The making of Wim Wenders’ “PINA” is dramatic enough to be a movie in its own right. From the director’s conversion from dance dismisser to Pina Bausch acolyte, to the 20-year journey toward production that nearly ended with the choreographer’s unexpected death, it’s an extraordinary story. And in 3D, no less.
Indiewire caught up with Wenders in Manhattan during October’s New York Film Festival to discuss his affinity to Bausch’s work and how their collaboration came to be. IFC opens “PINA” in limited release December 23.
When and where did you first meet Pina?
The year was 1985. The place was Venice, Italy. I did my best to avoid it. I had no intention to spend to couple of nights I spent in Italy in a theater in the evening to watch dance. I really had no intention. I had seen some dance before and it never particularly touched me. So my girlfriend, when she saw this poster and said we have to go see Pina Bausch and “Café Muller” tonight, I said no. Include me out, you can go. Dance is not for me.
She was persistent so I finally caved in, convinced it was going to be a boring night. But it became a night that changed my life. Not many nights in my life have marked me like this. Sitting on the edge of my seat, weeping uncontrollably and not knowing what was happening to me. My body knew it, but my brain had trouble understanding it.
I did not dangle backstage; I was so overwhelmed and so beside myself. I just stumbled out of the theater as if I was hit by a truck. But two days later I met [Pina] in a coffee shop by the theater. After the show, I prolonged our stay in Venice for as long as the retrospective lasted and I saw each and every piece of hers. That was heavy-duty dose of Pina Bausch. Every night confirmed that this was something very big that I was introduced to.
We met for 10 minutes. We didn’t talk; I talked, she listened. And I’m not much of talker, but if somebody just sits there and looks at you, you just have to talk. And the way Pina looked at me was amazing. I never had a pair of eyes on me like that before. I felt she really looked right through me. She saw through me, as you say. And in my juvenile enthusiasm, I blabbered on that eventually we would have to make a movie together. She didn’t say anything. She just lit another cigarette and smiled.
When I met her the second time a year later, she recognized me and she said, “Last time you mentioned a movie. That’s an interesting idea.” And then we started to talk about it. It was Pina who started pushing for it. That’s when I got into trouble, because when I finally sat down to imagine what a film would look like that the two of us would do, I realized I had no idea how to do it. I mean I know how to do movies, but I realized I had no idea how to film Pina’s work. I thought, “What can my cameras do in order to capture her work?”
I was desperate, because I didn’t know. I could imagine all sorts of shots, but none of it I thought was good enough. Whatever I would do, something essential was going to get lost. Like I was shooting through some invisible wall. I couldn’t find a way to go through that wall. Pina knew about the invisible wall, because she was involved in a couple TV productions of her pieces and they disenchanted her. The pressure was on.
I looked at every dance film in history because I thought somebody found the solution. And I realized there has always been a problem between dance and film. I mean there are a lot of fantastic dance films, but they always had a plot and a great story. In order for “Pina” to work, I didn’t want to have to wrap a story around it. I wanted to film the essence of the work. For 20 years we met every year, quite often during the year. Each time we met, her question was “Do you know now? Are we ready?”
Pina was so sure there was an appropriate way. I finally found it in a place I’d never looked, a new technology. No one I had ever talked to about dance had ever mentioned the possibility of shooting in 3D. There were a few years of 3D frenzy in the ’50s and ’60s and then it had shown up in the late ’80s, but it was useless.
Only when I saw this the 3D concert film from U2, I realized that finally there was a tool that would enable me to break that wall and take me into the very realm of dance. That was the eureka moment. I called Pina from the theater and said, “I’m ready to do the movie now. Get ready.”
In the summer of 2007 we started to really plan with pre-production and write a concept for what we would do together.
When you called her after 20 years saying you were finally ready to do the movie, in 3D, how did she react?
She had never seen any 3D, and actually when we started prep it, I was happy that she didn’t know anything. I just felt that the possibility that was the inbuilt affinity between 3D and dance; I knew it was going to work. But I couldn’t prove it to anybody. But my enthusiasm worked.
We planned to shoot for about half a year. Shoot rehearsal and then shoot the company and Pina on a journey to South America as well as South East Asia. It was sort of a road movie, but the backbone was always going to be these four pieces. Those we selected in 2007.
And then eventually I had to show Pina what it would look like. We were loading the trucks in June of 2009, to have one last conclusive test with the dancers on stage. The trucks were being loaded. I was sitting in the office in Berlin to discuss the details of the shoot and that’s when the call came in that Pina has died overnight.
And that of course was the end of the entire thing. It was so much a common project, so much that something that was centered around Pina that I pulled the plug. Half an hour later I called everyone saying, “We’re not making the movie anymore. I mean Pina is dead, what’s the point.”
The film was finished, as far I was concerned. I couldn’t make it anymore.
The dancers performed the night they heard. They went on stage and they played because they knew Pina would have expected that of them. Eventually they decided to continue to as a company. That was the turning point, in September of 2009; we started to rehearse these four pieces. At that moment I understood that making the film was the right decision.
How did the film mutate after the passing of Pina, compared to what you two initially planned to make?
It would have been an entirely different film. There was a big concept and there were these journeys. Pina would have allowed us to shoot the next day after each public performance when she did corrections, which was 4 to 5 hours of going through each performance and discussing each tiny little flaw.
Pina was never a perfectionist. Pina was a perfectionist in a different way. Her perfection was honesty. She wanted each dancer to be completely himself or herself. She didn’t want them to play any parts. The pieces, they develop them together. So Pina always sensed if someone was starting to fake it. That was an amazing process to see. To see them do it, not fake it.
We would have traveled with her on two big tours, so that was going to be the film. That film is of course obsolete. I realized I could still make a film about her eyes, by asking her dancers about her eyes, which they had on them for 30 years. Applying Pina’s own method, they would answer with dance and not with words. That slowly became the film that we made together.
In filming the dance sequences, how did you gauge a dancer’s truthfulness and bring out that honesty that Pina seeked in their work?
It was in a way the biggest part of my job: To make sure that they weren’t being impressed by the cameras. There’s a great temptation to play in the presence of the camera. It was amazing how little they succumbed to it.
For each of the performances, I had one or two of the dancers watch it with me. I needed a more experienced look next to mine, because there were things and details that I just couldn’t see. I mean I learned a lot in the time we spent together, but I’m not a choreographer.
The entire work was built on trust between Pina and the dancers.