Documentarian John Wilson on His HBO Show “How to With John Wilson”
Dec 22, 2020
If HBO’s How to With John Wilson isn’t your new favorite show, that’s probably because you haven’t seen it yet. It did just start to air this fall, so there is time for you to catch up. And when you do, you will likely fall in love with the charming minimalism the program offers and the perfect, chummy look into New York City that the documentary-style series presents. You will giggle at the random people caught peeing or eating in public and you will scream in shock at what else director John Wilson finds along his way as he investigates the quirky ins-and-outs of what’s often said to be the world’s greatest city. We caught up with Wilson to ask him about the series, how his career led him to making it, how he finds his scenes, and much more. But beware, dear reader, there are some spoilers below. Thankfully HBO has already renewed How to With John Wilson for a second season.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first become aware that you were observant?
John Wilson: Let me see, I feel like once I started working for the private investigator, that was kind of a pivotal moment for me. That was when my powers of observation became a marketable skill, I realized. You know, just having to look through all this footage and try to find incriminating moments within the material. That was how I kind of sharpened that skill, for the most part. But, you know, I’ve always just liked people watching. I feel like we all do, to a degree.
I was unaware in my research that you worked for a private investigator. In this instance I’m not doing a very good job at private investigating! But can you tell me about that job?
It was the first job I had out of college. I was just desperate to work anywhere, basically, so that I didn’t have to move back home. I found it on the “etc” section of Craig’s List. I didn’t even know what it was. The classified just said “video editor.” I went in and interviewed and they gave me the job and my first day they sat me down with the material and I realized that all the material was from private investigators. I just had to sift through all of it and watch hours and hours of this stuff every single day to try and find one little incriminating little moment in that material that I would then send to, like, attorneys. Yeah, you know, it did strange things to me. It was a weird job because—I mean, I was fired eventually and replaced with a high schooler that they didn’t pay. So, I think the skill level was—I mean, it didn’t take much skill but I was thankful for the gig when I had it.
When did you become interested in cameras and editing and footage and that mechanical, formal observation?
You know, I feel like I became interested in cameras when my dad got a home movie camera. I feel like most people did in the ’90s. I think there was—I’m probably part of a generation of video artists or filmmakers that started with hi-8 cameras and VHS-C cameras. A video camera was the coolest object in the world when I was a kid. I could make these little movies with my friends and then play it back and we’d make each other laugh, you know? That is the best part of filmmaking, making your own entertainment. And I feel like I’ve been doing this for my entire life. I never saw what I wanted to see in pop culture, really. So, I always wanted to make my own entertainment. I wanted to make work that I wanted to watch. And that’s kind of how—that’s been the driving force behind most of what I do. Just looking around and realizing, like, “Oh, why is nobody doing this? This is so simple.”
And yet your show comes from you uniquely. It’s funny how we see these things that are obvious to us but somehow both not obvious to an audience and yet so integral. But anyway—how did you meet Nathan Fielder, who is a producer of the show, and what is your creative chemistry like together?
Nathan and I met just randomly. You know, I was always a fan of his stuff. And I was—oh, how did it exactly happen—there was, like, a gallery opening that my friends were at and my friend told me to come to the gallery opening. And then Nathan was there and Nathan recognized me and my friends from a movie that I made. You know, I was amazed that he had recognized us. I had, obviously, seen everything that he had done. And we just, like, sat down that very night the first time we met and just had a long conversation over a dinner and exchanged numbers. Then we just started calling each other and we came up with a pitch for a show. Because he was off from his show, Nathan for You, and he was just looking to start working on something else. It was kind of perfect timing because he had all this career momentum but he didn’t want to, like, do something of his own immediately, I guess. And, you know, we just came up with a pitch, which was basically just a more ambitious version of my shorts and we just shopped it around in Hollywood. I flew out to Hollywood, which is always really funny to me. And we met with all these people. I brought a hand-buzzer with me to all the pitch meetings, which may have led to us getting rejected from one or two of them. Thankfully, HBO took the bait, you know, they fell for it! And now we have this show!
You’ve probably spent a great deal of time in New York. And, just to let you know, I’m 37-years-old and I live in Seattle, but I’m from New Jersey. So, I have a particular appreciation of New York City. But how did you decide to dive in and document the city in the way you did? And have you thought about how it may be the last documentation of it like that for a long time?
New York has always been my home base. I was born in Astoria (Queens) and I grew up in Long Island, for the most part. I knew that I wanted to return here to start my artistic career and start with the city as subject and see where it goes. So, yeah, you’ve seen the finale (where COVID-19 becomes a major force)—I feel like, yeah, it’s strange. I wasn’t sure if people were going to enjoy watching this season at this point in history. Because everyone is just so obsessed with—you want minute by minute by minute updates of what’s happening, you know? Just for pure survival sometimes. And I wasn’t sure if people would want to time travel back to a time in pre-COVID New York. But it turns out the opposite is true. People actually enjoyed indulging in this pre-COVID world that—you know, the finale is the tipping point. That’s when you kind of enter present day, in a way. But, you know, I think that’s what makes this archive of footage so valuable to me. It’s like one of the last and one of the most comprehensive records of the year in New York before COVID hit. I love looking back at, like, stuff from early 2001. Like old Miss America pageants, just pop culture things and seeing what kind of momentum there was. And what the attitude of everybody was before this major thing happened. You know, but it’s something I don’t really want to return to, necessarily, either. It’s like we’re in a new reality now. And if I get a chance to do a season two, I don’t want to pretend, like, COVID isn’t happening. I want to lean into it as much as I can and capture as much as I can because, you know, this—the city may not look like this ever again, you know? I think it’s more visually interesting now than it’s ever been to me.
There are a lot of coincidences in the show to go along with the episodes’ themes. How did all these emerge or how did you find them?
Each episode kind of originates with something I’m genuinely obsessed with, whether it’s scaffolding, you know, or, like, social anxiety with small talk and stuff like that. So, each episode has this little kernel that we begin with and then I just try a bunch of different stuff. You only see five-to-ten percent of what we actually try for each episode. Like with something like the pedophile hunter in the very first episode. That was just supposed to be a one note gag about Mankind, the wrestler. But then I follow him on a potential sting to catch a pedophile but that ended up not working out. The pedophile got cold feet and we didn’t have anything after that. But it did serve a purpose. But who’s to say what would have happened if we did meet up with a pedophile? And what would have happened if I followed that until I exhausted it? That could have been the end of the episode. That could have been a climactic moment, or something. But you just kind of structure the episode around what the strongest moments are. So much of it is, the story is just constructed in the edit. You create an arc out of all these things that either succeed or fail. I don’t know—it’s hard to sum up very briefly. Each of the episodes has different nuances to it and they start and end in different ways.
Forgive my not knowing, but do you have to get consent from the people who are filmed? There are so many cameras around these days, do people even do double takes seeing one anymore?
Yeah, I mean, I usually have a van filled with people following me when I’m doing stuff. And once I’m done filming something, they jump out and get a release from people. Almost everybody is released in the show. So, we really have to be buttoned-up there. But we never have, like, the pre-arranged thing with them, though, you know? I was very, very strict about the realism of the show. It’s very obvious to me when someone is pretending to do something versus when someone is actually doing something.
Your voice over is great. Was that a creative choice or did it just come down to the fact that it’s your show, so you should be speaking on it?
You know, we couldn’t afford Morgan Freeman, so. It’s something I’ve always done, you know? Ever since I started making these things. I wanted to narrate them because I’m self-conscious about my voice. I have, you know, a lisp and I just, like a lot of people, was mortified by the sound of my recorded voice. So, you know, I wanted to face that head on and I started narrating my own stuff even though it was hard for me to watch. But I eventually got comfortable with it and I just kept doing it.
I love your voice. I’m sure by now you’ve heard that from lots of people.
(Laughs) No, a lot of people on Twitter seem to not like it.
Well, that’s Twitter.
I just started using Twitter for the first time. I’ve never used it before and I just, like, I don’t know. It’s a strange environment and I’m just getting used to it. I’m trying not to take it too harshly.
Anonymity rarely gears toward truth. But anyway. Can we talk about the foreskin episode? I was shrieking on the couch when I saw that. People really do show you a lot. How did that all come about and what was going through your head when it was happening in real time?
You know, I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. I usually know what I’m getting myself into. When you’re watching the show, it’s kind of a hard cut into him laying like, you know, Donald Duck-style on the bed. But there was a long—like, I shot a lot up until that point. It’s kind of this incremental thing for me in the moment where I’m accepting what I’m seeing in small doses. So, it wasn’t that shocking to me. Even though, actually, I knew he made the restoration device. I did not know about the bed pulley. That was new to me, but I got over it pretty quickly.
After making these shows, do you feel different as an artist or person at all?
I feel more capable of doing it again. But I still feel like the same filmmaker, in a way. And I think that was one of the biggest challenges of the show is preserving the grunginess of what I used to do with a bigger budget. And I think we found a way to do that successfully and that’s been the most gratifying thing for me. So, I’m glad that I was able to stay the same, more or less. I mean, I’ve learned a few new things kind of. But, as an artist, I feel like my voice is still intact.
What do you love most about the work you do?
What I love most about what I do is the fact that people are talking about stuff that they weren’t talking about before, you know? That’s one of my favorite things about making art like this. It always bummed me out when, you know, you go to see a movie in a theater and it’s a fictional film and the most you really talk about it afterwards is you say, “Oh, that was alright. That was good.” You know? But my favorite part of making video art is starting a new conversation and making people see things in a way that they’ve never seen them before. That’s the most exciting thing to me.
Support Under the Radar on Patreon.