German director Wim Wenders describes his next movie "Until the End of the World" as the ultimate road movie, and the massive production he has in the works may well deliver on that promise. A sci-fi/love story/thriller set in 1999, "Until the End of the World" will travel to 20 cities in seven countries during its five-month shooting schedule. By the time the film wraps in August, Wenders and company will have traveled from the Old World elegance of Venice deep into Australia's aboriginal outback.
A complex story that unravels against futuristic views of cities around the world, the film--budgeted at $20 million--will attempt an epic quality while retaining the intimate, introspective flavor characteristic of Wenders' work. Scheduled for a 1991 summer release by Warner Bros., this could be the film that moves Wenders from the art house circuit to a mainstream audience.
Starring William Hurt as a man on the run who roams the world gathering information for his father, a scientist obsessed with an invention designed to bring sight to his blind wife, the film features French actress Solveig Dommartin (who starred in Wenders' last film, the critically acclaimed "Wings of Desire"), Max Von Sydow, Jeanne Moreau, Lois Chiles and Rudiger Vogler. Original music has been composed for the film by David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe.
Produced by Jonathan Taplin's Trans Pacific Films, and jointly financed by Wenders' Berlin-based Road Movies and Anatole Dauman's Argos Films in Paris, the film takes an international approach to filmmaking. Co-written by a German and an Australian (Wenders and novelist Peter Carey), and featuring performers from France, the United States, Germany, Australia, Sweden and Japan, it's truly a global production. As with "Wings of Desire," several different languages will be interwoven in the film.
Dropping in on Wenders' traveling circus midway through the shooting schedule, one encounters a band of gypsies clearly enchanted by the unique odyssey they're experiencing, yet struggling against exhaustion. The film's basic mode of operation is that a core crew of 17 people who've moved with the film from its inception travel to scheduled cities, where they're met by a local crew, usually numbering around 40, who've prepared the shoot in their resident city. This sounds reasonably efficient, but what it means is that Wenders is confronted in every city with a new crew with their own way of doing things. This can lead to problems.
"This movie has become a vampire," says Wenders with a weary laugh during a conversation at the end of a work day that stretched from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Meeting with the 45-year-old director in his modest room at the Phoenix Motel, he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the task before him.
"I expected it to take a while to make this film, but I don't think I was prepared to be taken over by it as I have been. I've thought of nothing else for five years. I never have a second to read a newspaper and I don't know what's happening in the world anymore. I haven't had an hour off since we started, and every now and then you can't help but go crazy. I'm looking forward to being able to take a walk."
"Until the End of the World" does involve an unusually grueling regime. There are virtually no days off--any non-shooting day is a travel day. And, arriving in town 24 hours prior to shooting as they usually do, it's impossible to anticipate the thousands of glitches that pop up in the course of location shooting.
Today's schedule, for instance, races from an exterior scene outside a pawn shop in the seedy Tenderloin district, to a bookstore in Pacific Heights, to a wharf in the Embarcadero. Each location presents problems. Dozens of highly vocal homeless people mill around the location in the Tenderloin clamoring to be extras in the film, and several don't take kindly to being ordered off the sidewalk. Traffic must be disrupted in order to shoot the scene, so Wenders is somewhat at the mercy of the flow of cars on the busy street. The stress level among cast and crew is palpably high.
Things go smoothly at the bookstore, but by mid-afternoon the shoot is behind schedule. When the crew finally arrives at the wharf, the sun is threatening to set on a scene described in the script as taking place on a sunny afternoon. A healthy rain has set in as well. Nonetheless, Dommartin--wearing nothing but a skimpy party dress and a pair of ballet flats--valiantly boards an open tugboat heading out to sea in the pouring rain. So much for the glamour of filmmaking.
"Maintaining a sense of continuity is very difficult with this film because we have to adapt to whatever occurs on a given day," says cinematographer Robby Muller, who's shot several of Wenders' films. "We must continue traveling and can't wait for good weather or perfect light. I try to maintain a consistent approach to the framing and the rhythm of the shots and scenes, and hopefully that will lend visual unity to the film, but it's impossible to say what the mood of the film will be at this point. Living out of suitcases as we are, we rarely see dailies, so it's hard to say what we have."
More troublesome than the daunting logistics of this film are the personal politics on the set. On arriving, the reporter is informed that not only will there be no interview with Hurt, but there'll be hell to pay if he ever sees a note being taken, and it might be a good idea to avoid even looking at him altogether. A Method actor, Hurt seems to stay in character 24 hours a day, and this leads to some rather strange behavior.
It's common knowledge on the set that there's no love lost between Dommartin (Wenders' companion for the past five years) and Hurt, and Dommartin is said to be obsessed with ensuring that any perk accorded Hurt is accorded her as well. When she hears that Hurt won't do an interview she cancels hers, and she and Hurt--cast as lovers in the film--take turns throwing the photographer hired by the production company to document the shoot off the set. Though Taplin claims that cast relations have been cordial but for a contretemps in Lisbon, and everyone seems amiable when shooting commences at the beginning of the week, things have eroded drastically by Thursday and there are frequent explosions of temper. Wenders and Muller remain impressively serene throughout, and seem to have assumed the role of patient parents. They exchange stoic smiles and wait for the tantrums to blow over so they can start work again.
Wenders, especially, seems to exert a calming effect on the chaos that seems on the verge of erupting. The crew--always an accurate barometer of a director's character--adores him. Clearly highly intelligent, he's simultaneously smolderingly intense and playfully mischievous, and has a droll, understated sense of humor. A graceful man who speaks in an almost inaudibly soft voice and tends to bounce on the balls of his feet when standing in place, Wenders is pushing 50 but there's still something of the teen-ager about him.
"Wim is an exceptionally calm and understanding man," observes Rudiger Vogler, the German actor who starred in two of Wenders' greatest films, "Alice in the Cities" and "Kings of the Road." "He has an unusually open mind and is always ready to listen and watch. Rather than impose himself on a given situation, he allows life to unfold around him, and this is a big part of his talent."
Wenders' ability to amble down life's highway and surrender to whatever presents itself has made him a master of the existential road movie. Beginning in 1971 with his debut feature, a gloomy meditation on alienation titled "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick," he's developed the road movie into a metaphysical form that encompasses all of life's great questions. Like "Wings of Desire" (which Wenders once described as a road movie that progresses vertically rather than horizontally), "Until the End of the World" is a deeply philosophical film that wrestles with several profound issues: romantic love, the irrevocable allegiances of family, the role that dreaming plays in our lives, and the death of age-old language systems (specifically oral storytelling traditions, literature and film) that are currently being obliterated by new electronic vocabularies.
Based on an idea originally conceived by Wenders on his first trip to Australia in 1977, the story has drawn inspiration from a variety of sources including "The Songlines," Bruce Chatwin's exquisite inquiry into the nomadic impulse and aboriginal Dreamtime, and novelist Paul Auster's bleak portrait of the late 20th Century, "In the Country of Last Things."
Most of all, however, "Until the End of Time" is a further articulation of themes Wenders has been exploring throughout his career, specifically the conflict between the yearning for home and security, and the hunger for freedom and adventure. "Until the End of the World's" subtext of the importance of home and family took on particular poignancy for Wenders with this film, as he weathered the deaths of both his father and brother while the film was in pre-production.
"'Until the End of Time' is the love story that 'Wings of Desire' promises to be in the end," says Wenders, "but it's also very much about my father."
Born in Dusseldorf, West Germany, in 1945, Wenders grew up in Germany's Ruhr district, the son of a surgeon. When he was 5, his father gave him a manual projector and a box of films (Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy), and at the age of 10 he began making 8-millimeter films. He loved movies from an early age, but his commitment to them didn't come until much later.
"Your sense of ethics is shaped when you're a child and everything after that is secondary," Wenders observes. "I think the fact that my father was a doctor gave me a strong sense that human beings have a responsibility to help one another, and for years I was plagued by the feeling I should do something more useful than making films. As a young man I planned on becoming a doctor and studied medicine because I thought the things I liked to do--painting and making music--were irresponsible. It was one of the great breakthroughs in my life when I realized there's as much social responsibility involved in taking a photograph as there is in giving someone an injection. In a way, it's the same thing."
In 1966, Wenders began spending every day seeing five to seven movies--most of them American--and the die was cast. Like many of his generation, he was repulsed by the legacy of Germany and was searching for an alter ego for himself, and he found it in rock 'n' roll and American films.
"My attraction to American culture had a lot to do with wanting to distance myself from Germany's recent history," he concedes, "but I think if I would've seen Russian films or the films of Fritz Lang or Murnau as a young man I would've been just as impressed and would've had a different artistic ancestry. As it happened, American films were the first I saw and they had a big effect on me."
Beginning his career in film as a critic (a book of his writings, "Emotion Pictures," was recently published by Faber & Faber), Wenders sang the praises of Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann and John Ford, but when he got behind a camera himself, the style he developed was distinctly European.
Structuring his films around a languid pace and an intermingling of dreams with the banal activities of daily life, Wenders developed a polished variation of cinema verite distinctly his own. Essentially all his films are odysseys of self-discovery, and though often awash in feelings of loneliness and despair, they remain profoundly hopeful because of the faith they express in the human capacity for understanding, compassion and change.
"In one way or another all my films start with a dream," he observes, "and the films I've made that weren't a deeply personal reflection of my own life and needs haven't been very good. It makes an enormous difference if your film has its first heartbeat in a dream of your own as opposed to basing it on something someone else wrote. It's the difference between an adopted child and one you gave birth to."
With seven critically acclaimed films under his belt, Wenders moved to the United States in 1978. In 1980 he released two films: the ill-fated "Hammett" (one of Francis Coppola's Zoetrope disasters), and "Lightning Over Water," a visual diary of the last year in the life of filmmaker Nicholas Ray. In 1982 he released " The State of Things," a scathing indictment of the American film industry. His love affair with American culture culminated in 1984 with "Paris, Texas," an emotionally wrenching journey to the heart of the American Dream. After completing this film, Wenders returned to his homeland, where he currently lives.
"I finished something with 'Paris, Texas,' because it summed up what all my films before hadn't been able to. This homeless man dealing with his family and the effort to find home--it articulated things I'd been trying to express for years. It opened the door for 'Wings of Desire' too, which really was the continuation of something that happened in 'Paris, Texas.' In the last scene of the film, the little boy embraces his mother, and that prepared me to do something I hadn't done before."
Although "Wings of Desire" helped heal his estrangement from his native country, his homecoming was not without reservations.
"I returned to Germany in 1988, but I can't say I live there," he says. "I live in Berlin and that's a special place--Berlin is not Germany, and Germany as a whole I would not have returned to. Germany is such a sad place. There's all this history there that people are struggling to deal with, and it's an intensely boring place as well. There's nothing more boring than people who believe in authority and order."
Though highly ambivalent about Germany, Wenders' return there freed him to explore other things, and with "Until the End of the World," he moves into new terrain, shooting in several countries that have never figured in his work before, and making his first foray into the future. However, as he emphatically points out, "this is not a science-fiction film.
"It's a contemporary film that we set 10 years into the future so we could take a few liberties. The central idea of a guy who's making blind people see obviously requires some artistic freedom to be expressed believably, so we advanced the movie into the year 1999 to give ourselves some space. Setting the film in the future does get in the way though. We've been in five countries so far and in all of them I felt we could've caught something more real if the film was set in 1990. Having it set in 1999 creates a distance between what actually exists in a given place, and makes it more artificial. On the other hand, it can be fun inventing the future for these cities.
"One might say I'm presenting a dark view of the future here, but I don't find it pessimistic, nor do I look to the future with dread," he adds. "However, I am troubled by how fast we seem to be getting there. A year ago, I had a scene in the script where the Berlin Wall came down and now that idea is obsolete. History is picking up speed along with technological developments, human behavior and everything else. On one level, man struggles with the same things he struggled with in the 15th Century, but at the same time, human behavior is evolving with unprecedented speed. And it's evolving in a way that's not necessarily good."
Theoretical reflection of this sort is a luxury Wenders says he rarely enjoys these days, mired as he is in the physical challenge of the task at hand. "We're all struggling with fatigue and to do something like this you have to be in good shape before you start. I trained like an athlete prior to the shoot," says Wenders, who's on a restricted diet and abstains from alcohol while the film is in production.
"Fortunately, the film does take on a life of its own at a certain point. If it was purely dependent on me to push it forward I couldn't handle it, but there is a machinery that carries you, especially if you shoot in continuity as we do. It becomes a stream, and when it starts moving fast there's always the danger it might veer off in a direction you don't want. At the same time, if you don't give it room it won't come to life. You have to let it meander sometimes. I try to remain open and surprised by life in spite of the machinery and obligations that encumber filmmaking."
Difficult as it is to simultaneously travel thousands of miles, shoot a film, and keep Hurt happy, it never occurred to Wenders to make his film any other way. Studio soundstages simply don't provide what he requires from his work.
"There is one truly amazing thing about film making, and that is that the film can be an experience that can affect you and teach you as its maker, just as it can teach anybody else," he concludes. "That's why my films are shot in continuity--that allows the story in the film to intermingle with the stories of our lives as we make the film. If there is a central ethic in my film making, it's that the film should not only describe an adventure, but should in itself be that adventure."