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Why John Wilson Wants ‘How To With John Wilson’ to Go Up in Flames

john-wilson_12 - Credit: HBO
john-wilson_12 - Credit: HBO

This post contains spoilers for Episode Five of How To With John Wilson, available on HBO and streaming on Max.

About nine minutes into this week’s episode of How To With John Wilson, the titular director/writer/star finds himself hooked up to a polygraph machine and being asked some intense questions.

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Have you ever lied to someone on your show?

Have you ever lied about seeing something you didn’t see?

Did you ever betray someone you love?

As Wilson answers “no” to each question, the no-nonsense man operating the machine looks at him, emotionless, and says, “That’s a lie.”

“Maybe you’re not as honest as you thought you were,” Wilson says in How To‘s characteristic voice-over.

“That escalated quickly” could be the motto of any episode of How To With John Wilson, which is wrapping up its third and final season Sept. 1 on HBO and Max. The penultimate episode of the series, “How To Watch Birds,” which premiered Friday, begins in the usual way, with our hero embarking on a quest for self-improvement, hopscotching from topic to seemingly unrelated topic, communing with eccentrics along the way.

The polygraph scene isn’t even close to the wildest turn in the “Birds” episode, which begins with Wilson taking up birdwatching and ends in confessions, conspiracies, Titanic lore, and what appears to be Wilson’s Volvo exploding with someone still inside.

Oh, did I mention that Steven Soderbergh was a consultant on this episode? More on that in a minute.

Part of the joy of watching How To With John Wilson, which first premiered in late 2020 to raves, is seeing what mind-bendingly circuitous route each episode will take, and who Wilson will meet along the way. An episode this season about hunting for public restrooms in New York City makes a pit stop at Burning Man. Another episode, about exercising, features detours to meet  9/11-themed bodybuilders, cat show aficionados, and giant pumpkin growers. One of the most emotional and personal episodes of the entire series features a group of men who collect old vacuums.

“I always begin with the title of an episode and try to make the definitive piece about that subject,” says Wilson, during a Zoom interview a few days before the SAG-AFTRA strike began. “Then I take the first exit ramp I see and follow it for as long as I can. It’s always a gamble and I’m amazed it’s paid off so many times.”

The first “exit ramp” in Birds — an episode Wilson calls one of his favorites — is when the birders he meets talk about building life lists (a catalog of what birds they have seen, when, and where they’ve seen them) and how they are bound to the honor system in this hobby. “The bird watchers started talking about, you know, the honor system, it just like started to make me spiral,” he says.

It brought up some issues, he says, about trust and truth in his work and “the temptation to make certain things artificial just to satisfy my craving for rare images.”

How To, which Wilson has been working on in various iterations for 13 years, has always been deeply personal. But he says that “this season is kind of like a breakup album for me in a few different ways.”

Indeed, Season Three is a bit darker, more confessional than the previous two. Wilson and his team show behind-the-scenes details and production secrets. We see the crew setup a green screen backdrop. An envelope of cash is handed to an interview subject. The team rigs a toilet and sink to explode with fake sewage to mimic a viral video that Wilson says he was jealous of.

Wilson himself shares quite a number of intimate details about himself. He talks about fooling around with a male friend as a kid, and how he regrets bailing on his last visit with his dying grandmother.

“A lot of people in my life hear things about me for the first time through the show,” says Wilson. “I still don’t know how that’s gonna be received, and I’m kind of almost holding my breath as these things come out. I have a hard time confessing things in person to the people in my life, and this is a weird public way of doing it.”

But back to Wilson’s exploding car and Steven Soderbergh.

John Wilson and author Bruce Beveridge during an episode of 'How To with John Wilson.'
John Wilson, left, enlists the services of Bruce Beveridge, co-author of a book about a Titanic conspiracy theory, in ‘How To With John Wilson.’

As the episode swerves away from birdwatching, Wilson befriends Bruce Beveridge, ex-cop, motel manager, and co-author of a book Titanic Or Olympic: Which Ship Sank? The Truth Behind the Conspiracy, which posits that the Titanic was swapped with another ship called the Olympic. Even in a series that is chock-full of memorable characters, Bruce is top-notch.

“Bruce was amazing,” Wilson says. “I found this book, and there are a couple of authors, but we just kind of took a gamble based off of somebody that had an interesting name.”

In addition to his Titanic conspiracy knowledge, Bruce talks about smelling dead bodies and dispenses wisdom you might find in a Raymond Chandler novel, such as “Only two people can keep a secret — as long as one of them is dead.” A couple mysterious messages are received. One thing leads to another and soon — BLAMMO! — Wilson’s Volvo has exploded and is in flames in a motel parking lot, a Popeye and Brutus salt-and-pepper shaker purchased (or nicked) earlier is in pieces nearby.

We momentarily wonder if Bruce was still inside when the car exploded, but (whew!) we soon see him around the corner with a smirk. Wilson says Bruce didn’t know what they were planning to do with the car until soon before they got to set to film the explosion scene. After Wilson explained what was about to go down, Wilson says Bruce asked, “Oh, can I invite my girlfriend to watch?”

Wilson and co-writer Michael Koman wanted to twist the series’ documentary formula ”to feel almost like some kind of Soderbergh thriller,” so they sent the script to the director. “We had a couple conversations about the structure of the episode and kind of basically he gave us some advice on how to blow up a car safely,”  Wilson says. (The advice? Use professionals.)

“My car to me felt like this iconic kind of piece of the show that I wanted to destroy in the last few moments of the series,” says Wilson. “We have an HBO budget, and I just don’t know when else I would be able to pull off something like that.”

The How To team found an “exact duplicate” of Wilson’s Volvo to rig with explosives — symbolic of the two ships’ Titanic conspiracy theory in Bruce’s book. Per Soderbergh’s advice “we ended up getting, like, a really good, professional stunt explosive guy to do it for us.”

“That was one of the most exciting days of my life, when I was hanging out with Bruce and we blew up a duplicate of my car,” Wilson says.

Blowing a car to smithereens, upending some of the conventions of documentary filmmaking, and offering more intimate details about himself is cathartic, he says, but also takes a toll on your day-to-day life. He thinks fans of the show will understand once they watch this season.

“I need to take a step back and re-evaluate where I want to go from here and what is left to explore,  internally. I mean, the external will always be there, but I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t overextending myself.”

Wilson is tight-lipped about what he has planned next. “I don’t like to talk about big ideas until I start formally working on it,” he says. “There’s still a lot to document, though.”

So while we wait, perhaps we can all find solace in the advice of the woman leading a birding walk in the beginning of “How To Watch Birds”:

“If you don’t happen to see much, just go ahead and say ‘Wow‘ anyway and train yourself to be amazed at what’s here right now.”

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