Wim Wenders:The Lingering Auteur

When François Truffaut first coined the auteur theory in 1954, chances are he had no idea the impact his critique would have on the modern film-viewing world.

Truffaut believed that the body of work of a particular director reflected his or her personal vision, and while there are a select few contemporary directors who epitomize what it means to be an auteur, Wim Wenders is definitely on this notable list.

Wenders has been making movies for nearly 40 years. He has directed 45 projects, written and produced many of them. At the age of 60, he shows no sign of slowing down. As he prepares for the March release of his latest film, the revisionist western Don’t Come Knocking, MM spoke with Wenders about collaborating with Sam Shepard, both on-screen and off.

Lily Percy, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): 1984’s Paris, Texas was written by Sam Shepard but Don’t Come Knocking marks the first time that you have collaborated with him on-screen. How did that come about?

Wim Wenders (WW): To work with Sam as an actor was an old dream of mine. It didn’t work out on Hammett 25 years ago, for which I shot a screen test with Sam (with Gene Hackman as his partner). The studio was scared to have an unknown in the lead and refused to follow my suggestion (Sam had not yet appeared in a movie. Days of Heaven came out before Hammett, and it made Sam an instant movie star. At least that proved that Sam could have handled the part).

When we wrote Paris,Texas together, I always assumed that Sam would play Travis in the end. But he steadfastly refused, with the argument that he knew the character too well as a writer and therefore couldn’t also play him. And then Harry Dean Stanton was so good that he eventually made me forget my initial desire.

With Don’t Come Knocking, things were different from the beginning. Sam very much wanted to play the part, and he practically wrote it for himself. While we were working together on the script, I realized how different Howard was going to be from anything Sam had ever done before. He had played jet pilots, farmers, lawyers, generals and cowboys, but never a tragicomic man like the one I saw shaping up on these pages. I must have been worried because one day I asked Sam if he thought he could handle the comedy aspect of the character. He thought about it and then said: “How would I know? Nobody ever offered me a part like that.”

My concerns were soon blown away when we started shooting. Sam didn’t push the funny aspects of the character, but played Howard very subtly and with a dry humor. I couldn’t have been happier. This way, I also had the writer on the set, and Sam never minded if I asked him for rewrites, for his own part or any of the others. He was a very dedicated actor, always disciplined and always there for the acting partners. No ego problems, no “star behavior” whatsoever. He trusted me as the director just as much as I trusted him as the writer.

MM: You also collaborated on the story for Don’t Come Knocking with Shepard, a process that took more than three years. What was the writing process like?

WW: I don’t think anybody writes like Sam—and I don’t just mean the result. (His dialogue is just a dream come true for actors. The words come out of their mouths so naturally, effortlessly and unaffectedly, as if they had just come up with them themselves.) I’m really talking about the writing process. I have worked with a lot of screenwriters, novelists and poets, but nobody approaches a script like Sam. First of all: He doesn’t think in plot terms. “The story” is of secondary interest to him. His primary interest is the characters. Who are they? What drives them? That’s all Sam needs to know. And then he starts with the first scene and writes the entire script in chronological order. One scene after another, and you are never allowed to jump forward.

He types the pages on his old manual typewriter, I sit at the table with him and once he’s finished a scene, I read it and we discuss it and make changes, if necessary. Then the inevitable question comes up: What next? No, not the next couple of scenes, and not an overview of the events to follow, just the very next scene. Nothing else. We discuss the possibilities, until Sam feels comfortable with it, and then he starts writing. I sit there, and as a director I can’t help thinking ahead and imagine all sorts of things to happen next, while Sam is typing. But then I read the new pages, and everything I saw in my head just bursts like a bubble.

You need to have a lot of patience for this sequential approach. It’s almost as if you lived the entire story… We never worked longer than a week or 10 days at a time, but those stretches were very intense. We wrote the script over a period of more than three years, in Minnesota, Calgary, Los Angeles, New York or on the road. After we finished half of it once, we decided we had painted ourselves into a corner and started from scratch. We wrote it all over again, eliminated some characters and added some others. Only when we finally had come to the end did we allow ourselves to think of the whole and then rework some of it and think of the entire story in dramaturgical terms.

MM: On the film’s official Website, you describe the movie as “a farce, a family story, and a road movie.” These three themes can be found in many of your films but the latter description, that of “the road movie,” is the most apparent, both in Don’t Come Knocking and many of your past films. What exactly defines a road movie for you and why is it so significant?

WW: Well, I don’t think I ever defined any other film of mine as a “farce.” Sam found that word one day, when we were wondering ourselves what genre our project might belong to. I didn’t really know what a farce was, and only found one book about that dramatic category. It turned out to be a boring and scholarly book, so I didn’t finish it and actually still don’t quite know what makes a film farcical.

I know, however, what a road movie is. I discovered very early on, with my first short films—this feeling deepened with my first feature films—that shooting while being on the road just came naturally to me. When I remained in one place, I just got stuck. When I continued traveling, everything developed smoothly, almost all by itself. It felt like an itinerary was just as important as a script, or even more so.

I made Kings of the Road without any script whatsoever, strictly with a certain road map in mind. To put it more intellectually: The act of filming seemed so inclined to be on the move itself—the term “moving pictures” was, after all, the initial description of our craft. For me, “moving” translated both to literally going from one place to another as well as being emotionally moved. Being on the road still seems like a state of grace to me. You’re more awake, more curious, almost in a feverish state of mind. Anything can happen and everything is open. That’s what I liked so much about westerns growing up. These guys never seemed to worry much about where they were going, as long as the journey continued. Maybe that’s also the main reason why Don’t Come Knocking resembles that genre so much. Sure, it is not a real western—it is a contemporary story and people drive cars—but the western looms behind our film and everything it is about. After all, that is the only genre that deals primarily with the question: Where do I belong? No other film genre deals so much with the issues of “home” and “identity.”

MM: Music has always been one of your great loves and you have often collaborated with renowned musicians on your films—from U2 to Willie Nelson. On Don’t Come Knocking, T-Bone Burnett, whom you previously worked with on Until the End of the World, serves as the film’s composer. How do you choose the music for your films, or does it choose you?

WW: That is a good way of putting it, because I never feel like I actually choose the music. That would make it an accessory, an “ingredient” of the film. But music is so much more. For me, it’s really part of what the film is about. Like the characters or the landscape, music is an essential element that drives the very desire to make that film.

For Don’t Come Knocking, I had T-Bone in mind from the very start. In fact, T-Bone flew with me to Minnesota when I first approached Sam with the idea for the film. The two of them go back a long time, to the mid seventies. T-Bone was Dylan’s guitarist on the Rolling Thunder Tour, and Sam was the chronicler of that legendary event. T-Bone has actually written some music before for a couple of Sam’s plays and I knew that T-Bone would just be the ideal composer-singer-songwriter for this project. He has a unique voice and talent and has produced other people very successfully, including soundtracks like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (His work for Walk the Line was also tremendous and why that was not nominated for the Oscar escapes me.)

Bono had suggested writing [the film’s theme song], but it seemed unlikely that this would ever happen as U2 was busy with their Vertigo tour and Bono was involved in Live Aid, the ONE campaign and all sorts of political activities. But then, just when I had given up hope, he and Edge came through and recorded “Don’t Come Knocking” as a duet with Bono and Andrea Corr, from The Corrs.

MM: As a director, you are known for your lingering shots and beautiful cinematography; there is a stillness to your form of visual storytelling that is uniquely your own. In a society that seems to relish quick jump cuts and fast-paced editing, how do you stay true to your vision?

WW: I first read that I was famous for my lingerie shots… Didn’t quite sound like me. Don’t Come Knocking is certainly a rather “classic” film, with its painterly visual style and its rather calm rhythm. The film I made before, Land of Plenty, was the very opposite—all handheld and shot digitally. But Don’t Come Knocking was made on film again, in gorgeous anamorphic Cinemascope. We shot it in some amazing landscapes, in Utah, Nevada and Montana, and the city of Butte, Montana contributed a lot to the film’s look. That forgotten town feels like one giant studio for Edward Hopper and I really didn’t have to push hard to evoke this great “cinematographic” painter.

How to stay true to your vision? A tall question. It helps if you have final cut and if you decide yourself what projects you’re involved in. I gave up the idea long ago to make big-budget movies. The more money you have, the less freedom you have to really say what you want to say. Sure, you can do a lot with $100 million, but your hands are tied…

I had control over each of my films and produced them all myself, ever since I worked as a hired hand in the studio system for Hammett. That experience taught me that my profession was that of an independent director—that I was a European filmmaker, not an American one—and that it was more important to do what I was good at instead of going for the big bucks.

MM: Writer, photographer, producer, and director—is there any one art form that you have yet to explore that you still dream of conquering?

WW: Not really. I feel very privileged to be able to do what I do. In fact, if I had to take a night job in order to be able to make movies during the day, I would gladly accept that. When I was young, all I ever wanted to become was a painter. And a musician. Until the day I sold my saxophone at a pawnshop in order to buy that secondhand 16mm Bolex. That was the crossroads of my life. I never regretted that decision, though.

MM: What can we look forward to next from you?

WW: I have made three films in a row, back to back, with The Soul of a Man, Land of Plenty and Don’t Come Knocking. I’ll take a break and be busy for a while strictly as a photographer. And then I will probably come up with a project in Germany. I have shot my last six or seven films in English, and it is about time to work in my own language again. MM

Top image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment. 

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