Prior to six or seven months ago, it was arguably easy to dismiss 3D as a passing fad used by money-hungry studios to beef up box office returns without adding anything to the movie-going experience except crossed eyes and migraines. But after Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and even Werner Herzog offered superlative films in three dimensions, the industry proved that great, proven artists could create great works using the format. Even so, it still sounds odd to hear a filmmaker like German auteur Wim Wenders defend technology as he discusses his latest film, the 3D creative dance documentary “Pina.”
“We would never have made the film before the arrival of 3D,” Wenders said recently via telephone. “We’d been talking about it since the mid-‘80s, [legendary choreographer] Pina [Bausch] and I, but I just didn’t know how to do it. And 20 years passed and we didn’t find it, and all of a sudden the answer came out of a corner I never moved into – it came from technology.”
Wenders is, of course, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world; his past work includes “Wings of Desire,” “Paris, Texas,” and “The Buena Vista Social Club,” and he is as accomplished technically as he is artistically. But he admitted that for a while he worried even his own high standards might not live up to those of his subject, the principled choreographer Pina Bausch who passed away in 2009. “It just never seemed like my craft had the right access to shoot Pina’s work,” he confessed. “There was always like an invisible wall between her work on stage and between what I could put on the screen and film with my cameras, and I was at a loss. And Pina expected a lot from her collaborations, she really expected we would find a different way, a better way to film dancing, because she was disenchanted with the recordings that have been done for television of her other pieces.”
“I wracked my brain and I couldn’t find it, and I had to then tell her, ‘Pina, I can do it maybe a little better than you’ve seen before, but I can’t essentially do it better’,” he remembered. “But she figured there had to be a way to shoot dance essentially better, so she said, ‘well, we just need more time. Together we’ll find it’.”
Wenders indicated that the use of 3D technology both literally an artistically gave him a new dimension in which to capture Pina’s choreography. “It showed us what we’ve been lacking for 20 years,” he observed. “We’d been lacking access to space. That’s the very element of dance – they work with space, with every gesture and movement. Like fish in the water, dancers need space. I was never in that space with my cameras - I always was outside looking in, and then putting it on a two-dimensional screen and thereby making the space a fiction, so to speak. And now all of a sudden, there was a tool that took us there. Pina had never seen any 3D, and she believed my juvenile enthusiasm.”
Although Wenders shot sequences as far back as 2007, Bausch’s unexpected passing near the end of the decade stalled completion, and demanded that the director rethink the structure and format of the film. “One element of film was in place, which was the four pieces that were backbone of the film that Pina and I wanted to do together,” he said. “But more than a good half of the film was completely not planned before and was something we slowly discovered as we went on, the dancers and I. We took a long break in order to figure out how we were going to make the movie without Pina, and how to replace her absence.”
That said, Wenders indicated he and Bausch established a couple of basic guidelines when they started making the documentary, which gave him a foundation to build upon. “When Pina and I started to conceive the film, two things were clear from the beginning – and we stuck to them until the very end when we made the film without Pina. One was no biography; Pina was a modest person and she didn’t want to make any fuss about herself. And the other ground rule was no interviews; Pina didn’t like talking about her work, and she felt the work should speak for itself.” While that ultimately meant audiences wouldn’t hear explanations or analysis of Bausch’s impressionistic pieces, Wenders eventually conceded to the idea that there would need to be some dialogue in the film, even if it wouldn’t address the themes or ideas of the work itself. Specifically, he combined existing footage with interview materials he culled from the dancers to create an equally impressionistic portrait of Pina herself, through their collaborations and interactions.
“I used silent portraits for the longest time in the editing room, and only at the very end of the editing felt that the film entirely without language was a little cryptic,” Wenders said. “I needed to find out, and the others wanted to know a little bit more about the relationship of the dancers to Pina. And I remembered that in the course of the process with these other dancers, I had long conversations with each and every one of them. So I took a little excerpt of these conversations and tried them on these silent portraits but it was more like listening to their thoughts or it was more like an interior voice – and I liked it.”
Again, however, the purpose of the film was to document and celebrate Pina’s choreography, and Wenders built off of his conversations and then utilized 3D in order to bring her dances to life. “All of these elements that the dancers perform on their own in the interiors were things that we developed together on a rehearsal stage, and they were all things that they had at one time or another worked with Pina,” he revealed. “These were the dancers’ answers to my questions about Pina, and they answered it with dance – they answered it with something that Pina’s eyes had been on. [But] these were all pieces that were without a stage, and I figured to take them outside would be more interesting – and also, our 3D cameras would love to have the infinity of open space.”
“The choreography is stuff that existed, the dancers told me what sort of floor they could do it on, and if they could do it on cement or do it on asphalt or they could do it on soft floor or whatever,” Wenders continued. “And then I tried to find a place that corresponded to each of these answers, to what each dancer wanted to show me about Pina, and try to find a specific place that could bring out the best of each solo.” Because of the intimate way he and each dancer collaborated to bring each piece to life, Wenders was able to document the choreography in a multi-dimensional way without compromising the stage direction of Pina’s original work. “I had the liberty to choreograph the camera in response to what they were dancing, and outdoors we really could shoot from 360 degrees – which of course was not possible on stage, because we really had respected that fact that Pina had directed her choreography towards the audience.”
Having simultaneously navigated both a formerly impenetrable stage and the untested waters of 3D, Wenders said that the experience whetted his appetite for shooting films using the technology. “I must say I was extremely lucky I was introduced to 3D by dance, because the film needed it, and there was this beautiful affinity between the subject and the technology,” he admitted. “And as much as I enjoyed the experience, anything I would do from now on would have to find that affinity and find that necessity that we had for Pina. And I’m determined to find it, because I don’t want to go back.” That said, he observed that 3D must be used in a specific way that enhances the experience, both viscerally and artistically.
“I love this medium and the language, and it’s not obvious how you can apply it to storytelling,” Wenders said. “I think not many films have shown that it is necessary and it really brings something to the table. So I’m working on a fictional film, and I’m also working on a long-term documentary I want to do in the next few years, and both projects are in 3D.” Nevertheless, Wenders said that even after successfully producing an engaging film in 3D with “Pina,” the format will provide ongoing challenges not just to him but filmmakers in general as they incorporate it into the artistic process, and not just the commercial one.
“I can tell from the preparation and from the writing process [of my films] that it’s not obvious,” he confessed. “Not just me, but filmmakers have to crack the code to start thinking in 3D - and make it so that it is populist and it’s not just a commercial thing put upon it.”
“Pina” is in New York theaters now and opens up in Los Angeles on January 20. Trailer below if you haven't seen yet.