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The Great Train Robbery

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" For your information, my life is a living Hell "
— Elizabeth Hurley (as the devil), Bedazzled

MRQE Top Critic

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Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind.

What’s true in science is true in art as well, if filmmaker Wim Wenders is any gauge. Whether it’s working with Bono, filming in Butte, or producing movies under a tight budget, Wenders prefers to leave room for the unexpected.

After a marathon 90-minute Q&A the night before, the soft-spoken and thoughtful Wenders still had stories to tell about his newest film, Don’t Come Knocking, and about his career. Considering how many of these stories involved chance and serendipity, Wenders must have a very prepared mind.

Wenders is good at finding serendipity
Wenders is good at finding serendipity

The German filmmaker, best known for Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas, finds one of the primary differences in European and American filmmaking in the handling of the screenplay itself. While Americans tend to view the screenplay as a blueprint to be strictly adhered to, Wenders is more comfortable with the German approach, wherein filmmaking itself is still regarded as a sort of adventure.

That dichotomy ultimately led Wenders down the independent path. “I produced everything myself, after Hammett, which was the only time I was a hired hand. I realized my kind of movies—I could only keep making them, and I could only do what I was good at, if I just took it upon myself to produce them. And it’s a hassle sometimes and a waste of energy in many ways, but it’s the price you pay in order to do exactly what you want. Sam and I, we controlled this film 100%. There was nobody who ever interfered.

“I’d rather do movies with little money but be able to exactly say what I want than a lot of money and you can’t say anything you want; you can do a lot with it, but you can’t say a lot with it.”

By European standards, the $10 million budget for Don’t Come Knocking is at the upper reaches of the independent “low budget” movie, but still a long way off from the typical Hollywood production. And by Wenders’ own standards, the budget was a nice sum, having come fresh off directing Land of Plenty on a modest $500,000 budget.

While working outside the main Hollywood system, Wenders still loves to make movies in – and about – America. It’s the American landscape that offers plenty of inspiration for Wenders and his work.

“Most of my films have been made because I found a city or landscape that I felt needed to be told, or needed to tell me a story. And then I found a story that had to take place there.”

”When I shaped up this guy Howard, this idiot, who was eventually ending up somewhere where he was going to find the life he didn’t have, I told Sam this is my chance in a lifetime to finally make a movie in Butte, Montana. And I told him, however he gets there, when he gets there, it’s going to be Butte.”

Wenders’ first taste of apple pie was Paris, Texas, released in 1984. It was his first collaboration with playwright and actor Sam Shepard, and it earned him the Golden Palm at Cannes.

Their success was so satisfying that the two agreed to leave well enough alone. “We enjoyed ourselves immensely. As a writer and director it doesn’t get much better. We then realized it was probably much better if we lost each others’ phone number, and not touch it again. Because repeating it would just ruin it.”

The two were as good as their word. They lost contact with each other. And even if they had tried, Wender says of Shepard, “there is one man you cannot be in constant contact with. He is very evasive. At least he does have a cell phone now. For years he didn’t have one, so you could never find him. He would be gone for weeks and you couldn’t reach him, and he [would be] on some rodeo trip. He’s not exactly a writer of letters, either.”

But chance stepped in a few years ago when Wenders bumped into Shepard. “One day I met him at a Lou Reed concert, of all places, in New York. He said ‘How long has it been?’ We realized it was 18 years, and maybe enough of abstinence.”

Half a year later, Wenders had a treatment for a movie that sounded like a cross between About Schmidt and Broken Flowers. He showed it to Shepard who “shredded” it, but plucked out one of Wenders’ tangents and made it the focus a full-fledged screenplay. Wenders’ dissatisfied banker Howard was now a fading cowboy actor on the run from the prison of Hollywood.

Music always plays a significant role in Wenders’ films and this time is no different, with T-Bone Burnett providing the score and U2’s Bono and The Edge providing the title song.

That U2 connection goes way back, with the band providing songs for several of Wenders’ movies and Wenders directing some U2 videos. Wenders even directed Bono’s screenplay for The Million Dollar Hotel.

The title song to Don’t Come Knocking is a duet between Bono and Andrea Corr (of the Irish group The Corrs) that accompanies the film’s end credits.

Music always plays a significant role in Wenders’ films
Music always plays a significant role in Wenders’ films

But even getting that title song is another story of chance to add to Wenders’ history. Having seen a rough cut of the movie, Bono loved what he saw and volunteered to possibly write the title song.

As Wenders explains, “We finished editing the movie and T-Bone recorded the entire score and soundtrack and everything. We put some other music at the back to just hold the place of our title song, but we never got a title song.”

Undaunted, Wenders took Don’t Come Knocking to Cannes last year without the elusive title song, using instead one of T-Bone’s songs as a temporary track over the end credits.

“U2 were doing the Vertigo tour, Bono was involved with Live 8, the One campaign; if you wanted to reach him he was either talking to Bush in Washington, to Blair in London, to Chirac… I mean, it seemed ridiculous to believe he was going to write a song, let alone record it.”

With release dates looming, Wenders finally had to draw a line in the sand and begin striking the film’s first prints for Germany and France, where the film was released late last summer. “So we told the lab, from next Monday on we’re going to make prints.

“The Friday before, Friday night I got an e-mail with a very long attachment. From Bono. I open it, and it was the song, but it was just Bono’s voice and Andrea’s voice and there was a temp track underneath it Edge had done on the computer, because they just didn’t have time to record all of it, to polish it.”

Wenders then passed the e-mail attachment on to Burnett, who was in turn challenged with completing the song’s background track over the weekend.

As nutty as the assignment may have been, Burnett was able to reassemble his band, record Edge’s arrangement, mix the track on Sunday, and Monday morning, when Wenders got back in the studio, he had the complete song.

As Wenders sums it up, “It was as narrow as it can get.”

But the mere fact that the film was called “Don’t Come Knocking” is also a matter of chance.

Wenders recalls, “the title for Don’t Come Knocking,” (and thus the song), “came in the course of the writing. I think my first title was ‘In America,’ until Susan Sontag had a book [by the same title]. And then before I knew it, Jim Sheridan had a movie [by the same title], so that title was gone. And for a while we had the title of the film inside the film, that was ‘Phantom of the West,’ but that was too much on the money.”

The movie was also nearly named after a highway sign that Wenders and his crew weren’t even supposed to see. The final shot of the movie frames a highway sign reading “Divide: 1 / Wisdom: 52.”

When Wenders and his crew were filming Shepard driving across the country, they were so enamored by the landscape that they overshot their exit. When they finally pulled off the highway, they stopped directly in front of that sign. Wenders found it to be serendipitously perfect for the story of the cowboy still looking for wisdom and trying to bridge gaps after all these years. Wenders nearly called the movie “Wisdom 52” or “52 Miles to Wisdom.”

Watching the movie, you can see why Wenders might want to film on the Montana highways. Even the town of Butte is perfect for the story. Butte, like Howard, was once a Western star, and still plays one in the movies. But modern life sneaks in, and the old glory is mostly facade.

The fanciest hotel in town has a rich, expensive, antique-looking lobby. But when Howard gets into his room, the “antique” looks so old you can almost smell the musty years. Another scene takes place on the old plank sidewalk in downtown Butte… right in front of the plate-glass windows of a gym, where health nuts doing cardio watch the unfolding drama with disinterest.

Surrounding the town are buttes and bluffs, mountainous terrain with clean, clear air. As filmed by Wenders, you can almost feel the brisk high-altitude temperatures in the crisp blue skies.

Key to capturing the small-town feel is the cinematography. Wenders takes credit for framing. “Since my first film the framing is mine.” But cinematographer Franz Lustig contributed as well. He has worked with Wenders for years, shooting mostly smaller projects, including Land of Plenty, which was a digital shoot.

There was a scene with an unnatural-seeming change of light that was so jarring, it seemed like either a mistake by a rookie or a calculated, bold stroke by an artist.

The scene in question is one in which Howard, standing in the wreckage of an emotional fight, watches his son storm off and out of frame. We stay on the figure of Howard as the entire scene darkens.

“It’s not what you think,” says Wenders. “We shot this scene on a completely sunny day. Blue skies. Not a single cloud. And just at the moment that Earl is running out of the shot, out of nowhere this incredible shadow came down the street and threw a big shadow on Howard. It could not have been timed more perfectly.

“We just stood there, our mouths open. We looked up and there was the tiniest little cloud, just one little thing, there was nothing else in the sky, and it had timed itself perfectly.

It wasn’t Lustig’s inexperienced hand on the aperture, it was chance.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies