It’s been a little over six weeks since the docuseries How to With John Wilson premiered on HBO to unanimous rave reviews, earning an instant cult following and a perfect 100-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the 34-year-old filmmaker at the center of it is still trying to process what’s happened to his life.
“I’m really shocked,” says Wilson. “I did not think that it would resonate with this many people. It’s a very strange feeling and really overwhelming. But it’s all in my phone, and my physical reality hasn’t changed at all. I go outside and people still don’t want to talk to me, which is fine.”
That’s probably because Wilson’s face has yet to appear on his own show. Viewers merely hear his narration — voice nasal, tone deadly dry — and catch glimpses of him in mirrors as he wanders around New York City with a camera, interacting with everyday people. Episodes like How to Put Up Scaffolding, How to Cover Your Furniture, and How to Make the Perfect Risotto begin with Wilson attempting to learn something practical. But each time the effort spirals into hilarious, sometimes poignant, and impossible-to-predict chaos, taking him everywhere from the home of a nude foreskin enthusiast to a beach resort in Cancun packed with college students on spring break.
Along the way, Wilson’s native New York is presented via flashes of oddly profound B-roll footage, like a hot dog stand that’s seemingly gliding down the street by itself, pizza rotting on the pavement, and even (spoiler alert) Twin Peaks actor Kyle MacLachlan trying in vain to get through a subway turnstile.
The genesis of the show goes back seven years. Wilson, at the time cobbling together a living through freelance gigs and odd jobs like editing video for a private investigator, began channeling his loneliness and personal setbacks into short, online films such as How to Live With Bed Bugs and How to Remain Single. His work eventually captured the attention of Nathan Fielder, who was looking for a new challenge after walking away from his groundbreaking Comedy Central reality-show parody, Nathan For You. Fielder signed on as a producer, and, much to Wilson’s shock, HBO took a chance on their quirky idea.
Wilson called us up from his apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, just about 24 hours before HBO announced plans for a second season, to talk about his crazy year and plans for the future.
I’m sure as you wandered the city with a camera and shot things like spilled salad on the street you never thought to yourself, “This will work perfectly on the same network as Game of Thrones and Westworld.”
[Laughs] The budget for my show probably would cost as much as the paper plate budget for Game of Thrones.
The irony is that you spend much more time making a typical episode than they do. It took you two years to shoot and edit together six, 25-minute episodes.
Exactly. I’m not trying to throw shade here or anything, but it’s a much more challenging kind of edit. We’re dealing with a lot more footage, or a lot more diverse footage, than Game of Thrones. They might have 30 takes of the same scene from a million different angles. With my show, every piece of footage is unique and needs to be categorized and tagged so it doesn’t get lost in this massive archive.
Right. You only get one shot. If you miss Kyle MacLachlan struggling to get through a subway turnstile, you’re screwed.
Yeah. You also can’t just passively ingest this footage. It needs to be both literally categorized and poetically categorized as well.
To go back a bit, are there any early documentaries you saw in your formative years that inspired you as a filmmaker?
When I was going to [Binghamton] University, I took a documentary class there with Professor Monteith McCollum. He would show me all this cool stuff. He showed me Metal and Melancholy, which I really liked. It’s this weird documentary about cab drivers and all the weird, different ways they make their cars thief-proof.
I’ve seen Endless Summer more than any other documentary. I don’t even like surfing, but I just love Bruce Brown’s positivity. He’s so stoked about everything he’s talking about. He always thanks you at the end of his documentaries, which makes me tear up sometimes.
To me, a big problem with a lot of documentaries is the observer effect. You have people doing something in front of a camera crew and that changes behavior in a big way. But your show somehow feels very natural. It doesn’t feel like people are playing to the camera.
That’s by design. I don’t like the way that a lot of documentary productions operate, or just productions in general. I want to remove all artifice from my work, in a way, by just having a very direct relationship with the people I am filming.
It’s unfortunate that a lot of the time in documentaries, the camera person isn’t a personality. That’s such a wasted opportunity. It’s something that I really wanted to do because I didn’t see it happening. I feel like being aware of the cameraperson adds charm and tension. It makes you consider what it must be like to be in this room. You think about what the subject is looking at.
Right. The phoniness of reality shows is people pretending there’s no camera on them.
That’s ridiculous to me. Obviously, you’re in this artificial scenario. You’re at a birthday party or whatever and you have all these cameras around you, but you’re supposed to ignore it. That’s insane to me.
The streets of New York have been filmed countless times. How did you want to shoot them in a different way than how they’re normally shown?
I just wanted to shoot New York in a way it hadn’t been shot before. I know that’s kind of a tall order, but any time I go to a new city, I’m always shocked. I look around and it feels so unfamiliar. I always think, “Why has this city not been documented appropriately? Why haven’t I seen this city as it is?” That’s what I wanted to do.
I also wanted to preserve as much of New York as I could since I’m just so worried about everything disappearing all the time. It’s just my natural impulse to preserve it and shoot anything that might be ephemeral and disappearing. That could be someone doing a handstand on a subway platform or it could be a storefront that is going out of business.
That feeling of loss of the character of the city is something that really upsets me. I’ve known the city my whole life and I feel the loss. It just bums me out eternally. Part of the process for me is trying to save as much as I possibly can before it becomes a glass city.
You started years ago by posting an early version of the show on Vimeo. What were you trying to accomplish back then?
I just wanted to make my own entertainment. I wanted to entertain my friends at first. I never really had any ambitions to make a TV show. It was also therapeutic in a way. When I moved back to New York as an adult, my first place had bed bugs, and I was also really lonely and all this stuff. I was afraid that all these miserable experiences would just be a net loss if I didn’t turn them into something. My logic was that if something positive came out of it, I wouldn’t regret that it happened.
There’s a real honesty that carries through the show, both in the Vimeo days and now. Most people are afraid to say they’re lonely or to admit they had bed bugs or went to an STD clinic….
My parents weren’t thrilled with that to begin with, but I think they’re on board now.
How did you come up with the idea of speaking in the second person and never showing your face?
It was a stylistic choice, but it was also out of necessity. I knew I desperately wanted to make this kind of documentary work, but I didn’t have any money at all. I knew I would have to shoot everything, but that’s what I wanted to do anyway. I don’t want to shoot myself, because I feel like I’d be the least interesting part of the image. Every other show in the world has some dope telling you what you’re looking at. I’m still a dope telling you what you’re looking at, but you just every so often see me doing it.
When you speak in the second person, you draw people in. They start thinking more about their own lives. It becomes universal.
Yeah. I wanted it to be relatable. I didn’t want there to be any barrier to entry. Speaking in the second person, you can project as much of yourself into it as you want. If you saw me, you’d be seeing my experience. If you’re seeing it from the first person, it’s almost as if it’s happening to you, and you can project whatever you want onto it.
Were you a big fan of Nathan For You before you met Nathan Fielder?
Yeah. I was a big fan of that show from the beginning. I would evangelize about it to people.
What did you like about it?
I loved how he took a familiar format, like The Profit or any number of business reality TV shows, but he used all the material that a normal show would never, ever want to use, like all the weird, lingering moments after someone is done talking or they think they’re doing talking. It gave the people on the show an extra dimension like nothing else had.
It just bums me out so much that media is saturated with this reality stuff and you never get a good sense of who these people are, because everyone is playing this stereotype and every show has a built-in set of values, like “old houses are good” or “the nuclear family is good.” It’s just so black and white, and his show was so refreshing. You got to see shades of people that, for some reason, you weren’t allowed to see in pop culture anymore.
How did Nathan reach out to you?
We met randomly at a restaurant in Chinatown one night. He recognized me because he’d seen a movie that I did and can’t show anymore. Then we just hit it off and started talking on the phone. We developed a pitch for a more ambitious version of my show.
It was all born out of a chance encounter at a Chinese restaurant?
Yeah. I think that’s also part of the beauty. It’s much like the rest of the show. It was pure coincidence.
What’s the movie you can’t show anymore?
[Laughs] Umm… I sued a former client who refused to pay me for a job on Court TV. I wore hidden cameras to the Court TV show and made a whole movie about it. It incorporates a lot of footage from the actual show. I signed a bunch of stuff saying I wouldn’t do exactly what I did [laughs]. But it circulated privately and made it to Nathan’s inbox one day.
How did Nathan help you to shape How to from the online version to the HBO version?
He gave me his team, basically. He brought Michael Koman on, who was a writer/producer on Nathan For You and was by my side for a lot of it. I had editor Adam Locke-Norton, who was also the editor on Nathan For You. And then I was able to hire a bunch of people that I really wanted to work with. I brought in some second unit people, like these really talented photographers and filmmakers that I always wanted to work with. They shot a quarter of the show, I’d say. There were three or four teams each day just roaming New York City and capturing B-roll, often without an agenda.
You say “B-roll,” but it’s sort of like A-roll for your show.
Right [laughs]. I’m not sure what to call it, but we have to market it somehow. The B-roll is the A-roll and the A-roll often is the B-roll or the C-roll.
When you learned that HBO was interested in this, were you surprised?
I was astounded. I mean, I was astounded that they agreed to meet with us to begin with. I thought that I was already walking into a prank or something. When they asked us to do a pilot, I was astonished. I had no idea why they saw any potential in me or my process. I was a real wild card. I was an outsider, and I didn’t really engage in the industry in a formal way. But thankfully, the reason they humored us is because Nathan is a decorated TV personality. Nathan was security and the proof of concept for this very specific, niche humor and tone.
Speaking anecdotally, it seems like some people need to see an episode or two before they really get it.
Totally. My mom showed it to my grandmother the other day. After a couple of minutes, my grandmother said, “What is this?” And my mom said, “This is John’s new show.” My grandmother said, “Is he getting paid?” My mom said I was. She said, “OK. That’s all that matters.”
It is a weird show. I understand why it takes a little getting used to the language of the show. It is strange. This is something that Nathan and I struggled with a lot while making the pilot. “How do you establish all these really important things that you need to understand? I am filming everything. I am narrating everything. And this is not a fictional show.”
There was also the barrier that nobody knew who you were. I’d say to people, “Did you see the new John Wilson show on HBO?” and they’d go, “Who is John Wilson?”
Yeah. It is funny. But I get so much joy out of people feeling like they discovered something rather than it being shoved down their throat. That is never what I wanted to do. And people get excited about media a lot of the time when they feel like they made a discovery. I hope that’s what is happening with the show.
The show was just picked up for Season Two. Do you worry it’ll be harder to go around and film stuff now that you’re a known person?
I don’t think so. I don’t really have anything to hide. I’m still myself. I’m not, like, pranking people. I know what you mean though. It’s not like Sacha Baron Cohen where I need to put on more and more layers of prosthetics in order for the film to work. If people recognize me, I think that’s totally fine. If people want to talk to me, they’ll talk to me. That’s all I want, for people to talk to me.
After the experience of making these first six episodes, do you think you’ll be able to work faster next time and make more of them?
I think so. I don’t know more about “more of them,” but I feel more confident going into a Season Two because we tried so much stuff in Season One that just didn’t work. Now, I know what kind of ideas yield the best material. I feel like we’ll be able to be a bit more efficient. At a same time, the show is a product of chaos and coincidence, in a way. I always want that to be a part of it.
You can’t plan out that you’ll buy a pan at a garage sale, you’ll cook with it, and it’ll burst into flames, as happens in the final episode.
[Laughs] I realized that during that cooking lesson, but obviously too late, that that was more of a presentation pan and not a cooking pan. But I never even thought that a pan could catch on fire.
There are little moments that just blew me away, where I had to rewind and watch again, like the woman putting a wild pigeon in a shopping bag, sealing it up with little clips, and then walking away.
That seems to be an image a lot of people remember and are curious what was happening there. But it’s pretty obvious, I guess.
Or the hot dog stand that seems to be moving by itself.
[Laughs] Yeah. Some of my B unit that I used, a couple of them had never even used the camera before. But I knew from their photography or Instagram photos and videos, that they had the right sense of humor and knew exactly what to look for. That’s what is hard to teach. You can teach someone to use a camera, but it can take a lifetime to know what’s interesting to film.
You touched on this briefly at the beginning, but has your life changed in any meaningful ways the past couple months now that you have a successful show?
Umm… Now I have two slide whistles. But not really. It’s hard. The only thing that has changed is how much time I spend on my phone. I haven’t really been socializing and people don’t really come up to me. It’s a very weird feeling. A lot has changed, but nothing has at the same time.
I went yesterday to film the explosion on Second Avenue, the church that burned down on Second Avenue and 7th. A young NYU kid recognized me and asked for a selfie. I thought that was cute.
Your first selfie was yesterday?
As a personality, yeah.
Are you thinking much about the future? Do you want to make a feature-length documentary at some point?
It’s always been my impulse to film everything in my life and make art out of it. It’s going to mutate in different ways whenever the shows ends. I’ve always admired Louis Theroux from the BBC. He’s a career documentarian funded by the state, which I think is so cool. I’ve always loved his stuff and I think it’s such a cool gig, to make these cool docs for your whole life and people return to the work because they like your perspective and personality. We need more earnest personalities out there.