Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Wim, Vigor, and Vitality: An Interview with Wim Wenders, Pt. 1
Few filmmakers display the care, handling, and respect for cinema quite like Wim Wenders does, and after 40 years behind the camera, there are no signs of slowing down.
The director of such acclaimed films as Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, and The Buena Vista Social Club was at Horton Plaza last night for a Q&A promoting his most recent work, the Academy Award-nominated documentary Pina.
A major force in the German New Wave Cinema of the 1970s, his originality and eagerness to experiment find him continually bucking the system and turning his nose at the money-honeyed lure of Hollywood. Only a madman would direct a 3D documentary about interpretive dance, and only a genius could pull it off in a manner that caught Oscar's normally myopic eye.
Some days it is worth getting out of bed. This morning brought yet another interview, this time one-on-one at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to spend an hour in the man's presence. (Thanks to Cathy Spillane and the gang at Allied Integrated Marketing for making it happen.) Behind the camera, Wenders is a favored teacher and it was no different in person. It felt as though I was privy to a Master Class on the art of filming in 3D.
Soft-spoken, exceedingly charming, and imbued with a calming effect that rivals Xanax, Wenders spent 40 minutes fielding question from the erudite and appreciative crowd. What follows is a transcription of the dialog. Part 2 will follow tomorrow.
Scott: You’re known for making films that are difficult to classify. Is Pina a documentary in the traditional sense of the term?
WW: Don’t ask that of the Academy. They start worrying if you question it. I think it is a documentary because it’s made with a documentary attitude to share something with the rest of the world. I wanted to share something I thought was outrageously beautiful, healing, and thoughtful. We went at it with the attitude of a documentary filmmaker. There was of course fiction, if you want. Choreography is fiction, so this is a documentary of a fictional context.
Scott: Did the circus scenes in Wings of Desire have an influence on Pina?
WW: The other way around. Pina had a lot of influence on these scenes in Wings of Desire.
Scott: How so?
WW: I met her two years before.
Scott: Do you remember the first 3D film you saw?
WW: That was somewhere in the ‘60’s. That was the time of the green and red glasses that caused heavy-duty headaches. And that is really not good. That is why it didn’t occur to me that 3D was an option. That’s why Pina Bausch and I were talking about the movie for 20 years. I had brought it up in the first place and I would have dropped everything to make this film. It stayed in the talk stages because I could never figure out how to do it. I loved her work, but I didn’t know how my craft could handle it. Whatever I would do with my cameras at the time, I couldn’t catch that splendor. I always told Pina to give me some more time. She was patient, telling me to keep thinking, that I’d find it one day. But she got impatient after the first 10 years. It lasted about 20 years and in the end, she didn’t even ask me. We were good friends. She would only raise her eyebrows when she would see me, and I would only shrug my shoulders. It was only when the first 3D films -- the digital precursor of 3D -- showed up in 2007. There was a film maybe some of you had seen, U2 in 3D. That was the first time I laid eyes on a 3D film. I saw the thing and thought it was just going to be a fun ride. And there it was. My mouth was open. I stared at it and new this was what we’d been looking for. This was the language that we needed. It was so obvious. All of a sudden there was no more screen; there was depth and space, and space was exactly what had been missing in my tools. I called Pina at the end of the screening to tell her we could do it, that we’re ready now. From then, it took two years to prepare the film.
Scott: How much more time consuming is it shooting in 3D and how does it effect your mise-en-scene?
WW: That is changing. We started shooting this film in the Fall of 2009. It was before Avatar came out. 3D was pretty clumsy and it took much more light. The stereographer needed more time for his mathematics. It was very time consuming. The cameras were big. You needed two cameras: one for the left eye and one for the right eye. They couldn’t be parallel to each other because the eye-distance had to be like your eyes, something like 3 inches. Two cameras could never be three inches from each other. You have one on top of the other and they shoot via a semi-transparent mirror into the same direction. It’s a very big machine, a giant thing, very heavy and nobody could possibly carry it. We had it on a huge techno-crane that would have filled this theatre. When we finished the filming a year later, the same Steadicam rig that was available for small cameras then could be carried by one man. They were no longer so cumbersome, and that only happened in one year. Today it would be even faster.
Scott: You are at a point in your career that you don’t have to prove anything. How important is it for you to win an Academy Award?
WW: Aw, I don’t care. (Audience laughs.) I was only nominated once before in my life (Buena Vista Social Club) and it’s a big thing. In movies there is no bigger award and it’s important for the fate of the film. We were quite flabbergasted that we were nominated. Everything from here on is the icing on the cake. (Smiling.) It would be nice, though.
Scott: Yes it would. Who is responsible for choosing the locations in Pina?
WW quietly raises his right hand.
Scott: That’s what I thought.
WW: It took me several months to find these places. My ambition was to find for each of the solos of the dancers...I should maybe explain it a little bit and not say solos. For each of these solos that we had worked on in the rehearsal stage...I had 32 of them because every dancer in the company did one. I tried to find a specific place that would bring out the very best in each dancer. I knew the dancers really well. I knew who could do it on asphalt, on a dance floor, I knew who could do it on gravel or sand. I surprised them with that.
We are seated in director’s chairs without foot rests, and I notice Wenders begins to squirm.
Scott: These chairs are terrible. I haven’t sat in a chair where my feet can't touch the ground since I was a kid.
WW: I feel like a baby who has to be spoon-fed.
Scott: Why do some of the dancers in the film talk while others don’t?
Ditta Miranda Jasjfi in Vollmond in Wim Wenders’ Pina.
WW: For the longest time, none of them talked. I was quite convinced that I would be able to make a film that would survive without any words. There were very few words from Pina, just two or three lines from her. I was in the editing room making what I thought was going with only sound, breathing, footsteps, and music. Only towards the end of the editing, I realized that would have been a little too cryptic. I had made the film for everybody who had never seen Pina Bausch and didn’t know anything about her. I felt it was not enough and need a little more...not information, a little bit more context about who she was and how she worked and how all these dancers admired her. I hadn’t done a single interview in the film because I had promised Pina. She had established two ground rules over these 20 years we had talked about the film. One rule was no biography. It’s not going to be about her and how she learned to dance and where she grew up. It was just about the work. And I gladly agreed to that. The second rule was no interviews because she hated to talk. She suffered when she was doing interviews and of course she had to do interviews in her professional life, especially as she was traveling so much. I have seen each and every one of them and you always see how much she fears betraying her work by talking about it. But I did have all these long conversations that I had with the dancers. When we started to develop these exterior scenes together with the dancers, I had long talks with each and every one to understand the history, when they joined the company, how they had learned about Pina’s working method, and all that. But they were recorded on a crummy tape recorder. I pulled out these tapes and I listened to them and I realized there were little moments in each conversations with me that I could use. I took these little excerpts and I played it to them and asked them to rerecord it. We didn’t do it as if it was an interview. It was more like you the audience can hear their thoughts. That is how this came to be.
Scott: I am not a fan of remakes. Hollywood has already done one of your films a great injustice by turning Wings of Desire into City of Angels. How would you feel if they converted Wings of Desire into 3D.
WW: I would sue them. (Audience laughs.)
Scott: How would you feel if they did it with your permission?
WW: They wouldn’t get my permission. Turning old films into 3D is like this craze from the ‘80’s when they turned black-and-white films into color. It is a pain in the butt and a pain in the eyes to retrospectively turn a film that was shot in 2D into 3D. Your brain is not going to be happy with this. It is never going to be physiologically correct and you’re going to have headaches. If you have ever seen any of these films, I know you will need aspirin.
Scott: Am I correct in saying many of the performances are excerpts from larger ballets? If so, how hard was it for you to make the editing decision?
WW: The backbone of the film is four long pieces by Pina. Of course they are much, much longer. We had six-and-a-half hours worth of plays in themselves and a huge amount of solos. We had hundreds of hours to choose from because we shot with different cameras. It took a long time. It was the longest time I ever spent in an editing room, a year-and-a-half.
At this point we open up the discussion for audience questions.
Question: I was wondering what your dreams were like and if you get images for your films and photographs from them?
WW: Sometimes I have very funny dreams. I wake up thinking why didn’t I ever make a comedy. (Audience laughs.) Last night I had a dream that was utterly stupid. It was a nightmare. I had a phone on me and I was in a big theatre. Maybe it was the Oscars. And my phone was ringing all the time and I couldn’t find it. (Audience laughs.) I was ringing, so to speak.
Scott: Since you brought it up, why haven’t you ever made a comedy?
WW: I’m still rehearsing. (Audience laughs.)
Question: Whatever happened to Pina’s company since she passed away?
Wim Wenders and Pina Bausch.
WW: They were in shambles. They were very courageous when Pina died which was a couple of months before we started shooting the film. She was dying from one day to another. Nobody knew, not her family nor her friends nor her dancers. She was literally gone from her life overnight. The dancers were very courageous. They even performed that night she died. They were on tour without Pina. She had gone to a hospital a week before and everyone thought it was because she was burnt out. They were in tears, but they went on stage because they knew Pina would expect it. Several weeks later, the entire company without exception decided to continue. Some of them had worked with Pina for their entire professional life, and the carpet was pulled out from under them. One of the reasons we made the film was we figured it would give us a chance to find a way to deal with the loss and say goodbye to Pina. Right after her death I pulled the plug on the film. After 20 years I was finally on it, so close. and it seemed so tragic that I walked away from the film. It was only because the dancers continued and because they actually started to rehearse. That’s when it dawned on me that there was a film to be made. The film with Pina would have been a very different one. Together with the dancers we could make a film for her and I figured it was more important for the living.
Question: Did it take longer to edit a film in 3D?
WW: Yes. Especially when we started. There was no damn software to edit in 3D. For the first month or so we actually had to edit on anaglyph (red and green) monitors. We had to wear the awful red and green glasses and every night I went to bed with a splitting headache. I said to my editor we cannot survive this movie. We cannot edit this way. We needed to watch it in 3D, not this prehistoric mode. We did some research and we found there were developers working on software to edit 3D. We asked if we could have their very first version even though it was not available yet and was not yet finished. We would give them feedback and that was the deal. They gave it to us. We spent hours every day on the phone telling them what had to be fixed. It was worth it because we could actually watch it with the same glasses you have here. That was such a relief. Editing on a 2D monitor was no fun because you had to redo all the cuts. I have been editing film for 40 years and know a lot of the tricks. Nothing worked. We really learned from our own mistakes which is a great thing if you can learn from your mistakes. It was a very long process. We needed to find a way for the film to bring people into Pina’s universe in a way that was natural. We had all these different elements: the stage pieces and all these solo dancers. It was difficult to make all these decisions. The choreography was preexistent. I knew these pieces completely by heart. You had to know where the camera had to be at all times and it was very quite demanding. It took us months to develop the camera positions so the choreography was as well represented as possible.
Question: For someone less versed in this style of art, could you offer some clues into understanding the film?
SM: Excellent question.
Fabian Prioville and Azusa Seyama.
WW: I was just like you. I was not into dance at all. I didn't understand it. I did not feel like I had the antennas for it. For me it was some sort of aesthetic experience some people enjoyed, but not me. Include me out. You couldn't drag me into a ballet or modern dance. One beautiful night in the summer of 1985, my girlfriend at the time...we were strolling around Venice, Italy. She pointed at this poster and said, 'Oh! That's where we're going tonight.' I looked at the poster and realized it was dance and I said, No!" (Audience laughs.) She had heard of this German choreographer. I caved in reluctantly and was ready for a boring evening. Instead, I had the most remarkable experience you could imagine. I sat on the edge of my seat after five minutes. It was Café Müller, the piece with the sleepwalkers. I realized I was crying and didn't understand why. My mind didn't get it. My body got it. I cried for the damn 40 minutes of the piece. I couldn't tell you what moved me. I just felt this was so much about ourselves and it concerned me like nothing else I'd ever seen. I didn't know I had so much liquid in myself. I do not cry easily. During intermission I calmed myself. Then we saw the second piece which was The Rites of Spring and I completely broke down. I did not know how I would survive. My brain couldn't fathom it because it was dance, and dance is not for me. But there was something that spoke so powerfully to me. I trusted my body because I felt in my bones what it meant to me. It took me years of getting to know Pina and getting to know her work that it slowly dawned on me what it was, and that was Pina's very own method. She never explained anything, but once she said...I think this is unbelievable that a choreographer said this. She said, 'I'm not interested in how my dancers move. I'm only interested in what moves them.' That was the whole revolution that she brought to dance. She looked at dance as a way that we showed who we are and what turned us into who we are. She really turned dance upside down. When she developed her pieces she wouldn't show her dancers any movements or choreography. She didn't have anything planned. She knew in her heart what this new piece was going to be about and she created a new piece every year. Then she wrote down hundreds of questions she had in that context. Then she would start working with her dancers and she would ask everybody a question. The dancers were only allowed to answer the question with their body or gestures as it came to them. It had to be an action. Pina would look at the answer and say, 'Wow, that wasn't very explicit. Can't you be a little more specific?' She would look at the dance as an answer to a question. Then she would start working on these answers and the next day she'd ask the same question of the dancer and expect he or she to go deeper. That was a process that would last weeks or months and at the end, Pina had about a hundred hours of answers. None of them would spell out what it meant. It was only body language. Out of these hundred hours, Pina would create a two-hour dance. Only when I understood that was the process, I understood why it had effected me so much. Again, I couldn't really tell you what it means. For instance, towards the very end there is this older male dancer who is walking sort of crouched down with a young woman on his back. She's there like a baby rolled together in a bundle; it's a poetic image of a father with his daughter. Then she slides off and the unbelievable thing happens: he crawls on her back and she carries him. The question that led to that was how the father and daughter felt about working together, and that's what they showed her. You don't have to know the question in order to be moved by the gesture. It says something so deep about who we are and families. Don't feel that you have to put it in words. This is really what Pina's work consisted of. That's how we developed these exterior scenes. The dancers and I entered the film completely unprepared. With Pina's disappearance we didn't have a clue. Everything else we wanted to shoot would have been with her. We took a long break and tried to figure out how we, the film director who was not a choreographer at all and an ensemble that lost its head, so to speak, how we could do something together. I slowly understood that all I had to do was adopt Pina's own method. I wrote down all the questions I had about Pina, and Pina's eyes, and how Pina had seen them, and how they felt her eyes on her, and how she had seen something they didn't even know about themselves. All of the things you see outdoors are the dancer's answers to my question, 'Who is Pina?' But you don't have to know it. That's what the film is really about. It's a tribute to Pina's universe and I really wanted to make it for people like me who were initially reluctant to go. That's why it took so long to construct it, too.
Question: Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams that came out last year was also shot in 3D. Did you discuss your films ahead of time?
WW: The two of us old German war horses didn't know we were doing films in 3D at the same time. (Audience laughs.) We're old friends and we found out because we were programmed on the same day of last year's Berlin Film Festival. It was the only day the festival had hired 3D equipment, and that's why we played the same day.
Scott: I see the publicist is calling 'Cut' on a Werner Her...Werner Herzog?! You're Wim Wenders. Excuse me. (Audience and WW laugh.) I see the publicist is calling 'Cut' on a Wim Wenders set, so we'll take one more question.
Question: What makes editing in 3D different?
WW: When you are watching a 3D film, your eyes work in a very different way. Your left and your right eye both see a separate image. The left eye sees what the left camera shot, and the right eye sees what the right camera shot. On that screen there is only garbage. You see something that looks out of focus. In your brain, every one of you puts the left and right camera together and you produce the depth and space in your own mind. When you see a 3D movie, it involves parts of your brain that when you normally go to see a movie are turned off. You are emotionally in a different context because your brain uses other parts and because you are much more active than you normally would be. Your eyes are guided much more to what you are seeing. On a 2D image you can wander around with your eyes and look at whatever you like, but in 3D you are almost forced to see what the camera shows you at the level of the conversion of the two eyes. If you do cut from a very close shot where your eyes and brain have to focus on something in front of you and the next shot is very far away, then you brain has to work much harder than it normally would. It can be tiresome, and when it is not well done it can also be painful. We tried to invent a 3D that was natural and physiologically correct. In the editing you have to be careful not to jump too much. When you look at me, your two eyes are angled and they converge. When you look at the head of the lady in front of you, your eyes converge even more. When you go to infinity, they are both almost looking forward. Eyes are fantastic! What fantastic machinery God built into our heads. It's unbelievable. Two cameras can remotely do what your eyes are doing. You can just as easily make your eyes work way too hard in a 3D film and it's unpleasant. We learned how to make it work better. Unfortunately, most blockbusters don't give a flying something about how your eyes feel.
Click for Part 2 of our interview.
Pina is currently playing at UA Horton Plaza and AMC Fashion Valley. Click for showtimes.
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- Meet Wim Wenders in Person! — Feb. 22, 2012
- Pina, W./E., and Safe House Reviews — Feb. 15, 2012