Exerpts from an interview with Wim Wenders
by Borders Books and Music


How did you first become aware of/involved with the ensemble known as the Buena Vista Social Club? Was it through your relationship with Ry Cooder?

    Yes. Ry played me a rough mix of the first album, shortly after he returned from his trip to Havana. In his usual understated way he just told me to “check it out. I think it’s pretty good.” Well, it was more than good. I was totally electrified when I heard the music for the first time. I had never heard anything that contagious, warm, lively and so full of heartfelt experience. I remember I heard that rough cassette over and over that night.

    The next morning I asked Ry: “Hey, who are these kids you found in Havana? They’re incredible.” He laughed: “They are not exactly kids.” And then he told me about Ruben and Compay and Ibrahim and Omara and the others. You see I had no idea! When I heard his stories, I said: “If only half of this is true, I have to go for myself and meet these people.”

    Ry thought that would be a good idea. And we agreed that the next time he would return, I would go with him. That’s easily said. And easily forgotten. We didn’t talk about it anymore until more than a year later, Ry called me one day, saying: “Well, I’m off to Cuba again next week You’re coming?” He gave me one week’s notice. Really not much to get a crew and a budget together. But I was on a plane to Havana with him that next week.

Was this your first documentary feature? Tell us about the process of making it. Was there any part of the process this time around that was especially different from your past projects?

    As you can see from the way it started, this whole thing was very spontaneous. Which, I think, is a good condition for a documentary. You just jump into the cold water and swim. This was my very first trip to Havana, anyway. And we started shooting basically the day we arrived. I had made documentaries before, but of different nature. More personal, more subjective, and I had called these films “journals”. They were more like filmed diaries, among them 2 feature-length ones: “Tokyo-Ga” about my favorite all-time director, Yasujiro Ozu, and “Notebook on cities and clothes” on the designer Yohji Yamamoto. And several short documentaries.

    But this was the first time I set out to do an entire film digitally. With the smallest possible crew. I had a sound engineer with me, Martin Müller, and a cameraman who was at the same time a steady-cam operator, Jörg Widmer. Jörg shot the entire film with a Sony Digi-Beta on steady-cam which gave the film a great fluidity. I thought shooting from a tripod would be too stiff, and shooting hand-held too edgy. The music was so suave and elegant, that only a very natural, very rhythmical way of moving the camera would translate it well. Jörg is a musician himself. On the first day in the studio in Havana, he picked up Cachaito’s big stand-up bass and played some Bach on it, during a break. The musicians watched him, casually, without saying much, but I tell you, from that moment on, Jörg could go anywhere with his steady-cam. They totally accepted him. They were very generous anyway.

    From the moment on that Ry introduced me to all of them saying, “Hey, this is my friend Wim. He wants to film us while we are making our new album. Is that okay with you?” they all nodded and let us do what we were doing. And the more we were with them, the more we became invisible. Actually, when we stopped shooting sometimes, they started worrying. “What’s wrong? Don’t you like us anymore?” They were almost joking. I never made an entire film before that at no time in the process felt like work. And boy, did we work hard though.

    I was my own second unit and shot a lot on my Sony Mini DVs, both on the 3-chip as on the tiny little one-chip camera. This way I could sometimes shoot in places and situations where you’d just never get with a film camera, even a 16mm. This film could have never been made, such as it is, on film. This is truly a product of the new possibilities we have as filmmakers with the digital tools.

If you could narrow it down to just one thing, what was the biggest challenge in making the film?

    Editing. When we went to Havana, I thought that was it. Three weeks of shooting, go home and edit. Already from Havana we came back with 50 hours of material! Then it turned out that the band would actually appear, for two concerts in Amsterdam. I couldn’t possibly miss out on that. This was the only chance to ever see them play live! As a band, Buena Vista Social Club was totally Ry’s invention. Although some of the musicians knew each other and played together before in different combinations, that group of musicians, from different styles of Cuban music, son, campesino, bolero, was a unique constellation.

    We all thought that the one time they could all come together to play in public would be the only time ever… We shot for a week in Amsterdam, the rehearsals and the 2 concerts. In spite of their age and their experience, the musicians were really struck by stage fright, like a band of teenagers. They had no idea what reception was waiting for them. Both concerts were incredible. Legendary. And I came back with another 20 hours of tape. And again, that was not the end of the story. Another concert, this one definitely the last, emerged as a distant possibility. Carnegie Hall. The mecca!

    How could I possibly miss on that last phase of their incredible success story? We didn’t know up to the last moment, if the Cubans would actually all get visas and could show up in New York. But they did. We spent another incredible 4 days with them, shooting with them in the streets of New York and of course in Carnegie Hall. Which added another 10 hours of stuff to edit. And as it all had come together unexpectedly and spontaneously, not planned, there I was in my editing room, with more than 80 hours of beautiful material. I could have easily edited 3 films out of it and treat Havana, Amsterdam and New York separately.

    But of course, the story that we had witnessed was that journey, from oblivion in Havana to center stage in Carnegie Hall. We had to put it all into one film! It took a year to figure that one out. I never regretted it, though, that the quick little adventure that it started out as turned into such an epic experience. It was worth every day of it.

You and your wife also wrote a book about the Buena Vista Social Club. Can you tell us about that? What prompted you to elaborate on the story in printed form? What riches do you think the book holds that audiences might not get out of the movie?

    The book is really a picture book, more than anything else. Donata took lots of black and white photographs during our trip. Beautiful pictures. Myself, I only had time to walk around with my panoramic camera on the last 2 days of our stay, when the crew had already left. Still, when we finally had time to look at our photos, which was much later, when the film was finished, we thought it was a pity not to share that part of the experience. So only in hindsight, when the film was out already, we conceived of this book. I wrote a little about the experience as well, we included excerpts from the musicians’ dialogues, song texts and a very good interview text by Ry Cooder.

    Altogether, I think, it is a book that will enhance the joy you had listening to the music and seeing these people on screen. It mainly consists of photographs, though. Donata’s black and white portraits and stills, my color panoramas and video print-outs from the film itself.

The film is laced with magical moments, both sad and uplifting, both loud and triumphant, and quiet and soulful. I know it is probably hard to pick just one, but what was the most magical, wonderful occurrence that transpired during the shoot? When did you know the film would “work?”

    I realized the range of the film only when it came to an end, at Carnegie Hall. Only then it dawned on me what incredible journey we had had the privilege to follow. And that we had actually witnessed a story bigger than life, even if it had been for real. I saw all this in that final triumphant moment of Ibrahim’s, when he had finished his final solo and was just standing on stage, almost absent-minded, with the roaring applause around him that he didn’t seem to notice. I felt I knew what was going through his head then.

    And I realized we had shot more than just a documentary. I knew then that this film would touch peoples’ hearts. I had no idea, though, how much it would do that.

The Buena Vista Social Club has almost single-handedly revitalized interest in Cuban music. Millions of people all over the world, many of which have had little or no exposure to Cuban music at all, have fallen head-over-heals in love with their sound, and with your cinematic story of how these men and women got together. Why do you think this story has been embraced by so many?

    It is a dream come true. And it actually happened. And these people deserved it so much to happen. Their music deserved so much to be known all over the world. I can’t tell you how glad I am that we contributed to that with our film. I must give the main credit for that to Ry Cooder, though. He started it, he discovered these people, and he took me onto this adventure.

Tell us a bit about what kind of involvement you have with the score/musical selection for the soundtrack when you are shooting a feature film. (I know that a lot of directors are quite “hands off,” but then you have people like Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann who hand pick songs, and are with the process every step of the way.)

    I would never let anybody do this part of the work for me. That is, in fact, the most fun part of the whole filmmaking process, in my book. Sometimes I even think it all boils down to that, from the beginning that I wanted to produce images that would then be met by my favorite music. I listen to music all the time. Especially when I’m working. I would never want to make a film without music. What would be the point!

back to Buena Vista Social Club