When ‘How To with John Wilson’ Wanted to Blow Up a Car, It Turned to Steven Soderbergh (Naturally)

Episode 5 of this season of “How To with John Wilson” quickly loses interest in bird-watching in order to examine more human mysteries. Wilson mines his own unease with the constructed nature of even the most confessional documentary footage, explores the allure of conspiracy theories, and also has an ominous white van follow him all the way to a Tennessee museum designed as a replica of the Titanic, as a treat.

Each episode of Max’s “How To with John Wilson” meanders its way into absurdity and then back to a hopeful starting point, and so does Episode 5, “How To Watch Birds.” But there’s an electric kind of charge to building more obviously fictional elements into the narrative; it’s changing up the contract that the show has with the audience, just a little bit, to show us the seams of Wilson’s documentary style, the fabrication that’s possible even with verité footage.

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Wilson gets us to realize the choice we’re unconsciously making to perceive what he does as more or less real,  that emotional truth requires some assembly, and that, sometimes, filmmakers do things just because they seem so cool. It’s a challenge to nudge the viewer into seeing the show as a series of movies, as Wilson calls them; but it’s a challenge that Wilson felt ready to tackle in the series’ final season.

“I like to think of [Season 3] having three acts, almost. The first two episodes deal with civic design issues, the middle two episodes are kind of about masculinity, and then the final two are kind of about larger, existential themes,” Wilson told IndieWire on an upcoming episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “I know that [this season] was probably going to be the last one and I wanted to be able to swing for the fences production-wise and kind of exploit the HBO budget in the coolest, most fun way possible.”

Episode 5 required more scripting from Wilson and his team in order to seed the hallmarks of a conspiracy thriller — the odd coincidence, the overlooked clue, the sense of menace from shadowy outside forces — into the early goings and then to fully shift into a thriller. But Wilson still wanted to keep his visual style intact and make sure his interview subjects behaved as naturally (and unscripted) as possible. So Wilson turned to someone who has some experience mixing comedy, tension, and action: Steven Soderbergh.

“We sent [the script] to Soderbergh and we had conversations about it. He gave us advice about how to blow up a car,” Wilson said. “We had to buy a duplicate version of my car and outfit it with explosives, which was its own production nightmare, and then ship that to Tennessee. All the while keeping this a secret from the protagonist of that episode that I spent most of the time with. He didn’t really know what was going on up until the very last moment, right before the car blew up.”

The way that Wilson covers the car explosion from his trusty Sony FS 5 rewards a rewatch or two. While it all has the familiar shake and found-framing of Wilson’s camerawork, the sequence unfolds pretty near to a Soderbergh shot list: the far-away establishing shot of the car sitting in a white halo of parking lot lights, the ominous text with some sweet bokeh effects in the background, the rush through the hotel lobby, and then Wilson keeps his (fake) car resolutely in the center of frame, comically flanked by illuminated Flapjacks signs, even as he jogs forward.

“The production was very ambitious and it felt really good getting certain things off my chest,” Wilson said. “Even though I begin each episode as a tutorial ostensibly to help you figure out how to do something or maybe even to help myself figure out how to do something, I ultimately stubbornly stick to my original feeling about it in this kind of satirical way.”

It’s maybe one of the most realistic, refreshing things in Season 3 of “How To with John Wilson” that Wilson creates a fake scenario to honor a desire he’s had for a long time: “It’s always been a dream to blow up a car, especially my own,” Wilson said.

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