exit interview

John Wilson Wants to Leave You With (Complicated) Optimism

The filmmaker used How To as a Trojan horse for all his grudges against New York City.

John Wilson. Photo: HBO
John Wilson. Photo: HBO

Note: Spoilers ahead for the series finale of How to With John Wilson.

When HBO announced that How to With John Wilson would come to an end after its third season, Wilson explained that he wanted to conclude the series before its “style and imagery” ceased to be “surprising.” Just three years ago, when How To debuted, this concern would have seemed absurd. With its singular blend of collage, essay, memoir, and interview, the series was lauded for inventing a storytelling language all its own. If it seems in danger of growing formulaic now, it’s only because Wilson built its formula one stumbling voice-over, one “glitch in the matrix,” one rabbit-hole detour, one personal revelation, and one astonishing conversation at a time, and executed it to perfection over and over.

Despite this, season three succeeded in upping the ante. Wilson’s introspections are deeper; the confessions he coaxes out of his interviewees — like the proud fitness trainer who trained the 9/11 hijackers and one man’s story about mutilating his genitals on a quest for celibacy — are jaw-dropping; and, in the season’s high point, he blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction by constructing a conspiracy-thriller plot that runs parallel to the rest of the episode. “I wanted to make a piece of work that you could point to and be like, ‘Even if it is slightly fabricated, it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s this emotional impact,’” Wilson explained in an interview conducted prior to the series finale. It’s a theme that runs core to all of the docu-comedy shows that have premiered since How To debuted in 2020 The Rehearsal, Jury Duty, and Paul T. Goldman: How much can a filmmaker warp and capture reality without illegitimizing the “authenticity” of their work?

How To’s final episode, “How to Track Your Package,” which Wilson says he began writing during season two, examines the idea of permanence. On a zigzagging journey to help viewers navigate this logistical hurdle, he meets a proponent of Alcor, an Arizona-based company whose business model involves suspending people in liquid nitrogen after their death in the event they can be revived with future technology. In the time Wilson spends with this company’s clients, he begins to question the pursuit’s advertised merits. Sometimes, it’s the finite nature of even the most profound things — life, legacy, um … heady docu-comedy projects — that gives them meaning. Just because something can live on forever doesn’t necessarily mean it should. The more important thing, Wilson notes in the series’s final moments, is to “learn a thing or two” along the way: about urban design, the rebellious quality of poop jokes, or even what it means to be human. Maybe How To was the instructional guide the world needed all along.

Before you started working together on How To, Nathan Fielder saw a short film you’d made about your experience appearing on Court TV. You’ve said you can’t put it out for legal reasons, but can you talk about what it was about?
I made a short fashion video for this one guy from Los Angeles and he didn’t like what I did, so he kind of ghosted me and refused to pay me $1,000. I tried to track him down, but it didn’t work, so I reached out to some Court TV shows to try to get him to settle the matter on television. The producers of the Court TV shows didn’t have any luck reaching out to him either. It’s kind of convoluted, but instead of dropping it, I reached out to a new Court TV show that I hadn’t reached out to yet and told them the story, but I pretended that my friend Clark Filio was the guy who had hired me. I basically dramatized the whole thing as a way to get my $1,000, but from a television network instead. It was just something to do, you know?

A classic hobby. 
You’ve got to make your own entertainment sometimes.

In season one, one of the people you interviewed in “How to Cover Your Furniture” suggested that you use your camera as a protective covering of sorts as you move around the world. Now that the show is over, do you think that’s still true?
I think it still holds true that the camera is simultaneously a way to protect myself but also a way to connect with other people. I obviously didn’t take that one woman’s advice to put the camera down at the end of the furniture-covering episode, but I still feel like it’s a bit of a social tool sometimes for me, because I don’t always have an organic way to explore these environments that I really want to spend time in. Maybe it’s obvious, but that’s what the camera allows me to do. It gives a purpose to both parties.

Those environments you want to spend time in often end up being these niche communities or subcultures. I read that, even before the show, you made a film about balloon fetishists. And more recently you produced a documentary about the carpet industry. What is it about these dynamics you find to be so revealing?
I just like to explore different communities that I haven’t seen represented in other media. I consider myself a bit of an eccentric, and I relate very deeply to other people that have niche obsessions. Like this season, it was the vacuum-cleaner collectors. I’m wearing one of their shirts right now; it’s the Wizard of Oz characters, and they all have vacuums. I just found it so exhilarating being in the center of that community. You assume that there’s a club for basically everything, but they all have different reasons why they’re infatuated with this very specific thing, and the reason is slightly different in each community. I really like what that says about us as a species — as people that are just desperately trying to connect with one another in different ways.

The whole project of the show is very anthropological in that way. I wanted to craft each episode so that the viewers could see part of themselves in each community somehow, no matter how specific their obsession is, because you see a lot of media out there that points the finger or mocks people with strange obsessions. But I find these people — like the vacuum people or the anti-circumcision guy — way more relatable than I would a couple who is making an HGTV show. I find them very freakish in a way that I don’t want to touch.

I tweeted about liking the show in the first season, and the tweet got one like, and it was from the anti-circumcision guy. I went around telling anyone who would listen that the anti-circumcision guy liked my tweet.
Yeah, he’s very active. I think he was really excited to have the platform for it. I was at a barbecue the other day, and this woman came up to me with her kid who must have been no older than 10. She was like, “Hey, our family are big fans of the show, and my son had a question for you.” He looks up to me, and he’s like, “So were you permanently traumatized by the reverse-circumcision guy?” I started cracking up hysterically.

They’re exposing him to this information early, for sure.
Yeah. I didn’t ask if he was circumcised. I don’t think that would have been right.

The show did have a tendency to get graphic. There were a lot of shots of bodily fluids and scatological references. Was there some deeper rationale behind that?
There’s definitely a heavy dose of immaturity there that my mom says is “rude” — she texted me that a little while ago. But I was always a big John Waters fan. I love how he mentions, in one book of his, something about the “tyranny of good taste.” I think that’s something that’s worth fighting against: Who decides what is good taste? I think the toilet, and especially fecal matter, has a way of challenging that somehow. I like to include stuff like that so it never feels too pedantic. At the end of the day, there are these really immature moments peppered throughout that ground it in a way that maybe you can relate with, because everybody poops, you know?

I noticed in the show that you have a whole collection of toilet-themed memorabilia. You have a toilet AM radio and a little figurine that blows bubbles out of its butt …
People just started giving me toilet stuff. I have a little collection of miniature toilets that I’m going to try to display somewhere, maybe.

Having said that, the “How to Find a Public Restroom” episode is more about civic design than it is about toilets. It’s a theme you returned to throughout the show, as early as the scaffolding episode. Was there an activist bent to the show where you were hoping these things inspired local change?
I really hope that the show has some kind of civic-design impact in that way. At one point in my life, I toyed around with the idea of getting into urban planning, but I realized that I was still too obsessed with cinema to fully abandon it. I just decided to nest all my civic-design commentary within my film work. I feel like the show is a Trojan horse for all these very real grudges I have with the way that the city is manipulated and ignored in certain ways. I wanted each season to have at least a couple of episodes that speak directly to a problem within New York City that will then hopefully have some kind of universal impact, whether it’s about scaffolding, or restrooms, or something else.

Before this season, you spoke about feeling the need to get even more personal than you had in the past because your interview subjects were revealing so much. A lot of documentarians try to keep themselves out of their films as much as possible. How did you think about that balance?
I try to make the show as stream-of-consciousness as I possibly can. So any interior monologue detours that happen as I’m filming, I try to preserve that somehow within the writing process. It may seem like a hard left turn sometimes, but then I work to make it relevant somehow by the end of the episode. People do reveal a lot of extremely personal stuff to me, and it’s not that I feel required to put myself on the same level, but it’s just a natural thing that happens for me. I was worried that all of this super-specific autobiographical stuff would potentially turn off the audience, but I think the more specific you get, the more relatable it is in a way.

You’ve said that when people reveal these things to you, and particularly when their revelations happen to dovetail unexpectedly with the topic you’re exploring, it feels like a “religious experience.” What, specifically, about that feels spiritual to you?
People talk about manifestation and stuff like that, and I don’t feel too strongly one way or another about it. But there are some things that happened during the production that I can’t explain, and I can’t really square how it lines up so well. Like in “How to Watch Birds,” I’m sitting in the car with Bruce Beveridge, and I’m asking him about truth and honesty, and he delivers this monologue that would have been an Oscar-worthy performance if it had been written. I was just in absolute shock when I left the car, because it had tied everything up so perfectly. Maybe I could rationalize it, maybe you guide things in a certain way subconsciously … I’m normally not a very religious person, but there are these really holy moments like that where I don’t have any way of explaining how it’s possible.

In that episode in particular, when did you decide you were going to stage Bruce’s death, and how did you land on Bruce as the person to insert into this story line?
The story of the production of that episode is a long one, but the short version is: I started making the episode about birds, obviously, but then I was dealing with some trust and honesty issues in my own life, and I started to pry that open. There are a couple of authors of that book about the Titanic conspiracy, but we just picked Bruce’s name because it was the most interesting. He was willing to meet up in Tennessee, and we did a very basic interview with him where he talked about the conspiracy theory. He agreed to hang out with us for a couple days, and it was just him and me going around to different tourist attractions in Pigeon Forge. I think all he really asked for was a bottle of Malibu for him and his wife to share in the hotel that we rented for them. In the background, Michael Koman and I — and we also consulted with Steven Soderbergh for that episode — had written this thriller story where there’s this van that’s parked outside of my place that follows me. We had this vague story about how I was getting too close to the truth with the Titanic conspiracy theory, and we kind of wanted to let that ride.

But I did not know that Bruce was a former police officer. I didn’t know that he was involved with, or aware of, this low-level corruption within his Chicago Police Department. As we got to know each other, I knew that we had to end up at this hotel, because we were going to blow up my car there. We’d bought a duplicate version of my car and outfitted it with explosives, and we had a whole pyrotechnics team ready. It was also a pain in the ass finding a parking lot next to a hotel that had a balcony looking over it so that I could get the shot of the car from the hotel room. That was kind of a red herring that something was going to happen in there.

So I drive Bruce to the hotel, and he still has no idea what’s going on, and he delivers this monologue that completely floors me. And then I walk inside the hotel, and I come back out, and I tell Bruce what’s about to happen and that he’s actually in the center of this fictionalized thriller. He was kind of unimpressed. He basically just wanted to know if he could call his wife to come to the parking lot so she could watch the car blow up too. It’s an absolute miracle that all that stuff worked out, because it was just such an ambitious part of the production that took so many resources. But I wanted to make sure that he had no idea until the last possible second.

Photo: Thomas Wilson/HBO

I would never have guessed that monologue was genuine.
Everything else around it was heavily produced in a way, but I wanted to make sure that everything coming from him was pure. It was the only episode that we’ve really done that, but I really wanted to flex that muscle, because I wanted to swing for the fences with this last season.

That episode pulls at the question that seems to be at the core of all these docu-comedy shows that have popped up over the past couple years. The audience always seems to get obsessed with picking apart what’s real and what’s staged. How important do you think that question is to focus on?
I have a tendency to pick things apart in a similar way when I watch them, especially now that I’ve produced so many episodes of the show and I kind of understand how the sausage is made. But I wanted to make the “Birds” episode because I wanted to make a piece of work that you could point to and be like, “Even if it is slightly fabricated, it doesn’t matter as long as there’s this emotional impact.” I think all documentary is fiction in this way. You are crafting and you are manipulating, and there is no real purity. That’s what I was struggling with as people started to interrogate me about what was real and what wasn’t. It really started to bother me, because the team spent so much time getting the most real moments that you can in the city, and I feel like that’s underrepresented a lot of the time. But you can also do both.

Do you think there is a connective tissue between these docu-comedy shows? Your show, Jury Duty, The Rehearsal, and Paul T. Goldman?
I don’t think you’re wrong. I love Paul T. Goldman. That was like my favorite show of the last year, and Jason Woliner has also worked with Nathan Fielder before. But I think there is something exciting happening within the world of nonfiction. I think The Rehearsal and Paul T. Goldman were two projects that did the thing where they had real people reenacting their own lives well, but I don’t know how much further into the meta we can go. It’s hard to say. I feel like we’ve hit a point within all this work that it necessitates a bit of transparency, just because of how skeptical everyone is of everything these days.

I’ve heard you talk about how Nathan helped you shape your show, but watching The Rehearsal, I felt there was a symbiosis there, and some of it felt influenced by your work. Did you notice that at all?
I don’t want to take credit for anything Nathan was doing, but I did notice a couple of moments, and I think the audience noticed a couple of moments, within The Rehearsal, where he focuses on these very specific personal details — whether it’s objects in his house or something like that — that you may not have in Nathan for You. I really liked that. Those were some of my favorite moments in the show.

I always think of the moment when he turned over the pepper.
Yeah, exactly. And also showing what it’s like to have extras talk without talking and pretending to eat and stuff like that. I think Nathan and I share a similar fascination with the way things are produced. I think the audience really appreciates when you put yourself on the same level as them and you show them how something is made. Otherwise, I think people could potentially begin to resent the work for insulting their intelligence or not including them in the most interesting part of the conversation.

The other thing you talked about in the “Birds” episode is your insatiable need to find “rare images.” Where do you think the motivation to seek those out comes from?
It’s like with the vacuum-collector people — they’re not really sure why they’re obsessed with this thing. It’s just something that drives you. But talking about the religious-experience stuff, witnessing something one-of-a-kind that no one else is around to see, or no one else is recording, that is the high that I’m chasing a lot of the time. That is an unbeatable feeling, especially when I have a container for it like the show. That feeling hasn’t really died. I’m still looking for those images; I’m just trying to figure out where to put them now.

You ultimately didn’t end up being able to use the footage you shot during your trip to Burning Man in the “How to Find a Public Restroom” episode, but was going to that festival almost like a cheat code for generating the kind of footage you like to collect?
I felt like it was the opposite. The imagery of Burning Man was some of the most boring imagery I’ve ever seen. They’re performing. I could shoot for an hour in midtown and get more stuff that excited me than I did in a few days at Burning Man. All the imagery at Burning Man, if you’ve seen pictures of Burning Man, you know what it looks like. It’s just the same kind of sculpture and the same kind of art replicated a thousand times. People are just really stuck up there. I could go on and on.

What would you have done with the footage if you’d been allowed to use it?
I spent most of my time there in porta potties, shadowing the people that maintain the restrooms. I tried to make a bit more of an infrastructure episode while I was there because that was the only stuff that I found interesting and haven’t really seen represented anywhere else. But even that was extremely hard to do, because the people there put up so many roadblocks.

I’m glad we weren’t able to use the footage now. Thematically, it made the “Restroom” episode stronger, because it’s all about gatekeeping and access to things. I wouldn’t have met Stinky Steve and gone to his missile silo if I wasn’t trying to rescue the episode.

What’s become of some of the larger set pieces you used in the show? Where is the coffin replica of your car that you got made in “How to Find a Spot”?
I’ve had a harder time finding a parking spot for the coffin car than I have for my actual car. I think it’s in the woodshop right now where it was fabricated. There’s a bunch of other objects from the show, and I was thinking of maybe trying to get someone to acquire them. I was talking to the Museum of the Moving Image about acquiring some of the larger stuff, but that might be a pipe dream. It’s ultimately just because I don’t want to pay for a storage space. But it all exists. I think it’d be cool to have some kind of exhibit of everything, at least temporarily.

I wanted to talk about the finale. As far as religious experiences with interviewees go, I have to imagine few have been more profound than your experience talking with the Alcor employee who tells you about his self-inflicted genital mutilation.
My heart was beating so fast during that interview, because I had never witnessed a confession quite like that. He went into much more graphic detail in the extended interview, but I tried to cut it down into something that the audience still might be able to stomach. I think that’s one of the craziest American stories I’ve ever heard, but also relatable in this strange way. He’s just such an open book, and it’s such a gift to be able to form a relationship like that with someone onscreen as you’re getting to know them. I wanted to start season three with an erection — with the Empire State Building shot — and it only felt right to end with this kind of castration. So much of the show involves the denial of pleasure and the city not allowing you to fully enjoy it in certain ways.

How painstaking was it to find the right button to put on the series in the final monologue? The one you deliver while the band plays in the parking lot.
I had been writing a gut-punch final monologue since the middle of season two. It was just little lines here and there about the city being both our healer and oppressor. I found that marching band on YouTube a while ago, because I was looking for someone who had found three Pop Tarts in a single pack instead of two. I found someone on YouTube, but then I looked at their other videos and they were part of this marching band, and they had one of the most beautiful compositions of “La Vie En Rose” I’d ever heard. I would listen to it every single day, and I just became obsessed with it until we finally just reached out to them and asked them if they would perform it live for us. And that became the final climactic moment.

When that song fades out and you end the show with the words “Thank you so much for watching my movies,” what is the emotional note you hope to leave viewers with?
I want people to feel a very complicated optimism. I think that’s kind of my default state a lot of the time.

I was searching on Twitter to see how people were reacting to the new season, and I wanted to read you two quotes to see what you think. One person wrote, “How to With John Wilson is one of the most life-affirming pieces of art i’ve ever seen,” and another person wrote, “How to With John Wilson is my favorite show about the complete insignificance of everything.”
I’m glad people are taking it that way, because there is this duality to the work. There is a heavy dose of nihilism in there, but I am constantly fighting that with the more optimistic stuff. I always want the show to be equal parts of both, because I think that is closer to what the human experience is.

In your episode about buying a house, you told your mortgage broker that you were worried about How To being an anomalous miracle in your career, and you all but said you don’t know if you’ll ever make something commercially viable ever again. As you move on to the next thing, are you still worried about that?
It’s hard to say. I don’t know what’s going on in the media landscape right now, and I don’t know what kind of work studios will want to bankroll. But I feel like I want to keep making work in a similar style, and I think there’s still a lot of room to grow and experiment in the world of alternative nonfiction. It seems like people like the show, so if there’s any hope for another project, I think I just need to have an idea and run with it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

John Wilson Wants to Leave You With (Complicated) Optimism