Q&A with John Wilson
The acclaimed HBO series How To with John Wilson is a perfect introduction to the Long Island–raised, Queens-based video diarist. Since 2012, Wilson has made first-person “tutorial” shorts about everyday life in New York; while teaching you How To Clean a Cast Iron Pan, for example, his warmly offbeat narration expands from the mundane to the existential. Guided by a keen eye for eccentricity, Wilson’s films capture the city in vivid moment-to-moment detail, and have screened at the New York Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look Festival.
Q. What’s the biggest difference between seasons one and two of How To? Were there lingering ideas from season one, or did you approach it as a totally clean slate?
A. I wanted to approach it as a clean slate, but it’s hard to say what’s “new” and “old” since I’m constantly referencing real-life events that may have occurred before production. I thought of all the episode ideas in-between seasons though.
Q. You’ve expanded the writers’ room this season, and you also work with a second unit of cinematographers. What is it like to work with a group on such a seemingly first-person mode of filmmaking?
A. It’s really incredible—everyone involved brings something really unique to the process while simultaneously learning how to think and shoot like me. I gave a style guide to the second-unit shooters filled with .gifs that I made from old footage. Stuff like, “Stay wide unless you’re using the zoom for comedic effect,” or instructions on how to frame signage or recognize patterns. The biggest note was to try not to shoot anything that looks like it might already exist on Getty Images.
Q. What advice would you give to someone interested in filming their community?
A. Actually engage with your community, not just superficially. You’re going to be seeing these people every day, so try and form genuine relationships.
Q. If you could organize one filmmaker or artist’s retrospective, whose would it be?
A. The guy who makes videos about recalled products on YouTube.
Q. What is a project that you’d like to make someday, however impossible it may seem now?
A. I kind of wanted to open a bingo hall, but I feel like there’s a reason most of those died out in New York.
Q. What’s the last film you saw and loved?
A. Small Town Ecstasy—it’s a documentary, like 2000s-era MTV, about this dad who’s addicted to ecstasy while trying to raise a family. It gets pretty dark but they have crazy access.
Q. Who, or what, do you think is the future of filmmaking?
A. I watch some of these TikTok videos and they’re so disorienting. I feel like I’m watching a completely new genre that I’ll never quite understand. You’ll have a video of a boy crying, pretending that the police are telling him that his parents are dead, and there are fake digital ambulance lights shining on him, and that’s it. I feel like we’ve regressed back into the era of silent film where you have these really simple sight gags and everyone is overacting because you may or may not have the sound on when you’re scrolling on your phone. I don’t know what motivates people to make content like that, but I guess it’s the future of filmmaking.
Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?