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Director Series-Wim Wenders-Don't Come Knocking

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In Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, central character Howard Spence, played by Sam Shepard, much like the iconic Western movie heroes he portrays as an actor, one day literally rides off into the distance from the set of his latest film. The journey takes the spoiled star back to the scattered remains of his past, in Butte, Montana, the gal he left behind and the son he didn’t know he had.Wenders, best know for Paris, Texas and Buena Vista Social Club, reunites with Paris, Texas screenwriter/actor Shepard to examine this modern-day cowboy. Bringing an affectionate eye for the myth and classic imagery of the American West, Wenders collaborated with an exceptional crew that included both veterans and newcomers to illuminate this tale of a man at a crossroads learning to live with his choices.Below the Line: Tell us about your latest movie.Wim Wenders: Don’t Come Knocking includes crew [from my last film] Land of Plenty and a couple of old hands, like Peter [Przygodda], the editor who did my first film, Eternity. He’s like my twin brother. He didn’t edit Buena Vista Social Club, The Million Dollar Hotel or Land of Plenty because he preferred to stay in Germany. There was a period of four to five years that I didn’t work with him, but I did everything before and now [with him].I made Land of Plenty with people I did not know. They were making their first film with me and were the youngest crew I ever had—all in their twenties. I was the old dinosaur. Franz [Lustig, cinematographer], Nathan [Amondson, production designer], the art directors [William Budge and Nicole Lobart], Samson [Mucke], the UPM, were all so fantastic, I took them onto Don’t Come Knocking.Don’t Come Knocking was the first time Franz ever shot [a movie] on film. I met him shooting a music video. We made a number of commercials on film together so I knew he had everything it took. I offered him his first feature film with Land of Plenty. He did that with so much bravado that I realized he had Don’t Come Knocking in him. He took the chance and really made a name for himself. He just won Best Cinematographer at the European Film Awards, which are the European Oscars. Franz is really masterful.BTL: Did he come on the location scouts to Montana?WW: He made all the travels with me. We saw the places twice, once with a small crew, just Franz, Sam and I, then with a bigger crew for a tech scout. Franz was adamant about seeing all the places at the actual time of day we’d be shooting. So we were there at 6 o’clock in the morning and then we realized we had to come back in the evening to see how that place looked in that light.BTL: Did he take stills as visual references, say to use as a photo storyboard?WW: We took a few shots. I had photographed Butte extensively over 25 years—more than any other town in the world. We didn’t storyboard. We wanted to be free on location to react to the place, let the actors do the scene and come up with the shots. I’m used to setting the frame myself. I’ve done that since the very beginning. I leave my DP all the liberty in the world to operate the camera and to light. Franz had an operator, because it was too much to light it. He suffered from that for the first few days, then started to enjoy it. We had a great operator, Bengt [Jonsson]. I was able to set up the shot with Bengt while Franz worked on the lighting. The most difficult job was focus puller. It’s the most demanding. His mistakes are noticed more that anything else. Jay Levy [first assistant camera] was a true miracle, the hardest working man on the crew. He got us through impossible situations where we shot with open lens and very complicated camera moves.BTL: The film’s look was gorgeous. Did you do any DI?WW: We had one composite shot. We were not allowed to run the horse under the arc in the beginning, because of the preservation there. I realized if we went to intermediate, the film would not be as beautiful on screen. Even 3K or 4K is a reduction from what you have on your negative when you shoot super 35mm Scope. We did a test, then refrained from doing it, mostly because we realized the look of the original negative was beautiful. Franz had exposed the film so well, there was no need. With DI you have incredible liberties in color correction. You can correct certain areas, colors and contrast. In film you just do the overall image. Every now and then I felt we could have done digital color correction to get something more beautiful, like skies sometimes, or day for night. Day for night is so tricky that you never get it right. There the digital would have given us more. Sometimes technology opens new doors, but we didn’t think we needed it.BTL: You mentioned your UPM. What did he bring to the table?WW: Samson started in my company as a bookkeeper six years ago and he’s gone a long way. He is able to produce and has a number of movies under his belt. The Otto Nemenz people who rented us cameras said, “We have to congratulate you on Samson. He’s honest. He tells us what he can pay. We love to work with him.” It’s not that he isn’t looking at the dollars. Samson is extremely money-conscious, but he is great with people. A beautiful film at Sundance, [Haskell Wexler’s] Who Needs Sleep?, [showed how] sometimes people work long hours. In order that you not fall into that trap, you need people like Samson who know your framework, but who also respect the people you’re working with, who are trying to make sure you don’t have to drive home after working 16 hours. Every now and then you have to do it, but then you have to take your precautions, and make sure these people are being driven. Samson had an eye on that. He’s a good man.BTL: How did you choose your costume designer Caroline Eselin?WW: I discovered her on The Soul of a Man. Caroline had the impossible job of recreating the ’20s with basically no budget. I think she had 200 dollars. On The Blues series we worked on a shoestring. Caroline did miracles. She was not available for Land of Plenty. I was glad to get her for Don’t Come Knocking.BTL: How do you translate your visual ideas for the crew to interpret?WW: There is one thing about crews that I learned very early and I try to hold onto. Basically people love to be able to do their best. They don’t do their best if you tell them what to do. They do their best if they can bring something in and they can have a vision. Even if sometimes you say, “No, that’s not what I imagined,” you have to start out asking them to show you their best shot.Caroline came up with some amazing choices that were not at all what I had in mind. Sarah’s [Polley] overall wardrobe, I would never have considered putting her into that. Caroline showed it to me. I was going to say, “Forget it.” Then I realized how much she was proud to show it to me, so I said, “Okay, let’s see Sarah in it.” When Sarah walked in, I said, “Caroline, look no further.”BTL: So your crew teaches you.WW: Of course. I’m preoccupied with my characters and the places I shoot in. Most of my films are born from a place that I wanted to tell me its story. Butte exists. I brought it to Sam when we started writing. We wrote for Butte, so I’m as preoccupied with place as character. The crew invests a lot of time, thinking and imagination into things that as a director you’re not as preoccupied with. I’m a director who likes to find things instead of directing them or creating them. I like to shoot on location, in real places. I’m not a guy who’s comfortable in the studio. When you come to real places, you still have to change them because of the story. Then if my crew shows me things, I feel like I’m discovering something. Of course sometimes they go overboard. You have to keep the whole thing in perspective, but I think it pays off to ask people to do their best.

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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