Land of Plenty
Directed by Wim Wenders
Starring Michelle Williams and John Diehl
DVD Extras include commentary by director Wim Wenders
INTERVIEW WITH WIM WENDERS
CR: How did you develop LAND OF PLENTY?
WW: The movie came about in a matter of days. My film with Sam Shepard, DON?T COME KNOCKING, had to be postponed, for financing reasons, and all of a sudden I had a whole summer at hand, several months in which I could do whatever I wanted. Like making another movie. I have done some of my best work in such a situation: Just go ahead and do it! Tell what?s most important to you at that moment. I didn?t hesitate (once I had overcome the first disappointment of not being able to do DON?T COME KNOCKING then) and wrote down an outline of a story in 2 weeks. It dealt with everything that concerned me about America at the time. Poverty, paranoia, patriotism. My friend Scott Derrickson helped me with that treatment. It contained the two main characters, Paul and Lana, and the basic outline of their story. Then I needed to find somebody who could actually write it, fast and furious. I found that person in Michael Meredith, whose first film THREE DAYS OF RAIN had impressed me a lot. He had written it himself, based on a handful of Chekov short stories, and I thought he had written great dialogue for it. Well, it took Michael 4 weeks to write the first draft. In the meantime, Peter Schwartzkopff and I financed the film with our production company Reverse Angle, in coproduction with InDiGent in New York and IFC Films, I cast it and found the locations, and when the script was ready, we were basically ready to shoot. Of course, such freedom comes only with a small budget. You can?t expect to make a multimillion dollar movie that way.
CR: The shooting schedule was incredibly short, how did you finish filming in this timeframe?
WW: Our entire shooting schedule consisted of 16 days. Plus the road trip in the van across America, which we did with a mini-team of 5 people, me included. That took another week. But 16 days to make an entire movie is nothing. A short three weeks! That?s like a warm-up period for other movies. It meant we always had to finish scenes in one day, and we could never come back to a scene and embellish it or add anything. It meant 2 or 3 takes as an average, short rehearsal periods and quick decisions. We shot an average of 42 set-ups a day, more than on most TV shows. On film, this would have been impossible. The digital technology and the DV cameras we were using really made this movie possible. Franz did 90% of the shots hand-held. Still, he was lighting most of the time like for a regular film shoot. Even for daylight exteriors we used lights and reflectors. The key to all that was a tireless crew. We worked an average of 14 to 16 hours a day. But never any complaints. On the contrary, I have rarely done an entire film with such a good-spirited and inspired crew. Our "InDigEnt" production model was probably a reason for that. Everybody on the set got paid the same--$100 a day--and everybody has a piece of the gross profit of the film. 40% of the film?s revenue go to cast and crew, right off the start, from the first income. So everybody was a co-producer, so to speak.
CR: Why did you pick a young director of photography, Franz Lustig, who had only shot commercials and videos before? Can you tell us about the lighting and the particular choice of colors you made with the DP?
WW: I had worked with Franz on a couple of music videos and commercials, so I knew he was highly gifted, as a lighting cameraman as well as an operator. We shot LAND OF PLENTY entirely hand-held, which I wouldn?t have dared with anybody else. Franz just has a miraculous touch. Due to our budget restrictions, the film was shot on DV, but on a new generation of cameras that shoot full frames. We used a Panasonic and shot in the 25p mode. The gain of quality that progressive scan brought, allowed us to blow up the digital master to Cinemascope, and the result was astonishing. When we saw the first tests, nobody believed they came from these tiny DV cameras. Of course the quality of the image still depends a lot on the lighting. We rarely shot with available light only, and even in daylight situations Franz used a lot of reflectors. Some of our interior sets or night shots were lit as elaborately as you would do for a regular 35mm feature. Still, the DV cameras and the hand-held style allowed us to proceed so much faster. In our whirlwind 16-day shooting schedule we shot an average of 42 set-ups a day, the record being a 65 set-up day. Those were real set-ups, not just lens changes. But the full potential of a digital shoot lies really in the color correction and the amount of work you can get done on your image, its contrast, its density, its colors etc in post. Franz and I spent ten days colortiming our master, with the invaluable help of Peter Deinas who had already worked with me on the remastering of all my older films.
CR: What advantages are there to shooting digitally?
WW: With the hand-held digital cameras we were indeed always in the middle of the action, sometimes very close to the actors. But without the intimidating equipment overload that comes with most film shoots. In intimate scenes, for instance when Lana wakes up at night and prays, there were just Franz and myself in the room with the actress. You can feel that in her performance. As a director, you can really concentrate on the actor?s face and the voice, "the image" is somehow of less importance than in a film shoot. Here it?s all about immediacy and realism and truth. Aesthetic considerations are still there, but they are clearly less important. It?s totally performance-driven. And the actors have more freedom. They can easily start over and interrupt in the middle of the scene: "Oh, let me do that again!" and here you go, without a new slate. You can easily shoot the rehearsals, too. Focus pulling is less of a hassle, as the focal range and depth of focus are less critical with these cameras than with 35mm equipment. So actors don?t have to be all that weary about hitting their marks perfectly. Franz with his hand-held camera could easily compensate for that. The disadvantages? Well, on screen you have less definition and less "beauty" than if you had shot on film. But considering that this adventure would never have materialized if we had contemplated doing it on film, there is no complaint. When we blew up our digital master to Cinemascope for the first time, we thought the look was absolutely mind-blowing. There was a lot of "production value" on the screen, except that we only paid a fraction of what it would have normally cost, and that we never had to make any compromise in terms of what the film was about. In this low-budget production, our content was the paramount issue. The film says everything it meant to say. With big budgets and all the means in the world, that is rarely the case.
CR: "Angst and Alienation in America" was the film?s working title. Why did you change it to "Land of Plenty"?
WW: I never intended ANGST AND ALIENATION IN AMERICA to be the real title of the film. It would have scared everybody away. But it was a fun working title. When you?re shooting, you?re asked for the title of the movie all the time, by bystanders, policemen, officials, service companies etc. And when you say: "We?re working on ?Angst and alienation in America,?" I can assure you: You get some great reactions. Anyway, I needed a working title quickly, and couldn?t come up with one, and then I remembered that in the beginning, when my first films were reviewed in the US, American critics across the board agreed that this German fellow made movies about angst, alienation and America. At the time, I had jokingly called them my "Triple-A-movies". So now I thought I could, for once, use the critics? inspiration and named this film project respectively. The company that we formed to produce LAND OF PLENTY was in fact called "Triple-A-Productions". The drawback was only that we always got these calls from people who had car trouble. (They thought we were the American Automobile Association.)
CR: The construction of the film echoes PARIS, TEXAS, which begins as a roadmovie but then comes to a halt, while LAND OF PLENTY begins in Los Angeles and then evolves into a road-movie in the last part of the film.
WW: When Paul and Lana get in the van and drive from Los Angeles to Trona in the Mojave desert and subsequently across the United States to New York, the film becomes a road movie, indeed, and so might evoke PARIS, TEXAS. I can?t hide, I guess, that shooting on the road is something I really take pleasure in.
CR: Would you comment on your interest in the American landscape....is it a character in the film? What was the reason for returning to the area of Los Angeles where MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL is set and the location for Trona?
WW: The body of the film takes place in downtown Los Angeles, an area I had "discovered" during the shooting of MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL. But in that film we really moved strictly in the parameters of one street block. "The hunger capital of America" remained very much in the background. I felt at the time that I would have liked to give it more importance, but our story didn?t allow for that. Since then, things have not gotten better down there, on the contrary. The area is still a giant disaster zone, largely, and the proximity of total luxury and utter deprivation very shocking. This time, we could give the description of Downtown LA much more space, with our main location, the fictional "Bread of Life Mission" right in the middle of it. We dressed that old fire station ourselves, which was by far our biggest production effort. (I had shot in there already for HAMMETT, 25 years ago, and used it as the set of a Chinese gambling hall.) This is as "American" a cityscape as they come, a true melting pot, with all styles of buildings mixed with each other, and people of all races doing business there. The "Garment District", the "Toy District", the "Fashion District" and the "Art District" flow seamlessly into each other. And all over, in the middle of it, the population of homeless people that take over the streets at night. For a young person, like Lana, to return to her home country from spending the last ten years in Africa, this place was quite a shock. The least she expected to return to when she arrived in LA was another third World place, so to speak. TRONA in the Mojave Desert was a stark contrast to that. I had discovered that little industrial city when I was looking for locations for TEN MINUTES OLDER. Again, I felt I hadn?t been able to give it the space it would have needed. In that short section (my film, like everybody else?s was just ten minutes long) I could only show a tiny piece of Trona in the opening sequence, afterwards the film continued in the desert. In LAND OF PLENTY, Trona has a huge importance in the story. For Paul, it is the obvious "sleeper" hideout for terrorist cells, while it turns out to just be a little town in deep depression. The common theme for both places was poverty, that unknown category when you think of America, the richest nation in the world. Poverty is the real subtext of the film, even if we didn?t make it the explicit subject of our interest. And then, finally, there was this trip across the United States in the van, only the tiny last chapter of the film, just 5 minutes long, but with the opportunity to condense "the American landscape" into the length of one song, Leonard Cohen?s magnificent LAND OF PLENTY, our title song. The three "places" of the film, Downtown LA, Trona, the open road, really complement each other and together form a sort of "other America", a less-known one, for sure, but representing a poignant reality of deprivation, socially as well as culturally, that stands in stark contrast to the image of the military superpower with its exhilarating expenses made abroad, resources that are badly missing at home.
CR: Let?s talk about the score. Leonard Cohen is central to the film score. Why did you pick Cohen? How much do you relate to his work? The last title we hear over the end credits is called The Letters. Is it an original song?
WW: I was listening a lot to Cohen?s "Ten New Songs" last year. It?s a brilliant album, sharp and accurate and utterly contemporary, yet not polemic. And not cynical at all. That alone has become such a rare quality! My favorite song was "Land of Plenty", and I played it a lot when I was driving to the shoot or returning home. Until it hit me that it was the perfect title for the film I was doing, indeed the perfect title song. I had never met Leonard, but friends helped me to get together with him. He turned out to be the most gentle person on this planet. He read my script and then he was not opposed to the idea of letting me use his song. And later on, when I already had a rough cut, he played me some new songs he was working on, among them "The Letters". He couldn?t have written it more fittingly for the ending of my film. It will be on his next album. And it is playing over our end credits
CR: How did your collaboration with Thom come about for the score?
WW: I happened to hear Thom?s first album, "Gods and Monsters" while I was editing. Actually, a friend urged me to listen to it. I was blown away by all aspects of it, Thom?s vocals, the quality of the lyrics, the arrangements. I was looking for a composer, or a band who would put their mark on the film. Thom seemed just like God-sent. That was the kind of music I had in mind. Contemporary, melodic, innovative, without being too imposing. Their was a touch of Radiohead in Thom?s voice, but there were also reminiscences of the Beatles and the Sixties. Altogether very complex and moody. And then I met Thom, together with PC, his collaborator and musical co-genius, and the two of them were in no way intimidated by the prospect of writing and recording our score in a couple of weeks. I went to their recording sessions every night, and slowly saw and heard the score emerge. I?m very happy with it--it?s very coherent and fits the film like a glove. Plus we used some of Thom?s songs from his album. Thom?s voice appears almost like a Greek choir every now and then, with the lyrics strangely commenting on the action.
CR: How did you cast the two main actors?
WW: I had met Michelle Williams in the process of casting DON?T COME KNOCKING. She came in one day to read for the part of Sky. I had never heard of her, and I had never seen "Dawson?s Creek". But Michelle impressed me a lot, and I was disappointed that she was really too young for the part in that film. Shortly afterwards, the financing fell apart and we had to postpone the movie. When I wrote the outline for what was going to become LAND OF PLENTY, I did it with Michelle in mind. So the part of Lana was made to measure, so to speak. With Paul, it was more complicated. When I wrote him as a Vietnam veteran, I had no particular actor in mind, and only when Michael Meredith made him much more concrete in the script (drawing a lot on his own uncle) I got a feeling for the part. And that?s when I remembered John Diehl, who had played a supporting role in END OF VIOLENCE. We had remained in touch, and I had always wanted to do something else with him. And very quickly John filled that part so well that it felt like nobody else could have done it.
CR: Both protagonists are true believers of sorts?Paul believes in his country while Lana believes in God. Do you regard these characters as "missionaries"?
WW: Paul more so, he is indeed on a mission. He is a Vietnam veteran, and a self-declared Homeland Security officer. He acts without any orders other than his own, though, and his commitment to his country is indeed of religious dimensions. The 20-year-old Lana on the other hand, with her firm Christian belief, does not act like a "missionary" at all. In fact, with her background of a childhood in Africa and the last couple years in Palestine, she sees religion and politics with a very different perspective. Her best friend Yael is Jewish and together they root for pro-Palestinian issues. Politically, there is a wide gap between "Uncle Paul" with his right-wing positions and his niece Lana with her liberal upbringing. I wanted the two to clash, but I also wanted them to keep a respect for each other. Lana doesn?t try to convince her uncle he?s wrong. She just shows him with her life and her attitude what she stands for. And she does reach Paul this way, more than with any argument.
CR: Which character do you feel closer to?
WW: When I was writing the story, I felt much closer to Lana. But in the course of the shoot, Paul got under my skin, and in the end I felt deeply for both of them. But I guess that?s just the way I work. I cannot conceive of characters that I don?t like and that I wouldn?t identify with.
CR: Although Paul is a strongly disturbed, paranoid character, there?s a compassion for him in the film.
WW: Oh yes. You cannot despise such a broken and abused character for what he has become, or for what "the system," so to speak, has made of him. Lok at his life! Look at his sacrifices! You can only respect his honest and well-meant efforts, hoping that he still has it in him to realize that he has been betrayed and that he has therefore made some wrong choices.
CR: The presence of the American flag seems to cut through the film. Why?
WW: The American flag is a striking visual signal. And it can clearly go both ways, indicating the best and the worst of America, depending on the context it appears in. At one moment you couldn?t open your eyes anywhere in the country without seeing a flag. I was shooting SOUL OF A MAN a couple of years ago, and in the poorest part of the country, in Mississippi, there was not one car, not one house without a flag. Actually, the poorer the neighborhood, the more patriotic it got. Where America had failed its people the most, it seemed the most revered. That always was difficult to grasp for me. It was shocking to learn in FAHRENHEIT 9/11 how this comes full circle, and how the military is recruited largely from the poorest of the poor. The rich kids and the privileged don?t go to war. As much as I have a problem with the Hummers and the Cadillacs and the limousines and the big SUVs carrying their American flags, I respect it where it stands in some crummy front yard, because at least here it is coming from the heart, not from some business interest. I know I?m simplifying the issue, but if you drive through Dallas, and the hugest flags wave over every gas station or on the immaculate green lawn of every big corporation, you might feel nauseated, and you can?t help seeing the arrogance of it. But you see it with different eyes if it is a rumpled torn flag waving on a trailer home in an Indian reservation. Or on a WWII cemetery. That flag incorporates the entire dilemma of American history, from being the solid base of defense for freedom and human rights to a cynical empire of business interests that are governed by the right of the strongest. Immediately after 9/11 I?d say the American flag was respected all over the world as a symbol of defiance, of a suffering from a horrible injustice and injury, of a hope for a better world. Only a couple of years later, that same flag seems to have lost almost all of that credit.
CR: Despite the occasional sermon in the shelter, neither religion nor politics are overtly discussed, but are still very present in the film.
WW: I wanted to make a contemporary film inside America, and let it touch on all the subjects that concerned me, as a European living and working in America, and certainly as somebody who never concealed how much affection I had for this country, and the ideas it represented. I chose not to make a documentary, although I did consider that for a moment. I felt I could handle my concerns better in a fictional story, and I could express my mixed feelings better via two very opposed characters. Telling a story meant refraining from all overt political or religious "statements". I?m not good at polemics. I preferred to have all the topics that the film touches appear in the emotional context in which my two "heroes" experience and live them. So don?t expect any explicit message from my film, but be assured that it?ll make its point of view very clear. For instance on the issue of religion. With a government representing very openly "Christian" positions, mixing religious and political matters across the board, instead of separating them as cleanly as possible, like we do in Europe, it was important to me to put the most simple Christian values into a perspective, opposing them to the fundamentalist ideas that govern the present administration.