Documentarian John Wilson On Capturing The Intimacy And Absurdity Of New York Life In His New HBO Series

I miss people. Nothing in particular about them, only the charm of passing interactions and the innate quirks we all exhibit when we’re moving through the world occupied by our own thrilling narratives. You can still get your fix in a socially distanced way now, but it isn’t as much fun with worry and caution hanging over so many people’s heads. One day, things will be normal again. I believe that. I have to. But for now, I’m glad How To With John Wilson exists.

Premiering Friday on HBO (at 11PM ET) and produced by Nathan For You‘s Nathan Fielder, the six-part series from John Wilson showcases a documentary filmmaker who went from staring at hours of uneventful footage while working for a PI to someone who has established a hybridized style and a specific tone, which allows his work to feel, at once, intimate and absurd. As an extension of some of his past short-form docs (that you can find on his Vimeo), How To takes on a new level of relevance now while providing a snapshot of the recent past as well as a minefield of awkwardness that more fully occupies our existence in more normal times.

We spoke with Wilson about shooting until you find an unmissable moment, New York at the start of COVID (and showcasing a place within this moment that is grossly misunderstood), and the oft-missed impact of human interaction.

How would you define your style?

You can approach it as a tutorial. That’s the way it’s designed and presented. But to me, it’s just a playground for me to experiment with as many different documentary styles as I can. I like to have man-on-the-street interviews and stuff like that. I’m inspired by that kind of stuff. But I also like the Cinema Verite people that try to make themselves seem invisible, and you’re a fly on the wall. I like doing that kind of stuff. But then I also like directly engaging with the people on camera, and there are certain filmmakers who do that really well that I’m inspired by. I just want to do as much as I possibly can. I like all these different directors and all the work they do, but no one was doing everything at once, and that’s what I wanted to do.

There’s a moment in the finale with a skunk in an ATM vestibule, and I started thinking to myself, “Either this man is incredibly lucky, or he has reams of footage.” How much is there?

Yeah. We have a psychotic amount of footage.

How do you define “psychotic amount?” What’s a ballpark?

I can’t even give you a ballpark of how much material we shoot compared to how much of it makes it into the show. It is luck and it is a coincidence, and it’s just a numbers game. The more you shoot, the more once-in-a-lifetime stuff you’re going to capture. I’ve been just shooting every single day for the past couple of years for the show. I haven’t even stopped since we were technically wrapped. It’s just a rolling thing that happens, and I also have a team of second unit people that are just roving the city in multiple boroughs every single day during the production, just capturing as much as they possibly can. They may be out for a whole day and end up with one usable shot. But that is enough for the show. Or they could capture something else incredible. But I mean, I shoot about three-quarters of the show, and then the other quarter is more B-roll stuff.

The season finale takes place right at the start of COVID, and it’s an amazing snapshot of that time, which already feels like years ago, honestly.

Yeah. I know, right?

That was March. Into April, into May, into the full height of the COVID crisis in New York, were you guys out shooting during that as well?

I mean, once COVID happened, I was shooting by myself. I had nothing else to do. So, I never stopped shooting. That would have been the worst time to stop shooting for me. When the city was going through the most… I mean, it was a real before-and-after moment. The beauty of the show too is that when you have to shut down, the visual quality of the show and production value doesn’t change whatsoever. When you strip away all of the production that was there to prop you up, there’s no decrease in production value because it always looked like sh*t.

I think we have a bunch of priceless footage of a city during a major transitional period that I’d really like to put into something that everyone can see. Someone asked me if they think that New York is less interesting for the show now and I feel the opposite way. New York is more interesting now than it’s been in the past 10 years. I walk outside and… It’s really sad that we all have to figure it out together… it’s sad that we have to figure it out on our own but it also creates this landscape that is born out of necessity, and it’s all patchwork, and it’s really visually exciting in a way even though it’s every man for himself.

So, you shoot a ton and I think I assumed that you stumbled upon storylines, but is that not the case? Is there some pre-planning that goes into it?

The pre-planning is mostly just in the research. I did an episode about scaffolding. We researched what laws made it so there’s scaffolding everywhere these days, and what improvements are they trying to make on scaffolding, and what are the statistics on scaffolding failures? Stuff like that is something that we research and try to squeeze into the edit. But a lot of it is just like… I’m like a Mr. Magoo type character where I just walk through a door and just start talking to someone and they may just open their world to me. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and they really clam up. But again, it’s just the numbers game and the more things I try, the more organic the story feels. So the arc is basically, I wanted the story to be able to find me. So much of it is just a coincidence. The more pieces you have, the more of a story you can build and if you’re lucky (and I think we were lucky enough), you get something that leads to an emotional crescendo and it feels satisfying by the end. But there are jokes in the show and some of the jokes are pre-planned.

Have you gotten better or more lucky at getting people to open their world to you?

I think I’ve gotten better at it. People usually don’t mind if you’re respectful and you approach them with a camera. Some people don’t like it, and they usually make that clear immediately and you just don’t film them. But a lot of the time I find that people are just literally waiting for this opportunity. There’s something disarming about me being the host who’s also filming the show. Because a lot of the time people don’t realize that I’m the host when I’m filming. They just think that I’m a really talkative cameraman. So they feel, I think, a bit more comfortable talking to me because they don’t feel like it’s actually usable footage. Because in what world is the footage of the cameraman talking to the talent making the cut?

What is it about people that fascinates you and that keeps you coming back to that in your work?

I’m a big non-fiction person. I love Studs Terkel. He had this book called Working, it was just hundreds of interviews with different people who had different jobs. And they just talked about their jobs. Just hearing someone being able to speak in their own words and give them time to… you give the microphone to people who usually don’t get it. I want to see what makes these people happy or sad or what they think about all of these complicated issues. We pretend to be all black and white about stuff, but we all live in this gray area, and a lot of times people don’t know why they feel a certain type of way about something. I feel like I can relate to that a lot and that’s why I just like having discussions with people and showing them… I don’t know, I also feel like it’s anthropology in a way and just documenting a specific time and place. A lot of my favorite documentaries are people just talking about their love lives or their obsessions or stuff like that.

When you have that interaction and you get to know somebody within a brief moment and then you never see them again, does it change you? Do you still have a relationship with the guy on the beach from the first episode? Or is it just a moment in time that happened, that was powerful, and then you move on?

We hung out that night on my last night there and yeah, I mean, we’ve been DM-ing with each other on Instagram since we filmed. But you can’t keep up with everybody the way you can your good friends, and I’m glad that he wanted to keep up with me. I thought I was weirding him out, but he made an effort to reach out to keep up the relationship afterward and I think that’s cool. I like doing that when I have the opportunity to because these people do offer a lot to me. I just really hope that they like the movies that I make. It is really important to me, and it doesn’t sit well with me when someone doesn’t like something that they’re in.

I also feel like, I don’t know, TV is just so over-edited these days, especially documentary or reality TV, it’s like you don’t get a real sense of who these people are. They’re all these amazing characters and amazing stories on TV, but they’re told in the most awful ways and chopped up into these really stylized reality shows. And in my show, I just want to create an opportunity for people to very nakedly have the microphone and just say what they want, and I feel like giving people that extra time on camera, I think gives them much more, I don’t know, an actual platform rather than just over-editing something. I’m having a hard time describing this.

‘How To With John Wilson’ debuts on HBO Friday at 11PM ET