While many directors are all too content to mine a seam, German-born filmmaker Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire,” “The Buena Vista Social Club,” “Paris, Texas,” the ambitious “Until the End of the World”) has enjoyed a delightfully diverse career, jumping back and forth between narrative and nonfiction works. His latest film, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-nominated documentary “Pina,” taps into his decades-long friendship with the late, lauded choreographer Pina Bausch, imaginatively exploring her work in 3-D by utilizing the dancers of her Tanztheater Wuppertal ensemble. In a wide-ranging, half-hour chat — with Dave Matthews Band, the Yeah Yeahs and other light rock tunes unfolding at a remove in the background of the lush outdoor trappings of a Hollywood hotel — ShockYa had a chance recently to talk to Wenders about his friendship with Bausch, the challenges of capturing dance on film, what he learned from a terrible working experience with Francis Ford Coppola, how he’s ready to start thinking in 3-D, and what comment from Mel Gibson he wishes had gotten stuck in the actor’s throat. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Every couple years there seems to be some new technology or trend that takes hold of the industry. What’s your take on whether 3-D is here to stay, because this is the first year where we’re really seeing it applied in a lot of different and interesting ways, and by established filmmakers — from both “Hugo” and “The Adventures of Tintin” to “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and your film.
Wim Wenders: It feels like in some ways [3-D] got out of bed on the wrong foot, and everybody thought, well, that’s what it is — it’s an add-on attraction that’s made for animation movies and blockbusters. And it only slowly sank in that it’s actually a huge revolution, and a whole new cinematic language. And I hope it did sink in not too late, because if the studios continue with their 3-D action blockbuster [path] it will be disappearing before we know it, because people will get sick and tired of only that sort of 3-D. I really think it’s here to stay. It won’t ever disappear from animated movies, that I feel for sure. And I’m not worried about action movies myself, because they have their own rules and realm. But I think and hope it’s here to stay for documentaries and independent films of the future as well. They just have to discover it. Maybe in the beginning it was too expensive, but that is way over.
ShockYa: And you shoot entirely in digital now, is that correct?
WW: Right. I’ve shot on film before, but probably not anymore.
ShockYa: This is a question that I’ll describe as going over my shoulder to reach my ass, but I was interviewing another director recently and the subject of your film “Hammett” came up, and specifically a short film you did, “Reverse Angle,” about that process, your disputes (with producer Francis Ford Coppola) and having to basically shoot the film twice. And it struck me, anecdotally, that you have a fairly sanguine attitude about your career and filmography. A lot of filmmakers are either for-hire and come-what-may, or extremely focused and have a certain tunnel vision. You don’t seem stressed out or obsessed in that fashion.
WW: “Hammett” made me realize that the only profession that I wanted to be in from that time on was that of a producer-director. And I’ve done each and every film from then on as a producer, I’ve never been in that position any more. It just so happens that I met Francis yesterday. He came to a screening of “Pina” in San Francisco, and it struck me that in spite of all the differences and these systems clashing at the time, we remain good friends, which is in itself a certain miracle, considering that it was really the clash of an independent European director who’d never worked with a producer — and a producer in the old sense of the word, who was developing Zoetrope Studios as an old studio. It was a clash of systems. We stuck it out together and can still look each other in the eye. As I was walking through San Francisco the other day I was thinking about how I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that time in my life. It was a great time of learning. I learned a lot about being a hired hand, which I didn’t know before. It was a great lesson to learn.
ShockYa: You were a film critic yourself for a while, too, and have a background in both philosophy and photography. Do you think in images, or find you’re more literal-minded?
WW: Yes, I do (think in images). And I don’t owe that to the history of cinema or photography, I owe it to the history of painting. That’s where I had my real education, and I learned everything about framing and telling [stories] in pictures — maybe I should say painting and comic strips, because I was heavily into comic strips as a little boy and didn’t know any movies, really. That’s what I wanted to be, what I was aspiring to — I never thought I would end up being a film director.
ShockYa: How did you first become interested in telling the story of Pina Bausch, and how much was the film up in the air after she passed away during pre-production?
WW: We knew each other for a long time, almost a quarter of a century. We wanted to do a film together for 20 years, debated it and planned it and discussed it. We didn’t make it for the simple reason that I was always stalling because I felt like I didn’t really know how to film dance. Even the history of dance movies — and I saw them all — didn’t open a way for me to understand how my craft could handle dance. And I told Pina, who knew this from having a couple of her pieces recorded for television, that I could do a bit better [than those], but not much. She wanted it to be essentially different. She would always say, “There has to be a better way of filming dance, and the two of us will find it.” I always said, “Give me more time, I don’t know how to do it.” That went on for 20 years, almost like a running gag between the two of us, until a new way showed itself to me out of the blue. It was very much in the beginning of 3-D, in 2007, when things were first coming out, and the first thing I saw was the concert film “U2 3-D.” I saw that in the summer, and was blown away because I realized that that was what we’d been looking and waiting for all that time. Here was a different way to approach dance, which is really made to be shot in 3-D. That was my wishful thinking at the time. No one could prove it to me. I just stared at U2 at the time, and saw the possibilities. It seemed too good to be true.
ShockYa: The best of what 3-D has to offer can also be found in [how it creates] an expansive world off camera. Was it the spectacle or did you get a sense of that in how you first began to attach 3-D to the idea of telling Pina’s story?
WW: I didn’t see that really, in “U2 3-D.” In the other subsequent films that came out, the animation films and some action and horror movies, they didn’t show the way for a dance film either. But the technology, as such, seemed to have the potential to become a whole new language — a language that would be open to space and depth, and potentially, not that I saw it in these early films, introduce a whole different physicality to filmmaking. I told Pina that it could be a whole new way to see and feel dancers’ bodies.
ShockYa: We see just how exacting her vision is. How much of her work was built for camera, and of the stuff of hers that was recorded during her lifetime did she ever change the choreography to suit its recording?
WW: No, never. She didn’t think that filming should have any influence on the choreography itself. Rather, she was hoping that the filming could be flexible enough to bring out the best in her choreography, not the other way around. We talked a lot about how to film the pieces, and she definitely insisted that the filming should respect the screen direction, so to speak. She had done everything toward the audience, directed from the back of the stage to the front of the stage, as if the audience was looking into a black box. And she felt that should be respected. And we did when we shot the pieces. They were done without the slightest change whatsoever. Only when we went outdoors, I had a lot more freedom, because I could move 360 degrees around the dancers, which I didn’t do on the set.
ShockYa: With a lot of documentaries, it seems the filmmaker is beholden to interview footage. “Pina” does feature interviews, but you also have this fantastic wealth of material from which to choose. I’m interested in how you came to select the performance numbers you chose.
WW: Well, the film that we wanted to do together would not have contained any biographical material whatsoever, because Pina did not want that. The two ground rules we had from the beginning were no biography and no interviews. She wanted the work to speak for itself. When she passed away and we made the film after all, I [had] a long hesitation. I wanted to respect her wishes, but I had to show her somehow. I couldn’t do a film about Pina Bausch and not show her, and I had never had a chance to film her, so I looked at hundreds of hours of archival footage and then chose only a few moments of her on camera.
ShockYa: The film’s [Oscar nomination] certainly has to feel validating. Is that prestigious in-road with audiences still important in the digital age, or are independent films and documentaries increasingly going to find an international audience through the Internet, in your opinion?
WW: That’s debatable. I think the Oscars still have their pull and their push. And in the case of “Pina,” we’re very lucky. It’s out all over the world, and in Europe has grossed already $20 million, and been extremely successful. So maybe the Internet is most important in terms of word-of-mouth. And one good thing about [“Pina”] is that it’s piracy-safe. Probably you can download it for free somewhere on the Internet, but not in 3-D!
ShockYa: But you did a 2-D version, I imagine.
WW: Yes, we did go to great lengths to produce another print, and it’s a beautiful print. But it’s a different kind of experience. It’s less immersive. We felt it was unfair to people who did not have access to 3-D, in smaller cities and what not, to say that they couldn’t see the movie. But in Germany, for instance, we printed too many. Of the about 500,000 people who saw the film so far in Germany, 90 percent saw it in 3-D. In France it was a little bit more — maybe about 20 percent saw it in 2-D, but even that is not that much, really. In Italy it’s even a little bit more, because they have less 3-D theaters. But overall the huge majority of people, more than two-thirds, have seen it in 3-D.
ShockYa: Critics and essayists love to give names to trends and other things after they have happened. With your German New Wave contemporaries, like (Rainer Werner) Fassbender and Werner Herzog, was there a sense at the time of that being a movement or a thing, or was that merely a name that was ascribed to it after the fact?
WW: I wouldn’t say after the fact. It was pretty soon after our first films were out, and it was a category invented by American critics. German New Wave Cinema was carved in I think in the “New York Times.” And we picked it up quite gladly, because we didn’t know what to call our association. Unlike the French Nouvelle Vague or (Italian) neo-realism, we were quite a wild bunch, and everyone had their own tradition. There was no aesthetic adherence whatsoever, unlike another waves, or Dogma. We didn’t have anything really quite as cohesive, so we were happy that somebody found a drawer to put us in, and we gladly used it.
ShockYa: I wanted to briefly ask you about “Million Dollar Hotel,” which I think got a lot of attention both before its release because of Bono’s involvement (as a co-writer), and later because of (star) Mel Gibson’s reaction to it —
WW: (interrupting)”As boring as my dog’s ass.” I gladly quote it. I always hoped it would get stuck in his throat, but it never did.
ShockYa: (laughs) He probably could have done a bit better for himself if that comment had gotten stuck in his throat and he hadn’t been able to say some of the other things for which he’s become more infamous recently.
WW: (laughs) Well, anyway, it did hurt the film. But the film is what it is, and I love it. It had a rough life because of not just that quote but because world sales were handled by Mr. Gibson’s company, and they did their very best to put it under the cupboard. But I love the movie and in some places it’s a cult film for people. I think more people on Poland saw it than anywhere else on the planet, and in Italy it has some popularity too. It found its audience, but it took a while.
ShockYa: Is something like that a cautionary parable about the dangers of working with a star, who can really squash your movie after the fact if they don’t like it?
WW: Well, the question is how much do auteur-driven movie profit from the presence of stars anyway? It’s quite debatable. I think the number of those types of films you can count on one hand. It’s mainly distributors who insist on it because of a lack of imagination; they think it’s a safer thing. But a lot of films have rather suffered from star power, films that maybe didn’t want them to begin with.
ShockYa: And you have plans to work in 3-D again, right?
WW: Nothing but. I feel like I would have to go back to something that I no longer wish to go back to. I thought it was too good to be true. It still needs to be shown that it’s useful for storytelling, and I guess lots of people are working on cracking that code. Marty in a way did, with “Hugo,” and there’s a couple documentaries now. But the word still needs to be spread that it’s a great tool if it’s used in films that are written for it. If you don’t have a script and someone says you should do that in 3-D, it’s probably a disaster. You have to think in 3-D from the beginning, and I’m ready to do that.
Written by: Brent Simon