Week 8 – On the Road

“People have forgotten how to tell a story.

Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more.

They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”

Steven Spielberg

Visualizing and working with the idea of a road movie is what this week is about. Wim Wenders will help us to get some insights.

A screenplay is always a voyage of discovery. But sometimes even the idea for a screenplay can come from a trip: the locations, the places are changing, but the theme stays the same.

We can adapt Jean-Claude Carrière’s approach to consider a script for such a film as a bridge: a bridge is underpinned by a certain amount of pillars with different gaps in between. Now just think of the pillars as locations, places and the gap in between as time needed to get from A to B and things happening on the way. In the end you could call this a road movie.

The genre has its roots in tales of epic journeys, such as the Odyssey and the Aeneid. It’s related to the “Bildungsroman“, a story where the main character changes, grows or improves over time. Film-wise the genre came up in the 1960s in the USA.

The journey becomes a metaphor for the quest for freedom and identity of the protagonist. The journey itself is more important than reaching a destination.

Wim Wenders once said about the preparations of his film >Paris, Texas<, that you only have to go over a landscape, the story will come by itself! For many of his films there hasn’t been a script in the beginning, but a travel route. These films are mainly about people, who are exposed to unfamiliar circumstances. All of these films have to do with vision, with perception and with people, who suddenly have to see things differently.

For Wenders a voyage is an adventure that takes place in space and time, at the same time it has a lot to do with curiosity for the unknown. A voyage also creates an expectation and an intensive perception: on the way you start to see things newly and differently, things that you don’t see at home any more.

One of the most exciting things for Wenders are maps. Because stories always start with a place, a city, a landscape or just a street, a map also can become a script. Furthermore seeing and perceiving places, a building or a hotel room, immediately triggers his imagination: What could happen there? Or: What could have happened there? That’s why a ‘dramatic moment’ is not so important for him as a start. More inspiring are contemplative moments, a landscape, a house, a picture.

“Every photo is the first frame of a movie.” (Wim Wenders)

For him as a filmmaker, telling means to force pictures into something, because by themselves, they do not have the tendency to automatically fit into a story. In the beginning each picture stands for itself, and if you bring them together they do not necessarily lead to something else. But of course in the end, even in his films, a story is needed to arrange and structure the images. Without a story the images get lost, they become arbitrary.

The world around us is so complex, that all particular events are not really connected. Experiences are always isolated situations; in the end there are no stories with a beginning and an ending!

When it comes to his early black and white films he states:

  • All of them were based on a personal idea, i.e. a dream, daydream, experience, adventure.
  • There was no script, only a loose structure. In >Kings of the Road< only the first scene of the film was scripted. Everything else was improvised by the actors.
  • The films were shot chronologically, beginning with the only thing he knew: a situation the film starts with.
  • In the beginning he had no clue, how the story would end. Even the theme was only discovered and explored while shooting, i.e. the story had to be found.
  • The main interest and the work that had to be done in all of these films was to bring in as much as possible the things he came across while shooting.
  • Normally stories imply control, you know where they are heading to and they have a beginning and an end. If you use the method of daydreaming for developing a story, it is different: the daydream lacks any dramatic control. It is more like you are having an unconscious guide, who wants to move forward. But where to? Who knows! To discover it, you have to let things slide; you have to practice “drifting“.

I recommend watching the early Wim Wender’s films again, >Alice in the Cities< being my favorite one. In the FILMS TO WATCH section you will find all kind of road movies. Most of the time a car is the vehicle to get from A to B. But all kinds of transportation are thinkable. Each has its own consequences, legitimacy and logic.

Your turn!

1. Combine your next holidays with a road trip. By travelling, by finding the right locations, the idea for a film will (hopefully) come automatically to you.

2. Work with an idea related to a road movie, but use different means of transportation, i.e. by foot, by car, by train, by bus, by bike etc.

3. Rediscover the city, region, county you are living in. Find 10 great locations; imagine one person in a car and a special prop.

4. If you go by taxi next time, ask the cab driver what had been the strangest thing that happened to him while he was driving.

5. Use Google maps or real maps to find places, a route, that could lead to a story.

6. As Wim Wenders put it, many of his films are about people who are – while they are travelling – exposed to unknown & strange situations. So, at a certain point they have to see things differently. Play with this approach!

Films to watch

Gianni Amelio

  • Lamerica (1994) IMDB

Shinji Aoyama

Jean-Jacques Beineix

  • IP 5: The Island of Pachyderms (1992) IMDB

Alfonso Cuarón

  • Y tu mamá también (2001) IMDB

Jacques Doillon

  • Family Life (1985) IMDB

Andrew Douglas

  • Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003) IMDB

Atom Egoyan

  • Calendar (1993) IMDB

Stephan Elliott

  • The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) IMDB

Roberter Frank & Rudy Wurlitzer

  • Candy Mountain (1987) IMDB

Joseph Losey

  • Figures in a Landscape (1970) IMDB

David Lynch

  • The Straight Story (1999) IMDB

Michael McGowan

  • One week (2008) IMDB

Geoff Murphy

  • Goodbye Pork Pie (1981) IMDB

Sydney Pollack

  • The Electric Horseman (1979) IMDB

Richard C. Sarafian

  • Vanishing Point (1971) IMDB

Gus Van Sant