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Berlin: Wim Wenders on the Trap of Awards, His Approach to 3D and His Love for James Franco

Berlin: Wim Wenders on the Trap of Awards, His Approach to 3D and His Love for James Franco

German filmmaker Wim Wenders has attended the Berlin International Film Festival countless times before, but this year marks a special homecoming for the Berlin-based master. Wenders not only has his new film, the 3D drama “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” screening out of competition at the event, but he’s also the recipient of this year’s Golden Bear award for his remarkable body of work. In honor of the achievement, the festival is screening 10 of his films, including 1984 Palme d’Or winner “Paris, Texas” and his latest documentary, the Oscar-nominated “The Salt of the Earth.” New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is following suit by hosting a career retrospective that launches in March (more information can be found here).

Ahead of the world premiere of “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” Indiewire sat down with Wenders in Berlin to discuss his legacy.

Are you one to frequently revisit your work? You no doubt supervised the restoration for your old films, but do you like to revisit them?
I have nothing against it because it’s better that I do it than somebody else. In a way it’s a privilege. Most restorations are done afterwards in the absence of the director. All of Fassbinder’s films were done afterwards. Of course restoration applies to movies that are 100 years old where the director is already dead, but historians quarrel about whether it’s well done or not and in this case you actually have the intention of the director. I did it with great pleasure because it allowed these movies to have a future. Some of them had no future. Some negatives were a sheer horror to hold in your hands and see the damage that was done. So these films now have a future that doesn’t need me. They are their own and they can take care of themselves because that’s what the foundation does. 
A lot of these films will be screening here and at MoMA, but aren’t available on DVD. I’ve heard rumors that the Criterion Collection is working with you to release a lot of your old work. 
Criterion has already done great work with a few of my films. They did the Blu-ray restoration for “Wings of Desire.” At the time, three years ago, it wasn’t yet visible that we could one day do a 4K restoration, but there are the pioneers of their time and they take great pride in what they do and they’re the best at what they do. I’m happy that we’re associated with them for some of the other films as well.
One that we’re definitely going to release soon is one that has been lost, “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.” That’s been unavailable for 35 years or so. We have so many now I don’t know where to start. “The American Friend” will be released in its old glory. I think that’s the next two. “Alice in the Cities” took the longest time because it was the most damaged. It was shot on 16mm and in the ’70s we made over 100 prints of that negative and it was shredded to pieces. That was the toughest and longest process. All of them will eventually be released.
You’re as busy as ever and yet you’re here receiving a lifetime achievement award. Is it a strange sensation to be honored for your lifetime body of work when you’re still creating?
I think I’ve found a good solution to that dilemma by showing a new film. The award is really for these films and the body of work I’ve done. A lot of films I started quite early. My first film I started at the age of 24, so there are a lot of them. I look at this Golden Bear as an award for the films and the work, not for me personally. I always had a hard time thinking anything was personal. It’s for what you do, not for who you are. I never took this honor for me, I always took it as for the work that I did. 
Have you always felt that way in regards to the Palme d’Or and all the awards you’ve won? 
I learned to look at it like this because if you fall into the trap and think that any award will make you a better person or director, it’s totally wrong. You must not mistake them for anything other than respect for the work you’ve done. They don’t mean anything for your life or for who you are. You have to know who you are and having the award won’t change that. 
How did you come to this realization?
The turning point was very difficult. It was the highest award I got when I was young, which was the Golden Palme, and that made me realize how much expectations it creates. After that it was like, “OK, this kid from Germany got the Golden Palme and his film is very successful, now please continue doing stuff like that.” It really brought me to a grinding halt creatively. For the next movie I made, only three years later, by choice I made it the most opposite film I could imagine, and that was “Wings of Desire.” I thought they would tear me to pieces for it because there was nothing like it, but at least I knew I didn’t owe it to anyone’s expectations. Awards have that danger that they can create expectations, and of course the world is done this way — anyone who does something successful, be it a musician, painter or writer, immediately everyone wants them to continue doing what they do. But I never wanted to continue doing what I was doing just because I knew how to do it. I think that’s an incredible temptation and also a terrible trap. 
You continue to subvert expectations. It’s impossible to predict what you’ll do next.
I really don’t want to know myself. Some of the documentaries I’ve done have been spur of the moment from one day to the other. That’s why I love them so much. In the documentary field you can do that. In the fictional field, the way movies are financed today and sold, you have to have a script and you have to have a concept. You have to develop it so it can never be as spontaneous as documentaries. I was able to work in the ’70s with half a page of the script to start with. With “Kings of the Road” we had half a script, just the basis of the plot. “Wings of the Desire” was done without any script. Today that is practically impossible because financing is no longer from one source. You need lots of funding and co-productions. A fictional film needs a different kind of commitment. You can no longer just say you have these great ideas and I want to start tomorrow [laughs]. But in documentaries you can.

What inspired “Every Thing Will Be Fine”?
It is a very rare thing for me because this is only the second time in my life that I got a script, read it and liked it. I get lots of scripts but I never make any of them, except when Bono sent me the first draft of “Million Dollar Hotel” and I was hooked.
This one I got sent by a young original writer who I had once met at the Sundance Lab where I was heading a jury for scripts and the winning script was awarded $100,000. The winning script, “Nowhere Man,” was extraordinary and I really loved it and it actually got made because of that very first instigation. At the time I told the young writer that whenever he had a new script to send it to me, not actually for me but because maybe I could help him. I really thought he had what it took. He was unusual and wrote really great dialogue and I had a feeling for his characters. Of course, as these things go, I forgot about him and than three or four years later he sent me a script in the mail. I had a first look at it and I remembered it was him. I read it and I liked it. I gave it to my producing partner and he read it as well and called me saying it was the best script we’ve ever been sent. I totally agreed, and he told me I should consider doing it. We were already working on “Pina” but I had nothing lined up afterwards and that started the whole thing.
We worked on it for a couple years and we went into several periods where we just secluded ourselves and wrote. As it started before “Pina,” and over the course of “Pina,” I got to fall in love with this 3D language and I figured we could use it for drama. I thought it had great potential for intimate drama. I realized the story we were writing had everything it took in order to be shot very intimately with a really heightened presence of the actors, which is just what 3D does. Everyone is talking about depth, and of course 3D has depth, but the really striking thing is the increased presence of things and people. We decided we’d do everything in 3D from the very beginning. I thought at the time when we were going to make this film, and it was clear it would take a couple of years to finance, but I thought when it would be done that we’d be in a landscape of many films like it. I really was an optimist as far as the future of 3D is concerned. I thought it would really catch on and that it was too good too be true. But now we’re here and they have to build 3D equipment for the festival because we’re the only one. In the years since “Pina,” it’s only really been me and Jean-Luc Godard — in his own stubborn way — who have used 3D for drama. 
The 3D revolution that James Cameron’s “Avatar” promised never really happened. Hollywood’s disappointed on that front by not being creative with the medium in the ways you and Cameron are.
It’s their own fault. Cameron had a great vision, a fantastic vision. He didn’t think it would only lead to action blockbusters. “Avatar” has great intimate elements. We are able to shoot a little different than American studios; our 3D has a different approach. A method we’re applying is called natural depth, and it’s much more physiologically based than the action movies where the effect is all it’s about. For us, all it’s about is you forget it. It has to be natural and has to try to mimic what two eyes do, and that is a much softer approach. 
Can’t wait to see how it’s employed. About James Franco who stars in “Every Thing Will Be Fine” — he seems like a kindred spirit to you in terms of his restless artistic nature and willingness to experiment. Is that what drew you to him to collaborate on this film?
I thought he was an utterly courageous man for doing all that he was doing in all of these creative fields. He doesn’t really give so much about career thoughts, he just does want he wants to do in terms of his film choices and the variety he attacks. I really had high respect for that. When I met him he didn’t really have much time to see me because he was going to teach for the entire afternoon, so we only met briefly, but I asked if I could actually go with him. I had been a teacher for over 20 years and I was interested. I went to it and listened to the students and by the end we were doing it together, and I realized this was a very generous person and this was really a young man of a spirit I really loved. That’s remained in our relationship. He’s audacious and courageous. He has great heart. He teaches this advanced class on script writing, and the idea is that they will shoot it. I’m not sure if they actually do. 
You always seem to have something in the works, so what’s next for you following Berlin?
I did these two films overlapping – “Salt of the Earth” and “Every Thing Will Be Fine.” Whenever I didn’t have to work on one, I would work on the other. I’ve worked my ass for the last four years. I have nothing planned after this, and given all these retrospective and events, it’ll be a very busy year.

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