Helicopters, Big Sky Country and Soup Can Rollers: 11 Weeks on the Road to “Paris, Texas”

First shoot day, "Paris, Texas," The Devil's Graveyard, Terlingua, TX, 9/29/83, l to r: Jean-Paul Mugel, Wim Wenders, Helen Caldwell, Robbie Müller, Pim Tjujerman, Agnes Godard and Harry Dean Stanton

First day of shooting, “Paris, Texas,” The Devil’s Graveyard, Big Bend, near Terlingua, TX, 9/29/83, left to right: Jean-Paul Mugel, Wim Wenders, Helen Caldwell, Robbie Müller, Pim Tjujerman, Agnes Godard and Harry Dean Stanton

I was surprised when Harris asked me to introduce a screening of “Paris, Texas” on September 15th at the IFC Center, which is the first venue for Wim Wenders’ comprehensive (28 films) and very exciting retrospective, “Portraits Along the Road.” I thought of Ringo saying (perhaps apocryphally), “I’m just the drummer.” And as the still photographer, I wasn’t even the drummer.

But I remember the amazing experience clearly: what it was like on the set, on the bus, during downtime. And because image making wasn’t as easy and ubiquitous as it’s become with iPhones, I was the only one who documented all of it.

The first day of production, a helicopter ferried us to the spectacular location, The Devil’s Graveyard in Big Bend, near Terlingua. The great Dutch cinematographer Robbie Müller, invited me to hang out of the chopper next to him to shoot stills, so that I could closely approximate his frame. It was an inappropriate moment to discuss my intense fear of flying. I did my job–it was thrilling.

Working on “Paris, Texas” felt like living in a Wim Wenders movie. We didn’t have all the money–film-crazy crew members (including AD Claire Denis, AC Agnès Godard and PA Allison Anders) would have worked for IOUs, but not the teamsters–and the script was being written as we went by Wim, aided by Kit Carson during work hours, and on the phone with Sam Shepard after we wrapped.

The film was shot in sequence: Texas, Los Angeles and back to Texas. We took very long bus trips. Waking up one day in Fort Stockton, approximately in the center of the state, we headed west to El Paso, a drive so interminable that the Americans on the crew said, “I can’t believe we’re in the same state,” and the Europeans said, “I can’t believe we’re in the same country.”

We often took our time, Wim and Robbie waiting for perfect light (or for a train in the distance to cross behind the scene) which seemed strange to the crew out of L.A. Soon a line said by Harry Dean Stanton (who starred as Travis) to Aurore Clemént (Anne), “Never rush,” became a group in-joke. One day after we’d finally made the shot in an infinite, big sky field in Alpine, Robbie looked around asking, “Where’s the landscape?” Everywhere, obviously, and then we realized we’d misheard–he’d been searching for his lens cap.

In Port Arthur, birthplace of Robert Rauschenberg, Nastassja Kinski (Jane), with her hair in soup can rollers, and I got soft ice cream at the Dairy Queen. She exerted a force field, making manners impossible and everyone there, smiling goofily, stared at her.

Wim, with a small crew shot a scene on Super 8 (which didn’t make the film’s final cut), Jane reunited with her young son (Hunter Carson) in a small Gulf Coast town, Holly Beach, LA. Looking for lunch, we went into the general store and shoppers and clerks, mesmerized, unwittingly followed Nastassja around the sunny room.

I had gotten this idea that I wanted to work on a film directed by one of the directors of the  Neue Deutsche Kino. It didn’t seem like an obstacle that I didn’t speak German, except for the numbers from one to 10, and the few phrases I had picked up from Fassbinder’s disaffected characters:  ja ja, alles klar, sehr schön. I also knew the word for the job I wanted, what it was called in a film’s credits–Standphotografin (and I knew it in French too, photographe du plateau).

This was 1982 and people were harder to find (no websites, no email addresses, no twitter handles) but I was much younger and it seemed totally doable. I wrangled an assignment from a now-defunct art magazine to shoot portraits of artists and dealers, the art and the crowds at Documenta 7, which got me to Kassel. From there I went to Munich and photographed Volker Schlöndorff, Reinhard Hauff and actors and crew who had worked with Fassbinder (who had died suddenly a few weeks earlier). And early in July, with information from his producers in New York, I traveled to Salzburg to find Wim Wenders (where he was directing Peter Handke’s “Über die Dörfer”) to ask for a job.

I located the theater where I assumed Wim must be rehearsing–the festival office wouldn’t help me–and camped outside, looking for a place to shoot. When Rüdiger Vogler (whom I recognized from several of Wim’s films) emerged, I asked if Wim were inside. He seemed surprised–I assumed it was my American accent–said, yes, he’d be out soon. And as Wim exited, I jumped up, talking–babbling, more accurately–about doing a portrait of him right then and how I’d love to do stills/specials on his next film. He said he’d be shooting in the United States and would be happy to have me on the crew.

A few weeks later the Village Voice unexpectedly ran the portrait across four columns, accompanying Jim Hoberman’s article on the Wenders retrospective which inaugurated Film Fourm’s (then) new location on Watts St. And in July 1983, I was officially hired to work on “Paris, Texas.”

“Paris, Texas” continues to screen at the IFC Center through Thursday, September 17. I’ll introduce the 6:55 pm show on Tuesday, September 15. (Yes, it felt a bit strange writing the previous sentence.) “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road” runs through Thursday, September 24 at IFC and will travel to more than 15 U.S. and Canadian cities, organized by Janus Films.

Self-portrait, between Alpine and Davis, TX, 10/83

Self-portrait, between Alpine and Davis, TX, 10/83

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One Response to Helicopters, Big Sky Country and Soup Can Rollers: 11 Weeks on the Road to “Paris, Texas”

  1. Pingback: NYFF54: Revivals (Paris, Kentucky*) | Talking Pictures

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