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“A Way to Get Over Social Anxiety”: John Wilson Looks Back on ‘How To with John Wilson’

By Nora Rosenthal

In a very bright, sunny driveway, a white man holds a video camera while squinting into the sun.

John Wilson. Image credit: HBO. Courtesy of VdR

How To With John Wilson is an 18-part series of comedic documentary essays framed as tutorials. In each episode, filmmaker John Wilson poses a question that is also the episode title, like How To Make Small Talk or How To Throw Out Your Batteries. The questions are very rarely answered directly, instead offering a free-associative portal into both Wilson’s life and those of the people he meets. How To Watch Birds starts by following a bird-watching group but is really an investigation of truth claims in life and on film. The show’s surreal finale, How to Track Your Package, begins with Wilson tackling the difficulty of finding lost mail, but after a chance meeting at an Arizona pizzeria known for its giant pipe organ, ends by discussing loss and mortality at a cryonics convention.

A man whose inner monologue can feel by turns deeply relatable and entirely of his own creative neuroticism, Wilson is the embodiment of the subjective essayistic turn in documentary. Once strongly associated with Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Jean-Luc Godard, this turn is now omnipresent, from recent artistic essay films All Light, Everywhere (2021) and Last Things (2023)to first-person accounts on TikTok. The personality behind narration has never been more important to the spread of art and information alike, and Wilson’s sense of himself dictates not only the show’s observational content but also the entire structure of his storytelling. I spoke to Wilson for Documentary while also attending the Visions du Réel International Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, where Wilson was a Special Guest. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


DOCUMENTARY: Since arriving here, how many times have you heard the word hybrid?

JOHN WILSON: Since arriving here, I’ve heard the word hybrid at least four or five times. I guess it’s a popular genre these days.

D: Or seemingly, the genre…

JW: Yeah, I don’t know why it’s the genre. In the past ten years, so much of documentary has been about analyzing performance in a way, whether it’s just getting someone to reenact something… ever since The Act of Killing (2012) came out, I feel like people have just been obsessed with doing that.

D: I’ve been thinking a lot about the essay film and memoir and how voiceover acts as the scaffolding that connects everything together—the thread that allows all these juxtapositions to happen, which is also part and parcel of many hybrid models. I’m curious what you make of the ubiquity of telling films in the first person. There’s Werner Herzog, but then there’s also potentially all of TikTok.

JW: I wonder why that’s become such an explosive trend. A lot of the time you’re watching an essay film without realizing it, like on TikTok. Personally, it was just the best way to transmit information. Herzog is obviously a major inspiration. I’ve devoured all his work, especially the nonfiction stuff. I find it’s so satisfying to feel close to the process, as a viewer. 

How To shares a lot with something subconscious like memes. You look at any meme and like, what is it doing? It’s just a picture. And then there’s text that reinterprets the image somehow. I feel like I do that in a way with the voiceover where I try to find whatever hidden joke is inside of the imagery.

D: What’s it been like, as this thing that began as just you, has grown in such magnitude to include all these writers and editors and shooters who aren’t you, but who in some way are emulating you and your voice? What has that process been like?

JW: I really didn’t know how to scale up at first. I did have a lot of help from [Nathan] Fielder. because he had puppeteered big productions like that before, and I trusted him. It would often take me a year to make a ten-minute movie just because I would be shooting casually by myself. But then when How To started it needed to become a lot more muscular. So he brought in unit shooters who were shooting every single day with a little scavenger hunt list. I did have to teach them how to see things a certain way.

D: Does it feel quite intimate to suddenly have this eager group who’s inside your way of observing?

JW: It’s a little Being John Malkovitch, you know? I do like to feel closer to people with these weird methods sometimes. I’m revealing things to my collaborators that people would usually only reveal in therapy or something. I think it’s because I feel a little emotionally arrested. The work is the way of not only processing it internally, but somehow finding a way to make it as relatable as possible. And I think that includes having a lot of different collaborators.

D: I wondered, after this big blowout of How to Track Your Package if you’d want to take a radical sidestep…

JW: I’ve been considering taking a formal sidestep, but it’s so hard to deprogram myself. A little while ago, I made this non-narrated movie called How to Act on Reality TV, more of a Wiseman-style document… I do want to get back into that and just kind of shut up. Maybe for one of the next projects.

D: Everyone makes you talk about your penultimate episode, How To Watch Birds

JW: I mean I did it.

D: You did it.

JW: I gotta talk about it.

D: Do you have a philosophy about how you recontextualize or put together these pieces of reality?

JW: I guess it’s a case-by-case thing. 

D: Or, what’s your take on this omnipresent question of reality, what made you feel compelled to make this episode that commented on truth?

JW: Honestly, I was going through a bad breakup and I was having a lot of trust issues, and I really just wanted to get to the bottom of, emotionally, why I felt betrayed. Like, what is a lie? If you write something down and don’t tell somebody that you’re thinking something, is that a lie? You’re not revealing something to them. So that was the little kernel. But then I just started to think about birds. And then when someone told me that you can’t lie when you’re talking about birds, I was like, okay, maybe that’s just enough daylight to pry open and try to investigate this dilemma.

D: Fate seems to loom quite large in the show, just where the stars align in a very special New York City kind of way. Am I wrong in thinking that?

JW: It’s assisted in certain ways, but I feel like those are some of the only religious moments I have, you know when things line up like that, and it’s almost too good to be true. But I also feel like the process of making the show has taught me that if you just obsess about something and that’s the lens that you view the world through consistently, then the universe will reveal these things to you somehow—or you just begin to notice them. I don’t know what comes first.

D: Do you ever get nervous that that magic won’t transpire?

JW: Oh yeah. At the beginning of every production, I’m vibrating with anxiety because I know that so much is out of my hands. I know something crazy is about to happen at spring break or the cryogenics convention. I don’t know what it is, but the only way for it to happen is through the sheer momentum of me getting over social anxiety and trying to talk to as many people as I can. I think so much of the show and the work in general is a way to get over social anxiety. It gives purpose and it kind of allows relationships to form.

D: What would happen if this eventually filled you with an otherworldly confidence—would it destroy your whole way of working?

JW: I think I’ve definitely become more confident, going up to people and stuff, over the years. I started narrating the work because I hated my voice and I hated my written word. So I just needed to confront that emotion and get over it. It was the same thing with the social aspects of it, too.

D: What happened to the Burning Man footage that you couldn’t use?

JW: Wouldn’t you like to know? That was one of the most frustrating things that’s ever happened to me because I can’t stand Burning Man. And I went there to study the bathrooms, you know? So I spent a week in 120-degree porta potties, filming the staff vacuum-suck thousands of pounds of Burner feces out of these facilities. And then to be told that you can’t use it because someone else paid to have exclusive rights for a puff piece doc feature that has yet to come out.

But I honestly don’t think the material was that good. I think the imagery of Burning Man is really boring to me. I’m just not a fan of the personalities there. I received more snooty comments in three days of Burning Man than I have in three years in New York. 

D: It seems like the condo association of the desert.

JW: Exactly. Hippies are actually some of the most uptight people I’ve ever met. 

Nora Rosenthal is a writer and filmmaker currently based in Toronto, Canada.