Your film is about Pina’s work. The biographical element is light.
I promised Pina I wouldn’t do that. She didn’t want to make a fuss about herself. In the film we wanted to do, we wouldn’t have made any attempt at biography, and the film without her respected that wish too.
All your documentaries have been about creative people. You’ve made films about Yohji Yamamoto and Willie Nelson, and of course Buena Vista Social Club.
I actually haven’t made any other documentaries than ones about musicians and artists, and I’ve been looking for a long time to make one about an architect. One of the few fields of adventure left on this planet is the creative process. It’s true, I’d never thought about it, I’ve never made any other documentaries.
You were converted to 3D by a U2 concert film. But don’t you think 3D is mostly used cynically – to inflate box office with little real thought?
It’s the main drift for a long time now, and I agree with James Cameron: that he set the mark so high, but not for everyone else just to run under it. He wanted them to jump over it, and nobody has tried. So far it’s been a studio tool, and they have used it as an attraction to maximise box office. None of them have made an effort, like Cameron, to take it seriously as a medium. That is cynical and I think at this moment might even risk that the medium, young as it is … Well, I don’t think it will disappear, but in the realm of fiction storytelling, it’s discredited.
You hesitated for years before making Pina, until 3D came along. What held you back?
My big fear was disappointing Pina. She expected me to find a different way to show dance. She showed me three previous recordings of her work, and I had to tell her I could not do it differently. I could maybe do it a little better, but not essentially better. I never thought I was missing a dimension. That was a sudden flash of recognition when I saw that U2 film. That was what I’d been waiting for.
Live streams of theatre and opera are popular – but this is a much more immersive portrait of dance.
I watched the New York Metropolitan Opera in a cineplex in Germany, and it was funny as a lot of people came in tuxedos because, in their minds, they were going to the Met. But what was shown was your run-of-the-mill stage recording. I never felt that the specific, contagious effect of Pina’s theatre could be caught like that. I felt my cameras were running up against an invisible wall and I told Pina there was something happening when I come to see your plays that I cannot translate, that I don’t know how to catch.
How well did the dancers adapt to having cameras on stage?
They were great. They had to look into the camera at points, and for a lot of movie actors, that is tough. Even some great film actors cannot play to the camera. They get insecure if they play into the lens. But it didn’t make a single difference to these dancers.
Maybe they’re used to playing to an anonymous audience in the dark?
Totally, totally. That’s it. That’s what they said: we never see the audience anyway in the dark.
Did Pina’s company inspire you to continue after her death?
I had given up, I had folded. Her dancers and actors came to me and said: ‘We’re going to do those plays that the two of you put on the theatre’s schedule.’ They said: ‘We don’t know why you’re not shooting because Pina would have wanted you to, she thought dancing was the only weapon between life and death. The day she died, we performed that night, even if we were crying on stage.’ That convinced me. I had pulled the plug.
I like how we see glances of the reflection of your camera when the dancers are performing in a glasshouse in Wuppertal.
It reminds you of the medium we’re using – that it is two cameras, not two eyes. It’s only an approximation. We tried our best to understand the physiology of what two eyes are doing and to imitate it as much as possible with two cameras – which you can’t say for most 3D films. Most of them don‘t give a flying fuck about what the eyes are doing.
Plenty of filmmakers treat 2D cynically too.
There you go, there you go!