How John Wilson Found the Perfect Subject for the Existential Series Finale of ‘How to With John Wilson’

Culture
The documentarian reflects on three seasons of exploring some of the weirdest and most moving stories television has seen in years.

John Wilson filming the final season of his HBO docuseries How to With John Wilson.

John Wilson, filming the final season of his HBO docuseries How to With John Wilson.Courtesy of Thomas Wilson for HBO

Spoilers for the How to With John Wilson series finale below.

The finale of How to With John Wilson has pretty much everything you could want in a swan song from the gonzo HBO documentary series. The episode, “How to Track Your Package,” begins, like always, with a simple question that Wilson follows to illogical ends. Here, his efforts lead him to an organ—as in the musical instrument—themed pizzeria in Arizona where he meets a man with glasses and hunched shoulders who plans on cryogenically freezing himself via liquid nitrogen after death. What follows is bizarre, occasionally horrific, deeply existential, and ultimately beautiful.

It’s an ideal coda to a truly special show, which Wilson decided to conclude this year with its brilliant third season, which tackled everything from public restrooms to birdwatching to working out and so much more. This last installment is an optimistic exploration of the mail, death, how people prepare for and interpret the future.

Ahead of the finale, GQ got on a Zoom with Wilson, who appeared against a backdrop of a dilapidated interior. When asked why he chose that he explained, “I take a lot of screenshots from Zillow and this is just some really fucked up house that I saw. I think it’s still for sale if you’re interested.” I was not, but I was interested in digging into his decision to say farewell to his genre-defying program.

GQ: At what point did you decide this was going to be the final season?

John Wilson: Right after season 2 ended as I was starting to conceive of season 3, I realized there was a bunch of really ambitious stuff I wanted to do, and stuff I wanted to reveal that I wasn’t able to do in the first couple seasons. It’s a cumulative effect that I think a lot of the memoir stuff with the show has. In this season I talk about the kind of social effects of having the show and it becomes meta in this way. But then also by the finale, there [have been] some of the biggest themes I think that I could really conceive of that I really wanted to tackle, and I just wanted to be able to lean fully into that. I never want to repeat myself to make sure that I could do these big ideas justice, and, I don’t know, at the end of the day, it’s like the best thing you could do is to leave people wanting more. I kind of wanted to end on a strong note.

The ending is so perfect: From the people who are planning to freeze themselves to the note your parents found from your aunt, long after she died. At what point did you know this was the finale?

The package episode was not initially the finale. I don’t know what order anything is going to be in when I start, but as I started to shoot that and I met the people that I met, I started to realize how heavy it was and how much there was to explore. Once I met that dude, Mike Perry, in the pizzeria, I realized that we had something really unique and I just wanted to follow that thread for as long as we possibly could. I really wanted to end with some really existential anxiety themes. And there’s a lot of stuff throughout the series that is represented within the finale, whether it’s desire, death, family, all of this stuff is just kind of wrapped into this discussion everyone’s having about the infinite and what it means to be mortal. It felt just really appropriate to make that the last episode.

What was the experience of following Mike Perry, who reveals his self-castration to you?

Mike is very intelligent and very emotionally available, which are two qualities in people that I try to tend to follow once I recognize that they’re open to being interviewed. And he opened up his whole world to me. He invited me to his place at first, which doesn’t always happen. But then when I went to the cryogenics conference, he takes a backseat for a second while I explore other people. I knew I wanted to return to him at one point because I could tell there was some kind of history there that got him to this point because a lot of the people at the cryogenics convention had some kind of unfulfilled desire or there was something unfulfilled within the first phase of their life that they were trying to then chase into the future. I wanted to know what that was for him. And then he revealed the self surgery stuff to me in his living room, and it was just one of the craziest American stories I’ve ever heard. But also there are a lot of things across the three seasons that kind of rhyme with one another. And Mike Perry castrating himself to remove this kind of sexual urge, he was almost like the inverse of the foreskin guy who received more pleasure by manipulating his genitals. They were these opposites: It’s like in Unbreakable where there’s Mr. Glass and then there’s Bruce Willis. So I wonder what they would be like in the same room together.

You mention that Mike is this American story. Why did you want to bring the show back to New York at the end?

I mean, so much of the project of the show is kind of analyzing New York City. Like I say, it’s like the city is a reflection of who we are and however that manifests itself. So, we were just in Arizona talking to a man who had removed his genitals. I was afraid it would be kind of a hard transition to come back to this really romantic imagery of New York City. It felt right and I wanted to remind people what the future might look like or get people to think about what the future in New York will be. Because if I’ve dumped all of these problems onto you over the course of three seasons that don’t seem to have an obvious answer and you need to use some weird satirical trick in your head to make sense of everything, then we’re just going to have to figure out—I don’t know. It was as sci-fi as I was able to get in trying to imagine what the future of New York may look like. You have all these problems that you’re trying to figure out the whole time, but for people that do want to change the city in a positive way, I wanted to maybe make people think just beyond the immediate in the city and think about what it might look like in three [or] 10,000 years.

In the birdwatching episode this season, you interrogate the truth of the show itself. When did that come up as something you wanted to reveal?

I think I was having some personal trust issues with people in my life when I started to work on season three and I started to think about, what even is a lie? Is it a lie if you don’t tell someone everything that you’re thinking? Is that dishonesty? And then concurrently, a friend of mine was also really interested in birds, so I just started to make something about birds because it felt like an easy start to an episode that could be about anything. And then that just slowly became about truth versus fiction. But as the episode continued, I basically wanted to make a film that gave any documentarian, journalist, whoever, permission to embellish things just because I think it is a fiction that there’s this purity to any documentary or nonfiction, whatever, because everyone’s always editing and everyone has a perspective. I just wanted to be able to make something that you could point to and be like, no, it’s okay. There is no purity here. And it’s even sometimes more fun. Also, I wanted the second half to be kind of an action movie kind of thriller, which is why, I don’t know if you noticed that Steven Soderbergh was a consultant on it in the credits.

How did you reach out to him?

I forget if I asked my agent or HBO, but someone put us in touch and then [executive producer] Michael Koman and I just met up with him and we sent him the script and he really liked it, but then gave us a couple of tips. He basically told us how to blow up a car safely.

How did it feel when the season was finished and you had gotten into all these personal things that you wanted to talk about?

It was a relief. It’s such a relief once you realize you have everything you need to make something like this. The entire time I’m shooting and editing and all that stuff, I’m just like, don’t die, don’t die, don’t die because I want to make this stuff and finish it so badly. Not that I am okay with dying now, but it’s like, I fear death so intensely while I’m working on this stuff in a way I never have before.

Do you have an idea of what you want to do next?

I have other things in mind, but just out of pure superstition, I don’t know if I want to speak about them yet. I don’t know, it’s like Jackass only had three seasons and look what happened with that. Who knows?

Did HBO ever react to the shot of you not being led into the HBO party during the Emmys?

They had other notes about that episode, but that was not one of them. I think that says a lot about how amazing they’ve been. I think when they greenlit the show, they understood on some level that they could eventually maybe be the subject of some kind of ire or something like that. And the fact that they’re okay with a light roasting like that, I think it shows how committed they are to letting their artists say what they want. But I don’t know. I did eventually get into the party, so I think that’s probably why it wasn’t as big of a deal.

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