Wim Wenders' route to filmmaking was a circuitous one. At the age of 21, he landed in Paris determined to become a painter, but cinema had been in his DNA from an early age. He made super 8 movies as a child and became a local neighborhood projectionist at the age of 6 when he inherited his father’s antique film equipment; so cinema seemed like a natural path. But for years, he turned his back on movies, and it wasn't until he saw an Anthony Mann retrospective -- sidetracked from his painting aspirations in a Paris cinematheque -- that he began to fully understand that cinema had its own authors and "had a language of its own.” He then began a 40-year affair with the medium that continues to this day.
This past weekend at the New York Film Festival Wenders stopped by the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center for a lengthy and fascinating conversation with NYFF selection committee member Scott Foundas. An engrossing talk for Wenders devotees or even newbs, the filmmaker charted most of his career, from the early, still-unreleased student film "Summer In the City," to his laborious collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola in the '70s, to his strong friendships with filmmaking greats Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller and his many documentaries (like his recent 3D dance documentary “Pina,” which we tracked here and his Academy-Award-nominated documentary, "The Buena Vista Social Club"). While chronicling his entire career was impossible, this 1 hour 25 minute talk did span almost every important touchstone.
Known for Criterion-minted works like "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire," Wenders' oeuvre is still sorely underseen in the U.S. including the great "The American Friend" with Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz, the road trilogy that gained him international acclaim (“Alice In the Cities,” “Kings of the Road,” and “The Wrong Move”), the Ozu-loving documentary, “Tokyo Ga,” and the first-person doc about Nicholas Ray dying of cancer, "Lightning Over Water." Here's to hoping audiences give his work a second glance and that films like "Hammet" find some proper distribution. In the meantime, here's several highlights from the NYFF talk.
1. Unless you score a bootleg or catch a rare screening, you’re likely never going to see Wenders’ “first film” (a student film) called, “Summer In the City.”
Named after a Loving Spoonful song and dedicated to The Kinks, “Summer In the City” features a pop-saturated soundtrack that includes the two aforementioned bands, plus songs by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones. Suffice to say, music clearances are the biggest problem.
“That's why the movie isn't available anymore, because I just put in whatever [music] I liked in the film," Wenders said. "So it's impossible to release. They never told us in film school that we had to acquire the rights to songs. The movie is illegal in itself." Years later they attempted to see if they could rework and then release the film, but it was to no avail. "I only had the finished mix, the [individual sound] tracks are gone, so it's impossible to take any of the music out," he said. "We started and then realized it was completely useless to try acquire the music in the film because it would have cost 100 times more than the film itself."
2. Unlike most scenes created by the press, Wenders called the “New German Cinema” (or German New Wave if you like) of the late ‘60s, an “amazing act of solidarity.”
In Germany in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there wasn’t much of a film industry. “Germany at the time in terms of movies was a waste land,” Wenders said. “There was no independent distribution whatsoever.” German cinematheques mostly showed American films and if German money was being put into German productions, according to Wenders, it was largely in soft-core porn or German Westerns shot in Yugoslavia. The New German Cinema included a new generation of directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Wenders.
But unlike similar scenes like the French New Wave or the Italian Neo-Realist movement, Wenders says, “There was not much sharing of [artistic] sensibilities. We didn’t have that much in common, which differentiated us from [other film movements]. The term ‘New German Cinema’ was imposed on us by American critics, but we were happy because finally we had something we could call ourselves.”
The group eventually formed a production and distribution company in what Wenders called, “an amazing act of solidarity.” “We realized everyone had their own boat, but we were in one big boat together and it was out of an economic necessity for each of us to stick together in order for each of these little boats to float,” he said.” So we formed our own production and distribution company and everybody was in it and it worked for 10 years and we all became who we are because of this act of solidarity.”
3. Wenders' first American venture, a collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios to direct “Hammet,” was a trying effort, nowhere near as artist friendly as he had hoped.
Wenders came to America in 1978 at the age of 33 on the invitation of Francis Ford Coppola to direct “Hammet,” based on Joe Gore’s fictional novel about detective author Dashiell Hammett. “It was a long, amazing experience,” Wenders said, but the invite to make a film in America was perhaps “too good to be true.” He worked on the film for four years, went through four different writers, 40 versions of the script and shot the film twice.
Starring Frederic Forrest (perhaps best known as the chef in “Apocalypse Now”), Marilu Henner and Peter Boyle, the picture was shot on location in San Francisco in 1979 and then shot a second time in Zoetrope studios in 1981.
Wenders said he shot the first version “under the radar” because “Francis had his mind on ‘Apocalypse Now.’ ” But when it came time to shoot the final scene of the film, the producers realized the scene was rewritten and not like it had been in the “final” script. “Actually it had not much to do with the script and there were even characters they didn’t even know,” he said with a chuckle. “And they looked at it and said, ‘What are you shooting here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s the necessary ending for the film I’ve been making so far.' ” Suffice to say, production shut down immediately. Coppola then suggested Wenders stop the shoot and edit the film so he could understand the ending. “I didn’t have a choice anyhow,” Wenders said and then when he finished editing the film a year later, “Nobody liked it. At least the studio didn’t like it. Francis sort of liked it, but he said, ‘They think it’s way too lyrical and it’s about the writer and not the detective story we had given you’ …but they felt it was too slow and didn’t have enough action.”
4. Eventually a second version of “Hammet” was shot.
A new writer was then hired to rewrite Wenders’ unfinished ending, but Coppola liked this new ending so much and in order for it to work with the rest of the film, more scenes had to be rewritten . Eventually an entire new story was written which Coppola also liked and eventually they decided to reshoot the entire film from scratch.
Two years later only, the only cast member that was left was Frederic Forrest and the rest of the actors had to be recast (actors that appeared in the original included Woody Strode, Sylvia Sidney, and director Sam Fuller). Wenders says only 10% of his initial shoot made it into the second version of the film.
Wenders even shot another picture in between the two ‘Hammet’ films, 1982's “The State of Things,” because lead Frederic Forrest had gained weight during Coppola’s “One From the Heart,” and they had to wait months until he slimmed down again. While it's been rumored over the years that Coppola reshot most of the 2nd version of “Hammet” himself and Wenders made a short film called “Reverse Angle” documenting his disputes with Coppola surrounding the making of “Hammett,” neither topic was discussed as the conversation eventually moved on (at least until they arrived on the topic of “Paris, Texas”).
5. Sam Shepard, who wrote “Paris, Texas,” was originally Wenders’ dream lead for “Hammett.”
Wenders said the genesis of “Paris, Texas” was very much connected to “Hammett” because his ideal, dream actor to play the lead was Sam Shepard. “We shot for one day with Gene Hackman as the old detective and Sam as Hammett,” Wenders said about some early test shots that took place in San Francisco. “That was fantastic, I mean, it was mindblowing. We shot several scenes and I was convinced this was it. I couldn’t possibly find a better actor.”
But Shepard, still known as a playwright had not yet starred in a film – his debut was in Terrence Malick’s 1978 effort, “Days of Heaven” – and the studio didn’t want him in the role. The studio lived to regret their decision though, as Shepard became a much-in-demand actor and “Hammet” tanked upon release. “Sam was fantastic in it and his poster hung in every teenage girl’s room because he really stole the show from Richard Gere in ‘Days of Heaven,’ " he said. “And the studio really regretted their [refusal to cast Shepard] because he was really great, and Sam was really happening when ‘Hammet’ was released.”
Wenders wanted to score “Hammett” with the music of Ry Cooder. Of course the studio said no, but their winning collaboration took place on “Paris, Texas,” arguably up their as one of the most moody and haunting guitar-based scores ever.
6. Shepard Almost Starred In “Paris, Texas.”
Wenders said “Paris, Texas” was born out of a desire to work with Cooder and Sam Shepard, as both writer and actor. “But that’s another story. He didn’t act, the bastard.” Wenders said with a grin. “He was supposed to play the part and then he fell in love with Jessica Lange and then was gone. I had to find another actor. He and I wrote the film and I took it for granted that he would play this damn Travis character, and so I never asked him. When I finally did, it was too late.” (Shepard instead went on to write and direct “Far North” starring Lange.)
All of the key personnel rejected from “Hammet,” including cinematographer Robby Müller, were then utilized in “Paris, Texas.” “I finally made the film in America that I had come to do in the first place,” he said. “It allowed me to go home because I could not go back empty handed as a failure, because I looked at ‘Hammett’ as a failure.”
7. Two, now-heralded B-movie directors Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray were not only close friends of Wenders, they participated in his films often.
Thanks to tastemakers like the Criterion Collection and repertory theaters like Film Forum in New York, filmmakers like Sam Fuller (seven films in the collection including "Pickup On South Street" and "White Dog") and Nicholas Ray “("Bigger Than Life," "On Dangerous Ground") have experienced an American re-appreciation in recent years, but like the French New Wave auteurs who lauded their works, Wenders was also a big fan.
As mentioned, Fuller starred in the original version of “Hammett” and he also had a role in “The American Friend,” Wenders’ loose adaptation of one of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley stories (yes, the same character from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” film). Nicholas Ray also had a role in the picture.
After that shoot, Ray called Wenders to inform him that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the one last thing he wanted to do was make another movie. So the two devised what became “Lightning Over Water.” Two weeks later after the call, they were shooting. Initially the film was supposed to be a “fictional film [based] on a situation that was very real,” Wender says but because of Ray’s ailing health, it soon became “a film about Nic’s death. Which is what he wanted, because his main desire was to correct the image he had in the American public as the drunk director who got kicked out of Hollywood.”
“All our efforts to fictionalize disappeared more and more and then it became a film dictated by cancer,” Wenders said. “The film wasn’t widely seen by the American public, but I think it fulfilled what Nicholas had in mind.”
8. The version of “Until the End of the Word” that’s available in the U.S. is what Wenders calls “The Readers Digest” version.
Written initially in 1978 (“interrupted by ‘Hammet’ ”), shot in 1991 and set on the verge of the millennium in 1999, the ambitious “Until the End of the World,” was a sci-fi-ish picture that spanned the globe and Wenders called, “the ultimate road movie.”
Part mystery, part sci-fi film, the second half the picture shifts its focus on a device for recording and translating brain impulses— a camera for the blind. The idea was based on Wenders' favorite aunt who was blind. “Even as a kid I thought about, ‘what would it be like if she could see? Why doesn’t anybody come up with an idea that lets blind people see?’, ” he recalled.
After a year, the filmmaker had a six-hour cut and he showed it to his distributors who reminded him he had a contract that said, no longer than two and a half hours. Wenders then tried to coax the distributors to release the film in two or three parts to get more bang for their buck, but they refused. “So we had to cut down this epic story from six to two and half hours and that of course was murder,” Wenders said. “The film that came out all over the world in my book it was just the readers digest version.”
A year later, Wenders reconstituted a five-and-a-half hour version of the film that was never released outside of Germany and Italy where he owned the rights. “You can get [the German DVD version] on Amazon and take out the subtitles because it was all shot in English, and there you have it,” Wenders said. Asked how he survived over his various “failures,” Wenders said he basically stopped reading reviews a long time ago. “You have to avoid the trap that if people rave about your films, that you’re a genius,” he said. “If you believe the good [reviews], then you have to believe the bad ones and then every now and then you have to believe you are full of shit. So I decided to not believe any of them.”