Industry Secrets: John Wilson in Conversation with Caveh Zahedi

The breakthrough creator-star of How To With John Wilson has a socially distanced chat with his friend and fellow documentary innovator.

I first met John Wilson when I was invited to moderate an event at Union Docs at which he was giving a presentation/performance called “Industry Secrets and the Tools for Success.” My friend Bianca had recommended his work to me and I had watched a film he had made called Escape from Park City. I didn’t love it, so I wasn’t expecting much. I was struck, however, by the palpable excitement in the room. The event was sold out and it was hard not to notice the awe and admiration in which he was held by the hipster crowd.

He got up and gave a PowerPoint presentation that was so funny, so irreverent and so utterly original that I was immediately won over. He also showed a fantastic film he had made for an entity that shall remain nameless and that, for legal reasons, he wasn’t supposed to publicly show. Again, I was impressed.

Afterwards, he invited me to join him and his friends for a drink. We got to talking about regret, which was the subject of the film he was then making, and I told him that I kept a regret journal in which I wrote down all of the things I regretted. He asked if he could see it and maybe include it in his film. We made plans to get together a few days later so I could show him my regret journal.

We went to my ex-wife’s apartment to pick it up and he filmed her being hostile to me as she handed me my regret journal. We also talked more about regret and he included our conversation in his film How to Live With Regret.

He sent me a link when it came out and I thought it was great. He juxtaposed my glib New Age worldview with the much more poignant words spoken by someone whose apartment had just burned down and who had lost everything she owned. It was effective and haunting.

He hooked me up with a pot dealer. We talked about doing a Getting Stoned with Caveh episode, but then he got busy with his HBO show and then COVID-19 happened and I didn’t see or talk to him for a while. When his show How to With John Wilson finally came out, I was excited to talk to him about his experience.

Caveh Zahedi: Hey John.

John Wilson: Hey Caveh.

Zahedi: Great show. I really liked it.

Wilson: Thanks. Right back atcha.

Zahedi: Can you hold on one second? I’m sorry. [On the phone] Hey. OK, I’ll let you in. … So I started seeing somebody very recently. She’s a huge fan of yours.

Wilson: Oh, cool. So she’s gonna sit in?

Zahedi: She’s kind of obsessed with you. I think she might be your biggest fan.

Wilson: OK. Yeah, sure. However you want to do this.

Zahedi: I’ll go let her in. She’s downstairs in the cold.

Wilson: Yeah. Go, go, go.

Caveh’s friend: Hi John.

Wilson: Hey, what’s up?

Caveh’s friend: Hey, I don’t know if Caveh told you that I’m the one that sent you the weird message over Instagram.

Wilson: Oh, no. I don’t … I’ve received a few weird messages on Instagram. Not to make you feel unimportant or whatever. But I’ve been receiving a lot of very strange messages from people … and they all affect me very deeply in the moment, and then I forget about them.

Caveh’s friend: Well, nice to meet you.

Wilson: You too.

[Caveh’s friend leaves.]

Wilson: Are you painting your apartment or something? Why do you have all of these swatches on your wall?

Zahedi: I was kicked out of my other apartment. And I hadn’t shot all of the scenes I needed to shoot for Season Three of The Show About the Show. So I thought if I made a portable backdrop that I could carry with me to my new apartment, then it would seem like the same place. It doesn’t really work.

Wilson: Where are you now?

Zahedi: I’m in the same neighborhood, I’m just a few blocks away.

Wilson: OK.

Caveh Zahedi in The Show About the Show.

Zahedi: It’s all on Season Three, why I had to move and stuff. But Aziz [Isham, the executive producer] quit BRIC recently, so BRIC isn’t financing Season Three anymore. I worked on it for a year, but they didn’t give me any money. They were going to, and then COVID happened and then everything changed. I’m looking for a new home for it. And everyone says, “You should ask John Wilson to help you.”

Wilson: Yeah, I’m not sure what kind of leverage I have at this point. I feel like people are asking me if I have any other projects that I’m interested in doing myself.

Zahedi: At HBO? Or other places?

Wilson: Just this whole flood of people, setting up meetings and just wanting to talk. And it’s all just about other stuff that I can do. But I feel bad at the end of each call, because this is the apex. I can’t imagine a better possible scenario here, and I appreciate that they’re connecting with it, but I usually don’t think more than a month into my future. And I’ve kind of Mr. Magoo’d my way into this situation, so I’m just curious to see what happens to me, from this point. I also need to keep writing, because I’m part of the WGA now, and that’s the only way I’ll have healthcare. So, if the show gets canceled then I’ll probably try to start writing more seriously, just so I don’t lose healthcare.

Zahedi: The writing is really stunning in this show.

Wilson: Well, I had a lot of help from Michael Koman; he and I worked very closely for most of the process. Nathan as well. But we were shooting, editing, and writing all simultaneously. And it has to be that way or else none of it works, really. So he was more of a veteran comedy writer. He was very good with a classic kind of comedy and Nathan was really good with story, and Alice [Gregory] was like a journalist –

Zahedi: I know Alice!

Wilson: Oh really?

Zahedi: Well, I know Leon [Neyfakh], her husband.

Wilson: Everybody knows Leon. That’s so funny. I’ve yet to meet Leon.

Zahedi: He’s great. He’s producing a podcast that I’m doing with him.

Wilson: Oh, cool. What’s the podcast?

Zahedi: It’s called 365 Stories I Want to Tell You Before We Both Die. It’s one story a day, for a year, starting on January 1.

Wilson: From you?

Zahedi: Yeah. From me, about my life.

Wilson: Cool. I had no idea he was doing that. I can’t wait to meet him in person after all of this is over. Or meet anybody new. I haven’t really met anybody. I can’t wait to meet new people.

Zahedi: You told me the story a long time ago, of how Nathan Fielder came on board, but I don’t remember the details. Could you tell me again?

Wilson: I was a fan of his for a while, and I would tell friends about his show, but I never thought we would be in the same universe. But I made this movie where I faked my way into court TV shows, with hidden cameras and stuff like that. I had a private link of it, and it got passed around enough that it eventually got all the way to Nathan somehow. And Nathan saw it, and was really taken by it, and then watched everything else I did.

And then he was at a gallery opening in New York City, and he recognized my friend Clark Filio from that video. And then Nathan and Clark started talking, and then Clark called me and was like, “John, you gotta come out to Chinatown.” I was watching Jeopardy at home, and I ran out and got straight on the subway. Clark was actually instrumental in getting us sat across from one another at this group dinner at a gallery opening paid for by the artist. Clark wasn’t even supposed to be there, but he just sat across from Nathan for like 45 minutes until I was there, so that I could just swoop in and sit right down. We immediately connected when we started talking, because he knew my work and I obviously knew his. That was just a great night, and we got to know each other and traded numbers and started calling each other, and we basically developed a pitch for that show which was like a more ambitious version of my shorts. And we pitched an episode to —

Zahedi: But he said to you, “I would like to executive produce your show”?

Wilson: Yeah, he had just finished the series finale of Nathan For You, “Finding Frances,” and he was really just ready. He had all of this creative energy that he wanted to deposit somewhere, and we just met at the perfect time and started this creative relationship. I would have been laughed out of every single room in Hollywood if he wasn’t sitting right next to me. I wouldn’t have gotten a single meeting. You know my stuff. It looks ridiculous. And it’s not palatable to a Hollywood audience, unless you’re force-fed it. And that’s kind of what Nathan did.

I obviously wanted to go with HBO because they were one of the only networks that we met with that didn’t have commercials in their stuff. So, I wouldn’t have to divide the story up into some artificial three- or four-act structure, which was something I never really wanted to do because the art is the art.

Bill Heath and Nathan Fielder in the “Finding Frances” episode of Nathan for You.

Zahedi: It seems like everyone I know is talking about your show. Do you know what the numbers are? Is it doing well?

Wilson: My physical reality has not changed at all. You know, I look at stuff on my phone, but I feel like you and I run with a strange crowd, maybe. So who knows what it means if people we know are talking about it. I can’t really tell …

Zahedi: People are emailing me, “Have you seen this show? It reminds me of you.”

Wilson: I would definitely say that you inspired my style along the way.

Zahedi: So I remember you telling me once, about your process, that you basically shoot footage first and then you write the voiceover based on the footage. Is that correct?

Wilson: Yeah. I usually start with an idea and then I just start walking around, and I start shooting things that might have to do with that idea, and I start talking to people. I start talking to anybody that looks interesting, basically. And sometimes when I’m talking to someone, I’ll cycle through three or four different episode ideas, while I’m talking to them, just to see how they feel about each thing.

Zahedi: You’re filming them while you’re talking to them, right?

Wilson: Yeah.

Zahedi: You say, “Can I film?” How do you broach the subject?

Wilson: Yeah, I approach some people, and I’ll just say I’m making a documentary about New York City and this one documentary is about scaffolding. “Would you like to talk about scaffolding?” There’s no deception, really, which is why I don’t really worry about how people receive the work because it’s very one-to-one a lot of the time.

Zahedi: And so for this process, though, how was it different? Was it the same process, but just with more money?

Wilson: I was still in the street every single day. I’ve been filming for the past two years, every single day — in varying degrees of intensity. Usually with my old shorts, it would take a year for 10 minutes worth of really good images, and that was when I knew I was done. But we knew we needed to scale up. So, not only was I shooting B-roll every single day on my natural daily path, but I had a second unit of four or five different teams roving around the city all day, every day for months. And a lot of the time, they didn’t have an agenda. Sometimes I would just be like, “All right, this is going to be an interesting day, I know there’s going to be activity in this neighborhood on that day, go and check it out.” Or other days it would just be like, “Go to the most desolate, ugliest part of New York and just see what’s there.” But yeah, I just needed a lot more B-roll. So I just had a bigger team to help me with that. But I shoot about three quarters of the show myself. And then the other quarter is them.

John Wilson in How To With John Wilson. (Photo by Zach Dilgard / HBO.)

Zahedi: You must really get around the city and you must really know it, and you must really have an experience of a fun daily life, an engaging and fulfilling experience.

Wilson: Yeah, that’s kind of the point of it. That’s part of why I wanted to start making these movies to begin with, because when I was in my early 20s I realized that I didn’t have any good stories. I would hang out with these people and they had all these good stories, they were such good storytellers. And I was a really bad storyteller and I didn’t have any good stories, so the movies, for me, were a way to start just trying as much stuff as I possibly could, and maybe turn it into something. And just start to have stories and make interesting work and have something to talk about. It’s partially social anxiety, mixed with this obsession with documentary.

And what’s so wonderful about the show is that each image has an amazing story to it that I would love to talk about, because there’s so much on either end of the shot that you don’t see that leads up to that moment. And I just wanted to make the densest possible thing I could. Back when when I was a teenager and I made fiction movies or comedies, people would just watch it and have nothing to say afterwards. And I hated that. I realized I wanted the movies to be the beginning of an exciting conversation. I want people to start thinking about something that they never thought about before, or talk about something they never talked about before.

Zahedi: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about scaffolding a lot, which has been kind of great.

Wilson: Yeah, sorry about that.

Zahedi: No, it’s good. It makes it so much more interesting. You don’t know if Nathan Fielder’s ever seen The Show About the Show, do you?

Wilson: Um, we’ve never talked about it. I could show it to him.

Zahedi: Yeah? You wouldn’t mind?

Wilson: No. I can send him a link, I guess. Maybe he would have seen it. I’m sure he would like it. He likes real stuff.

Zahedi: Is there anything you want to say or talk about?

Wilson: I still don’t have HBO. I asked them for it, but they said no.

Zahedi: Really?

Wilson: Yeah.

Zahedi: “Use the money we gave you to pay for it.”

Wilson: Exactly. It is stubborn of me, but I do think out of principle, if you get your own show they should give it to you. But then it’s like, when do they stop giving it to you?

Zahedi: They should give you a lifetime subscription. It’s obvious.

Wilson: But I don’t even have a TV.

Zahedi: They should give you a TV too.

Wilson: I don’t have a cable box.

Zahedi: I’ve always liked your stuff and I liked you. But somehow this show, I feel like I understand what you’re doing better. I understand the frequency better. I don’t know if it’s the show or just that I’ve had more time with it, but I feel more and more tuned in to what you’re doing. It was a really nice experience to have.

Wilson: Yeah? My mom made my grandma watch it a couple days ago and she didn’t understand any of it. She just said, “Oh, is he getting paid?” And then my mom told her, “Yeah.” And she said, “OK, well that’s all that matters.”

Caveh Zahedi is an autobiographical filmmaker whose body of work attempts to tell the story of his life as it unfolds. He is currently in production on the third season of The Show About the Show, a BRIC TV series in which every episode is about the making of the previous episode. His feature-length films include The Sheik and I (2012), I Am A Sex Addict (2005), In The Bathtub of the World (2001), I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994), and A Little Stiff (1991). His short films and other series include Getting Stoned with Caveh, Bob Dylan Hates Me, Tripping with Caveh, and I Was Possessed by God. A box set of his films is available from Factory 25.