Berlin: Wim Wenders on How 3D is Drowning 'in a Lack of Imagination' (Q&A)
Art house icon Wim Wenders has always been on the cutting edge of new cinema tech. His Oscar-nominated documentary Buena Vista Social Club (1999) was the first feature-length doc shot entirely in digital. Wenders made a similar jump forward with Pina, his 3D dance film about the life and work of the late, legendary choreographer Pina Bausch. The first 3D documentary, Pina premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011 and went on to earn some $15 million worldwide -- and secured Wenders his second Oscar nomination for best documentary.
But while digital tech quickly was adopted, the 3D revolution in documentary filmmaking hasn’t arrived just yet. Undeterred and with the conviction of the converted, Wenders continues to push the boundaries of the much-maligned format. His ambitious documentary project Cathedrals of Culture, which will have its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, has six directors — Wenders, Robert Redford, Austrian auteur Michael Glawogger, Denmark's Michael Madsen, Brazilian director Karim Ainouz and Norway's Margreth Olin -- using 3D to tell the stories of iconic buildings.
THR reached the director on the Canadian set of his latest project, Every Thing Will Be Fine, a live-action, art house drama -- in 3D -- starring James Franco.
Every Thing Will Be Fine is your first live-action 3D drama. What have you found most difficult and most surprising about doing a drama in 3D?
Wenders: I’d need hours to elaborate on that! I don’t even know where to start … I guess the key is the actors’ “presence”… James Franco has screen presence galore. He knows what it is, he knows how to “turn it on.” Does it make a difference in 3D? Do we understand the character better? Are we closer to him and more involved in his inner life? I’m very much aware, all of the time, that we’re working on new territory. We might gain something: intensity, identification, immersion. But also, every now and then, it’ll probably mean we lose something of the old movie rules, of the convention established between audiences and filmmakers. I have given a lot of thought to the question of how 3D might become a necessary element of our film, not only an ingredient. But I would have to reveal our story in order to explain that. All I can say: It’s exciting to do a drama in 3D! It is all new for me, for us, and hopefully that excitement will translate to the viewer as well.
It’s hard for the average cinema fan to understand why you would shoot a traditional non-action, non-special-effects-driven drama in 3D.
Wenders: We have all come to the terrible and totally wrong conclusion -- and your question is insinuating it, too -- that 3D is strictly related to action and special effects. No, it’s not! It might have been used first in the realm of action- and special-effects-driven movies, but that does not mean it was made for that. These movies do not own 3D. Nobody owns it. It’s a medium that belongs to everybody who wants to use it. And hopefully it will be used with more imagination in the future, because right now this fantastic language is about to drown in a lack of imagination.
3D has a built-in capacity to involve you in a different way than “flat cinema” does. It even involves different areas of your brain! So one can certainly tell a story differently. In 3D, I come up with different shots, I edit differently, I look at my actors differently. We are involved differently, myself as well as my audience, so don’t you think an intimate drama could also come out differently? I am convinced it will. But in order to find out [and prove it] I have to do it. Theory and concepts have never made a good film -- only guts do. And if filmmaking cannot be about discovering things anymore, I’ll give up being a director.
Is this film a first? Are there any other 3D films that have done something similar to what you are attempting on Every Thing Will Be Fine?
Not that I know of. When I shot Pina, I caught a glimpse of what 3D could do in a fictional context, when we were doing the "silent portraits" of each of the dancers. These were just close-ups, but they felt like I had never seen (or shot) a close-up before. They were "face-landscapes" that gave me goose pimples. I felt I would want to start telling a story with each of these characters. They were so close, so human, so real, so powerful! I was convinced that the stories told with this new language would go straight to your heart, could concern you in a deeply existential way.
Does shooting in 3D change your grammar of cinema? Rapid editing and close-ups, for example, aren’t as effective (and can be nausea-inducing) in 3D.
Wenders: True. All true. But sometimes I feel that nobody knows anymore what “grammar” means in contemporary cinema. The very notion that there is a language we can all accept and agree on has disappeared. Those were the old days of cinema, when such conventions were valid. “Anything goes” is not exactly a grammatical rule, is it? Together with my DP, Benoit Debie, we are trying to define a “grammar” that might allow us to capture an intimate and epic story in singular moments in space. It all boils down to using two or three lenses, to be inspired by a handful of painters -- like Andrew Wyeth in our case -- and to learn how to constantly move your camera, not shakily, not hastily, but steadily and slowly. And you’re right: We’re trying to edit a bit less rapidly.
You’ve been an outspoken critic of the Hollywood studios using 3D mainly as a tool for spectacle. What do you dislike about this approach and what do you think the studios are missing?
Wenders: It’s a very basic thing that they don’t get or rather that they get wrong: 3D is utterly “human.” Most of us have two eyes, so we see the world and our lives in three dimensions. Now we can finally see movies with that same perception, except that these [3D movies being made] have nothing to do with our own lives whatsoever. That is what they are missing. I know this is a bit of an exaggeration, but I feel they are spoiling our right to a human experience in 3D. Their kind of 3D does not look like anything we see with our own eyes. It is an artificial fabrication.
How much do you think the success of films such as Gravity and Life of Pi -- commercial hits that also were critically praised -- will change attitudes about what is possible in 3D?
Wenders: I’m so thankful for both of these films you just named because they finally raised the bar again. It seemed like James Cameron had put up that bar to begin with -- and very high, indeed. And then for years nobody even tried to jump over it. It drove me crazy to see that there had been one masterpiece, Avatar, and afterward it looked like there was a conspiracy in Hollywood to leave that film alone and be content with less, for years. It gave 3D a bad reputation. And I’m just hoping that this absolutely fantastic tool isn’t just hollowed out from within, so that it eventually will disappear again by the sheer lack of quality and conviction that got invested into it.
On Cathedrals of Culture you worked with a group of directors who had never used 3D before. How did the different filmmakers approach the format?
Wenders: For Cathedrals of Culture we invited five directors to shoot a film about a building that inspired them, exploring what we called “the soul of the building.” Only Michael Madsen [and I] had actually worked in 3D before. The six of us have all used the medium in a different way. Everybody developed his or her own 3D handwriting, which was one of the aims of the project: to bring an interesting group of filmmakers together in order to explore and challenge the possibilities of 3D in a way it had not been done before. The six approaches were as different as the six filmmakers, but the stereography of all six films is based on [Pina stereographer] Alain Derobe’s “Natural Depth Method” and implemented in the entire project by the director of stereography, [Alain’s daughter] Josephine Derobe.
Do you still believe in the power of 3D to change cinema?
Wenders: Yes! But first it has to become a more democratic language. It needs to be used in documentaries and independent films, in education just as well as for ecological or nature projects. If 3D as a tool, as technology, as language, as medium, doesn’t come into its own, but keeps that stamp of “effect-driven blockbuster attraction,” then it will indeed vanish and eventually be obsolete.