INTERVIEW: Wim Wenders Defends "Million Dollar Hotel"
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 02.07.01) -- At the opening of last year's Berlin Film Festival, which kicks off its 51st edition tonight with Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Enemy of the Gates," Wim Wenders unveiled his latest film, "The Million Dollar Hotel," the once admired German director's most criticized work. When the film received the Berlin Jury's Silver Bear prize, the audience booed. Critics, the world over, have not been kind to Wenders, or to his collaborator, U2 frontman Bono, who conceived of the mystery/love story set amidst the denizens of a Los Angeles flophouse. (The same hotel served as the location for U2's video "Where the Streets Have No Name.") Even Mel Gibson, who stars in the film and whose own company Icon Productions helped to produce it, was quoted as calling the movie "as boring as a dog's ass." Beat him while he's down, why don't you?
Perhaps the reason that Wenders has incurred so much wrath as of late is because the director's early films were so important to us; his '70s masterworks "Alice in the Cities," "The American Friend" and "Kings of the Road" helped launch the flood of that country's New Wave; and '80s art-house wonders like "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire" inspired countless other films and filmmakers. But his recent narrative works, "Faraway, So Close," "Lisbon Story," and "The End of Violence" have found mixed receptions, invoking remorse for those who once floated with Wenders' angels.
While "Buena Vista Social Club," the documentary that launched millions of CD sales in 1999, brought Wenders some acclaim, that film drew more attention for the band than the director. Not so coincidentally, it's the soundtrack for "The Million Dollar Hotel" which could be called an unequivocal success. Before the film's opening last week in New York and Los Angeles, Wenders spoke with indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman about his critics, the German New Wave, Mel Gibson, and music.
indieWIRE: It's interesting that "Million Dollar Hotel" is now opening up almost exactly a year after its Berlin premiere. It took some time, yes?
Wim Wenders: It takes some time. This one could have come out earlier. I don't think it's coming out too late. After all, it's coming out when the film takes place.
iW: I was recently speaking about the German New Wave with Volker Schlondroff. Do you feel like what you guys were doing in the '70s has informed the sort of young German renaissance we're seeing now with people like Tom Tykwer?
Wenders: I think they're making their own way. I don't think it's really based on what we did. Economically, maybe, because we recreated the film industry in Germany from nothing. But I think they're getting their formation from something else. Tom Tykwer was a projectionist for 10 years, so he saw a lot of movies. I think his formation comes more from American movies, or Hitchcock, maybe, than me or Volker or Werner Herzog. I think you always look for your influences somewhere else. I never looked in Germany; I looked at American and Japan, myself.
In a strange way, I think our movies are less responsible for the German cinema right now than they might be responsible for the rebirth of independent cinema. I think the German New Wave had a lot to do with encouraging filmmakers in other parts of the world. The American independents were heavily influenced by our movies. I think "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire" and Werner Herzog's films had a lot to do with the rebirth of American independent cinema.
iW: Would you call the films that you've made most recently American productions?
Wenders: They are strictly European productions. "End of Violence," "Buena Vista Social Club," as well as "Million Dollar Hotel" were financed through France and Germany. But in terms of content, in terms of storytelling, both "End of Violence" and "Million Dollar Hotel" are told in Los Angeles, with American actors, and are written by an American writer. So they're strange amalgams of European filmmaking and American cinema.
iW: Do you think this amalgam is a function of the way the industry works now?
Wenders: I think it's a great freedom that we have today. I think it's a great age of filmmaking, because cinema is reinventing itself in many ways. There is an incredible freedom for young filmmakers to compete with big budget movies with amateur technology and they can do almost anything. All the categories, as we speak, are breaking wide open. Amalgams are a sign of that tradition that we're in: Who would have thought of a movie made by a German director in Los Angeles, with an Australian star Mel Gibson, an actress from Russia, an actor from Sweden, written by a Canadian and conceived by an Irish guy? I think this is one of these strange amalgams and I think these amalgams definitely don't create formula films, and maybe that's one of the reasons why "Million Dollar Hotel" came out so late, because nobody knew what sort of formula it was and how they could market it.
iW: You know that critics have been bashing the film? You know this. . .
Wenders: I know this and I know the opposite: I know the people who think it's the most beautiful thing they've seen in ages. I'm not quite sure why it's this film that's polarizing opinions so much. In England, it bombed quickly; it was gone after a week and we didn't have a single good review. In Italy, it grossed more than any European film in the last few years and left big American productions in the dust and was in theaters for 6 months.
iW: What do the Italians see that the British don't?
Wenders: It's perception. The film is not cynical. And that is, in a strange way, running against a certain zeitgeist, and very much, running against the English culture of the moment that is deeply cynical. I'm not saying there's anything bad about that; it produces great things as well. But at this very moment, this film, conceived by an Irish guy -- you should have seen the reviews that were bashing Bono like there was no tomorrow -- is very polarizing because it's this innocent fairytale told amidst this Hell without any cynicism. And that is not exactly a product that a lot of people go for.
iW: When I was talking to Schlondorff, we were talking about his last film "The Ogre," which was this huge budget, sort of indulgent art-film. And then he made "Legend of Rita," which was much more stripped down. It was very positive for him to go from one to the other. Do you feel like "Million Dollar Hotel" was, at all, your "Ogre"?
Wenders: No. It's very funny that you might think that. It was the very opposite. I made the film with less anxiety and more fun on the set, with more a relaxed atmosphere. You also have to see, in terms of Hollywood, it was low budget. I had not even 10 million dollars to make it, and if you look around here, that is low budget. So the pressure was not all that big. And in a strange way, the relaxed, joyful feeling of "Buena Vista Social Club" snuck into this one. It's not a small production for me. 10 million might be considered low budget in Hollywood, but in the independent world, it's a good piece of money, especially for Europe. But under lots of other circumstances, I might have been stressed out, but I don't think I've made a film of this size in such a relaxed way. I had seven weeks to shoot this; we finished in 35 days, including Mel's part. And even with Mel, there was no stress whatsoever. I don't think he's ever shot so much in one day as he did in one of our shooting days.
iW: What's your reaction to Mel Gibson's quote about the film that has gone around? Have you talked to him since then? Has he apologized?
Wenders: In a way. He wrote me, and we talked afterwards. He said, "you know me, if there's a chance to crack a joke, I can't resist." Of course, he would do it. I can totally picture him with these Australian journalists and doing that macho joke. And he regretted it and didn't have any idea that it would be all over the place the next day. So we're both at peace.
iW: There are certain moments in the film that conjure up "Wings of Desire." Was that intentional? For instance, the flying point of view shot when we see the people in the apartment buildings.
Wenders: The script had a strange point of view, which is the narration is told in hindsight after his death. That might remind you of the point of view of the angels in "Wings of Desire," but honestly, I never thought about it. That shot you mentioned could have come from "Wings of Desire," but I think it came out of Tom Tom's character and the paradoxical situation of the view that the film is told from.
iW: What would you say to people who are going into this movie? U.S. audiences are probably going in thinking, "I heard this was bad." What would you tell them?
Wenders: I would ask them to come with an open heart and an open mind. That's all they need to be able to enter the movie. It's a movie with extraordinary performances, and it's a movie like nothing else. What other film could you describe as a "screwball tragedy"? This is the first film of that genre.
iW: Do you think you'll ever go back to Germany to make a movie?
Wenders: Eventually. At this very moment, I'm happy to be in America and to be working here. I need some distance from Germany for a while. I've spent so much time there, made a number of movies there over the last 10 years and in a way, I felt I was too much observed and categorized. And living in America gave me much more of a freedom to reinvent what I wanted to do. And as I was much involved in film politics in the '90s -- I'm still the president of the European Film Academy -- and I was teaching a lot, so I found the core of my existence was no longer filmmaking, but all sorts of other things. So I stepped away from all of that, and now I'm here and I'm strictly a filmmaker again.
iW: You're now working on something with Sam Shephard, I heard?
Wenders: Sam and I have started a script. It's the first time we've worked together since "Paris, Texas." It's in early script stage; we only have 40 pages. That's going to be the next film. I've been working on a documentary in Germany, which I finished this Spring, about a German rock band, who sing in German, which is unusual in Germany. It's based in the area I grew up, around the Rhine, based in Cologne. They're speaking and singing in a dialogue that even people in Germany can't understand. They're called Bap.
iW: You have a great interest in music. With your collaborations with U2, "Buena Vista Social Club" and now this new work, has this always been the case?
Wenders: I think it has. My first student film was dedicated to The Kinks. I've always been very pre-occupied with music. And the music for some of my films has done better than the films themselves. "The Million Dollar Hotel" soundtrack is fantastic; I really like it very much. "Until the End of the World" was a hugely successful soundtrack, but not such a successful movie. And "Buena Vista Social Club," I don't have to tell you about that, and "Lisbon Story" launched the career of Madredeus worldwide, although the movie remains largely unseen. So I should become a music producer.