How to interview John Wilson

As his HBO docuseries How To With John Wilson comes to a close, FNoMTL chats with the eponymous creator about social media, shooting strangers and how a garbage fire can bring you closer to god.

After three seasons and 18 episodes, How To With John Wilson is wrapping up. Each episode is a funny kind of love letter to New York’s (and America’s) eccentricities, a collage of clips that lures you in with a benign theme — scaffolding, small talk, wine appreciation — then goes firmly off the rails. One minute you’re learning about public toilets, then casket sales, then college campus cult recruiters, all spliced between shots of buskers, rats and public toe-sucking.

It’s a uniquely strange, sweet and unsettling show. And though some of the clips feel like natural fodder for social media, the series itself is an antidote to a scroll full of stolen content and context-less videos — an invitation to reflect a little longer than the half-second laugh or cringe most Tik Toks provoke. And even with names like Nathan Fielder and Susan Orlean on board, it’s Wilson’s tireless voyeurism and shaky voiceover that tie it all together. 

As a huge fan of the show and an occasional observer of Montreal’s own oddities (via FNoMTL), I wanted to know what Wilson had to say about capturing the trashy side of a city.

FNoMTL: Though the show is done, you also have a personal Instagram account where you share strange things you see around New York. Does it feel different when you’re sending an image into the ether, versus collecting stuff for eventual use?

John Wilson: For the Instagram stuff, I’ve tried not to change my behaviour that much since the show started. If I see something funny on the street and I don’t have my video camera, there’s no other real place I can think of to put that. But if there’s a video of something really exceptional, I’m not just going to put it on social media.

FNoMTL: Have you ever left your phone at home, to just go into the world without recording anything?

John Wilson: I would never leave home without my phone. No.

FNoMTL: Do you ever feel like a digital hoarder?

John Wilson: Yeah, totally. Or, you know, an analogue hoarder, sometimes. I still shoot on this in the off-season [holds up a small video camera], a DV camera, not broadcast quality. It’s nice to get back to filming stuff just for me. 

FNoMTL: What does “just for me” mean? Personal use, or some project you haven’t planned yet?

John Wilson: I go back and forth. I mean, this is more just like home movies. A friend’s wedding, a party. I just turn this stuff into little movies that I show to my friends.

FNoMTL: And your friends are okay with it all? 

John Wilson: Yeah, they’re cool. I mean, they understand what the terms are to hang out with me, in general. And they know that I wouldn’t put out anything that would make them look really bad. I run things by them.

FNoMTL: What about strangers? It feels like the role of journalism and social media have shifted — our concepts of public and private — since you started the show, which you get into a bit in the season three premiere. Has your own approach changed?

John Wilson: We occupy an interesting space with the show. Because yes, it is a documentary, but it’s also a comedy. And it’s like, I don’t have to apply… What’s the phrase? I don’t have to abide by the same journalistic ethics, you know? Like, when you’re writing a story about someone, you can’t buy them a meal. I don’t really have any of those rules.

FNoMTL: You almost can’t get a human on camera who doesn’t know what reality TV looks like, anymore. How do you get people to not perform?

John Wilson: That’s totally true, but people are still themselves, no matter what. I’m kind of allergic to really hammy people, so I can tell when someone is going to act like that, almost instantly. But most New Yorkers are not like that. And I feel like most people are not like that. 

You know, the documentarian Frederick Wiseman, he’s one of my favourite guys. He’s been making documentaries since the ’60s. And I remember asking him the same question after a Q&A. “Do you think that people in the ’60s, the way that they respond to a camera, is different than today?” And he just immediately shot me down. He was like, “Absolutely not.” And I’ve kind of noticed the same thing over the years. People may drift in and out of their schtick sometimes, but if you know what to ask them, they’re very much themselves. Even if they’ve seen a lot of reality TV.

FNoMTL: What’s it like living in New York now, when there are so many voyeuristic accounts, and everyone can be paparazzi for, you know, a rat eating pizza?

John Wilson: You mean like everyone is filming the rat now? 

FNoMTL: Yeah. If everyone else has their phone out, do you still shoot?

John Wilson: Then you just film in the other direction, you film the crowd. Or sometimes there is value to what everyone is watching at the same time. You just try to find a different angle. I think everyone is filming all of this stuff, that inspired me to film it more, in a way. Because I would see all this amazing footage on Instagram or whatever, and I would just get so sad that it was so decentralized, and didn’t really amount to much outside of a temporary video. And it would kind of disappear, in the churn. The show for me is a container for all this stuff, so it doesn’t get lost forever.

FNoMTL: Sometimes at FNoMTL we get accused of being negative because we show Montreal’s decay. Can you truly love a city if you don’t embrace the bad bits?

John Wilson: I think loving something means having a complicated relationship with it. The show is like a good litmus test, because I see some people comment, “I watched How To and it proved that New York is the biggest shit hole I’ve ever seen and makes me never want to go there.” And then other people are like, “This makes me miss New York.” 

FNoMTL: Have you ever captured anything where you just kind of felt like, ‘Well, that’s it, I’m never going to top that. I might as well pack it all in’?

John Wilson: I felt that way at the end of the episode about batteries, when I’m interviewing the sex offender, and the trash can just ignites. And I’m just like, sitting there, watching this bus station burn down with an advertisement for vodka behind it that says, “Good vodka should not burn,” you know. And it’s like — I’m getting chills just thinking about this again now — I cannot believe that the universe has delivered the perfect visual metaphor for everything we’ve experienced up until this point. Moments like that are some of the only religious experiences I feel like I have, because I don’t know how to explain it. ■

The HBO series How To With John Wilson season 3 is streaming now Crave, with new episodes airing on Fridays through Sept. 1.

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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