'I'm Protestant now. That didn't disturb him.' Director Wim Wenders on working with Pope Francis, and more
He shares details on his new papal documentary and other films during IDA Conversation in Hollywood
Pope Francis apparently isn't much of a film buff. According to Wim Wenders, who spent many hours with the pontiff for his documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Francis has not seen a movie since the 1950s.
That was one of the many interesting bits of information that emerged from a discussion between the German-born filmmaker and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz Monday night, the latest installment in the IDA's Conversation Series.
The event took place within days of the premiere of Pope Francis at the Cannes Film Festival, and its opening in U.S. theaters over the weekend, where the documentary made more than half a million dollars on 346 screens.
I really was amazed by his courage... He's extremely impressive.
While the pontiff evidently doesn't get to the cinema often, or ever, some of his advisers do and were well aware of Wenders' work. Wenders told Mankiewicz it was the communications team at the Holy See that reached out to him about the potential project.
"I got mail from the Vatican. My secretary was all excited when she saw the letterhead," Wenders shared with the audience at the Motion Picture Academy's Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. "Basically it said, 'Would you be interested in talking to us about the possibility of making a movie about... Pope Francis?' Yes, I was interested."
At the Monday night gathering, Wenders answered questions about half a dozen of his films, including Pope Francis, Room 666, Buena Vista Social Club and The Salt of the Earth. Here are his top quotes:
I was raised as a Catholic. Yes, I'm a Christian. I'm a believer, but I'm Protestant now. That didn't disturb him.
Wenders said the Vatican granted him access to Pope Francis, but offered no other conditions on the scope or focus of the film. That left the filmmaker with the challenge of coming up with a structure and thematic concept for the documentary.
"Already when I was working on the treatment I wished they could have given me some parameters but there was no parameters. It was wide open. And I really had to figure it out from scratch," Wenders confessed. "In between I thought all these great movies where I had producers and distributors and people who interfered, I wanted them all back because nobody did interfere."
He came alone. He was completely committed to these talks. He answered every question. There was no censorship. There was no question that he would avoid.
Wenders expressed admiration for the pope's humility, which he said extended to his choice of footwear.
"His shoes were... old crummy shoes from when he was still a cardinal," the director noted. "He's impressive in every regard... He has this tenderness and gentleness with people."
He came in the tiniest car produced in Italy right now. It's a Honda. He barely got out of it.
My only impulse in making documentaries is to share something that I really love.
Wenders spoke at length about his 1999 film Buena Vista Social Club, which documented guitarist Ry Cooder's collaboration with Cuban musicians in Havana.
I had four days to get ready.
We got a generator but the problem was the generator never worked.
Buena Vista Social Club in the end was one big fairytale. I thought I was shooting a documentary and then in the editing room I realized this was the biggest fairytale I had ever witnessed.
The exciting thing about documentary is that you do not know. You just do not know.
Mankiewicz asked the director about his documentary Room 666, which was filmed during the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. Wenders invited an extraordinary group of filmmakers -- including Steven Spielberg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michelangelo Antonioni, Werner Herzog and others -- to come one by one to a hotel room where they could record their thoughts about the state and future of cinema. The subjects themselves turned the camera on and off and they could say whatever they wanted -- the only limit being the length of their remarks. Each commentator had 11 and a half minutes to work with, the amount that could be recorded on a single reel of film.
[Jean-Luc] Godard looked at his watch in the beginning and then talked for 11 minutes and 20 seconds and then got up, turned [the camera] off just as it was ending anyway.
The only one who predicted the future was Antonioni. He was the only one who said, 'Well, we don't know yet but there's going to be some other technology and we're all going to be different people. We're all going to change along with that technology.' He was really visionary.
They are the great adventurers. They are the last adventurers of the mind on the planet.
Wenders revealed he almost abandoned his documentary Pina, about German choreographer Pina Bausch, after she died unexpectedly in the midst of filming.
From one day to another she was gone. For her dancers, that was a catastrophe because some of them had worked with nobody else for 30 years. And for me too I thought that was it for the film and I cancelled the whole thing.
I realized we had a different job. We could do this film but it was something the dancers and I could do together as a work of sorrow, but also as a tribute and homage to her.
I'm not just a melancholy guy. I'm also an incredible optimist.
Wenders also addressed his 2014 documentary The Salt of the Earth, about the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose camera has captured the poor and exploited around the world. The film, co-directed with Salgado's son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, earned Wenders the third Oscar nomination of his career (the previous two were for Pina and Buena Vista Social Club).
His photography is heartbreaking... He has seen too much horror and had photographed too much of it and it had gotten to him and he had overcome it. So that was why I really wanted to film him.
Wenders was born in Düsseldorf, Germany in August 1945, within months of the end of World War II. He described his home city as 80-percent destroyed during the war, but said the post-war period brought people together because they faced a common predicament -- how to survive and rebuild in a city and a country in utter ruins.
I grew up after the war into a time when everybody was equal and everybody shared everything. There was a real solidarity. When I grew up, the first years of my life, people did everything together... That was paradise.
I think I'm a product of the Second World War. I was standing on the outside and seeing the whole of humanity start from scratch.
Wenders said he studied medicine as a young man in part to please his father, who was a doctor.
I took a deep breath and I explained the thing to him and then he started laughing. He said 'I knew. I knew from the beginning.'
Setting the frame is the real act of the painter and what's inside [the frame] is the liberty you can take. That made me a filmmaker, that I accepted the idea of a frame around things.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.