How to produce the HBO documentary „How To“?!

My insights gained from director John Wilson during his presentation at DocsBarcelona Industry.

The fact that the DocsBarcelona team has managed to get the Emmy-nominated filmmaker from New York to teach a masterclass was a coup. John Wilson is currently considered to be one of the most successful documentary film artists in the world. HBO Max is streaming three seasons of his popular series entitled “How To”.

But first things first. If you, like me, haven’t seen anything by John Wilson before, you can get a good impression of his work in the trailer linked here below.

In every episode of “How To”, John Wilson assembles scenes and comments on backgrounds from everyday American life, which he collects en passant using simple video gear. In addition, there are filmed encounters with people that he deliberately initiates without planning their outcome.

I prefer not to comment on whether I like the “How To” series or not. Everyone can decide that for themselves. Also, I don’t want to presume to characterize John Wilson as an artist or person because I don’t know him well enough for that. When I spoke to him in person during a break in the DocsBarcelona festival, he was free of airs and graces, friendly and modest. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Instead, I would like to share a few passages from John Wilson’s presentation at DocsBarcelona that I find worth considering for every filmmaker and producer. Enjoy!

John Wilson on ...

New York

“What I love about New York is that things change so quickly there. And that’s both sad and really exciting.” 

The success of „How To“

“I’m quite sure that one of the reasons that explains the success of „How To“ is, from an audience perspective, is that when you see it, it feels real. I’m not saying real in the sense that there’s someone behind the camera just working for the documentary, but real in the sense that I believe that you can really see that the person who’s doing it is really believing in what he’s doing.” 

Rejection and experimenting online

“I used to try to submit to festivals and stuff like that. And I found that it was really kind of bad for my self-esteem because I kept getting rejected over and over again. And I would just like hold on to this movie, like instead of just premiering it, you know, so I was just like, fuck it. I’m just going to put everything online the second I’m done with it. And if people like it, cool, but if not, then I’m going to learn, you know, I’m going to learn, I think, probably an easier lesson and a cheaper lesson that my stuff is bad. But it kind of took on a life of its own just based on people sharing it. And I’ve never promoted anything I’ve ever done, like, in an aggressive way. So that was kind of like, that was the experiment to begin with.” 

Being signed by HBO & cloning himself to get the job done

“I made, like, a three-minute pitch video that I just had on an iPad that I just showed to the HBO people that basically said what the trailer says, but with a much lower energy voiceover, if you can imagine. And mostly, like, iPhone imagery, you know. And they ordered the pilot, and then Nathan [editorial note: Nathan Fielder, producer] and I had to figure out what the show was going to be. 

I thought that I didn’t have any gas left in the tank at all from „How-to“ stuff. I thought that I had said everything that I needed to say, and I was terrified of not being able to sustain a single episode, let alone, like, a whole season. But we just talked about it, and we figured out what needed to stay the same, what needed to change. We just had to put the production on steroids, because it would usually take me a year to make a ten-minute movie. And I realized that we needed to basically clone myself somehow, and have people that knew how to shoot what I wanted to shoot, like, how I wanted to shoot it. It wouldn’t feel cohesive if everyone was shooting, like, too much in their own style. 

I chose, like, four or five shooters that I either knew personally really well, or whose work I really admired. I could train them, in a way, to shoot like me, but I also trusted their vision to begin with, and I think that they honestly noticed a lot, like, funnier stuff than I did a lot of the time. 

When I started „How To“, I had this style bible that I created, and this is what I gave to the whole crew, day one. So I would basically just give them a scavenger hunt list and tell them to go nuts. But also, I would say if there’s anything that’s more interesting than just what’s on the scavenger hunt list, that you should film that. 

I don’t care how, like, what direction I give you. I trust your instincts.
But no vertical video, yeah. Because I haven’t figured out what to do with that yet.” 

The shooters’ most important briefing

“Spend at least ten seconds filming whatever you land on. This was for some reason the hardest part. People would shoot really short clips, and I would just, like, I know it feels really weird, but I need at least ten seconds for it to be usable at all. 

This kind of stuff, like, someone walking in the rain. Because that would automatically make the viewer feel something in a way. 

Like if you saw, you know, there was a shot of a dog on a leash in the rain, that would, no matter what I’m saying, that’s going to make you feel sad.

I think that’s a little shortcut for me sometimes when I’m cutting together the work. Is that, like, I think there’s certain things that really help emotionally.” 

The challenge of letting go

“When I got the show, it was really hard for me to bring on an editor. Because it was like, I would enter this flow state when I was editing. And it would really just like, all the jokes, all the rhythms, it would all just, like, come out of me, like, as I was, as I was in Premiere [editorial note: Premiere is a video editing app]. And it really felt like I was just telling someone how to operate a marionette at first or something, you know. Or, like, telling someone how to sketch something, like, every single line. I felt like an asshole, because I was really anal, and it’s like, the edit is like a very personal thing for me. But I eventually got over that, and the editors did way funnier stuff than I could have, because they could see all the footage that I shot, realize what’s kind of funny and pathetic about me, and then, like, make that, like, put in jokes from the raw footage that I wouldn’t have even recognized, you know, as, like, the vulnerable moment or something.” 

A massive database

“So, I had multiple assistant editors taking all the footage, and meticulously tagging everything, like, every single word that was in the footage, that was in a shot. Like, what the objects are, what the action was, but even just, like, more poetic tags, like misery or happiness or romance, you know. And those were all kind of in a massive database that we could just type what we wanted and pick out. If we needed a shot of dog shit, we had a thousand fucking shots by the time the third season was over, you know. And it was just, like, really easy to have this kind of recall. Because I had other people organizing stuff, I didn’t have to organize anything anymore myself. That was really fun, because I just took all my favorite clips, and this was the timeline I worked with [editorial note: Wilson did show a project example in the Premiere app]. All my favorite clips, back to front, no order, just so that when I’m looking at stuff, and I just have writer’s block, I’m just looking at things that have no connection with one another, and that sparked the most stuff. But, yeah, there was something about the chaos of not having any order at all that, like, made it a lot more fun and kind of inspiring to edit. But there’s, like, this amazing thing that happens with all this footage. Even though there are thousands of hours of it, me and the editors, we remember every single clip, like, every single one.” 

Creating a „How To“ episode

“I always start with a title whenever I start an episode. For some reason, I become so fixated on the title because, if it makes people laugh when I tell it to them, or if they have their own story about whatever that thing is, I kind of know that it’ll probably work as a picture. Once I found something, once I recognized the pattern, I would find as much stuff like it, and I would put it into a single sequence. I would put all the text on the screen and I would sound it out and make sure that the length of the clip matched what my delivery would be. So when I went and recorded it later, it would all just be timed perfectly. I recorded an entire episode in one go. So, by the end of it, you might notice that my voice is, like, a little hoarse because I wanted it to feel like I was actually running a marathon or something. It’s just like you would feel the exhaustion by the end of it.” 

His penchant for unappetizing scenes and shit

“Yeah, I haven’t really grown up. But you know, I like taboo, at least maybe it’s more taboo in the States sometimes.” 

[Editorial note: At the end of the performance, Èric Motjer presented John Wilson with a Caganer as a gift on behalf of the DocsBarcelona team, alluding to his penchant for unsavory topics. A Caganer is a figurine depicted in the act of defecation appearing in nativity scenes in Catalonia. You can google images of caganers if you have the feeling you should know more about it.]

The quotes I have compiled only cover some of the topics of the presentation and some have been shortened in part for better readability. 

If you would like to follow John Wilson, you can do so on Instagram, for example. His handle is @peepingjohn.

I want to thank Robin S. Kurz for his help with this post, and I hope you enjoyed the reading.

In the coming days, I will share further impressions of the activities at the DocsBarcelona Industry. Stay up to date by following me. You won’t want to miss a thing!