Wim Wenders has always been one to take the road less traveled—stylistically, if not literally. The German filmmaker (Buena Vista Social Club, Piña, The Salt of the Earth) is more recently known for his breathtaking documentaries and innovative 3D indie films, but what put him on the map over 40 years ago were his atypical road trip movies. Now, those movies—many of them newly restored—are coming to New York’s IFC Center as a retrospective series titled Portraits Along the Road. Films in the series include: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971), Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975), Kings of the Road (1976), The American Friend (1977), The State of Things (1982), Paris, Texas (1984), Tokyo-Ga (1985), Wings of Desire (1987), Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989), the director’s cut of Until the End of the World (1991), and Buena Vista Social Club (1999).
Wenders’ past as a painter and photographer heavily informs the nature of these films—there are many long stretches of scenic shots—while his almost documentary-style approach (which includes improvised acting and directing), informs his future filmography. Through these movies, he explores more than 15 cities, taking his characters on existential journeys. Ahead of the retrospective (Aug. 28–Sept. 24), Collider sat down with Wenders to look back at his road movies, talk about things he would have done differently, and reflect on that epic, 295-minute cut of Until the End of the World. He also told us what it was like working with James Franco on the upcoming Every Thing Will Be Fine.
COLLIDER: First of all, congratulations. You’ve had a wonderful career and looking back to some of your earlier works, how do you feel with this retrospective coming?
WIM WENDERS: Well, I can say I’m not responsible because I can’t say I was the young man that did some of these movies. Some of them are by now forty-five years old. I think that’s the oldest. Forty-four, I do not exaggerate. So it’s not exactly the same person you see right in front of you, but then again I restore the films and I had to come to terms with the fact that it was me when I was young. Sometimes it was a little scary and I was wondering what I was thinking and sometimes it was the opposite, I was wondering how I did this and how I could come up with it because I felt I wouldn’t have that in me anymore, so it was both positive and negative sometimes. But then again, I accept the blame, and I wanted to restore the films because I feel they have a life of their own independent from me. Some of them have found a way in people’s minds and hearts so they live there. I feel they should not only exist as historic stuff. When you go into the movie theater and repertory theater you see an old film and it starts and it’s scratchy and the sound is bad and it sounds historic, it gives a different perspective on the movie than if you see it in mint print and it’s beautiful and it’s like new and you accept it as something that’s part of life, and I like to see movies much more this way.
In the digitized way?
WENDERS: Yes. I don’t like it if you scenes missing because it jumps and you can’t really hear every line and there’s bad scratches over people’s faces. It’s like listening to music on old scratched records.
You don’t like the scratch?
WENDERS: No. Well, I treated my LPs relatively well, but given the choice to hear music really well and hear it on my old LPs, at any given moment hear it out the better, because I want to hear the music, I don’t want to hear the form in which it was preserved. I’m happy that at least twelve of these films are seen as if you could watch a festival print of the time. The first film I ever shot in New York was The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. I was here as a young man, I came in January of 1972, and I was the first new director’s season at the MoMA and the film looked really well. It was one of our first prints. When I saw the film again last year, it was one of the surviving prints and it was a disaster. When we looked at the negative, all of the colors were faded and we just restored it in the knick of time so we can still make it look like it was at the beginning, and it was such a good feeling that the film could at least look again like it looked here in 1972.
What did people say about it back then? Do you remember?
WENDERS: Oh, it got great reviews. I had a beautiful review by Vincent Canby. It was a discovery for people because I think they could relate to the language of the film because it was really an homage to Alfred Hitchcock but again the story was anything but Hitchcock. It was really a very existential film. There really wasn’t anything happening but an American audience could relate to the language and the story of alienation and of solitude I think. It was quite a discovery for people at the time, a film that was made by a 24-year-old German director.
Going back to some of the things that you thought were scary looking at now and things you thought were great, what were some of the specifics that came to you? Do you have notes for your old self?
WENDERS: Well, some of these old films I feel now that I was too impressed with movies I had seen and I only learned later on in my career that it was better not to refer to other movies but to refer to experiences you had on your own. The new films that were not really quoting other movies, I think I was happy with now in hindsight.
Which ones feel the most pure or personal to you?
WENDERS: The most pure is still definitely Alice in the Cities because it was my discovery of my own turf and my own territory which was the road, and the first film I made on the road and the first time I had discovered storytelling as a very free gift and not as something with a lot of rules. That film made me feel like a fish in the water and I made a number of road movies afterwards and that was really what I was known for at first in the ‘70s—I was the director of The Road Trilogy as it was called in America. So these films are still very dear to my heart because it was my discovery that I could do something that only owed to myself.
Was that birthed from your own desire to travel? Is that how it started?
WENDERS: It’s the discovery that my own desire to travel on my own, real restlessness, was something could be combined with the craft of filmmaking. The first three films I had, I had not known that, I had been a traveler, but filmmaking had been a state of resting and I had made all of these films until then in one place. And then with Alice in the Cities I discovered that you could move and that you could take your camera and get into a car and drive and get into a plane and get into a train and continue and the itinerary became synonymous with the script and that was a fantastic discovery. And until then I had felt that filmmaking was bound to one place, so I discovered that just for myself. I could have discovered from watching Westerns, or I don’t know, but I just had to discover it for myself. These films, the early road films was Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, and Wrong Move was also shown here and I still feel quite connected because that was my discovery that I had a language that really fit me, that really suited me.
And you were a painter and a photographer also. How does that affect your brain when you think about your movies? Does it at all?
WENDERS: Well, it’s all connected. Loving photography and wanting to be a painter, it all ended up in the process of filmmaking. It’s strange professionally be to connected because it connects you to architecture, it connects you to painting, it connects you to writers, to actors. It connects you to really all of the arts and there’s nothing like it. I don’t think that there is any other art that goes so much across the board. I forgot musicians. Filmmaking is really connected to life and all of the expressions that different arts found to allow access to life. Filmmaking touches on all of it.
Speaking of your original Road trilogy, with Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road—I’m going to murder his name, the man that plays Bruno in Kings of the Road…
WENDERS: Rudiger Vogler.
Rudiger Vogler! How do you establish relationships between people who are unlikely to get along? With him and Alice in Alice in the Cities, that’s a very strange road trip buddy. And again, with this man he discovers in Kings of the Road, he’s just a stranger. I know there was a lot of improvisation with the actors. How do you make sure that kind of relationship is established?
WENDERS: It all starts with wishful thinking. I think sometimes you have to just imagine something that looks pretty impossible. By imagining something that is impossible, automatically you wish you could make it possible. I think that plays in both of the movies, that you mention something that is impossible and then you think about how you could possibly approach it and all of a sudden that is the ideal first root of a film, to think of the unthinkable. And the relation of these two people in Alice in the Cities is quite unthinkable, and actually you couldn’t do it anymore. Today, if you had proposed a film where a man takes a little girl on a journey without her mother, I think it would be considered indecent or at least doubtful, and you would have dirty thoughts about it, but at the time, it was innocent, it was completely human and there was not the slightest hesitation for all of us, and that’s how times have changed.
And there’s such a trust from the character of the mother as well.
WENDERS: The truth on behalf of the mother, all of it is a little utopian it seems like today, but at the time the unthinkable became reality and that was the freedom of that little film. And the unthinkable of making a film without a script and the unthinkable of shooting in chronological order, not really knowing what you were going into the next day, the unthinkable became possible and that made the movie. And that made me as a film director because I was ready to give it up. I was ready to not continue filmmaking and becoming a painter again, because I figured as a painter I could always do what I wanted, but as a filmmaker if I could only repeat what others had done already, it wasn’t gonna be worth it. And Alice in the Cities proved to me that it was worth it. That was my beginning as a filmmaker. It took four films to really get it.
Since you’re in New York and there is some New York featured in that film, what was your relationship with New York back then and what is it like now?
WENDERS: New York was of course almost the only part I knew of America when I started Alice in the Cities. I had been to New York by then three or four times. After my initial time here for the MoMA and the director’s season, I had come here repeatedly. I had not really gotten out of New York and I did not know much about the rest of the country. New York was still a utopia, New York was still the center of the world and when we traveled south to start the movie with two cars, we had just two cars, a tiny little crew. We didn’t have any clue where we could start the movie, so I said ‘We’re going to drive south until we see palm trees and then we start the film.’ We didn’t know where that was gonna be. We thought it was gonna be Virginia but there were no palm trees in Virginia. We ended up starting the film in Surf City, North Carolina. The first few scenes I did there. We had been there for the first time and I never went back.
To North Carolina?
WENDERS: I never went back to Surf City.
I guess your most epic one, the one most people talk about is Until the End of the World. It’s nearly five hours long, that’s quite the feat as an audience as well, sitting and watching a five-hour film. What does that mean for you in the context of your Portraits Along the Road retrospective?
WENDERS: Until the End of the World is by far the most ambitious thing I have done in my life. I didn’t know it was going to be so ambitious, I didn’t know we were going to shoot for one year around the globe, I didn’t know it needed so many sacrifices, I didn’t know it was going to be so gruesome to do it. I would not ever want to do something like that again because now that I know what’s the cost to shoot in ten countries, what you really ask your actors to do to be away from home for ten months, your crew, I wouldn’t dare to do it again now that I know what it is, but as I didn’t know, we did it. It was exhilarating because we really did something quite fabulous and at the same time we did something that was quite impossible. We’re already doing the shooting, it dawned on me, the real proportions of this epic adventure were never going to fit into any movie formula. It was never going to make a film of two and a half or three hours and then when I edited the film, it became painfully clear that all of the distributors and all of the financiers were insisting on it being a regular movie, so they gave me a maximum length of two and a half hours. And that time became The Reader’s Digest because I had to deliver the film. I had no choice, so at the time it came out in half of its length, which was a massacre. I had to massacre it myself because if I hadn’t done it myself, someone else would’ve butchered it, so I decided I would rather do it myself, which was a good decision because I did something very smart and I can say that now because nobody is going to sue me anymore.
I knew I had to cut it down to two and a half hours. I knew that eventually for the life of it, I would reconstitute the original length of almost five hours, but I had to cut it down. So I knew if I cut it down, if I cut the negative, I would never be able to reestablish the ideal original. So I did something that was strictly illegal but nobody noticed it at the time: I didn’t cut the negative. At my own cost, which was very expensive, when I had the two and a half hour version that the distributors wanted, The Reader’s Digest, I took all of the scenes that were in there and we made the duplicate positive of all of those scenes, and I cut that duplicate positive so the negative was still untouched. From the duplicate positive that I cut, we made that into the negative and nobody noticed it. We delivered the negative to all of the distributors all over the world and the negative which would one day allow me to restore the original version, the negative was untouched, and that’s why this director’s cut now exists because I was very smart and pretty daring and I did something that probably all of my distributors would’ve sued me for realizing they didn’t get a film from the original negative.
Wow. Lastly, with your new film with James Franco, what is it like working with someone like him, such a modern American star?
WENDERS: He is on one hand, yes a modern American star and a workaholic, and on the other hand a very old-fashioned fantastic actor and artist. And one of the greatest actors that I’ve worked with and one of the most serious ones. We’re good friends and he really understood what it was to act in front of a 3D camera and he really understood he was one of the first people to ever do so. I mean a lot of actors have stood in front of 3D cameras but they were never really asked to be themselves, to act in a serious way. Most 3D movies have asked actors to be caricatures and a great actor like Johnny Depp, when he is a Pirate of the Caribbean, he can do that sleepwalking. He doesn’t really have to act I think, he is more like a caricature of himself. The kind of 3D I had in mind was the opposite.
I’m really looking forward to that.
WENDERS: It was something extremely realistic and something extremely close to the actors and extremely revealing and 3D sees things more accurately than any camera. And actually a serious actor in front of a 3D camera has to be extremely careful because these cameras see the slightest mistake and they see the slightest amount of overacting, so James as well as Charlotte [Gainsbourg] or Rachel [McAdams] or Marie-Josee Croze, they in my book are among the first actors who seriously performed in front of a 3D camera. And James most of all, because he’s in almost every shot of the film.