Interview: Wim Wenders, Director

April 17, 2006

By Devlin Smith, Contributing Editor

Ed. Note – In light of the release of "Don’t Come Knocking," was lucky enough to get two interviews with director Wim Wenders. The first, appearing below, was conducted via e-mail by Contributing Editor Devlin Smith, and focuses on the relationship between music and film. The second, conducted in person by staff writer Matt Anderson, discusses the new film as well as the title track Bono and Edge created for it.

He’s been directing movies for more than 30 years, bringing to the screen nearly two dozen German- and English-language full-length features, including 1984′s "Paris, Texas," written by Sam Shepard, "Wings of Desire" and "The Buena Vista Social Club." He also brought Bono’s "Million Dollar Hotel" to the big screen and transformed the members of U2 into guardian angels for the "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" video.

This winter marked the release of Wim Wenders’s 22nd feature film, "Don’t Come Knocking." The film is Wenders second collaboration with Shepard and also includes a title song written by Bono and The Edge and sung by Bono and Andrea Corr. U2 had previously brought Wenders the "Until the End of the World" and "Stay (Faraway, So Close)" title tracks, as well as songs for the "Million Dollar Hotel" soundtrack.

Wenders recently answered the following questions for, talking about his new film, his relationship with U2 and good film music.

Your latest film "Don’t Come Knocking" marks your second collaboration with actor/screenwriter Sam Shepard. What drew you to this script? Also, what made you want to work with Shepard again?

I was simply drawn to work with Sam again. Our collaboration on "Paris, Texas" had just been perfect, as far as writer/director relations go. In fact it had been too good to be true, so to speak, and we had therefore decided not to touch it for a while. You can only ruin a good thing by repeating it too early or too eagerly. But then we met, by complete accident, at a Lou Reed concert in New York and realized how much time had already passed. A few months later I looked at a treatment I had written, by myself, and it hit me—I knew the best writer in the world for that story and for the place I intended it to happen in. It was a family story, mainly dealing with a lost father and an unknown son, and I wanted to shoot it in Montana.

So I called Sam up. He invited me to come and see him. To tell you the truth, he didn’t like my story all that much, almost nothing of it remained, but that was fine with me. That paper had been not more than a pretext to see Sam and before we knew it, we were already figuring out another character and a whole different approach. And then we started writing "Don’t Come Knocking" together. It took us altogether three and a half years.

This film also reunites you with members of U2. Why did you want to have a Bono/Edge song on this soundtrack? What do you think of the song "Don’t Come Knocking"?

Well, it seemed like wishful thinking for a while, and I hadn’t exactly asked Bono. He had seen an early version of the film and had just mentioned that he thought it would be fun to come up with a title song. I wasn’t sure if that was ever going to happen, after all, U2 were in the middle of an utterly successful and demanding tour, they were involved in Live Aid and The ONE Campaign and what not. So we eventually finished the cut, T Bone Burnett scored the film and when we got it ready for the Cannes Film Festival, we had no Bono and Edge song yet. We put something else under the intended scene and under the credits, but just to hold the place, and kept waiting. Nothing happened. I saw Bono a few times (I saw the Vertigo concert in five different cities and twice at the Madison Square Garden) but he was a bit evasive about the song—yes, he was working on it. I didn’t feel like pressing too hard, after all, the man had a lot on his plate and many much more important issues to handle than a song for a movie.

So finally the day came when we just ran out of time. We had to start striking prints, as the film was going to come out in Germany, Italy and France. So my producer and friend Peter [Schwartzkopff] said, "Wim, this title song is a pipedream. In two weeks we’ll have to deliver a couple of hundred prints. Let’s drop the idea." I asked him for a last leeway, so we set a deadline for a Monday two weeks away. On that day the lab would just start making prints, no matter what.

Those two weeks also went by so I confirmed to Peter to go ahead on Monday. But on the Friday night before, I got an e-mail from Edge with a giant attachment. It took a long time to open it and it was the song. I listened to it, jubilant, and loved it (Bono had mentioned he was considering a duet with Andrea but I had no idea how gorgeous that was going to be). The only drawback, the underlying instrumental music was strictly a temp-track. Edge had laid it down on his computer but they didn’t have the time to record it with the full band, the strings and all. So, on one hand, I had the song and, on the other, I was still light years away and I only had that weekend left. So I sent the attachment on from Berlin to T-Bone in LA and told him that he had basically 48 hours to complete it, record the instruments, arrange and mix it. He wrote me back, "Are you out of your mind?" I answered, "No. We have no other choice!" So T-Bone heroically got all the musicians back together that had worked on the score, including Marc Ribot on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums, and did the impossible. He recorded on Saturday night, mixed it on Sunday and Monday morning, when we entered the studio to put the song into the mix and produce a new optical track, the complete song was in the computer. That night they started making prints. Unbelievable but true.

How does the process of commissioning a soundtrack song work? How involved are you in the creation of the song? Do you specify a scene or feeling you want it to evoke or give the artists free range?

As you see in my above account, there is no rule. Bono and Edge knew the film and knew the parameters. With other people, I would have been much more specific but with these guys, you can trust them blindly.

Why do you think you’ve had such a long, successful working relationship with U2? What is it about the music the band members make that fits so well with your films?

Good question. I’m glad I can’t really answer it. I know from my side that there is just a great affinity to their work, musically and spiritually, and an appreciation of who they are and who they managed to remain in spite of all the success and fame. But I’m also glad that part of that affinity will remain mysterious. Of course, I can’t answer for them what they feel or see in my films. Hey, I’m just glad I know those guys.

How important do you think songs are in expressing the theme of your films?

Utterly important. For many people, that song will constitute their first encounter with the film.

What qualities do successful soundtrack songs have? What are some songs from your own films that you think best fit that criteria?

I can’t find any better examples than a couple of songs that U2 made for my films. The title tracks to both "Until the End of the World" as well as "Faraway, So Close!" were perfect, period. They summed up the climate of the film without spelling the message or the feeling out too clearly. If a song is too much on the nose, that becomes dangerous. It just has to evoke the film and what it is about and it also has to be able to stand on its own. People want to love that song on its own behalf, outside the context of the film.

In addition to working with U2 on your soundtracks, you’ve also directed several videos for the band. Is a video planned for "Don’t Come Knocking"?

No, at least not yet. They need a rest, man.

How are film and video directing similar? How are they different?

In directing a video, you just have to adjust to very different criteria. People who’ll see it will not come to a theater and make a choice and pay for it but they see it by chance, on a music channel or as they zap around on their TV. You have to catch their attention in a highly competitive surrounding. Well, that only works if the song is great in the first place. And if you then find a visually compatible way to translate that song back into images (sometimes with a little help from the film’s imagery, but not too much).

What do you like about directing? What do you think your strengths as a director are?

When I was a very young director, I asked myself that. Can I do this better than anybody else? Or can I only do it as good as many others? And then I realized that if I stuck to my own guns and not tried to imitate any other movies, then there was some work that only I could do. And ever since I tried to remain true to that notion that I’d never start a project that I felt other directors could do better or just as well. This way, I discovered my weaknesses (which I will not confess to you but one of them, for a long time, was certainly my tendency to put too much into each film so they often were just too long. I hope I have that under control now.) and also my strengths. One of them might be a heightened sense of place. Most of my films start out with a desire to discover a certain landscape or a city and find the one story that would have to happen there with a certain necessity. I hate movies that could take place just as well somewhere else. So "Don’t Come Knocking," for instance, just had to be set in this fantastic little town in Montana called Butte. I knew that from the outset.

Do you have any future projects lined up? Do you have any definite plans to work with the guys in U2 again in the near future?

Nothing would be more pleasant than to work with them again but I don’t want to become greedy and stretch my luck, they have already given me so much extraordinary music. I don’t think they collaborated on so many projects with any other director. Right now, I don’t even know what my next film will be. I shot really three in a row, back to back, as "Don’t Come Knocking" took altogether five years and as I shot "The Soul of a Man" and "Land of Plenty" in between.

For more information on Wim Wenders, visit his official website or the site for his production company. More about "Don’t Come Knocking" can be found at its official site.

Many thanks to Wim Wenders and Pati Keilwerth for their help with this article.

The Story of U2′s ‘Unforgettable Fire’*

April 3, 2006

By Teresa Rivas

"Poetry is a sort of homecoming."
-Line written by poet Paul Celan, a German-Romanian Jew who survived imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, that inspired the title for the song "A Sort of Homecoming"

Think back to 1984. No, not Orwell’s "1984," when a government went to war with leaders it once supported, and Big Brother had broad power to spy on its own citizens. No, not the fictional "1984" but the year 1984.

Apple had just introduced its first user friendly personal computer. The controversial writer Truman Capote, of "In Cold Blood" fame passed away, and Bob Geldof led Band Aid in the hit single "Do They Know It’s Christmas," with proceeds helping famine-ravaged African nations, according to Infoplease.

That was also the year U2 released "The Unforgettable Fire." After the heady success of "War," the band wasted no time rushing back to the studio to begin work on a follow-up, but it wouldn’t just be business as usual. After the release of the live album "Under a Blood Red Sky," the band wanted to recoup and find a new sound and direction instead of simply relying on the soapbox anthems it worried would become its stereotype. This was helped in no small measure by the work of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois who signed onto the loose jam sessions at Slane Castle, a paced and nurturing beginning to the recording that ended in a frantic frenzy that left a few of the songs less polished than the band would have liked. With less than two weeks before the start of the Unforgettable Fire Tour, Bono was forced to go ahead with the lyrics already written, despite his adamant reserve the band found itself forced under the wire yet again.

The mixed reviews for U2′s fourth album may have reflected that hurried strain at the end. In his review of "The Unforgettable Fire" for Rolling Stone Kurt Loder wrote, "This is not a ‘bad’ album, but neither is it the irrefutable beauty the band’s fans anticipated … The Unforgettable Fire seems to drone on and on, an endless flurry of chinkety guitar scratchings, state-of-the-art sound processing and the most mundane sort of lyrical imagery (barbed wire is a big concept). U2′s original power flickers through only intermittently."

But not all the critiques were of this ilk. CMJ’s New Music Report praised, "Blessed are the music makers: a truly unique guitarist, a fiery vocalist, and a rhythm section that can do just about anything."

The truth about "The Unforgettable Fire," though, is that maybe it’s a little of both.

Bono explained the album’s title to Record magazine in 1985, when asked if it was named after a collection of poetry by Hiroshima survivors. "That’s right—in fact, it’s more than that. The Unforgettable Fire is an exhibition of paintings, drawings and writings done by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were done by people of all age groups, from seven to 70 years old, by amateurs and professionals, and they are an art treasure in Japan. We had come into contact with them through the Chicago Peace Museum, because we were part of an exhibit in the museum in ’83, the Give Peace A Chance exhibit. And the images from the paintings and some of the writings stained me, I couldn’t get rid of them. Their influence on the album was a subliminal one, but I realized as the album was moving on, that this image of ‘the unforgettable fire’ applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of ‘A Sort of Homecoming,’ but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin. So it became a multi-purpose image for me, but it derived from that exhibition."

"Pride (In the Name of Love)" was originally meant to be a warning to then-US president Ronald Reagan about the pride that Bono saw in his foreign policy and heavy-handed American hegemony. But then, instead of fighting fire with fire he took a cue from another man, with the quality in spades, as he told the New Musical Express in October 1984: "I originally wrote ‘Pride’ about Ronald Reagan and the ambivalent attitude in America. It was originally meant as the sort of pride that won’t back down, that wants to build nuclear arsenals. But that wasn’t working. I remember a wise old man who said to me, don’t try to fight darkness with light, just make the light shine brighter. I was giving Reagan too much importance then I thought Martin Luther King, there’s a man. We build the positive rather than fighting with the finger."

The song, the record’s first single, would arguably become the most enduring off the album. Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders happened to be in town at the time, Niall Stokes says in "U2 Into the Heart," and dropped into the studio to lend her voice to the backup vocals, though she would only be credited as Mrs. Christine Kerr (at the time Hynde was married to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds) in the liner notes. Of course the religious imagery remains, though more tempered and sagely-distributed on the record, Stokes notes, "One man betrayed with a kiss."

In 1998 Edge told Q magazine that at first he was doubtful that the band should dabble in the tribute to the civil rights leader. "Because of the situation in our country non-violent struggle was such an inspiring concept. Even so, when Bono told me he wanted to write about King, at first I said, ‘Whoa, that’s not what we’re about.’ Then he came in and sang the song and it felt right, it was great. When that happens there’s no argument. It just was."

But with the sublime comes the reality. "Wire" is about Bono’s ambivalence to the drug culture that had captured some of his friends. "I’m probably an addictive person myself," Stokes quotes him as saying. "There is the fascination of death and of flirting with death that’s part of heroin use."

Of course it wasn’t the first time he had written about the siren song undercurrent of abuse in Ireland, but the juxtaposition after "Pride" is always a sobering one. But then again humanity is made up of extremes. As Bono told concert-goers in 1985 Los Angeles (as transcribed on The Three Sunrises), "You know, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ … in some ways … is … it can be … An unlifting [sic] thing … it can also … It can also drag you down … it can be a consuming force … it can be the drug heroin … It can be the song ‘Wire.’ "

The eponymous track of "The Unforgettable Fire" has echoes of that Holocaust horror but it’s not bound to its remorse. The delicate beginning gives way to the breathy vocals, the vast and colorful carnival imagery, the warning of being pushed too far. Edge told Carter Alan in 1985 that he found it almost "classical." "I see it as a music piece rather than as a song. Bono, in a very unconventional way, explores numerous melodies over sections. Instead of repeating melodies—you know, verses and choruses, which is what everyone does—we’ve got three chorus melodies and two verse melodies. It has a certain symphonic feel for me because there are so many intertwining themes. I know we could have recorded it better but, I think, for all its flaws, I just see it as a great piece of music."

Adam Clayton agreed that despite the Holocaust inspiration, there was more to the life of the music, that they, like the paintings of survivors, were portraits of feeling. He told Neil Storey in the October 1984 issue of U2 magazine, "I don’t think that by calling the album after that exhibition the similarity necessarily goes any further than just endorsing that. I don’t think it’s all album of songs about peace. I think just the feelings and the textures and the colours of those paintings, and the emotions, are the things that are transcending themselves onto the album, rather than any special message."

"Promenade" is another song of great departure from the angry energy of "War." The idyllic melody that mimics the sea in the song, the lulling voice and repetition of "radio" to the fade out ("and miles to go before I sleep") all evoke a calmer mood for the band. It is also shades of Bono’s new life with wife Ali as the couple had recently moved to the seaside resort of Bray, their house overlooking the promenade of restaurants, hotels, theaters houses and pool halls, which all must have looked a curious and hushed blur from above.

Stokes reports that "4th of July" is one of the monikers of Eno’s laidback reception of inspiration. Clayton and Edge began playing together during a break in recording, unaware the producer was even listening, let alone recording. "It was very much a live performance," Edge recalled. "There was no way we could mix it or re-do any of the instruments." While the song may seem an enigmatic way to celebrate Independence Day, Stokes suggests it was more of a "musical diary-entry" for that day in July. An impromptu rendition, a harmonious wink caught on tape.

"Bad" is another song born of improvisation in the studio, begun by Edge and recorded in about three takes so the spontaneous bits filter through onto the record, quirks and feelings that have spawned so many inspired live versions.

"This is a song about the city we grew up in," Bono said in a 1987 performance in Chicago. "A song about Dublin city. And a song about a drug called heroin that’s tearing our city in two … that’s tearing the … the heart out of the city of Dublin … tearing the heart out of the city of Chicago. Rich people stuff dollars in the back of their pocket while poor men lie in gutters with needles stuck in their arms. Screw them, I say. This is a song about a friend of mine who was given on his 21st birthday enough heroin into his bloodstream to kill him. This is a song called ‘Bad.’"

"It’s about a guy we knew who ended up in a bad way because of heroin addiction," Edge elaborated in a 1998 interview with Q magazine. "Bono knew the family, he’d talked to the brothers about it. It was new for him as a lyricist, writing in the first person from someone else’s point of view I don’t think there’s ever been a song about addiction that captures the feeling so vividly."

"Indian Summer Sky" was conceived in that most famous of asphalt jungles, Manhattan, during the War Tour. "A lot of cities in America are built on civilizations long since buried by the American," Bono told Hot Press in June 1985. "A friend of mine, a wise man I know, spent a lot of time within the city—it was Toronto, so cool and so shiny—and he felt extremely troubled and torn in two. There had been a lot of massacres of Red Indian people in that area and he felt in some way as if there were troubled spirits still there. What I was trying to get across was a sense of a spirit trapped in a concrete jungle—something like that. Again these are just glimpses, these songs. A lot of the subject matter is very impressionistic."

Bono’s frustration with the carpet bagging work of biographer Albert Goldman, who attacked some of rock’s greatest figures after their deaths when it was too late for them to defend themselves from his wild fabrications would be a theme in "Rattle and Hum’s" "God Part 2." The "instant karma" an obvious reference to John Lennon, the latest of Goldman’s victims. However, in "Elvis Presley and America" the subject is not the ex-Beatle, but The King, and Bono hoped to convey the real icon.

He told Hot Press, "it was partly a reaction to the Albert Goldman book which tried to portray him as the archetypal rock ‘n’ roll idiot, but the way he held the mike, the way he sang into the mike—this was a genius. But his decline just tore at me and when I picked up the mike, it was a completely off the wall thing and I just began to sing. And I think it does evoke that decline, the stupor, the period when—if you’ve seen the clips of him—he forgets his words and fumbles." Stokes recalls that Bono didn’t want to release the song because it was such a raw rendition, with off the cuff lyrics and deviations, but Eno’s hand is again evident in the freshness of the track.

When asked about Bono’s unclear delivery, Clayton said it was at the heart of the song. "You can’t work out what he’s saying, right? Could anyone work out what Elvis Presley was saying? That is the whole point," he told the Bay Area Music Magazine in December 1984. "Elvis Presley was an inarticulate man, except when he was performing his art and he got behind the microphone and he sang with that voice and moved his body in that way. Then everyone thought, ‘Wow, this is a very interesting guy—we want to interview him.’ So you interviewed him, and everyone said, ‘Oh, the guy’s stupid.’ He couldn’t communicate in real life except when he was moving and singing, and I think the song says that. Evidently it says that, if everyone’s so pissed off at it."

"It was becoming a trademark," Stokes writes of U2′s inclination for ending albums with a moving, healing note. "Now that ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ was done, it was time for a spiritual and ‘MLK’ provided it. It was a lullaby, a song of reassurance and reconciliation. A song of hope."