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.