William Brayne

October 11, 1986
London, England

       William Brayne worked his way from teenage errand boy through various technical apprenticeships at the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) while the network was rapidly expanding in the 1950s. In 1961 he joined Richard Leiterman, Allan King, and several others in forming Allan King Associates (AKA) in Britain. Brayne won his first international acclaim as cinematographer for the direct cinema classic Warrendale (1967), an AKA production about a home in Toronto for disturbed children. While associated with AKA, Brayne also worked freelance for BBC, PBS, and CBC. He photographed ten documentaries in Wiseman’s institutional series, from Law and Order (1969) through Sinai Field Mission (1978).

       A Canadian citizen resident in the United Kingdom after 1963, Brayne began directing dramas for British television in 1972, most notably the series Special Branch (Thames, 1969-1974) and The Professionals (LWT, 1977-1983). Known for his no-nonsense attitude and ability to bring projects in on time, Brayne was hired to direct popular British programs throughout the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Brayne shot action-oriented dramas in Germany; then his career returned to its beginnings, when he accepted Allan King’s offer of directing television assignments in Canada. Brayne spent his final years in his native Vancouver. He died of cancer in April 2014.

       We interviewed Brayne in London on October 11, 1986, during a weekend break from his duties as director of a television series on location in Manchester.

Question:    Fred Wiseman has made no secret of the fact that he doesn’t do his own camerawork, but he hasn’t had a whole lot to say about his cameramen.
Brayne:    No, no, not to my knowledge, anyway. No, that’s true.
Question:    Many people think that your work is at the core of Wiseman’s work: that it’s his best period and that camerawork had a lot to do with that.
Brayne:    Well, my favorite is Hospital [1970]. I think that’s the most successful. Out of all the films, I think that it was the best. I mean, that’s a subjective view at least.
Question:    You’ve seen all the films, have you?
Brayne:    I’ve seen them all, but I haven’t seen some of them since they’ve been made. Channel 4 had a limited season a couple of months ago, that’s one of the independent networks here. They ran four of the films a couple of months ago. They went out at about 11 at night or something, if my memory serves me correctly. It wasn’t before 11 at night. They showed Hospital, Essene [1972], Basic Training [1971], and Law and Order [1969]. It was their first U.K. exposure, other than the London Film Festival.
Well, you must remember, I’ve been out of it for a long time, and I wasn’t really involved in anything other than during the actual shooting. I mean, that was my involvement—purely and simply during the shooting period. But you probably know that anyway.
Question:    Can you tell us how you got recruited and especially how you were briefed when you started out?
Brayne:    Well, that’s a one-sentence answer. Fred saw a film that I’d worked on as a cameraman, made by a producer-director in Canada, called Warrendale [1967]. In the world of documentaries at that time, Warrendale was relatively successful. In fact, it was more than relatively successful. And I was the cameraman on that film. And I believe that the reason that I started to work with Wiseman was through the work that he saw on the screen from Warrendale.
Question:    And so he just called you up one day and said, “I’m doing a film called Law and Order”?
Brayne:    As simple as that.
Question:    Do you recall whether he said, “Shoot it like Warrendale,” or “Shoot it this different way?”
Brayne:    No. I think you have to go back to the ’60s, to Kansas City, where Law and Order was shot, ’67, something like that. [The film was shot in the fall of 1968.] There was a style during the ’60s and Warrendale was part of that style; it was a classic example. It was considered probably one of the best examples. There were a couple of other examples at that time; Pennebaker’s and that sort of thing, and Fred wanted to make that kind of movie. I was experienced at making that kind of movie. Wiseman had worked with Leiterman before on High School [1968] so, therefore, he knew the school that Leiterman and I had come from and I was told it was a film on the Kansas City Police Department, in which we would try to capture the experience of the Admiral Street Precinct. And from that point, we started filming.
Question:    So you just arrived and walked in and—
Brayne:    Started to film.
Question:    Did he say things to you, like, “I want lots of close-ups” or “Do lots of wide-angle work” or “Don’t turn the camera off until the reel is over” or “Long takes”?
Brayne:    Well, I understood the type of film he wanted to produce. It was a natural response to the situation one is confronted with. If you’re walking into a police precinct, or within a squad car, or in a hospital emergency room, or out with the squaddies in basic training—since nothing is set up, you have to, I think, basically become part of that environment. But you might not shoot very much for the first few days or the first week. It’s very much a sociological and psychological adaptation to the environment you are within. And from that point, I think the crew and the cameraman start to experience the same sort of response that the staff and patients are experiencing within their world, because I, hopefully, have become part of that world. That’s basically the essence of the exercise—to adapt to the environment.
And, genuinely, there’s not that much to say. Like Wiseman says, I basically believe what he says: “It’s up to the audience to see if you’ve been successful or not successful.” I mean, it’s the ultimate goal, I think, of any filmmaker. The primary responsibility and the primary goal is to fit into the environment. I mean, let’s face it, it’s the same with a reporter, novelist, social worker, anything. You have to fit into the environment before you’re going to get an accurate response.
Question:    There are two very different ways that filmmakers have tried to handle that: one of them is to chat up the people, to talk to them a lot and to become invisible by constantly interacting. The others try to become invisible by just being absolutely silent, by being a walking camera. With Fred doing sound and you doing camera, there’s a question of who is leading as you go along. How would that have occurred, or did it evolve as you went along?
Brayne:    Well, Fred and I struck it off right from the beginning, I think, and, therefore, we understood between us, just through gestures, looks, and basically understanding of what we wanted to accomplish on the screen. It really was a matter of letting the subject lead the camera. There was no manipulation whatsoever at any time between the subject and the camera. So, it was a matter of following the action, whatever that might be. And sometimes you got it; and sometimes you didn’t. That is the nature of cinéma vérité filmmaking, if you like, actuality filmmaking.
Question:    When you were filming, did you keep an eye on Fred as he was doing sound?
Brayne:    We kept an eye on each other.
Question:    Was there a set of signals?
Brayne:    Very simple signals: “Mic down” or “I’m going around that way.” There’s a basic grammar in film and even this type of filmmaking—cinéma vérité, hand-held camera, available lights—you have to adhere to a certain degree to that elementary grammar or you attempt to follow an elementary grammar and it’s not that different from just drama shooting. You know you have to establish a scene. You know you have to find out what the scene is about and come to some sort of resolution. It’s quite, quite simple. I mean, if you leave out those parts, the chances are you don’t have a successful scene.
Of course, it’s a terrible problem. It’s an absolutely horrendous problem, because even though you’re using fast film and available lights and everything, when a principal form of action takes place—when I say action, I don’t mean action for action’s sake. Action is anything that develops a plot—you have to anticipate what’s going to happen. It’s anticipation.
Question:    And not even knowing who the principal players are going to be?
Brayne:    You don’t necessarily know that until you’ve been involved with your subjects for some weeks. You have to know them. You have to fit into the environment.
Question:    Did you look at rushes as you were going along?
Brayne:    We looked at rushes under most cases, yes.
Question:    Were you ever involved in the editing of the films?
Brayne:    Never been involved with the edits.
Question:    Did looking at the rushes involve quite a lot of conversation about certain emerging themes and that sort of thing, as you recall?
Brayne:    I think that would be wrong to say, because the films were never complete until the last foot was shot and then Fred took over, totally on his own, during the editing process, and he’s very meticulous in what—by looking at the rushes and putting together various versions, I think, but, again, I really have not been involved in any way with what happens to the material after we finish shooting.
Question:    So there wasn’t much of a sense, then, during the shooting, say three weeks in, of “I think I know what this film is about,” and starting to go after such and such a kind of thing?
Brayne:    I wouldn’t say there was any specific thing one went after. You would find certain directions which you thought were telling a more accurate story than you had thought last week, but it was very much an evolutionary process within a single subject.
Question:    And then you would see the films once completed in some sort of public environment?
Brayne:    Yes. I usually saw them at a public screening. I usually saw them at the London Film Festival if I was in town. You see, I was working—I always worked on a wide variety of films and this was only one type of film I worked on, so this took up a couple of months during a year.
You have to adapt. I was shooting feature films at this time. And documentaries, everything from 60 Minutes [CBS] to BBC, so I was going through a period of styles of film, but the situation in Wiseman films required a specific style, because of the nature of the subject and how you attempted to tell the story, so you have to adapt your style to the subject matter.
Question:    In Primate [1974] one of the things that comes out in the editing of the film is that there are more shots in that film than many of the others. There are a lot of brief shots that lend themselves to the way the story’s being told. There are close-ups of the objects of dissection, close-ups of scientific apparatus, and that sort of thing. It helps to give the film its tone. Seeing that film, one thinks, “Bill Brayne knew he wanted to have all those shots. Wiseman told him he wanted to have all those shots of the needles and dials and the gauges and the locks and all those things.” Was that the case? Did you say, at some point, “We’re going to need a lot of that kind of material”?
Brayne:    Fred always wanted an awful lot of material. He always wanted an awful lot of material on every subject, because again, you don’t know the end result of the film until you’ve completed your inquiry, if you like, completed your research. And it’s a research process. It’s been said that cinéma vérité camera work, directing, whatever, is the equivalent of a reporter with his note pad. Our note pad is the celluloid, and you write your story, the reporter writes his story after gathering his material. The cinéma vérité director assembles his story from the celluloid. Same process: nothing’s really changed.
Question:    So, you try not to tie the editor’s hands, in effect, from what you have left at the end of the shooting?
Brayne:    Well, you have to be able to put the acquired material together to tell the story you think depicts the institution in an accurate and honest way. There was no prior editorial policy. There’s naturally an emerging one, because you start to get what you think is an honest reflection of that institution and the principal goal of that institution and the principal goal within Primate was doing research and because of that type of research which they were doing, it required medical treatment of various primates.
Question:    The reporter’s analogy is helpful, but reporters do have to select and there’s a point at which you can’t get everything—
Brayne:    Of course, that’s the case. The selection process is very often dictated by purely technical reasons. I can’t shoot in the dark, so there’s one element of the story.
Question:    How do you choose, in a complex institution, from among activities going on simultaneously, assuming they are of equal interest, but would give different pictures of the institution, depending on what you decide to shoot?
Brayne:    After a period of time, you will find the focus that tells you what you consider to be an honest and accurate version of that institution.
Question:    May we take an example? There’s a long shot in Basic Training that appears fairly early in the film, as it’s finally edited—the general’s orientation scene. We’re in a big hall. There’s a band over on your left and the troops are all in front. As your shot starts, your camera is on the band leader: he’s got his baton poised and he starts the band. You step a little to the right and catch the general and his crew coming up the aisle. They pass you by on your right and you pan with them as they go up on the stage. The music is still playing. You pan back again and catch the conductor and then look at the band again. It’s a very interesting shot, appearing uncut in the film. Why would a cameraman—what’s the professional urgency that says, “Instead of turning the camera off now, and instead of staying on the stage, I’ll go back and pick up that other scene again, where I’ve just been”?
Brayne:    It’s basic film grammar, if you like. If it was scripted, you could do one thing: you could incorporate dialogue and you can manipulate in drama. You can manipulate actors, script, and everything to get the natural transitions and progressions of time. In documentaries, it’s a much more difficult process and that shot is a classic case, I think, in which you’re trying to tell a story. You’re setting a scene. The band plays “Ruffles and Flourishes” or whatever it’s called and the general walks in, so, therefore, you’ve seen the troops; you’ve seen the element the troops are being presented with. The general is, therefore, solidly identified as the commanding officer. And I don’t know what is happening next. I’ve got no idea what’s happening next as such, but I have a very good idea that “Ruffles and Flourishes” lasts about x number of seconds, so I can tell by looking out of my left eye or listening to the music, that that should stop at that time. So, when the music stops, I’ve got a natural transition flimicly to take me into stage two. That shot in itself has told basically an elementary story and it’s also given a transition.
Question:    So, it’s a narrative technique.
Brayne:    It’s narrative. And that’s all it is. One tries to incorporate that in any documentary film or any feature film or series or serial. It’s basically the same thing, and that’s all it is as far as I’m concerned, but I think it’s a case in point which is basically successful and it depends on the number of those kind of successes that you can acquire in the course of filmmaking that gives you, I think, a better story.
Question:    Is it typical that once you start a shot, you would keep shooting, keep following the action, rather than taking shot, shot, shot? That you are thinking how an editor would cut up the material? Would it be typical that you’re editing in the camera that way?
Brayne:    I’m very conscious of editing in the camera. I’m very conscious of editing in the camera, or at least how I would edit in the camera. And once I felt that part of the story had been accomplished, I will try to acquire the next stage in the development of that story.
Question:    Do you think being trained as an editor gives you an unusual sensitivity to the editing process that a lot of camera operators might not have?
Brayne:    Oh, I think being an editor is invaluable. Yes, it all depends on your training. I mean to me editing was an invaluable instruction. I started in this business in the cutting room, as an assistant film editor and then became an editor and then a cameraman and now a director.
Question:    Did you have a lot of editing discussions with Wiseman, in the sense of talking about styles of editing and patterns of editing? Are these things that people discuss?
Brayne:    I think it very much depends on the individual. Fred and I, and I think it’s apparent because we made ten or eleven films [10], had a rapport and when people have rapport, they don’t discuss specific things along those lines particularly. He might say, “I think we should do x,” and I’d say, “Why don’t we do y?” But basically, we were in agreement and my responsibility ended when we finished shooting.
Question:    Did the completed films come out pretty much as you had expected?
Brayne:    The best completed film is the film you’ve shot the day you finished. That’s the terrific film. Everybody’s terrific film is that film.
Question:    What sort of equipment and film stock did you use?
Brayne:    At that time, I thought the best film was Double-X, Double-X Kodak. I used it all the time—interior, exterior, used it for everything, sometimes pushing it. I had an ASA of 200, that was what Kodak recommended, so I would shoot it under ideal conditions at 200 ASA and would be quite happy to push it. Nearly everything inside was shot at 400 and then shot as high as 1200 under dodgy conditions. The question of color was often discussed. But I wasn’t making a scientifically technical cinematic film. I knew that. We were recording experiences and, therefore, in my mind and Fred’s mind, or Fred’s mind and my mind, the question of whether we shot it in color or black and white never came into it. I liked shooting those in black and white, because I thought we would have a much better film doing them in black and white, because color has more limitations, because of the speed and the color balance. Color film, if it’s not shot in the correct balance, it all goes blue or green. Fluorescent tubes are absolute pigs that flicker. One minute it will all be green; the next minute pink; the next minute blue. You have to take a lot more care to get color film correct. It’s better today than it was then, but nevertheless—. And we weren’t making films that the color balance was necessary. It’s the subjects—that was the primary goal. Fred wanted it black and white. I totally concurred with that decision. It would have been a terrible mistake to shoot in color, and there was always pressure to shoot in color.
Question:    From television?
Brayne:    Yeah, yeah.
Question:    Same camera during that whole period?
Brayne:    Used an Éclair, NPR Éclair, 12-120 zoom lens. At that time, it was the best. It’s no longer the best; there are better cameras today. The Acton superseded the Éclair and it’s a much better camera. There are better zoom lenses, the Zeiss. I have used Angénieux. And the Zeiss 10-100 is a vastly superior lens, but that wasn’t around in those days.
Question:    And you had crystal-sync, so you weren’t wired together for any of those?
Brayne:    No, that’s right. They were all done on crystal-sync.
Question:    How did you keep the mic out of the frame? Did you have a set of warnings about that? Or was Fred just always very aware of where you were on the zoom?
Brayne:    It was done with signals. I signaling him.
Question:    Did you ever use a second camera operator on any of the films that you shot?
Brayne:    No, no.
Question:    So, the person’s who’s listed as camera assistant is just helping change magazines, running errands?
Brayne:    That’s correct.
Question:    Did you shoot any that were unreleased? Once you got going, they all went through?
Brayne:    They all went through.
Question:    Were you ever involved in negotiations for funding, or coming up with some of the ideas for subjects for the films?
Brayne:    No, I had no involvement in the subject matter at all.
Question:    So, he would call you up and say, “How about a juvenile court in Tennessee” and—
Brayne:    Yeah, and I’d say, “Well, I’m available in three months, Fred, but I can’t do it for three months, or four months” and we’d try to slot in a mutually agreeable time, and I’d give him a guarantee of a number of weeks and—there was always a minimum—and off we went.
Question:    What would the minimum be, typically?
Brayne:    Typically six weeks.
Question:    Were they all arranged one at a time? You didn’t both say, “Let’s work together for the next five years”?
Brayne:    No, it was done on a one-off basis. I wouldn’t have tied myself down.
Question:    But you found it interesting enough to keep going back and—
Brayne:    Oh, I enjoyed doing them. I mean, it was an interesting experience; I was always interested in the subjects. I’m interested in sociology, psychology, whatever, and I think that’s the basis of understanding our environment. So, therefore, yes, it was a rich and rewarding experience. How many people have the opportunity to become involved in the various subjects that have been filmed by Wiseman?
Question:    Why did you stop?
Brayne:    Well, my career was going in other directions, and I could no longer—spend the time.
Question:    Sinai Field Mission [1978] was the last?
Brayne:    That was the last film. I thought that I had done enough. My career was going in other directions long before Sinai and I felt that I should stop. I found it very interesting, but I thought a time had come for a stop doing cinéma vérité and I couldn’t commit myself in the necessary time I had. I might miss an interesting project, which I hoped to pursue, if I locked myself down, and it wasn’t fair on Fred.
Question:    Brian Winston has written that by the early 1980s direct cinema and cinéma vérité had come to a standstill, having either deviated from or exhausted the original form.
Brayne:    I would concur with that, yeah. But I’m still a viewer of documentary. You can’t beat reality.
Question:    With Hospital it’s very clear that you kept watching things. You weren’t shy; you didn’t turn the camera off and not watch things that were difficult. You watched that young man with the drug overdose through the whole strange experience. Early in the film, there’s a man who’s in terrible trouble and there’s a moment when a priest comes up, and you just keep rolling. It’s a moment, in the edited film, of real dread that things are getting very serious and there’s a very strong sense of not turning away.
Brayne:    Well, I really firmly believe that, if you’re successful, you become part of that institution and the closer you can become part of that institution, the more honest and accurate the film will be. So, there’s nobody else in that room turning away at a moment of dread, as you say. I didn’t see it as a moment of dread at all. I’m not an M.D.; I’m not a nurse; but I became part of that institution. Wiseman was part of that institution for that period of time. So what happens in front of the lens is just a reflection of the reality we see around us. That’s our goal. No pre-conceived ideas. And it’s how successful we are as filmmakers to record exactly what the staff at that hospital or that institution is experiencing. And if we can get close to that, I think we’re—not doing too bad. And the technical aspects of how to do it, in terms of lighting and color film and all that sort of thing is not important.
Question:    How do you avoid, as they say, going native? There must be a danger on the other side of becoming, in a sense, overly sympathetic with the staff of an institution and seeing what they see, blinking when they blink.
Brayne:    Well, I hope I’m enough of a realist to realize that I am still an outsider and always will be. They’ve gone through 200 drug overdoses in the last six months. I’ve experienced maybe 20, but it is amazing, if you’re confronted with a situation how readily you as an individual, any individual, or most individuals, adapt to the reality they’re experiencing.
Question:    As a cameraman, you must get very sensitive to people who are acting for you, once you point the camera at them.
Brayne:    I have a thing in the camera called a “bullshit meter.”
Question:    You just turn off? Turn away? There’s a moment in Law and Order, and it seems to happen very rarely in Wiseman’s films, when some police break down the door of a room, a prostitute’s room, and they go in, and one of the policemen is choking this woman. And I know there’s a danger of over-reading this, but it looks as if the policeman turns her around as he’s talking to her, so that she’ll be facing the camera. It’s a hard moment to watch, partly because there’s a sense that if the camera went off, some of that might stop.
Brayne:    There’s always a danger. I think that what you’re questioning is a matter of interpretation, but the basic rule of thumb was always to turn off and, if in doubt, it would be sorted out in the editing process. There are many instances, usually when you were first with a person, or sometimes people would over-respond to the camera, before you became part of the scene.
Question:    So you saw a change sometimes in the behaviors, that they became less eager to perform, the longer you were there? There were real changes?
Brayne:    Oh, sure, oh, sure. I mean that’s part of the whole thing of “hanging in there” as Fred used to like to say, and probably still says. “You’ve got to hang in there.” And he’s absolutely correct: You’ve got to hang in. For instance, if you present a camera to a bunch of squaddies, an infantry company in basic training, or something like that, for the first day, it’s “Gee, whiz.” But if I sit in the corner there for a week, it’s no longer “Gee, whiz,” is it?
Question:    On the question of consent.
Brayne:    I’m not going to—I can’t answer that. I can’t answer that.
Question:    So Fred handles all the consent situations while filming?
Brayne:    Yeah.
Question:    And you would never have anything to do with it?
Brayne:    Nothing to do with it.
Question:    So you pretty much assumed, if it was there, it was okay to film it—
Brayne:    No, no, no. I’ve given you the accurate answer. If there was ever an indication that somebody didn’t want filming, it wasn’t filmed. But, basically, the consent question was totally the prerogative of Fred.
Question:    May we return to the issue of trying to retain your narrative sense as you are shooting, to anticipate how something would lend itself to telling a story. One wants to be clear and to tell the story, but since it’s unscripted, you don’t want to give a sense that you know what’s going to happen.
Brayne:    In Basic Training the general’s address is a set performance. It’s well known in advance that at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning, the general is going to address the new intakes. They’ve been doing it for twenty-five years probably in a not too different way, so, in that case, I could ask, or we can ask, “What’s going to happen? He comes down here; goes up on the dais; gives an address.” But only on very formal occasions like that. After that, I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen, but you’ve got to be able to follow the action, whatever that action may be.
Question:    Without always being behind people. That’s the curious paradox from the camera point of view. How do you get in front of people without seeming omniscient? You can’t always just be walking down the corridor behind people.
Brayne:    Hopefully not, but it’s a question of attempting to understand human behavior and I think that’s one of the necessities of being a documentary cameraman. Nothing is rehearsed. You have no idea what is going to happen, but if you have an understanding of human behavior in a psychological, sociological manner, you are very often able to anticipate what’s going to happen next.
Question:    But you don’t want to give a sense that you’ve anticipated too much, right?
Brayne:    No, no, no, no. I don’t mean it, I don’t mean it in that way at all. That would be absolutely wrong. But I—if you look through a camera for any length of time, there are all kinds of subjects. People are more likely to go from A to B if situation C is part of the scenario. You ask a question, for example, to a patient. You should be able to tell, from the nature of your question, you have some kind of an indication of the response of the patient. I mean, that’s why you asked the question. Now, if I understand the question, I am going to feel exactly the same way as you, that I expect that kind of response, because of what has happened before. So if I have a sense that this is the crux of that particular situation, I’m going to get the camera off you right away, because I already—halfway through your question, or a quarter a way through your question—I’m anticipating where your brain is going, and, therefore, if I’m going to understand the significance of this encounter, I’d better bloody well get the camera around the other side, because that’s where you’re going, too, so to understand you, I’ve got to know where you’re going. And it’s no use me being on your face and not being able to see the central ingredient within our situation. I’ve got to get around.
Question:    And do it in a way that’s true both to the psychology and to the narrative needs, so that your timing is right—
Brayne:    I’m not sure that there’s any difference in there. I mean I cannot destroy the relationship between the two people. I can’t put my heavy boots on. Then we’re all lost. That is a pre-requisite to this type of filming, if you’re going to do it honestly to all concerned.
Question:    There’s a long shot in Welfare [1975] where an older man, who says that he’s a marine, he’s been injured, and he’s talking to a security guard in uniform who’s Black. And this former marine gives a long speech, abusive to Blacks, to the security guard. One of the things that is very interesting about the shot is that you reveal, in a two-shot in the beginning of it, that he is talking to a Black person, but then you go to a one-shot of the speaker and for some time don’t include the guard’s reaction, so there’s an added tension in the shot, because we’re not watching the reaction of the listener. We know he’s there, but—
Brayne:    Yeah, yeah. I can’t remember that shot, but that’s because we goofed.
Question:    You think that would be a goof to do it that way? It works on the screen.
Brayne:    Yeah, it might work, but I probably considered that a goof at the time.
Question:    Because you want to keep the reaction there?
Brayne:    I think it’s very elementary. It’s still the same principle, and that’s the terrible dilemma when shooting, when shooting documentaries. You have to get both sides in any argument and that’s very difficult. Other than sticking a camera way in the back and just shooting a wide shot, which the sound man won’t be able to record. And you won’t actually be able to see the central dilemma of the situation. On film and television, basically the one essential ingredient is close-ups of the human face.
Question:    Which in single-camera documentary on a conversation is extraordinarily difficult to do.
Brayne:    It’s extraordinarily difficult and you have to make a lot of sacrifices.
Question:    Because the cutting is done in such a way to make it appear seamless?
Brayne:    Well, Fred doesn’t cut very much. He cuts very little. I believe he doesn’t cut very much to try to continue to be honest.
Sometimes, speaking filmicly only, sometimes you’re lucky. It depends on the room. No one is going to dictate where anyone sits, because that’s kind of against the ground rules. I can set up shots in which you’ll get the best of both worlds, but that would be making the environment more suitable to the filmmakers than to the actual participants, so that’s part of the ground rules. We do not impinge in any way, shape, or form on the natural occurrences within any situation, so sometimes their natural seating positions are more conducive to filming than others.
Question:    And when people are directly face-to-face, that’s a difficult situation.
Brayne:    It’s one of the more difficult situations. Depends a bit on the size of the room, too.
Question:    In Juvenile Court you had some difficult scenes where in one room four or five different people would be discussing a case, in the courtroom or the judge’s chambers. When you’re in a situation like that, do you just assume you’re invisible and move between people?
Brayne:    No, no. I think that that would be counterproductive. Yes, you have to move and it’s a game, trying to make yourself a part of that particular environment. I wouldn’t have thought I moved very much, as such, because that would be disruptive and, therefore, counterproductive. But it’s a question of instant decisions. You see something. I mean, you’re talking about within seconds, of saying, “Well, the best angle to cover this, which I think will be a developing scene.” People come together. In a game like this, it’s a question of saying you think they are more likely to stay basically in that kind of configuration. And the best way I can get both sides of that configuration would be from point A, so I might actually take an extra five or ten seconds to get to point A. That would be that instant decision’s optimum position and then, hopefully, within that position A, I can cover X, Y, and Zed.
Question:    So you develop a kind of intuition for how people move—
Brayne:    Yeah, this is part of photography. It’s part of your instinctive eye, that that’s the best angle and, as directors or cameramen, you seize upon that angle very quickly and make the assessment that that should tell the essence of this scene and that’s not that different from drama or documentary. You can do it much better in drama, naturally.
Question:    Because you can set it up?
Brayne:    Yeah. You walk into the judge’s chambers. I mean you’ve got to be basically three-quarter angle on the judge. And you know where the judge is.
Question:    And the rest of it, you get as you can?
Brayne:    Yeah. And if the principal participant sits on the left, you better be on the right. It’s no use being on the left, because you’re only going to get the back of heads, so your options go pretty quick. So if he moves from the left to the right, and sits in a high-backed chair, I’ve got to move.
Question:    You may remember the scene in Essene [1972] in which Brother Wilfred and the abbot are talking about first names and Wilfred is complaining that he doesn’t like to be called by his first name—
Brayne:    Yeah, yeah. I remember he’s got the fly swatter.
Question:    Mostly the scene stays on Wilfred, and most of it in a medium close-up as I recall, although you start with an establishing shot. Back in a two-shot, you have come in on him and you zoom out just in time. When he dips for the fly swatter, you’re in close-up and you zoom out, so he doesn’t completely lose the frame—Your timing is wonderful.
Brayne:    Most of the time I shoot with my left eye open.
Question:    So you can see what’s going to be happening?
Brayne:    Part of the anticipation. If you don’t constantly keep your left eye open, you’ve half lost the story.
Question:    How do you keep your left eye open and not sometimes make eye contact with the subject? Does that bother them, then, if they see you looking at them through one eye?
Brayne:    No, because they basically—well, look at the films.
Question:    How much has to be thrown away, that can’t be used if that happens?
Brayne:    If the subject starts to look at the camera, I’m afraid it’s not very realistic. One, it’s not very realistic in filmic terms and B, it wouldn’t be a very realistic situation, so, therefore, you might as well walk away from it.
Question:    Does Fred usually not look, too, during filming? Or is he watching the subject?
Brayne:    He’s watching the subject, and he’s watching me.
Question:    On the one hand, in film terms, it wouldn’t be realistic if the people looked at the camera, but in many ways that would be the most realistic thing. For people who are not performers to be curious and bothered by cameras and sound men crawling around within several feet—
Brayne:    But that’s part of your job—to become part of the environment.
Question:    Yes, the films all depend on the possibility of that happening and certainly, as you say, your films are proof that it can happen. But some audiences seem to doubt it. People who see these films for the first time and are not familiar with this style of filmmaking ask: “How could this happen? How could it really be the way it presents itself?” A kind of incredulity—
Brayne:    Yes, well, I know what you’re saying, but the reality is very often contrary to that, isn’t it?
Question:    Would you let your life be filmed?
Brayne:    No, no, I wouldn’t, no.
Question:    Did you ever run into a situation when there were a lot of people not co-operative?
Brayne:    No.
Question:    So, across these ten situations, the great majority have been co-operative and have been willing to participate?
Brayne:    Oh, it’s more than that. Yes, it’s the great majority.
Question:    Fred says that he finds Americans to be especially co-operative and unbothered by cameras.
Brayne:    I think that’s true; I think that’s true. I mean, the camera, television, film are parts of one’s environment.
Question:    It seems that in some of your situations there’s a hierarchical chain of command, where someone at the top would say “Yes” and then there’s a directive down: “There’s going to be a film; you’re expected to co-operate.”
Brayne:    I don’t think that would be an accurate thing to say.
Question:    You don’t think that sort of thing happens?
Brayne:    No. That’s not accurate.
Question:    So, it’s each person for himself? You were never in a situation where people were told by their superiors that they were to co-operate with the filmmaking?
Brayne:    Never.
Question:    And so, for example, in the Kansas City police situation—
Brayne:    I don’t know how we ended up on Kansas City and I don’t know how we ended up on Admiral Street, Boulevard, or whatever the precinct house was called. I have no idea how we ended up there. I do know that everyone was very co-operative once we arrived. And if anybody didn’t want to be filmed there, as far as I know, they weren’t.
Question:    So, it wasn’t authorized by the department?
Brayne:    No. I don’t think there was anybody that didn’t want to be filmed. I was never made aware of it. And it’s, I think, right to say that if you’re in an institution for six weeks or seven weeks, sure there are secrets you don’t find out, but I think you understand the lay of the land quite well. We wouldn’t have been able to film those films if we didn’t understand the lay of the land.
Question:    There’s a shot in Law and Order of Richard Nixon giving a speech about law and order, about the attorney general. Was that filmed during that period from television locally broadcast, or—
Brayne:    No, I shot that when we were there.
Question:    So he came to Kansas City as part of the campaign? Was this a campaign rally then?
Brayne:    Campaign rally, yeah. We covered the campaign rally because the Kansas City Police Department was covering the rally. You must understand that in these films you are following your subject. And your subject that night in Kansas City, when President Nixon is making an address at a convention of one form or another, that’s probably the biggest news for the KCPD. Where do we go? We go with our subject, which is the KCPD. We had no idea that Nixon was going to talk about law and order, at least that’s my memory and I’m sure we didn’t, but he spoke about law and order. Now, what would you put in the film?
Question:    Good luck, eh?
Brayne:    Yeah, I’m just one cameraman out of probably fifty below the stage, so he certainly wasn’t doing it for Fred Wiseman.

[At this point there is a gap in the recording while the interviewer changes tapes in the recorder.]

Brayne:    Yes, I’m amazed. Channel 4 had a screening of four of these films that went out around midnight, and I was amazed at bumping into people who had seen them and commented on them and asked if I was the same Bill Brayne. I was amazed that so many people that saw them and seemed to appreciate the films. I looked at them as—that was a long time ago, and all those, all those faces looked so young.
I think they’re provocative probably because they’re reasonably accurate and how often does one have an opportunity to really see behind the scenes?
Question:    Fred often says that it’s a complete waste of time to go to film school, that the technical parts come fairly easily, he says, and that you should learn something about life in general.
Brayne:    Well, it’s like everything. You need the tools to do the job, but it’s how to communicate with those tools and that’s really of the primary importance. Yes, I will agree with Fred, the basic, once you have the basic grammar, then it’s life itself.
Question:    Do you agree with him that the basic grammar is pretty easy to get?
Brayne:    I think a lot of it is intuitive and to be able to understand what you are communicating. It’s life, yes, that’s the principal thing. It’s understanding life. But I’ve still got to know how to get a mid-shot.
Question:    Did you go to a film institute?
Brayne:    No, I started at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in the editing rooms, and went on from there. Just out of school. I was one of the fortunate ones. Because of the development of television, there was a shortage of people. There was that tremendous explosion of television stations, production houses, during the time I started. You know, if you were 17, you became an assistant in the film editing and if you were 25, you became a director; and if you were 35, you became a producer; and if you were 40, you became the Director General. It was a pretty simple process.

Well, there was a tremendous drive at that time and, to go back to Fred, it’s to learn about life. Yes, I started to be a film editor at 17, but I left that to, shall we say, further my experiences of life and hopefully acquire the education necessary to understand what life was all about, so that was part of the process, too.

Suggested Citation: Benson, Thomas W., and Anderson, Carolyn. “William Brayne.” Making Documentary Film: Frederick Wiseman and His Collaborators, Penn State Libraries Open Publishing, 2024, pp. 59-75. https://doi.org/10.59236/wiseman3

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