In my discussions with Bernard Wilets, he modestly downplayed his contributions to Academic film. As I mention on his Bernard Wilets page, he threw away nearly all his records, and there is little left for posterity. Recently, I came across a very good interview done By Sharon Kayne Chaplock, who was President of the American Film and Video Association in 1988. Sharon's interview appeared in AFVA's Sightlines Magazine (vol. 22, #1, Winter 1988-89), and may constitute the only record detailing his filmmaking philosophy.
- Geoff Alexander, Director, Academic Film Archive of North America
Bernard Wilets interview, conducted by Sharon K. Chaplock
Bernard Wilets has been producing films for nearly a quarter of a century. Since 1964 he has created 78 educational films and gained a reputation for high quality, impartial presentations and for pressing the limits of cinematic technique while making it work for the classroom. The breadth of his films' subject matter reveals a man with a pre-disposition for the humanities. His work covers curriculum oriented films on music, political science and literature, with a recent and single science film, LIVING TREES.
Prior to making his first educational film, Wilets did quite a bit of composing librettos and plays. He began writing a libretto as part of a Ford Foundation grant and ended up staging and directing the work. He feels that film synthesizes a lot of the diverse background he has picked up along the way.
He did a small first film - BUSES THAT SERVE THE COMMUNITY. A friend put up the money and Wilets relied on people he knew to provide technical support. After showing the film to the L.A. Board of Education, they recommended him to Film Associates (later BFA) where they liked his work and offered to finance his films. His friend got his money back right away and now, 77 films later, Bernard Wilets continues to make educational films. He was an independently contracted producer for BFA until they were acquired by CBS. Currently, he produces for AIMS Media with his most recent production being the film adaptation of Judith Viorst's ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY.
In making curriculum oriented productions, his primary goal and ultimate satisfaction is to produce literary adaptations that are true to the idiosyncratic work of the author and to create ethical dramas that present the many faceted sides of important issues. This interview, illuminating that theme, occurred by phone very early one autumn morning.
How have your films changed since 1964?
There was a transition in educational films in the late Sixties from rigid formula to more cinematic presentations. At first it was the technical novelty; then the content became interesting to me. Film Associates loosened up and began doing synch sound films - films that were much less formalistic from the traditional educational film. I began doing the BILL OF RIGHTS series and the ethno music series (DISCOVERING MUSIC). The content was often intellectually challenging and very interesting. We evolved this open ended format where both sides of a case are argued with passion and conviction then viewers are asked how they would decide the case. I found all of that very interesting and that kept me involved with educational film.
What influenced your style?
A lot of the style isn't particularly conscious. I guess it is conscious in the sense of how to make a project work but, I'm sure there've been changes in style – changes from my older films. I do all the post-production work except for negative cutting because it is really a critical phase of the projects. I'm sure that, as the concepts of the projects have changed over the years, my editing style has gradually changed - evolved, you might say; not that it's going towards some predetermined goal -but, changed. Fundamentally, I know it's different. If I went back and did some of those earlier films again, I'd probably do them in quite a different fashion.
You commented to me that for years you resisted doing literature films because you felt kids should read the stories. Your feeling was that kids should do their own imagining. Making this type of film provides images the readers should be providing for themselves. What changed your mind since you are now doing literature films quite successfully?
In talking to teachers, I found that some kids are motivated to read by a good film. They are fun to do and I try to set stories as accurately as possible. My stage background was enormously helpful in directing these films.
You said that most people hate THE BEAR, a Faulkner story you've adapted to film. Can you tell me why?
THE BEAR is prickly and opaque and a difficult story to do. It has become easily the best seller of the literature series - I think because it's the most difficult of the stories that are widely anthologized for schools. Teachers are desperate for help in teaching it and are grateful for the help they get with this film. We filmed it on location in Faulkner country - Oxford, Mississippi. I found it fascinating to do.
What would you say characterizes non-theatrical filmmaking and why do you like it?
You get to work in a lot of different worlds doing educational films. For example, we filmed FREDDIE THE LEAF during each of the seasons at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston. In TRUCK SONG I followed a truck with a shipment of honey from Iowa to California. I flew out first to see what the process was and then I shot it. It's strong cinematically, using poetry and song to accompany the journey. It is just a different kind of world - and that is true on a lot of these projects. I did FOLLOW MY LEADER, a popular book by Jim Garfield, involving the guide dog school and training. That's another world and it was a very interesting experience to do the research for it.
That was a film my children kept watching over and over again. It deals with many things that I don't think sighted people are aware of.
Well, I don't think any films on guide dogs, features or documentaries that have been made, show the training in such detail. That's one project, by the way, where I had to change the book a lot. It had factual inaccuracies and I didn't want to perpetuate those in film. Generally, I'm very reluctant to make changes but I had to do it in that case.
Was it difficult to negotiate making the changes?
No. Once you get the rights, I suppose you can do it. Jim Garfield, the fellow who wrote it, passed away at the age of, I think - 102, a couple years ago. I let his daughter know and explained why I was going to make the changes. She really likes the film, as a matter of fact, so it was not a problem to her. It might have been if I hadn't explained why I was doing it though. Her feeling was that Jim would have approved of it. Of course, who knows, really? I guess one of the problems in making films is that, when the filmmakers get the rights to the stories, they go ahead and make any changes they feel like making and often distort the story out of recognition, I think that's a real problem if you're making stuff for schools. When you make far reaching, fundamental changes, it's hard for me to see how the kids are going to get any feeling for the original story at all. But, it's done and I think it's often done for reasons of ego as well as to accommodate the medium. But, I think a lot of ego is involved; in fact, I know it. Changes from literature to film really have to do with ego assertion on the part of the filmmaker.
Why do you like making educational films?
I got started on it by accident, more than anything else. It seemed like a reasonable thing to try if I was working in a medium I was not familiar with. The films were short and relatively inexpensive. But, then, once I got started, it set up a momentum of its own. I was successful doing it and there were many projects that came up - projects that, fairly soon, became interesting to me. Over the years, there were a lot of things I liked about educational films. For example, I had control of a project pretty much from beginning to end and I got a lot of autonomy from the companies that I released through. The projects are small enough in scope that I can usually carry them through pretty much myself. Of course, I have crews that I delegate to and I work with Diane Hawk who directs quite a few of the films for me. We work well together through the production and the direction. Then, I edit and finish up the films. It is kind of an autonomous situation with a lot of control. Many of the projects have been intellectually interesting. I think films on people like MACHIAVELLI, for instance, are interesting to do. They are kind of ethical projects; they certainly can contribute something, I suppose, and they don't have the crass, exploitive elements that you get into often in commercial films - not all commercial films, obviously - but a lot of them. And, I'm not in a committee situation when I make the film. The decisions are pretty much mine all the way through.
There is a point where I need the help - the feedback - from a company and from teachers and librarians. We always interlock the film and invite people to the interlock. That is before the film is done and the sound is still separate. It is fun - and they are critical sessions. I have the work print and the scratch mix so that I can go ahead and make changes afterward. And I get the feedback at a point where I need it. Those interlocks have been important - vital, as a matter of fact. They are critical sessions and often harsh ones - but, they are necessary.
As a rule, then, I am left alone to finish the project out. So there is a great deal of freedom and often a lot of intellectual substance as well as an ethical aspect of the whole thing where money and exploitation are not the prime criteria. Of course, companies like to have films that sell and, generally speaking, my films have done well. 1 have often been able to do things simply because I wanted to do them; because they've been interesting to me.
It seems as though there is not a lot of programming on ethical subjects.
Well, I have been able to tackle complicated subjects like the BILL OF RIGHTS subject matter in an even handed fashion. I guess one of the reasons the films have been successful - and continue to be so - is that I'm not really pushing a viewpoint. We're trying to present different viewpoints forcefully, so that the various sides of issues are covered and everyone feels that their position has been expounded effectively. Maybe I have no convictions of my own; but, it's a nice way to work - particularly for schools - because I really hate to propagandize on these issues. I'd like to present them in their complexity and have different sides of an issue argued with some passionate conviction while trying to make the presentation as even handed as possible. That open-ended format in the BILL OF RIGHTS films has really been ideal for that.
Since you started in the Sixties producing educational films, did that time period have any influence on this sort of development in your films… where you took an interest in political and social issues?
I guess I've always been interested in that. I don't know whether the Sixties really motivated that or not. It was a good time to get started in educational filming because there was a big, almost infinitely expanding market at that time. So, it was a fortunate time to get started. I think the market is a little tougher now. I'm not sure now, for reasons of economics, whether I would havebeen able to do some of those films. I really don't know.
I was looking at your film, LIVING TREES, on tape. As I watched, I was imagining that it has a tremendous visual impact on film - with all those impressionistic images. But, on video it seemed dwarfed.
That's a problem with video. I've never really been that happy with video. I wish things could have stayed primarily on 16mm film. We still produce on film but the convenience of video is so tremendous. It is so much easier to slip something into a VCR to play than it is threading up a projector. But, visually I think you suffer by doing that in films like LIVING TREES - really, a spin off from THE FALL OF FREDDIE THE LEAF. There are a lot of films I've made that suffer from video - the small image area as well as the cut-off. There's one big plus and that is sound. Sound is much better on video than it is on film; 16mm optical sound is really a killer. Films like those ethnic music films really suffered on 16mm optical sound. Very often, the idiomatic sound of the instrument is almost completely lost because of the constricted sound quality of 16mm optical sound. It is not nearly as true in 35mm and, of course, they have sound systems now for features that are tremendous. But that has very little impact on 16mm educational films.
Are you shooting differently now that there seems to be a lot of transferring to video?
Frankly, we haven't changed our style of lighting. I like a lot of backlighting and low-key lighting. People say it's a problem. I don't see it as that much of a problem if the one-inch master tape is timed properly. The real thing you have to watch for is TV cut off. We are very aware of that now in framing. You just don't want to lose important information. It's something we never even thought of in "the good old days".
Your films deal with the humanities. You bring much humanity to your subjects, especially the political subjects. Is that why you haven't done many science films?
Yes, that's really why. The only science film I ever did was the tree film and that's only because we had such a plethora of footage from FREDDIE THE LEAF. Having shot all the tree footage, it seemed like a logical thing to do. We used, not the same footage, but some of the other we'd taken and combined it with artwork to make a science film. Had I not shot THE FALL OF FREDDIE THE LEAF, I probably never would have made the science film.
I think it was a really wonderful accident. I liked the tone of it and how the action replaced the narration; for example – how seeds are dispersed. You showed how it happens and that's what films ought to do. I would really like to see more science films like that - with some humanity in them. Have you ever thought about it?
No, as a matter of fact, I never have. It's an interesting idea and maybe I ought to think about it a little bit.
I know that we talked about how BFA was more didactic in style and got to be more cinematic later on. Can you elaborate on how your style emerged from that experience?
If you're talking about the transition that BFA made, I thought that they were forced to make it. I really fought for those changes because other companies were making changes that were fundamentally cinematic and not following a didactic, rigid formula- It was an accommodation to real changes in the market and it is certainly my inclination to do more elaborate films. I think probably because of the nature of what I'm doing, my films are - in a sense - less "talky" now. Certainly, films like BILL OF RIGHTS and MAN AND THE STATE are heavily loaded with verbiage - lots of talking heads and abstract ideas. I think that was appropriate for those series of films but, I don't think it's appropriate for the kinds of things I'm doing now which, I think, tend to have a heavier emphasis on the visual aspect and are not quite as laden with talk. So, one's style does tend to change, I guess.
Your audience has changed too, though.
Yes, I think it has probably gotten more visually sophisticated. But, I'd certainly never patronize the audience to start off with. I always assume that the audiences are relatively sophisticated.
Have you talked to students about some of your films?
Yes, I have. And, I have seen some of my films being used. That is sometimes a horrifying experience. What particularly bothers me is the use of these literature films as babysitting devices. I think that's thebiggest single use of these books-in to-films. They are not used for teaching purposes but for tranquilizing classes and getting them to sit still. I find it maddening not to prepare the class for the film and not to have follow up questions. All that is being done is transferring television watching from night time into school time. There have even been incidences involving the BILL OF RIGHTS films where teachers have not prepared or followed up. But, I guess teachers are like anybody else. Not every one is a master teacher; not every one is going to use material effectively and a lot of people are going to use materials just to keep a class happy and quiet for 20 to 30 minutes.
Do you think teachers need more training in showing films?
Well, I would think that they would. It might be an in-service training kind of thing and there might be things like that. It's fun sometimes if you do a study guide. For example, FOLLOW MY LEADER'S study guide was written fundamentally by Rex Malcolm. He was in charge of production for BFA's product development in the past. He and Sue Beauregard did a really great study guide. There are some powerful concepts in the film that a teacher can work from. I hope the guide is used by teachers when that film gets into classrooms which it is just starting to do now. Whether that will be the case, I do not know.
Sometimes study guides get lost.
Yes, and people are moving away from gluing them in the can now which used to keep the study guide with the film. But, often there was so little information in the study guide that it was next to being useless. I notice that we are getting much more involved in study guides now and whether they stay with the film or tapes, I really couldn't say. But they certainly would be very helpful if the teacher would spend the time to peruse the thing.
What new projects are you working on?
Well, we've just finished ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY written by Judith Viorst. It is the second Judith Viorst book that I've done. I have a pretty good idea what my next project will be but we are just talking about projects now.
I have noticed that a lot of your films are going to Britannica for distribution.
Well, these films were made for BFA. They were with Barr for about six or seven years. Now. I have moved them to Britannica.
When will we see this?
The transition is occurring now but Britannica will start marketing the films at the beginning of January.
This will be important news. Ifs hard enough keeping track of the companies. But, when the films start moving around too...
Most of my production is being done for AIMS Media but most of my older films will presently be with Britannica - though a few will still be with Barr and a few with Phoenix/BFA.
I'd like to know what characterizes your view when you do a film?
I guess it really depends on the film. I think that if it's a film about philosophical or political issues, I try to be as fair and even-handed as I can. I don't think its my job to propagandize, but I think it is my job to present issues in all of their complexity – and often their grayness. They are just not all white and black. And, if I'm doing a literature film - either adult literature or children's literature, I think I have a responsibility to be as accurate as I can to impart the story and make as few changes as possible. You have to accommodate to the film medium, to some extent, but with as few changes as humanly possible. My general feeling on making films is that the less writing I have to do - the better. That is, if I can do it in Ray Bradbury's words, John Steinbeck's, Judith Viorst's, or Leo Buscaglia's words - that is highly desirable. If I am working with an historical figure like Machiavelli, I try to use as much as possible in Machiavelli's words (and in the case of a debate in that film –when portraying his critics- as much in their words as possible) with as little interpolation as I can possibly do. That's true - no matter what subject matter I happen to be working on, That has been consistent over the years and I still feel very strongly that way.