One of the most celebrated German film directors working today, Wim Wenders is known for both fiction and documentaries, from his classic The American Friend to Pina, which uses 3-D technology to capture dance in a way never seen before. He talks with Playboy Contributing Editor James Franco about how a cold apartment got him his start, how he inadvertently saved Dennis Hopper’s life and what’s next in his career.
FRANCO: How did you become a filmmaker?
WENDERS: I was 19, in Paris, a painter’s assistant in a tiny room without heat. That’s how I found the Cinémathèque Française. You paid one franc, and it showed six films daily. I saw Japanese, African and German classics. A retrospective of Anthony Mann’s work taught me what filmmaking was all about—and I was there only to spend time in his warmth. After a while that was it. Painting was only half as interesting as film. I sold my Selmer saxophone to buy a camera and never touched the saxophone again, out of sheer sorrow.
FRANCO: What did you shoot?
WENDERS: Mostly landscapes and cityscapes, without actors. Music provided the story. I recklessly used Hendrix and Coltrane without regard for rights. The editing was exhilarating, and that kick made me become a filmmaker, seeing how music could make sense of the imagery.
FRANCO: How did your film The American Friend come about?
WENDERS: I read Patricia Highsmith religiously. I decided to write her to ask for the rights to my favorite book. I wrote letter after letter, and she kept replying, “Sorry, young man, an American studio has the rights,” for film after film. So I visited her. She wanted to know why I was so desperate to film her stories. I guess I checked out, because she brought me a manuscript even her agent didn’t have yet, Ripley’s Game. I wrote the script and cast Dennis Hopper.
FRANCO: Was this during his wild time?
WENDERS: It was his worst time. He shot Apocalypse Now before we filmed. I picked him up from the airport with an open wound on his leg, on every drug imaginable, not recognizing me or why he was there. We were shooting three days later. He forgot lines, but he knew scenes and played it damn good. It was one of the first American films for Bruno Ganz, a theater actor par excellence, and this drugged-up asshole was farting and making up his lines. Bruno was horrified. He didn’t speak English well, and on the second day Dennis gave Bruno an answer he didn’t understand, so Bruno hit him in the face right there. They were on the floor, with blood and ripped costumes. I was so pissed I said, “Let them fight outside. I don’t give a fuck.” They arrived the next morning piss drunk, arm in arm, and something amazing happened. Dennis became a serious, sober actor. Bruno improvised. They became best friends. Dennis said it himself: We saved his life. And he was damn good. But Patricia disagreed. I showed her the film, and she looked at me afterward, shook my hand and left. That was one of the worst moments of my life. The film was successful, though, and she later wrote me, saying she had gone to a packed theater on the Champs-Élysées, and apologized: “I understand what you did now, and your Dennis Hopper is closer to any Ripley on screen ever before.”
FRANCO: How did you approach your documentary Pina to capture a dance performance on screen?
WENDERS: Before I saw Pina Bausch perform Café Müller, I found dance boring, but that night I wept like a baby. I couldn’t believe dance could touch me so deeply. We became close friends. She asked me to make a film with her dance, and I said, “Of course—but fuck, how?” Every dance film I saw had the same problem: The dance wasn’t the best part. I told her I wasn’t ready, and our gag for 20 years was that I needed a little more time. Then I saw a 3-D film in 2007, and that was the tool I’d been missing. It was too late, though. We took too long to get our cameras and crew, and she passed away shortly after we began filming. I sent everyone home, in shock, but the dancers came back: “Shouldn’t we do this in spite of everything? Pina would have wanted you to go on.” And we did it as an homage to her.
FRANCO: What films are you interested in making going forward?
WENDERS: I’m 67. Choices about what I make are more urgent now. I’m questioning the films I made spontaneously, asking myself how I should spend my remaining time. I’m drawn to reality-driven film now. Fiction is beautiful, but I enjoy fiction rooted in what I can feel and know. Film is generally becoming more fantastical, which doesn’t interest me. I find myself asking, What is real? What are we here for? What are we doing?
FRANCO: We’ll be working together on your next film, Every Thing Will Be Fine, which will use 3-D in a realistic way. Why does 3-D appeal to you?
WENDERS: I’m convinced 3-D can immerse audiences in the real world, even in intimate stories like this film. It brings audiences closer to actors, to how we deal with pain and life. We’re creating new realms of intimacy and presence with this technology. But the volume of the actors is more present in 3-D; their figure becomes a landscape in itself, so actors must find a new kind of acting. It’s untapped wealth. Many are looking for the secret formula. I’ll give it a shot, and eventually we’ll crack the code.