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What John Wilson Can’t Live Without

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Jon Pack

We asked John Wilson of HBO’s How to With John Wilson about the notebook he uses when he’s out and about, his favorite cereal, and the flaming wallet that wows his friends.

I use Wite-Out to make all of the title cards for the movies that I make. I end up going through a lot of it. I started painting some stuff recently too — I’ve been painting mascots of companies that I call when my house needs repairs — and it’s good for covering up little mistakes I make.

​​I’ve been using Rite in the Rain notebooks for at least a decade. I use them to write, to make my little calendars, and to write what I do every day. It’s also good if you spill something in your bag because the moisture doesn’t ruin all the paper inside of it. But it is kind of annoying that the ink can smudge when you’re writing quickly. It’s also a little resistant to ink because of how waterproof it is, so it takes a second to dry when you’re writing something. But I really like using them anyway, so I kind of just have a library of them.

I have a really big collection of VHS tapes that I’m always adding to. I always have a second screen going, playing some random tape — mostly just old VHS movies — that my eyes can drift to, and it might spark something or inspire me when I’m writing or editing; I really like how self-contained it is. It feels like the most kind of compact analog situation that I could find where it feels like the image is coming from a real physical place.

When I bought the building from my landlord, my basement started to flood pretty frequently during bad storms. Whenever it rained really hard, it was just Poltergeist water coming out of all of these different holes in the basement that I didn’t even know existed. For the first year, I was bailing out water with buckets. That was backbreaking work, and it took forever. My temporary solution that works pretty well was to get this Waterbug thing. You basically just place it in the area that’s getting the most water and it pumps it out onto the street. I have a really long garden hose that I attach to it, and I pump it out all the way through the basement into the sidewalk in the front. But it still doesn’t fully solve the problem; I don’t know if I can really fight nature in that way.

I got this old Marantz tape player off eBay a long time ago, and it came with this really nice vintage cardioid mic. It plugged into my little digital video camera that I use all the time, and I was able to get decent audio and have it all married to the image, which was something I was looking for. When I started making the show on HBO, I wanted to keep using it because it also has a nice warm monologue sound.

When I started to make the pilot for the show, I knew I needed to find a camera that could shoot in high definition. There’s something about the size and the ergonomics of the FS5 that I really liked because I could just kind of carry it around. It wasn’t too heavy, and it was discreet enough while still looking good.

This has been my favorite cereal since I was a kid. It tastes really good with or without milk. And if you do want to use milk, it takes a while for the cereal to get soggy so it doesn’t become mush as quickly as other cereals. It’s got just enough sugar, and I like looking at the Quaker Oats man whenever I buy it.

Once Guinness was in the late ’90s, it became this really flashy, big coffee-table book that had a lot of full-color images, and it started to feel a little weird. So all the older books of records are really cool to page through. Whenever I have writer’s block or I’m looking for inspiration somewhere, I’ll just open the book and it’ll spark something because there are a million little oddities and examples of eccentric people in there that can inspire something. Here’s one: Most votes for a chimpanzee in a political campaign. This was in Brazil in 1988: 400,000 votes!

My brother got me this flaming wallet as a gift a little while ago, and I bring it out on special occasions because it really shocks people. Sometimes I’ll use it at a bar or a coffee shop. I used it at a show a little while ago, and the door person that was taking tickets got really upset. So I haven’t used it as much since then.

I don’t want to carry the FS5 around everywhere. I have another little Sony DV camera that I use to sketch with, and I make other little movies with it that that are just for me in a way. So I have a massive collection of DV tapes of social events or other weird stuff happening on the street. It’s a nice alternative because I like to have a physical record of everything as well, because when I’m shooting on an SSD card, they all get wiped, and sure, I back it up onto a hard drive, but who knows when that’ll get corrupted? So I just like to have a library of all this imagery still. I mean, I feel like it wasn’t so distant of a past where people did that regularly. I just never stopped.

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What John Wilson Can’t Live Without