reminds me of your show tonally is Agnès Varda’s From Here to There. Have you seen it?
JW: Oh, no, I don’t think so.
BLVR: There’s an earnestness to it. She is so obviously as curious about looking at stuff as you are. And she really stays with her subjects for a long time. I really recommend it.
JW: I love her so much. Especially The Gleaners and I. It’s just so pretty, and calming, it’s so relaxing to watch. I love the way she carries me very gently from subject to these more existential thoughts.
BLVR: You do the same thing.
JW: I like to slingshot the audience in and out between absurdity, existentialism, and very shocking realism, and more saccharine stuff.
BLVR: Do you already have the themes picked out for the next season? Are there other things on your mind now that you want to concentrate on?
JW: Absolutely, I’ve been informally shooting three different kind of subjects since we wrapped season one. But I like to stay open to if something better comes along. I always default or detour to the new thing. It’s richer. Which is a nightmare for producers.
BLVR: Are you pissing off people left and right?
JW: Surprisingly, no. But you should maybe should ask someone other than me. From where I’m sitting, no one seems that upset. It’s a fun production. I think people are genuinely having a good time. Something I feel very strongly about is having good vibes on set. I’ve been on so many productions where it the toxicity is overwhelming and everyone is just so upset with one another. This is not how to make art. You should never try to make a beautiful thing with cruel tactics.
BLVR: It’s yet another cliche to still believe it’s supposed to be terrible to work on a film set.
JW: All that Cassavetes bullshit is a bummer to me. He was an abusive alcoholic. People celebrate him for being this uncompromising person. No, the dude was a prick. He was an asshole to everyone he worked with. He died a sad, overworked alcoholic, you know? I don’t even like his movies; they’re acting workshops to me. I can’t stand theater.
BLVR: What don’t you like about theater?
JW: I don’t like the artifice of it. I don’t like being asked to pretend that these people aren’t who they are. I used to do plays in high school, and there was a moment when I experimented with that. I just don’t like the theater culture. It’s the complete opposite of what I want in art. I like the moving image. I like its artistic potential. And I like its archival, utilitarian potential. I think the image is so many things at the same time. But with theater, it’s this ephemeral thing. Some people say that’s the beauty of it, but I have a very hard time getting excited about something that’s never happened.
BLVR: Do you feel the same way about fiction?
JW: I dip in and out, and I do enjoy fiction. I try to borrow from it. It’s storytelling, and that’s really valuable to what I do. But, if given the option, I always choose to read an essayist or a nonfiction book, or a larger study of something. I can apply that more to something that I’m working on. But my good friend is obsessed with fantasy books, and he’s a great storyteller in person. This is something that I’m trying to get better at, too.
BLVR: Sometimes I find it easier to learn about larger systems through fiction. Specifically with books; with movies, not so much. Like, if I wanted to learn about Native Americans in New Mexico, I think I would pick up a fiction book written by a native New Mexican. I trust that the fiction has been researched and distilled for me.
JW: I think I know what you mean. I love to take the information that I get from a book or something and take that to somebody else and be like, Oh, this real thing that happened is funny and interesting. That’s such a better thing to carry and bring to someone else. When someone tells me about the plot of a play they just saw, it’s like they’re telling me what their dream was last night. I’m more interested in the way that the story can be told after.
BLVR: I guess I must be in your mode right now because I’ve only been consuming documentaries.
JW: What are you watching?
BLVR: I’m on a Chris Marker completionist voyage. Have you seen Letters from Siberia?
JW: I actually downloaded that recently. I haven’t watched it yet.
BLVR: I’m so into it. I watched it twice in a row and I never do that. That and this movie by Allan King called A Married Couple.
JW: All of Allan King’s stuff is really cool.
BLVR: What should I watch of his next?
JW: Warrendale is cool. Come on Children is awesome. Watch Come on Children. It’s a documentary that he did about Canadian kids that go to a farm and decide to be part of this autonomous, kind of a Real World-esque experiment. Allan King filmed them. They were trying to figure out chores and all these responsibilities and to be self sustaining. But it was just a total mess. One of the kids was just the most stubborn kid. He wouldn’t play by any of the rules anyone was trying to set up. You’re watching this thinking, Man, this kid is going to be in trouble when he becomes an adult. Or, you know, that’s how I felt. But then it turns out that the kid became the guitarist of Rush. So he’s an actual famous person and they just happened to have captured him in this weird social experiment. You should watch that.
BLVR: It’s on my queue. It was so nice to talk to you, John.
JW: Yeah, man, thanks for asking. I don’t know if this is what you wanted. But it’s what you got.