Over the course of four decades, German filmmaker Wim Wenders has directed more than 30 feature-length films of all different types. There’s the Palme d’Or-winning “Paris, Texas,” the Criterion-minted “Wings of Desire,” and he’s a three-time Oscar nominee for the documentaries “Buena Vista Social Club,” the visually striking 3D “Pina,” and his upcoming film, “The Salt of the Earth,” about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, which opens this weekend (our review from Telluride).
Overshadowed to some degree by Werner Herzog, as they came of cinematic age during the 1970s German New Wave movement, Wenders has been getting his due recently thanks to a gigantic retrospective of his work at MOMA that just finished. Underappreciated gems getting a second look there were “The American Friend” starring Dennis Hopper, the director’s long form cut of “Until The End Of The World,” and the documentary about dying filmmaker Nicholas Ray, “Lightning Over Water,” to name a few.
Conspicuously absent is a film owned by Warner Bros. that could have been Wenders’ mainstream breakthrough, the moody, “Chinatown“-esque detective noir, “Hammett,” based on the fictionalized life of crime author Dashiell Hammett. In the late 1970s, after Francis Ford Coppola’s two “Godfather” movies launched him into the stratosphere, the filmmaker decided to open Zoetrope Studios, a would-be utopian haven for all kinds of filmmakers to create their own projects. One of the filmmakers Coppola handpicked to join him at the studio was Wenders, who was soon hired to direct the Zoetrope-produced “Hammett” (even Jean-Luc
Godard briefly had a Bugsy Siegel project set up there that he would
never make). The movie starred Frederic Forrest, who Coppola was convinced was a star after “Apocalypse Now,” despite featuring in his flop “One From The Heart.”
While “Hammett” was selected as part of the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, the film was met with a thud of a response from critics and moviegoers, and was quickly forgotten (a barebones DVD exists, but it too has mostly been disregarded). “Hammett” has fallen into that weird gray era of cinematic lore where speculation takes over due to lack of information, and the legend of “Hammett” is that Coppola took the film away from Wenders and reshot the entire picture himself without credit. There’s even a 2008 AV Club story that states as a kind of fact, “by the time the final version was released in 1982, only 30 percent of Wenders’ footage remained, and the rest was completely reshot by Coppola, whose mere ‘executive producer’ credit is just a technicality.”
We’re always intrigued by these kinds of stories and legends, so when we spoke to Wenders late last year for a lengthy conversation about “The Salt Of The Earth,” we couldn’t help but ask about what exactly happened with “Hammett.” The digression turned into a long tangent on what really happened, and it should be said there were no traces of bitterness on his part. We thought we’d excise that portion of the interview below. The rest of our Wenders/”Salt Of The Earth” conversation will run later this week.
You talked about not only avoiding studio gigs, but shooting on a film stage. But you did both on “Hammett” and that’s puzzled me for many years. What happened there? It sounds like there’s a story there that I’m not sure has ever been accurately told.
In a nutshell, “Hammett” was shot twice. The first film was shot entirely on location in San Francisco only. Not a single second in the studio, everything on location in real places in San Francisco. The studio didn’t like it. There wasn’t too much action, too much time was dedicated to Hammett the writer and not enough to Hammett the detective. He became a writer out of necessity because he became sick and couldn’t work as a detective anymore. He decided to write about his experiences and in that idea “Hammett” was based. So my first shoot was strictly set in San Francisco and really based on the actual character of Hammett. The studio didn’t like it, they thought it was too slow and they wanted more of the fantasy and the detective.
Some fantasy noir kind of thing? That’s what the final product looks like; which obviously is shot in a studio set and doesn’t look that different from Coppola’s films of that era.
Yeah. In the final product ten shots survived from my original shoot: only exteriors. Because there wasn’t much money left, and I was too stubborn to drop it and or say, “Well then let somebody else do it.” Francis [Ford Coppola] was too stubborn to fire me so we stuck it out and we respected each other in spite of all the conflicts. So I ended up shooting the second version as well. That was entirely in one sound stage. The whole shoot never saw the light of day, except for a couple of shots from the first, maybe 5% of the film from the first version.
What was that experience like? Shooting in that controlled environment?
I realized that I was never going to do it again. I realized I was never going to make a movie in a studio and I realized I was never going to make a film where I’m not the producer and have never ever since made a movie as a hired hand.
I think it’s ironic that “the studio” in this case was Zoetrope—
Not quite the studio, Orion was financing it. The money came from Orion, but Zoetrope was producing it.
I see, because it sounds like Zoetrope had a lot of problems too and I guess it was the late ‘70s and they were supposed to be filmmaker friendly, but I don’t know what happened there.
It was a great plan, Francis had a great plan and it went against the wall. The wall was that the entire Hollywood community didn’t want him to succeed. They thought it was too ambitious, too highbrow.
Was it a threat?
It was probably a threat to them, Hollywood. And there were too many people who wanted him and Zoetrope to fail. Francis did his best also to make it more complicated because — and I can say as someone who is still a friend: I think Francis was too much of a director himself so he didn’t really delegate enough. He wanted to have a hand in all the projects and there were lots of projects. I had my studio next door to David Lynch; his movie never got made…there were a lot of great people on the lot, but Francis…he really wanted to be able to discuss every detail with everybody. As a studio boss you have to delegate. They didn’t produce even half of the films they wanted to produce. And in the end it went down the drain because everybody in Hollywood wanted it to go down the drain. That’s the way I felt when I left the lot, a lot of people were eager to find out, or report that it didn’t work. But it was too ambitious. I think it was too utopian, really.
Not to belabor the point too much, but would we ever see your cut? Did you finish a cut of the first film? There’s a whole other film out there.
I finished it. Yep, I finished it.
Did it ever see the light of day?
It was destroyed. It doesn’t exist now.
That’s a shame.
They only kept a cut negative, everything else is junked. Which I found out really late and I don’t know who was to blame. I don’t know. Anyway, I was very disappointed. At one point I suggested to Zoetrope that I could finish [that version] and wouldn’t it be an interesting case study to present the two films? They said, “Oh yeah, that’s interesting, let’s find out,” and then eventually the guy who was responsible for this did the whole inventory and said, “I’m sorry we couldn’t find your film.”
That’s too bad, it would be amazing to time travel like that and finally see that unseen version.
It was really — it was an amazing little thing because a lot of people did their last work on that shoot that doesn’t exist anymore. There was a lot of great actors who were in that first shoot who did their last film and it never came out [ed. actors like Ronee Blakley and Brian Keith, who were later replaced by played by Marilu Henner and Peter Boyle, left the film because of its lengthy production].
“The Salt of The Earth” hits theaters in limited release on March 27th. More from this interview soon.