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.
In Houston, I was waiting on my new helper.
Sam Shepard and I collaborated on the Paris, Texas script (back then, it was known as Motel Chronicles).
It was time to begin earnest preparations for the film, having scouted large swathes of the American West on my own.
This was a German-French coproduction that was going to be filmed in the US with a crew composed primarily of Europeans.
a venture that was unprecedented at the time.
In retrospect, analogous to guerilla filming…
My French co-producer had concluded that she had located the ideal helper to lead us securely through our venture into uncharted territory: a young lady named Claire Denis.
She was a new person to me.
I had no idea what her appearance was.
One morning, she appeared at the downtown Houston hotel.
We approached one another somewhat awkwardly.
Would English be the preferred language in Texas, or were we going to converse in French?
It turned out that my potential assistant was smaller than I thought.
The word “frail” would be appropriate.
She had short blond hair and was staring at me with wide awake and eager eyes.
Was this hard a task for her?
My eyes may have conveyed my thoughts.
She gave a timid smile.
Only time would tell.
Time certainly did tell!
It’s reasonable to say that Claire carried this movie through on her own.
Through thick and thin, she navigated with it.
We were obliged to hire a dozen drivers when the teamsters discovered us and realized that the majority of our European crew members were only here on tourist visas.
The scary alternative we faced was being deported from the nation.
The movie is over!
We were forced to accept their offer, which significantly reduced our available funds.
Claire was forced to reduce the eight-week filming schedule to six, then to five.
Anybody would have been terrified just by that.
Claire lacked fear.
The first two weeks were when we ran out of script.
(Sam Shepard was meant to stay with us and write the second part of the movie while we were filming.
However, he later fell in love with Jessica Lange and chose to star in a movie called Country opposite her.
Shot from a thousand miles away, that.
I was no longer a writer.)
The workers had to be sent home when we had to stop the shoot.
Claire was the only person left.
Sitting at a rundown Hollywood hotel, the two of us tried to think of a way this movie could possibly go on.
And she dug us out of this hole.
Claire assisted me in writing a story, which I sent to Sam, who worked on the dialogue all night and narrated it to me far past midnight.
(This was before fax machines and the internet.)
Well, we did finish the shoot.
Claire didn’t let up.
We had completely ran out of money by the time principal photography was really completed, but we still needed a few extra sequences and travel shots.
Thus, we shot last week with a crew so small that Claire performed nearly every other role in addition to mine, Robby Müller, and my cameraman.
My credit cards were paid in full until they were exhausted.
Ultimately, we were forced to cease eating.
The unsung hero of the entire journey was Claire.
Without her, I could not have completed Paris, Texas!
Her perseverance and strength were inversely correlated with her stature.
I didn’t know much at the time of that first meeting.
When we reunited a few years later for what was to become Wings of Desire, she even outdid the incredible work of our first collaboration.
To even consider shooting a whole movie without a screenplay
If I hadn’t known that Klärchen would be supporting me, I never would have ventured to take on a project like that.
Claire went by that name at the time.)
In fact, a large wall in my workplace helped us create this movie.
Photos of my favorite spots from across the city were adorning one side.
The other half consisted of a large deck of cards with scribbled sketches representing various scenarios.
Our invisible characters could explore a plethora of tale possibilities, and our heroes were guardian angels.
In any case, the plot wasn’t all that complicated.
We truly created this movie as if it were a poem, adding a new line each day without knowing what will come next.
I sat in front of this wall with Claire late at night, trying to figure out where this adventure was leading us.
We even created a new character one night, an ex-angel, while we were already well into the filming process.
And then the unbelievable happened: we found the actor for it that very night, and he even agreed to do it over the phone, laughing uncontrollably at the absurd idea of traveling from Los Angeles to Berlin to play the unwritten role of Peter Falk, a former guardian angel who has now become a human.
Claire was my personal guardian angel in this movie.
She was my assistant in the American sense, leading the shoot like a military operation, but she was also my confidante in the more European sense, sharing my creative problems, anxieties, and fantasies
These two incidents could not be followed up on.
It was evident that Claire was more than prepared to direct her own movies.
To have kept her on as an assistant director would have been a waste.
I’m glad I could provide a hand (a little) so she could begin her filmmaking career with the masterpiece that was Chocolat and return to Africa.
History is what’s left.
And this book should shed a lot of fresh light on the incredible director that Klärchen turned out to be—a career she created entirely on her own, not much of which was influenced by her previous work as the best first assistant I have ever had, to name just one.
Wim Wenders is a German film director, producer, photographer and writer. His internationally renowned films include Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, The American Friend, Paris,Texas and Wings of Desire. His book, Inventing Peace, co-authored with Mary Zournazi, is out now.
From 2006 – 2012 Marjorie Vecchio was Director and Curator for Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery, University of Nevada, Reno. She has been a Board Member since 2012 of Signal Fire Artist Residency. In Fall 2009 she won the inaugural semester-long-Scholar-in-Residence at Columbus State University in Georgia to begin The Films of Claire Denis: Intimacy on the Border.
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