Today we're going to talk about Paris, Texas, one of the best looking movies of all time, and examine how it was made.
Paris, Texas is one of those films that just can't be recreated. I don't mean you can't recreate Ry Cooder's story, look, or even standout soundtrack. I mean the feeling you get while watching. The script by Sam Shepard, the laid-back but tight direction by Wim Wenders, and the masterful film work by DP Robby Müller create a strange, unique experience that you just can't put a finger on.
The neon, sun-kissed look of Paris, Texas. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.
The film is great, of course, but one of the standout aspects of the film is the now iconic neon, sun-kissed look that the film takes on. Most of the information I am referring to comes from an edition by the American cameraman from the 1980s. So let's examine how the hang of it went.
Shot on 35mm film, Müller opted for a minimal camera-on-tripod setup to mimic the simplicity of the story and the general themes of the script. In an interview with the American cameraman, Muller said the following about returning to form with minimal effort:
So I got myself back to looking – really looking and thinking – what it's about. And when you strip it all off, it's really a film, a lens, a camera, and a button – on and off.
It was important that the landscape not overwhelm the story. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.
This simplistic setting went beyond gear selection. Müller discussed with Wenders the desire not to let the vast American landscape overwhelm the story, since it doesn't want it to look too good. That control is what makes the movie so good. The visuals support the story and not the other way around.
This means slow pans, stationary recordings or very factual tracking recordings. If you'd like a similar look at how this simple, non-intrusive camera work can go, check out one of Yasujirō Ozu's films or watch Nerdwriter's video on the possibilities of simple shots and cuts.
Allow more contrast
One of the signature looks of Paris, Texas is a stark contrast for indoor shots. Typically characters are backlit or thrown completely in darkness as secondary characters in the background are more clearly exposed. Müller goes into this decision and how it went down in history, particularly with reference to a scene in which the main character enters a bar:
The lack of light and ominous shadows adds a mystery to the overall appearance of the scene. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.
You don't have to say everything to be clear. I don't need to see his face that well because I have most of my information anyway. When I start lighting the entire bar in that particular scene, it loses a lot of its character – it becomes a movie set. The place is also the means of telling a story, and when I blow it away with light, you lose something essential.
Müller's work can be borderline frustrating. You watch these scenes and they look so effortless. But it seems that most of the shoot was pretty DIY, given the location and the resources the production had.
It was important to Wenders to document the landscape before filming. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.
His earlier training with DP Gérald Vandenberg, who also had a preference for the use of natural light, had a major influence on Müller's work. Paris, Texas begins with a bright midday sequence of our central figure wandering through the desert. Müller's mix of these overexposed tendencies with some of the more stylized, neon-heavy shots works perfectly to give an almost otherworldly feel to the characters' lives. Much of the backdrops and ideas behind the look of the film were influenced by Wenders, who took a medium format camera from the west and documented the urban landscape.
Color contrasts can be seen especially outside. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.
Müller's saturated, high-contrast look could have been the result of push processing the negative during the development phase. However, I couldn't find any solid evidence of this. In any case, Müller shot these outdoor scenes with color in the foreground of his vision, regardless of whether he was approaching the DI process or whether he had decided on a wardrobe or a composition.
Operate the camera
Müller used the camera to operate. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.
Müller operates the camera himself and prefers certain movements or compositions that only he is happy to record. So it's very clear that his approach is very "practical". And while I think it's easy to think of this as controlling or strict, it's only low-budget filmmaking at its best. You will often play the role of the DP, camera, handle, and all of the other little chores that need to be done for the rest of the shoot. However, for a film like Paris, Texas, this is just another way to match the vision and voice of the film between the director and DP to create the unique vision you now know as the end product.
Just light the scene
Müller's approach to illuminating a scene was anything but literal. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.
Müller mentioned that one of his first experiences with professional lighting technicians and top lighting technicians was stressful as he identified the types of lights he needed – like keys, backs, fillings, etc. He said he just knew he needed a certain type of Light in one position to illuminate the scene in a specific way. It wasn't about labeling everything for the sake of tradition.
When you need a key light it means you need another light to complete the system and I never thought about that. I just needed the light that I needed. Giving him a name didn't make sense to me.
While it is helpful to know the terms and systems for on-set workflows (and job security), it is important not to fall into a boring approach to lighting. Roger Deakins discusses this feeling many times on his podcast. Deakins likes to work with newer, fresher grips and gawkers because the crew isn't ready to take risks and try new things.
The final scene in the film was an eight-minute single-take monologue. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.
Apparently, if you needed more reason to love this movie, the last scene they had to shoot was on their last 1000 foot roll of film and they had to do an eight minute monologue in one take. It's just nice to hear that some of the greats were made under severe stress with minimal resources.
For more cinematography tips from the greats, check out these articles.
Cover picture via Twentieth Century Fox.