Gilb Taplin recently interviewed visionary film director Wim Wenders
while he was in Berlin and Los Angeles preparing for his next
film shooting in Montana this summer. As reflected in all of his
movies his sense of place endures and includes a deep affection
for our very own Downtown. We are honored to have this exclusive
LGT: Wim, I had the privilege of traveling with your film crews
during the making of 'Until the End of the World', which took
us literally around the world. At each location in that journey,
a very different aspect of the story was played out. Though there
was an overriding mission that drove the action, it was as if
certain emotional truths, physical actions, and character interplays
could only be lived, played out, in certain locations.
That's right. My films are much more driven by a sense of place
than by anything else. I often know WHERE I want something to
happen before I know WHAT it could be. I try to let the story
come out of my characters as well as out of the place they find
themselves in. I do believe that places (cities, landscapes, deserts,
) carry a potential of stories in them that they want
to have told, formed by the history of that place, the sum of
everything that happened there. I like to be guided by those untapped
reservoirs. Places have memories. And places have character, too.
Recently in an interview for the New York Times that accompanied
a photographic exhibit of yours, you said, to paraphrase, that
you prefer to take photos of different locations without people
in the shots, because you believe that each location has its own
story to tell, and it is that story that you are revealing as
a photographer. You went on to say that was often the impulse
for your movies, to dramatize the story inherent in the place
itself, as for example in Paris, Texas. Have I understood your
Indeed. There's little I can add. PARIS, TEXAS started by the
desire to explore the American West from scratch. WINGS OF DESIRE
was a way to describe the city of Berlin in the most complex way
possible. BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB was also a discovery of Havana,
as END OF VIOLENCE was a portrait of Los Angeles
You have in the last few years shot two movies in the Downtown
Los Angeles area, Million Dollar Hotel and most recently Land
of Plenty. Did writers just happen to bring you these ideas for
stories set in the downtown area, or were you interested in downtown
as a location for its own sake, and the screenplays followed that
MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL was brought to me by my friend Bono, who
had discovered that very hotel in the heart of Downtown LA, on
the corner of 5th and Main, when he had shot the video for WHERE
THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME there. He took me there and I was mesmerized
immediately. I understood why that place had become such a metaphor
for America for him. And as I was attracted to the hotel, and
the story that Bono had sensed there, I agreed to make the movie.
It happens entirely on that one street block, mostly inside the
hotel. I got to know the neighborhood, and began to be very intrigued
by Downtown LA. As you know, many movies are shot there, all the
time, but very few of them actually show it as Los Angeles. They
use the place as a "location", not as itself. I wanted
to explore the area more, especially when I learned that LA was
in fact "The hunger capital of America". I knew a bit
about the situation of the homeless people who gather there, but
I wanted to dig deeper. That's how LAND OF PLENTY came about.
Would you say that the life of downtown itself was key to the
telling of these two stories? Could the same stories have been
told in New York or another urban setting?
No, both movies were very specifically located in Downtown LA,
and could have happened nowhere else. Maybe that's a very European
distinction, that "sense of place". Many American films
take places in rather anonymous settings. And even if the place
has a name, you can't help the feeling that the story could take
place anywhere. American cinema always had a tendency to generalize,
partly as it was trying to please a very wide market, both in
the US as in the world. European cinema, by tradition, has always
been much more specific. Local color, local languages and accents,
local customs and habits have always played a much more important
part. Of course Europe is a continent composed of many different
cultures, while the United States always were the "melting
pot" that turned all these cultures into one single new one.
I say that without any judgment or opinion whatsoever. You know
how fascinated I have been with America, and how much my films
have always explored that "American Dream".
In viewing Land of Plenty, will the audience be able to easily
recognize that the film was shot in Downtown Los Angeles? What
locations did you feature to make it clear this is Downtown Los
Angeles? The skyline, specific buildings?
We shot all over Downtown. Of course, you see the skyline a few
times. But also the financial district, the Garment District,
the Toy District
We were all over the place. Our main location
was a beautiful old fire station on Winston Street. I had shot
there before once, in a different lifetime, so to speak, when
I did HAMMETT for American Zoetrope. At the time this fire station
had been transformed into a casino in San Francisco's Chinatown.
(That was a studio picture that I had wanted to shoot entirely
on location in San Francisco, and that we ended up shooting in
LA, mainly on the sound stage.) Anyway, I felt I owed that fire
Were there certain local usages of language in the dialogue
of the film that will identify this as a Los Angeles story? Did
your characters speak any languages other than English?
No, not really. Some Spanish occurs in the background, but the
overall language was English.
You shot 'Land of Plenty' on a very low budget using digital
equipment. Could you briefly describe the technical side of this
This must have been one of the fastest movies ever made in this
city. I wrote the story in 3 days, basically, with the help of
my friend Scott Derrickson, then we wrote the script in 3 weeks,
with Michael Meredith, the writer, practically tied to his laptop.
In the meantime, we financed the film, with the help of IFC and
InDiGent, as well as with our German company Reverse Angle, and
then we were already shooting. I already knew my locations, as
the film was written with them in mind. Apart from Downtown LA
we also shot in a small town in the Mojave desert, in Trona. The
shooting schedule was ridiculously fast, I had 16 days. This was
only possible with the help of digital equipment, a new generation
DV camera by Panasonic that shoots full frames, and that was the
first camera that brought progressive mode to a consumer standard.
That camera cost 3.000,- dollars. The result, blown up to 35mm
cinemascope, looks staggering. The entire film cost less than
what most studio pictures spent in an afternoon. But I promise
you: the range and the look of the film go beyond your wildest
expectations of a "low budget film". That was possible
because everybody on the set worked for the same salary of a 100
dollars a day. But cast and crew share 40% of the film's gross,
from the first dollar earned.
How did using digital equipment affect the number of crew members
you needed for Land of Plenty, compared to Million Dollar Hotel?
We were a relatively small crew, but still almost 30 people. Okay,
half as much as on MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL. But twice as fast.
How many parking spaces did your crew need for 'Land of Plenty',
versus Million Dollar Hotel?
We had one big truck for all the equipment and the lights. 2 vans,
a few more vehicles for the art department, props etc. Altogether
a really tiny car park.
As you might have guessed, it has occurred to me that shooting
digitally in the downtown area might alleviate some of the congestion
that conventional shooting creates for the residents and businesses
of downtown. Would you say that was true?
We certainly didn't disturb anybody. We didn't even stop traffic,
but went with whatever happened in the streets. Which wasn't easy.
This was NOT a documentary, but a fictional story. Actually, we
were treated very friendly by the locals, the residents as well
as the homeless. I remember one guy looking out of his tent, shaking
his head: "Man, you ARE low budget!" I feel we were
able to capture the atmosphere of Downtown LA much better with
our small unobtrusive digital equipment than any film camera would
have ever allowed us.
Did you use local residents for any of your crew members on
Land of Plenty, or did you bring in your own crew from outside
the area? If you used local people, how did you find them?
One of our leading actors was "local": Richard Edson
lived just a block away from our main set. For extras we used
a lot of real people living out there. And we paid them decently.
What are your favorite parts of downtown - restaurants, bars,
great views, life on the streets?
I like two places a lot. One is Phillipe's, "the home of
the French-dipped sandwich", on Alameda, and the other is
a very old and funky place, with sawdust on the floor, half under
street level, COLE'S, on 6th Street.
What emotions does the downtown area evoke in you?
Sadness, to see a place with such a history go down the drain.
Hope, that it might come back. Anger, to see people so abandoned,
with all social nets pulled from under their feet.
Did you happen to shoot any of Land of Plenty around the Arts
District area, between Alameda and the River?
Yes, we shot some street scenes as well as driving scenes there.
Does the Arts District interest you as a location? Do you sense
a story there waiting to be told?
Downtown LA is amazing, as it contains so many distinctly different
areas in its relatively small boundaries. The Art District is
maybe the most interesting development, with the
middle. I had the feeling that it was still in an "experimental"
state, and that it could become either real and vibrant, and therefore
remain, or lose its vitality eventually and disappear again.
Arts District::Wim Wenders
WW: You're so welcome, Lesley