Later this month we publish The Films of Claire Denis: Intimacy at the Border. Edited by Marjorie Vecchio, and including interviews with Denis’ crew and the director herself, this volume throws breathtaking insight on the work and critical impact of one of the most challenging and respected of contemporary filmmakers.
Prior to making her own films, Denis worked as Wim Wenders’ assistant on films like Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. Below, taken from the foreword to the book, Wenders takes an affectionate look at how his collaboration with Klärchen (as she was known then) begun.
I was waiting for my new assistant in Houston.
I had worked on the script for Paris, Texas with Sam Shepard,
(well, it was called Motel Chronicles then…)
I had traveled huge parts of the American West on my own
in preparation for the film
and now it was about time to start prepping it for real.
The project was a German–French co-production,
to be shot entirely in the US,
by an almost all-European crew.
An enterprise unheard of at the time.
Some sort of guerilla filmmaking, in hindsight…
My French co-producer had determined
that she had found the perfect assistant for this task
to guide us safely through this journey into unknown territory:
A young woman by the name of Claire Denis…
I had not met her before.
I didn’t even know what she looked like.
She showed up one morning at the hotel in downtown Houston.
We walked towards each other, a bit awkwardly.
Were we going to speak French together
or would English be the language of choice here in Texas?
My future assistant was smaller than I had anticipated.
“Frail” would be the right word.
She stared at me
with curious, wide-awake eyes under short blond hair.
Was she up for this tough job?
Maybe my eyes showed what I thought.
She smiled shyly…
Only time would tell.
Well, time did tell!
I can safely say that Claire single-handedly pulled this film through.
She steered it through thick and thin.
When the teamsters discovered us
and found out that most of our European crew members
worked on tourist visas
they forced us to employ a dozen drivers.
Our alternative was terrifying: to be thrown out of the country.
End of the film!
We had to accept the deal they offered
which took a huge chunk out of our budget.
Claire had to shorten the shooting schedule from eight weeks
down to six, then to five…
That alone would have scared the shit out of anybody.
Claire was fearless.
We ran out of script after the first two weeks.
(Sam Shepard was supposed to stay with us during the shoot
and write the second half of the film as we were going along.
But then he fell in love with Jessica Lange
and decided to play opposite her in a film called Country.
That was shot a thousand miles away.
I had lost my writer…)
We had to interrupt the shoot and send the crew home.
Everybody was gone except for Claire.
The two of us sat in a crummy hotel in Hollywood
and tried to figure out how this film could possibly continue.
She got us out of this hole, too.
With Claire’s help I managed to write a story and ship it to Sam
who would write dialogue overnight
and dictate it to me way after midnight.
(This was in the age before internet or fax machines…)
We continued the shoot, after all.
Claire was relentless.
When we had actually finished principal photography
we had run totally run out of money
but we still needed a few extra scenes and travel shots.
So we shot a last week with a team so reduced
that apart from Robby Müller, my cameraman, and me,
Claire fulfilled practically all other functions.
We paid all the bills on my credit cards until they were busted.
In the end we literally had to stop eating.
Claire was the unsung hero of this whole adventure.
I could not have done Paris, Texas without her!
Her strength and perseverance
were in reverse proportion to her physical size.
Little had I known on that first encounter…
She even surpassed the heroic efforts of our first collaboration
when we teamed up a couple of years later
for what was going to become Wings of Desire.
To even think about doing an entire film without a script…
I would not have dared approaching a project like that
if I hadn’t known I was going to be backed up by Klärchen.
(That was Claire’s name by then.)
We actually made this film with the help of a big wall in my office.
One side was covered with photographs
of my favorite places from all over the city.
The other half was a whole bunch of cards
with loosely sketched ideas for all sorts of scenes.
Our heroes were guardian angels
and there were countless story possibilities
that could be explored by our invisible characters.
Well, there wasn’t much of a plot, anyway.
We really made this film like you would write a poem:
every day we would add a new line
not knowing what the next day would bring.
Claire and I spent late-night hours in front of this wall,
trying to figure out where this journey was taking us.
One night, deep into our shoot already,
we even dreamed up a new character: an ex-angel.
And the miraculous happened:
that very night we found the actor for it
and he even agreed on the phone to do it,
laughing his heart out about such a preposterous proposition
to come from LA to Berlin to play the unwritten part
of a former guardian angel now turned human: Peter Falk.
My own guardian angel on this film was Claire.
She was both the assistant in the American sense of the profession
that she would lead the shoot like a military operation,
and in a more European tradition
she shared all creative issues, fears and dreams with me.
There was no way to follow up on these two experiences.
And one thing was clear:
Claire was more than ready to make her own films.
It would have been a waste to let her continue
working as an assistant director.
I am proud that I was able to help (a bit)
that she could go (back) to Africa
and start her directing career with the masterpiece
that Chocolat turned out to be.
The rest is history.
And this book will hopefully throw many new lights
on the amazing director that Klärchen became,
a path she carved out all on her own,
and that didn’t owe much to her first career
as the greatest first assistant (not only) I ever had. ■