Friday, August 14, 2015

Shooting with Antonioni

‘I fall into bed exhausted. I dream that Jeanne Moreau wants to come out of the painting too, but for some reason I can’t do it for her. I know I’ll be dreaming of the filming for weeks to come; I always do when I’ve finished a shoot.’ This is Wim Wenders - today celebrating his 70th birthday - writing one of the last entries in his diary of an ‘extraordinary experience’ filming with the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni.

Wenders was born in Düsseldorf on 14 August 1945, into a traditional Catholic family. His father was a surgeon. He went to school in Oberhausen, then studied medicine and philosophy in Freiburg and Düsseldorf, but dropped out of university to go to Paris to paint. It was to the film world, though, that he was soon drawn. Returning to Germany, he took a job in the Düsseldorf office of United Artists, before studying for three years (1967-1970) at Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München  (Munich’s university for TV and film). At the same time, he wrote film reviews for national magazines, including Der Spiegel.

With other directors and writers in 1971, he founded the company Filmverlag der Autoren; and then, later, he set up his own production company, Road Movies. In 1978, he went to Hollywood to direct Hammett, but disputes with the executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, resulted in a delayed release and a truncated version. Wenders first international successes came in the 1980s, especially with films like The State of Things (1982), Paris, Texas (1984) which won him several significant awards, including the Palme d’Or and Baftas, and Wings of Desire (1987). His films are known for their lush visual imagery, much of which stems from the work of his longstanding collaborator, the Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller.

Wenders has directed several well-received documentaries, such as Buena Vista Social Club (1999), and The Soul of a Man (2003), many music videos for bands, as well as television commercials. He is a member of the advisory board of World Cinema Foundation, founded by Martin Scorsese. Alongside his film work, Wenders has also forged a major reputation as a photographer, exhibiting regularly and widely. The Wim Wenders Foundation, Düsseldorf, was created in 2012 to bring together his artistic work in film, literary and photographic fields, so as to make it publicly accessible. Among many other honours, he was presented with the Honorary Golden Bear at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2015.

A happy 70th birthday message on the official Wim Wenders website starts as follows: ‘The long and winding road. So sang the Beatles in 1970. Wim was just 25 years old then and since then what a journey it’s been. Along the way we’ve witnessed his images, words and sounds. A photographer, painter, observer, explorer, storyteller, collector and cartographer. The journey with Wim allows us to see a new world. A world that encompasses his art. And whilst not all of his portraits show people, there’s a sense of humanity we can all feel part of. Ingmar Bergman talks about the wonder of silence. Wim’s imagery instills silence and yet if we get lost on our journey his music guides us back.’ For more on Wenders see Wikipedia, Senses of Cinema, Villa e Collezione Panza, or Images Journal.

I can find no obvious evidence that Wenders is a diary keeper by nature, but for a few months in the winter of 1994-1995, he did keep a diary, with the specific purpose of recording time spent with Antononio. A decade earlier, the renowned Italian director had suffered a stroke, and lost the ability to speak or write, though he could draw with his left hand. After much negotiation, and many delays, he and his wife, Enrica, had assembled finance, actors and crew to make a last film - Beyond the Clouds - comprising four of his own stories about romance and illusion. A condition of the producers was that another director be on hand - hence Wim Wenders’ nominal role as co-diretor.

The diary kept by Wenders was first published in German in 1995, and then translated by Michael Hofmann for publication in English in 200 as My Time with Antonioni - The Diary of an Extraordinary Experience. (A few pages can be sampled at Amazon.) Wenders wrote about the project in an article for The Guardian; but what comes across most forcefully when reading Wenders’ book is the huge effort - as well as compromises in Wenders’ case - made by so many people to bring Antonioni’s vision to the screen. Here are two extracts, from the first and last entries - the first and last days of shooting - in the English edition of the diary.

3 November 1994
‘First day of shoot. At last. Because the shoot has been put back from spring to summer and now to autumn, I’ve been able to be with Michelangelo and the crew during the last week of preparations in Portofino, the location for the first episode, ‘La ragazza, il delitto’, but on the very eve of the shoot I have to be in Paris. The French edition of my book Once is coming out, and there’s an exhibition in the FNAC, press-conference and interviews, and the whole thing is due to end so late there’s no chance of getting back to Italy the same night.

There was a lovely, unexpected ending to the day when we were driven back to the hotel by Martine and Henri Cartier-Bresson. How attentive, kindly and alert the old gentleman was, always so careful not to appear ‘old’: he’d rather hold open a door himself than have it held for him.

Yesterday morning we went to see a demonstration of the latest HDTV-to-film transfer from Thomson’s, who are interested in working with Michelangelo and me. The images on screen, recorded digitally and then put on film, are really impressive, and only barely distinguishable from real film images. They might actually be the perfect language for Michelangelo to shoot his final episode, ‘Due telefaxi’. The electronic medium would match the atmosphere of the story. And wouldn’t it be appropriate, too, for Michelangelo to make the last part of his last film using the technology of the next century, seeing as he was one of the very first directors with a positive attitude to video, and was never shy of new technology? [. . .]

Today, then, the first day of the shoot, Donata and I got up bright and early, took the first plane from Paris to Milan, and drove to Portofino through mist and occasional rain, afraid the weather might make us late. But we arrive on time. The first clapboard is an hour later. The rain has delayed everything, and indeed it will dominate the day’s events.

First off, big excitement, not least among the producers: it appears that the moment he got on set, Michelangelo announced that everything is being changed around, so it’s not John Malkovich who’s going to come out the door and walk down into town, but Sophie Marceau. That means changing the bedroom, where we’re going to film later, from a ‘man’s room’ to a woman’s. ‘Here we go . . .’ you can see the producers thinking. But on closer inspection, the change makes sense. Michelangelo just hadn’t been in a position before to clear up our misunderstanding. It often seemed to me in our discussions that it was simply too much of an effort for him to make his intentions clear to us, and so occasionally he left us under some misapprehension, fully knowing that the moment of truth would dawn once we were filming. Also, Michelangelo has trouble differentiating between ‘he’ and ‘she’ when speaking, so we were often uncertain whether he was talking about the male or the female character in a story. [. . .]

Having this huge crew and these actors assembled here - all of us ready to give everything we have over the coming weeks - to make a film out of this shooting script and this schedule is Enrica’s personal triumph. And today, on the first day of the shoot, there she is standing in front of the monitors next to Michelangelo, beaming all over her face. Of course everyone is making a fuss of him, but we know that Erica was and is the driving force behind him. A great dream is becoming reality, for both of them. Now it is up to us to sustain the dream to the end, so there is no rude awakening.

In looking for my own niche, I keep in the background, and leave various initiatives and suggestions with Michelangelo’s helpers [. . .] I will have succeeded in my task if I find the right balance between staying out of it and, where absolutely necessary, taking a hand. And above all, I need to learn to keep my own ideas on how I would shoot a scene to myself, because they’re not helpful in this situation.[. . .]

I take a few stills photographs, with the Fuji 6x9, rather sheepishly. Donata dusts off her new Nikon F4 and takes some pictures of the shoot and the crew, in black and white. I’m sticking to colour.

It’s very late, and I feel totally exhausted. Being at a shoot without being in charge is much more taxing than I had imagined.

Over supper we laughed till we cried while Tonino regaled us with the story of how Fellini was the first person who managed to get food stains on his back while eating. Tonino demonstrated how Fellini broke a roll in half, and a piece of mortadella flew up in the air and landed between his shoulderblades. He kept imitating Fellini standing there, with the slice of meat sticking to his back, worrying about how cross Giulletta would be when she’d get to hear about his foolish adventure.’

29 March 1995
‘Sixty-fourth day of shoot. The last day. My shoot ends on the day all the newspapers are carrying photographs of Michelangelo with Jack Nicholson. They’re all full of reports of Oscar night, and I buy all the newspapers I can lay my hands on, especially the Italian ones. [. . .]

My first thanks are due to Robby and Donata. As the evening goes on, with all of us eating at a buffet in a hall off the studio, it gradually sinks in that this adventure is over for the moment. There’s still the editing and the post-production to come, but they can’t be as risky or as onerous as the shooting.

Someone turns up the music, and we dance ourselves off our feet.

I fall into bed exhausted. I dream that Jeanne Moreau wants to come out of the painting too, but for some reason I can’t do it for her. I know I’ll be dreaming of the filming for weeks to come; I always do when I’ve finished a shoot. And they’re always dreams where something impossible has to be done, too. I’ve never been on a shoot where I haven’t been plagued by these nightmares afterwards.’ [See Jonathan Rosenblaum’s blog for a review of the film, and for an interesting take on the Moreau scenes].

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