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Along with directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, and Margarethe von Trotta, Wim Wenders was part of the New German Cinema movement that flourished in the country from the late ’60s onward, but his career has revealed a more cosmopolitan bent, with a particular interest in American culture and eclectic music scenes. (His first movie, 1970’s Summer In The City, was dedicated to The Kinks.) Breaking the auteur mold, Wenders has always been inclined toward collaboration: He worked with novelist Peter Handke on 1972’s The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick and the 1987 arthouse breakthrough Wings Of Desire; actor/playwright Sam Shepard on 1984’s Paris, Texas and 2005’s Don’t Come Knocking; director Nicholas Ray on the unique 1980 documentary Lightning Over Water; and musicians like U2 and Ry Cooder on multiple projects.
Wenders’ latest, the sumptuous dance documentary Pina, was done in collaboration with the late modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch, who died just as the film was about to be shot. Having spent two decades talking with Pina about bringing her pieces to the screen, Wenders initially stopped production, but members of her dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, convinced him to revive it. Shooting in 3-D—one of the rare examples of the format greatly enhancing the experience—Wenders captures multiple planes of action with a depth of field and perspective that isn’t possible in two dimensions. Wenders recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Pina’s long journey to the screen, the steep 3-D learning curve, and why he believes the format is in its creative infancy.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said you met Pina in the mid-’80s having not seen her work. What was the first thing you saw and what impression did it leave on you?
Wim Wenders: The first thing I saw was Café Müller. It’s a double bill—they often play Café Müller, and then there’s a break, and then they play Le Sacre Du Printemps because both pieces are 40 minutes long and they can’t show them on their own. My first introduction was Café Müller, and that already devastated me and I found myself weeping all through the play, not knowing what hit me. Then after the break, I sort of gathered myself again and I was hit over the head with Le Sacre, which really did me in. That was a night that really, thoroughly changed my life. I tried to resist to even see them because I wasn’t interested in dance. I had seen dance, of course, and I’d seen classic stuff and modern stuff. It had never really touched me. I decided for myself that dance was not for me. That night in Venice, Italy, I had no intention to go and my girlfriend really forced me. I was ready to have a boring night, but that was the opposite of a boring night. That was mind-blowing.
AVC: What was different about this? About her?
WW: I didn’t really understand it, intellectually, why this was so different, why I was so moved. It really concerned me. It really concerned me existentially. It really went straight into my body like lightning. It seemed that my body understood it before my brain. It took me a while. That night, I was just blown away. It took me a while to understand what had happened, why this had been such an amazing night. I immediately saw other nights of Pina’s work. It was quite an overdose. I saw the entire retrospective Pina had in Venice, and we just had happened to see only one night and then I prolonged my stay and we saw five other pieces. So I got a huge dose. And each night confirmed this was something very, very big. I slowly understood why this was so big, and I slowly understood it wasn’t about aesthetics at all.
Pina, I realized, for her, dance was not in any way an aesthetic exercise. I understood her approach eventually, and much better when I started to get to know her. She said it herself in a nutshell: “I don’t care. I’m not interested in how my dancers move. I’m only interested in what moves them.” Of course that makes an immense difference. That is the very opposite of what dance had always been, because dance had always been about how they move, and all of a sudden it was really about the existential causes and the emotional causes of expressing yourself through dance and movement. That was a sheer revelation to me because I realized that this was a language that I had no knowledge of.
I had always felt when I’d seen a classic play, you needed knowledge to appreciate it. You needed to understand certain movements and passages, and that was an aesthetic pleasure and if you weren’t into the aesthetics, you didn’t get so much pleasure. With Pina, I realized it was other things that caused this pleasure. It was a common language that many shared and that very few people really cared to decipher. Pina did decipher it, and she was able to show us what she discovered in a way that we could also understand. You didn’t need to be experienced or trained. You just needed to be open, and you need let it go into your own body and out of a certain feel that language was something that you knew about.
It is a tough lesson for a film director, I figured, and that was something that really shocked me because as a film director, having to deal with actors all the time, and actually watching them and seeing their body language, because the famous pretense of the actor is nothing else but his body language. So we see that, and we judge it and correct them. We give them advice like, “Don’t do that. I’d imagined you would do that.” In a strange way, we feel we have a certain competence. And that competence was completely shattered when I saw Café Müller and Pina’s other plays. I realized I was a bloody illiterate in that language, and so were most of my colleagues, and that Pina had gotten to extremes in the understanding of body language that none of us had even dreamt of. It took me a long time to really understand how far Pina had gone.
AVC: Did it end up altering your own way of doing things as a filmmaker? You talk about working with actors and getting the most out of them, and you talk about yourself and other directors being illiterate in that regard. Did this inspire you to do thing differently?
WW: I think so. I know it inspired me. I had this overdose of Pina in ’85, and I visited Pina again the next year and I saw each new piece of hers. The next movie I made, two years later, was Wings Of Desire, which by any standard was the most choreographed thing I had ever done. And I don’t think I would have ever had the impulse to do it if I hadn’t had the encounter with Pina. I can’t say I made this movie because Pina inspired me, but I would not have made it without having met Pina.
AVC: You said it took you a while to really figure out how to shoot this movie, and that 3-D helped you. Of course, many great films about dancing had been made before the format is where it is now. What makes 2-D inadequate to capture Pina’s art, specifically?
WW: I tried had to imagine how to film Pina’s work. I knew these pieces, and I loved them and cherished them. I sat there quite often, especially when Pina and I started to get serious about the movie. She took me again and I saw another performance, and I sat there and tried to figure out how to shoot it. For a film director that’s a very crucial thing, at least for me. I need to know how I’m going to film something. I need to have a feeling of place, and I need to understand that I can bring something to it that gets the essence of it. I thought, “I can’t get the essence of it.” My craft just did not deal with it.
Maybe I was exaggerating because I felt I needed to do it perfectly, because Pina expected a lot out of that collaboration. She had a number of recordings of the pieces being done, and she actually worked on some of these recordings and was behind the camera and stuff, and she was disenchanted and she said, “There’s got to be a better way. I’m sure the dance can be filmed better.” She did expect a lot, and I realized I would never fulfill the expectation because I didn’t really know how to do it better. I looked at all these dance films, and some of them of course are very, very beautiful, but the ones that are story-driven like Singin’ In The Rain or The Red Shoes, they had something going that I was never going to have with Pina. We’re never going to have characters, biographies, and plot. It was just the dance itself because it had enough story in itself. I realized it had the goods. The films that I saw confirmed that there was something between film and cinema that just didn’t fit. I did not know what it was. I thought it was something I needed to find in myself, and it was code I needed to crack in order to not have that feeling that I was outside looking in. Whatever my cameras were doing, it always felt like the outside looking in, not really touching the elements. It’s like filming fishes in an aquarium, but you’re never in the water. There was always the invisible wall like the aquarium wall, the glass wall. They were there and I was here, and I was never going to cross that wall.
It was already getting a little ridiculous because Pina really was counting on this, was really counting that we would do this and that together, and we would find a language to represent the pieces. She needed this because she had assembled 40 pieces by now, and she had to keep them all alive because if you don’t play them, it’s as though they didn’t exist. She had to keep all her old pieces alive by continuing to perform them, by recasting, by rehearsing, and it was monumental work, actually. She depended on someone finding out how to film this so it would exist and so she wouldn’t have to create it from scratch. So she really wanted us, more and more urgently, wanted us to find that language, and I felt I was chickening out or something, but I wasn’t. A revelation came unexpectedly, and of course nobody, never for a second, thought 3-D was the solution. 3-D didn’t exist in our books, and all of a sudden it came back. It had been there before, but it had been useless, more or less. I had seen the Cirque du Soleil film that was shot on 70 millimeter, but it was useless to me. Then, all of a sudden, in 2007, I saw the first films that were done in 3-D, this digital 3-D, and that hit me like a eureka moment. That was the answer. I was no longer looking at the goldfish from the outside: I could swim.
AVC: How did it affect your planning? This is not a familiar format for you. Was it a pretty steep learning curve? What was involved in choreographing for the camera in a format like 3-D?
WW: It was a tall order. There was no experience to build on, so we had to make all the mistakes ourselves. There was nobody who said, “This doesn’t work, this doesn’t work, you better do this.” We had to do all the mistakes. We had to slowly find out how to build a 3-D that was quite natural, as natural as could be. It was in the infancy of the technology. We worked with prototypes. I worked with a crew, including my stereographer, who had never made a feature film in 3-D. My stereographer was quite experienced, for the last 12 years before we met—we met in 2008—for 12 years already he had only worked in 3-D but strictly for experimental films and short films for theme parks and castles and caves, all sorts of experimental short films in 3-D. All the equipment that was available in Europe in 2008 when I started to look around, “Where is this 3-D? Where are the cameras?” The only cameras that existed, the cameras existed but the rigs to shoot in 3-D, these rigs were built by Alain Derobe, this gentleman living in Paris, and he was a stereographer. In fact, I think he invented the name of his profession. But he, too, never had this task in front of him and somebody saying, “I don’t want all the effects. I just want a natural language.” He was very scared when I said that. He said, “That’s a tall order because it’s not yet there. We really need at least a year.”
Fortunately, we had a year. We did have actually a year and a half because when Pina and I had jumped on the new possibility and I had convinced her that this was the way and that was the language she was hoping I would find, not in herself but in new technology. She was relieved that we were finally going to do it. But she’d never seen 3-D. She never wanted to see 3-D. She said, “I want to see it when you show me my own dancers. When I see my dancers on my stage, then I understand it. But I’m not going to see any animation film,” because that’s the only thing there was in the beginning, a couple of horror films. I didn’t want her to see that sort of stuff. Even when we did our first test I didn’t want her to see it because it wasn’t yet there. The 3-D I was dreaming of was wishful thinking, really. Luckily, we had had the time because Pina’s first desire when I had called her and said, “We can do it. I know how to do it now, or I hope I can do it now.” Her first impulse was, “Come here and we’ll decide the pieces that we will shoot,” because for her that was the most important thing. Not the film as such, which she thought was my thing, but the language in order to film the pieces she was interested in. She was very adamant that we immediately choose the pieces that we would film and of course we would film them in their entirety, so that at least these four pieces would then exist in a different language and she could build on that and maybe, slowly, cover more of them.
So we decided for four pieces, and the earliest moment when she could actually put them on the schedule and her theater could rehearse them and have public performances that we could film for weeks and weeks. We would need them to be pre-formed, we needed the sets and the stages. The earliest moment was in the fall of 2009, and that was in earlier 2008, so I had a year and half to get ready. That fortunately gave me the time that my stereographer and the technology needed to be ready. I could not have possibly shot it a week or two earlier because it wasn’t there yet. We needed to really push the limits of what was available at the time. Now it’s a different story. Now there’s a lot of experience. We have stereographers galore, you can choose between rigs and cameras, and you can rent expensive ones. Even a short film we shot with Canon 5D cameras, it’s in beautiful stereo, which basically any student can do. It’s a different ballgame. When we did it, it was unknown territory. Even our financers, because we had to finance the film, didn’t believe in it. They said, “We’re happy that you’re making the film, Pina, because we see the potential. But can we do these normally [in 2-D] also? We know you want to do it in 3-D, but that also results in something we can see in a theater?” Because nobody thought theaters would be ready to show 3-D at that time. I’m eternally grateful to [James] Cameron because he put it on the map, actually. People started to take it seriously then, but we had already shot most of the film by then, when Avatar came up.
AVC: Camera companies have announced they are no longer developing cameras for celluloid, and they’re entirely focusing on digital. Do you have any thoughts on that? I’m assuming you have a lingering affection for celluloid.
WW: There’s a certain regret, of course. But myself—I’ve been teaching for 10 years, teaching digital cinema, and I’m trying to get my students to embrace the new language and make them understand that, maybe for nostalgic reasons, they should make on short film on 16 millimeter, 35 millimeter even, but basically they should not really insist because one day they will be finished with their studies, and their reality will be digital. I’ve made all these films on film, but I have no regret that there are no cameras being built. I hope that Kodak will survive and continue making film stocks because there are things you can do with a film camera that you can never do with a digital tool. But me, on the other hand, because I’ve always tried to make contemporary films and period films are not my cup of tea, now I feel more and more that a contemporary subject needs to be filmed with contemporary means. The stories I’m interested in, I need to do with contemporary instruments. I’m not inclined really to go back to film. With a certain regret I see what we’re losing, but I also see what we’re gaining.
I’m convinced that filmmaking is richer and, through 3-D, has stepped up on another level that we have yet to understand. We haven’t remotely grasped it because the language hasn’t been really used yet. It has been, I wouldn’t say “abused,” but it has been wasted the first few years. With the exception of Avatar, which was a grand vision, most of the things that have been produced have not shown us what 3-D can really do. It has shown us rollercoaster rides, and that of course has always been part of cinema. [Georges] Méliès did that already, and he was one of the first. It’s always been a part of cinema to impress people with stuff. I still feel nobody yet has shown us a story that needed it. Avatar did.
AVC: Is that was it requires? Do you see its potential for doing something smaller? Do you see a future where the Dardenne brothers shoot in 3-D? Those kinds of stories?
WW: I would very much like to see people telling stories dealing with people today. I would really like to use the medium and embrace it and show us a different kind of immersion into characters, into their lives, into the world than the two-dimensional screen gives us. It’s really high time that independent filmmakers and auteurs pick up this new language and take it seriously. Maybe it’s got out of bed on the wrong foot, 3-D, it certainly did. I’m really a little scared that people get so disenchanted with it, and a lot of serious filmmakers and festivals and critics say, “It’s just baloney. Let’s forget about it. Let’s go back to basics.” I’m really scared that the language will disappear without ever being used. And once it will be used, and I’m sure right now there’s a lot of people thinking about how to do it, documentary filmmakers as well as independent filmmakers, as soon at they show us how to use it properly, it will be understood as a huge step. Right now it doesn’t look like it.
AVC: Do you intend to carry on in this format?
WW: Absolutely. I will definitely do my next fictional film in 3-D, and I would also like to develop of documentary in 3-D because Pina is a strange, amphibian thing because it had a documentary approach and of course it is a documentary, but what you are filming is in itself fiction—choreography itself is fiction. It’s a strange beast. I would like to use 3-D in a much more conventional documentary and subject, just going on a little more and make something. Werner [Herzog] did that with [Cave Of Forgotten Dreams], but he also was just a rudimentary beginning of what you can do with 3-D. I think it will definitely lift the documentary genre to a whole new level as soon as it can be used economically. But the technology is there now, and you can shoot with cheap cameras. You need an additional person in your crew. You need a stereographer because it is a science in itself, and a DP is completely… I mean lighting a film and operating a camera and taking care of the 3-D architecture is just too much. You need an additional man in your crew, and that’s about it. I think the cost is maybe a few percent more, but that’s not what should prevent people from doing it. I have students now who have started doing it.