MONROVIA -- Many throughout the country have a certain view of the rural Midwest that may be subject to change soon thanks to Frederick Wiseman’s most recent documentary “Monrovia, Indiana,” which was released nationwide on Friday.
The documentary has already received critical acclaim around the country, although it’s response back home in Monrovia has been somewhat more tepid. The production is Wiseman’s 42nd film, and served as his first feature on a small town in the Midwest.
Wiseman said that he found Monrovia after deciding that he wanted to another feature on small towns.
“I wanted to do a film on a small town,” said Wiseman. “I had done films on other small towns. I did one on a town in Maine called ‘Belfast, Maine.’ I did one on Aspen, Colo., which is a different kind of small town.”
Wiseman said that he knew that he also wanted to focus on the Midwest, having only ever been to the Midwest for a film once before. During that film, Wiseman spent time in Chicago, a stark difference from the rural communities that often define the Heartland — communities like Monrovia.
“I wanted to make another film in the Midwest,” said Wiseman. “I’ve made films in 17 states, and the only time I’ve been in the Midwest was in Chicago for a couple of housing projects. … There are a lot of small towns everywhere in America, but I thought a small town in the Midwest might be interesting.”
After he decided that he wanted to do a film on a small town in the Midwest, Wiseman found Monrovia by happenstance after discussing the aim of his next project with a friend.
“I mentioned that to a friend of mine who teaches law in Boston,” said Wiseman. “She said that she had a friend who taught law at the University of Indiana (sic) whose family had lived in the same town for six generations. That town was Monrovia.”
According to Wiseman, after meeting with IU law professor David Williams, Wiseman met sixth-generation Monrovia resident Maggie Bauer, who helped introduce him to the town.
“I called up the professor at Indiana and told him that I was a friend of this person in Boston and was interested in making a movie about a small town,” said Wiseman. “He said, ‘Well, come out a day early and I’ll take you to Monrovia.’ So I did that, and he introduced me to his cousin Maggie Bauer. Maggie said she’d help me meet people in Monrovia, so I drove around for a couple of hours with Maggie, and basically, it looked like a good place to make a movie.
After deciding on Monrovia, Wiseman began shooting six weeks later, starting on May 8, 2017. During his nine weeks of filming, he visited farms, restaurants, churches, local business, school board and town council meetings.
Wiseman said the he enjoyed his time in Monrovia, and when asked what he learned about the town, he slyly stated that one would have to see the film to find out.
“What I learned about Monrovia is what you see in the movie,” said Wiseman. “It’s hard to pick a favorite part of Monrovia because I had a nice time when I was there.”
Despite popular portrayals by the national mainstream media that depict the rural Midwest/middle America as “Trump Country,” Wiseman’s film paints a different picture. It avoids talk of national politics, something many critics have applauded.
Wiseman said that he did so to simply to accurately portray his time there rather than out of any particular political motivation.
“I think Trumpian America is a cliché,” said Wiseman. “I try not to think in those terms. Obviously, I didn’t know anything about Monrovia before I started, and the people that I met were extremely friendly and welcoming. You can’t really make a movie of this sort unless the people take you in.”
In fact, according to Wiseman, there were no themes that he planned to touch on or avoid when he started filming since he knew nothing about Monrovia, or where the film would go when he began.
“When the film is shot, I have no idea in advance what the structure or the themes of the film are going to be,” said Wiseman. “I didn’t know anything about Monrovia before I started.”
Wiseman explained that the structure of the film emerged near the end of his creative process, months after he has begun selecting scenes and editing them.
“When I left Monrovia, I had about 110 to 120 hours of film,” said Wiseman. “When I come back from shooting, I start to study the material. … That takes me about six to eight weeks. At the end of that six to eight weeks, I put aside about 50 percent of the material and start gathering sequences that I think might make it into the final film. In order for me to edit those sequences, I have to study them.
“So I spent six to eight months editing all the sequences I think I might use in the final film into close to final form without really having any idea of what the themes or point of view are going to be,” said Wiseman. “I don’t do any work on the structure until I’ve edited all of the sequences I think I might use.”
According to Wiseman, the original film was 30 to 40 minutes longer than the final version, which took an additional six weeks or so to edit down to final form. Despite that, Wiseman said he got to include all of his favorite parts of Monrovia in the film.
“I didn’t have any favorite part that I had to leave on the cutting room floor,” said Wiseman. “By the time I finish working on it, there’s usually nothing that I want to include that I don’t include.”
“Monrovia, Indiana” will serve as a new look at “middle America” for many throughout the country, providing a fly-on-the-wall perspective to everyday life in a rural community.
The film is now playing at Showtime Cinema in Mooresville, in addition to other locations around the state and the country.