The cameraman wonders (as cameramen do, at least those you see in movies) about the meaning of this representation of the world of which he is the instrument, and about the role of the memory he helps create. Love for Robby Müller.
March 2, 2018
Linda van Deursen: I basically grew up with Wim Wenders’ and Jim Jarmusch’s films, and later Lars Von Trier. I started noticing that all these films were shot by Robby Müller. Every now and then, when these films came out, an interview with Robby in the newspaper would appear, as he was Dutch. I remember reading these. I also remember a Wim Wenders interview where he spoke about his Dutch cameraman. I was kind of intrigued by him, thinking: What is it he brings to these films? What is his quality? It was always in the back of my mind.
Pianpian He: When was this?
This was in the early ’80s. Let’s say ’81, ’82. These were the first films I would see on my own as a student.
Where did you usually see those films?
In the cinema! Where you see films! (laughs) We all loved Wim Wenders. When a new Wim Wenders film came out we would all go! It was always a big event and was really important to us. There were certain directors—you would always want to see what they were doing — Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Fellini… We would run to cinema to see them, perhaps even a few times. You know? Let’s go again!
Yeah, It was amazing! I think when you are young and you see these films for the first time, they have incredible impact. And they will always stay with you.
Years later when I was working as a designer I remember friends saying to me: you always get the nice jobs. And I was always slightly irritated. Because I knew how much it took us to shape a project, or to make it so that we were really interested in it, or until a point where we thought: Now it’s a good project.
This was also at a time when large traditional publishing houses were crumbling because of the introduction of the DTP computer. All of a sudden publishing became so much cheaper and easier. As designers, we now had so much control — we basically started taking over the roles of editors. Especially now, I think about the books we made for publishing house Artimo. One person ran it. He got the funding from an art collector who wanted to give young artists a chance to make a publication. These artists came to our studio with all their work and we were responsible for shaping the project. We wanted to understand exactly what the work was about before we even started. We were very much involved and loved having these dialogues with them. We were mostly able to figure it out with them. So I had to think about this: When does something become good? What is our quality? What is it that we bring to the project? And this is often so difficult to explain.
For instance, when I tried to explain to my family what a graphic designer does... You don’t write the book, you don’t make the images. What you do? Is it just the size, the paper, the typography? That’s so boring! Somehow, there must be something more profound. The framing of a project, the formal framing, (laughs) is very important. Even when you don’t want to call yourself an editor and you certainly can’t call yourself an author, I know that I’m very directive. People sometimes complain. You were so stubborn! You were terrible to work with! And I would say: What? That’s not true! That’s not how I experienced it! It’s very funny. I don’t think I am stubborn, but maybe rather convinced of a direction?
And maybe interested in forming the work and developing that specific intuition you have as a designer. Things that aren’t so easy to explain to your mom.
Yeah, probably. But what’s also important is that I need to develop a relationship to the work, otherwise I can’t do the project. I have to love it. I have to find something that I want to see in this book. You have to make choices. You have to propose to the artist: How about this? Most people don’t have very developed ideas of books to begin with. You have to somehow help them with that, show them possibilities and make suggestions.
So you’ve found this similar to how the cinematographer works?
No, I don’t want to say that. (laughs) That’s a bit too much. I was always wondering about the work of a cinematographer: What does this person do? Is it the lighting, the framing, the movement… How important is their work? What role does this person have in shaping this constellation of images in a film? What about their responsibility of having everything on film, which was at least at that time very technical and full of risks? There are so many decisions a cinematographer has to make, things the director probably does not have to worry about or doesn’t want to worry about. I was intuitively thinking maybe there is a relationship with what we do as a designer. Still, I didn’t know what a cinematographer really did.
Marietta de Vries worked in our studio for a little while helping out making books. On the day she left I said to her: I really like working with you and I would love to make a book with you. And then I said: Can we make a book about the work of Robby Müller? That would be something I would really like to do with you. Because of her engagement with film, I thought maybe we should do this together. And then she said: It’s a deal!
We knew that Robby had moved back to Amsterdam. His name was basically in the phonebook. (laughs) I said to Marietta: I don’t think I’d dare to call him. To which she replied: Okay, I will ring him up. And I remember thinking, we need a plan. I always had the intent of making a book similar to the famous Hitchcock / Truffaut. I wanted to interview Robby in a similar manner to how Truffaut had interviewed Hitchcock. At the time Hitchcock was seen as a very commercial Hollywood director, but the new wave directors from France — the guys involved with Cahiers du Cinema — were interested in Hitchcock as an author. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock very systematically about every single film that he did. He wanted to have a meticulous and technical conversation. He went to Hollywood where they spoke for I don’t know how many hours for a few days, with a translator in the middle. There is also a photo of the three. Anyhow, it’s an amazing book! It’s rich with information on all the stories and decisions that you would otherwise never hear about. I was thinking that’s the type of thing I want to do with Robby; I really want to speak with him about all these films.
But in the book about Robby, there weren’t any interviews. There were some quotes from him in the beginning of the book. The book is mostly just film stills.
Exactly. That was the drama behind the book! In the beginning, we were not in a hurry. We had to deal with finances, and needed a good approach. The first time we met with him, he was interested, and we were trying to explain the Hitchcock / Truffaut thing. We agreed to meet again in half a year. But when we met the next time, it became harder to follow him. And I was thinking, what’s wrong? The third time, he could hardly speak. He was slowly becoming ill. A rare brain disease had affected his ability to speak, his movements, and so on. It was terrible! We realized we were too late, as we would never be able to interview him again. I had thought: Shit! We missed the opportunity to have this dialogue with him.
Some time later, I was in New York and stayed with Stuart Bailey. I was talking to him about the book over a long walk over the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He said: Do you really need Robby Müller to make this book? And I was like: What do you mean? He responded: Maybe you could do it without him! I still was like: What do you mean? I couldn’t really think of a book without him. But when I came back to Amsterdam I said to myself: Okay, I’m going to try to find every single thing that he has said. I remember the interviews I had read. I wanted to find them all and I wanted to read them again. So I went to the Film museum (Eye now), and they had every single thing I was looking for in the library: old newspaper clippings, books, old magazines, even scripts and budgets. A year later when I was at Yale, I checked the libraries there and found more things, even recordings with Robby. I probably found every single word Robby has ever said. (laughs) I noticed he wasn’t such a big talker and he always said the same thing. He appeared a silent and modest man who just did his work. At that time, all these films were re-released on DVD, often with amazing commentary tracks. The tracks on Wim Wenders’ films were great — he talked about every single scene. How they did it and what role Robby had. It was amazing! But I still didn’t know how to approach the project.
I remember I once came down with the flu and was at home in bed with all these DVDs. In this feverish, fluish mode, I watched these films only in terms of when the light was changing, because at that point I understood that light was very important for Robby. I ripped all the films so I could make screenshots. Every time I saw the light changing, I’d take a screenshot. Very systematically. And then all of a sudden I was like: Jesus Christ! A whole world was opening itself up to me! It was as if I’d found the key to understanding his quality. How he played with light and used it to direct our eyes or to support the narration. Previously, I was guided through the films by the sequences of images. Now, in a much more analytical way, I started to understand how it worked. It was just amazing — I was completely overwhelmed. So I had this folder of stills. Marietta and I started talking about the project again. She said: Film is made with so many others on set, each with their own set of special tasks. I said: Maybe we should talk to all the people that he’s worked with? We know the director’s voice, since they’re always in the spotlight. But why not talk to the gaffers and focus pullers? So we started to interview all the people he had worked with. Through Skype, we conducted interviews with people in Canada, Denmark, the United States, Holland. That was incredibly helpful.
Are these interviews published?
We wove them into the narrative. We conducted the interviews together and Marietta would record and transcribe them. For the book, we only used parts. We thought it would be nice to show Robby’s special way of working. We also thought it might be more interesting to not show it so linearly — not just one film after another. We’d just take the most important ones to prove that what he developed in one of the early films, Alice in the Cities, you would find in many of his later films. Through all these films you could see his approach. I thought that was really important to show.
I really like the first sentence of the introduction where you quote Robby: “It’s ideal when people don’t think of my images as something special.” I think this could also be discussed in a graphic design context.
That’s what I also like. In terms of graphic design, take for instance a book we have made, you might look at it and think: Oh, it’s a Mevis & van Deursen book. That would be so wrong to me! I would hate that. I would prefer that the book be about the author. Maybe it’s also something about Robby’s position. He loved to work for someone or with someone. It’s inherent in the work that he does. It’s inherent in the work we do as well. You are not the author but you work with an author. You do everything in order to make the author’s voice come through.
Speaking on the quality of the image, it feels like he is also selective with the subject. The films that he worked on all share his inherent quality but it’s a very quiet quality.
Definitely. Maybe it’s also because of the world of film. It is such a mass medium and there is so much glamour. He on the other hand likes to play it cool. He likes to make us think that everything he does is effortless and very simple. Maybe he didn’t want to draw attention to himself because he was surrounded by people who were so in love with themselves. He liked to see himself as a humble working man. At the same time, everyone knew he was a fucking genius. They really needed him. At a certain point in his career, he came into a position where he could demand certain conditions.
There was a very nice story from American director Peter Bogdanovich. He wanted to shoot Saint Jack on location in Singapore. It was the first time an American production was shot on location in Asia. He was looking for a cinematographer who was available and who could do it. His ex-wife, Cybill Shepherd, recommended Robby, as she had just seen The American Friend by Wim Wenders and thought it looked amazing.
So Robby Müller went to Singapore with his small crew. Apparently when he arrived in Singapore, he was carrying an unusually little amount of equipment and Peter Bogdanovich said: Is that all?
Nowadays you can immediately see everything you shoot with a video assist, but at that time you had to go to the lab and develop the rushes to see what you had shot. Robby was working and filming the way he was used to, which meant he would accept the setting as it was. He wouldn’t change it, just enhance what was already there, especially in terms of available light. He was very practical with everything. He also would shoot on a new type of material, Fuji film, because it was produced in Asia, in order to avoid imposing a colonial or American look. He worked as he normally did: quickly and efficiently. Yeah, it’s done. Okay, next scene… it’s done… next scene. Peter Bogdanovich—who had mostly worked with big Hollywood crews—and the main actor, Ben Gazzara, were very impressed but also very worried. (laughs) But when the rushes came back and they saw the result of the previous day’s shooting, they were like: That looks amazing! Then all of a sudden everything was calm. Because they knew they could trust Robby. He even got a little part in the film.
Why did Robby work like this?
He was used to shooting on location, instead of on a prepared set. It was a way of working he developed with Wim Wenders. He would accept a certain location (not having much choice) and enhance the light.
He is super sensitive to the light as well then.
Yes, absolutely! There was another American film, Honeysuckle Rose, by Jerry Schatzberg, that he filmed. It starts with an amazing scene where a bus is coming and the sun is going down. When he films he moves the camera in such a way that also creates a beautiful lens flare that captures the arrival of the bus. It is hard to describe, but it is quite a magical shot. I think this might have been his first shot for his first job in a Hollywood production. Naturally the director said: Okay… one more. And Robby was like: No, I have it. Besides the sun is down, there is no point. They were skeptical, but they had to trust him.
How does image relate to the story — how does he use image to create the story. He must have had to understand the stories.
Yes! And he must love the story too. Therefore he always worked with directors who he thought had an interesting vision. I think he just trusted their personality. When he first met Jim Jarmusch he immediately liked him, and so of course he wanted to work for him. When he saw Jarmusch’s first film, Permanent Vacation, he thought Jarmush had a great cameraman, and wondered why he wanted to work with him. It appeared that the cameraman wanted to direct himself. That’s when Robby took the job. Robby was also loyal to his colleagues. Because of his personality and the amazing work he did, people came to him. Someone who makes such beautiful images and has so much control over them and is then asked by Lars Von Trier to make something very different, something that goes against all this — that’s quite evil and very typical of Lars Von Trier! Typically painful! Looking for the painful spots. But Robby didn’t care—he didn’t care at all, you know? He loved it! He loved the challenge. He loved having the freedom. He loved doing something new.
I really couldn’t imagine that Robby had shot Dancer in the Dark! It was just Lars Von Trier.
What do you mean? What about the hundred cameras? There were two types of filming. There are the scenes where everything is quite colorless and then all the musical scenes, where everything is suddenly very bright and saturated. All the colors change. For these, Robby worked with little cameras, and certain musical scenes were shot with a hundred cameras. This was the first time these tiny little cameras were used. Later in the editing room, the scenes were put together, making use of all the different shots from different angles. Especially the scene on the train. Robby would place them in such way the shot would look good and you would not see the other ones. I thought that was so playful! And I think you need someone with a lot of experience to do this. But it is true that for most scenes Lars von Trier would operate the camera himself. But Robby was there to light the scene (if needed) and to advise him.
In Dancer in the Dark, weather conditions were always cloudy. The resulting images were really grey. In a way, the camera movement and frames became so important.
The cutting from one viewpoint to the next, almost like a video clip, but also a bit like old Hollywood musicals with these spectacular angled shots.
The story is extremely depressing but the camera movement just made everything so vivid and alive. I thought that was his style.
Style? Maybe Robby doesn’t have so much a style. But he has an approach. Or a way of working?
When I think about Mystery Train or Paris, Texas, these two films had very similar approaches to lighting: the American landscape, the sunset and sunrise, the neon light. Do you think that all came from Robby?
That’s Wim Wenders. Let’s start with Paris, Texas. If you look at the work of Wim Wenders, you can tell he is completely obsessed with American landscape. With Americana! He was was born just after the Second World War. The whole of Germany was in ruins! These kids were basically growing up in rubble, but there were strong American influences everywhere: American films, American music… America was exciting for that generation. Eventually he wanted to make a road movie all the way from Canada to the south of the US, but this turned to be too expensive. They had to cut it short. Then Sam Shepard, who helped write the scenario, said: Why don’t you go to Texas? Texas has every type of landscape that you can find in the United States. So a big part of the movie was shot there. Robby just shot these amazing locations, often with spectacular results. But sometimes he found it to be too much; he thought it was kitsch and he almost refused to shoot. During one of the very last scenes he said: No way! The sun is going down and the sky is turning purple! This is awful! I can’t do it! It’s kitsch! But Wim Wenders was like: There is nothing we can do about it, just shoot it. So he had to do it, but he felt it was a bit too much. It was different with Jarmush. When they were looking for locations to shoot Dead Man, which also features a journey through the United States, they found beautiful landscapes with beautiful views. Whenever they found such a view they would say: This is too beautiful, and would literally turn their back and would film the opposite view. (laughs) So you could say where Wim Wenders loves the drama and his films sometimes border on kitsch (especially his later work. It’s a little bit...), Jim Jarmusch would trust Robby. So it’s interesting he had that position as a cameraman.
It’s like he is invisible but visible at the same time.
Yeah! Even though I don’t know if it’s true. In Paris, Texas, the couple get together in the end. But Robby said it was not a good idea. They shouldn’t be together; the guy should leave.
That’s what I heard and I think it might be true. In the earlier films they would develop the whole script from day to day. They would sit together in the evening and discuss what they would film the following day, how to develop the story.
He was right, it’s horrible that the couple got together! (laughs) If you want to tell a heartbreaking story then you should go all the way!
But I do think as graphic designers we also find ourselves in that position. Especially when you work with an artist you can say: Now it’s becoming too much. You have to show less. Or you can say: Let’s make this aspect of the work more important, because it’s so good. I mean, the editing of a book, the pacing of photos one after another, is very filmic, it has a relationship with film. It is more close to cutting and editing a film than to the work of a cinematographer.
Let me put it like this. On the one hand you are a specialist and they need you. Because of your involvement, you have influence on the end result. Some people are very prominent, others keep much more in the back. If you ask ten designers to make a book with the same content then you will get ten different solutions. It’s super interesting!
Maybe that’s how you explain it to your parents.
Oh yeah, thanks for getting back to this. (laughs)
It’s a problem I have now: How do you tell people how you work.
Most people are bad at editing their work. I know a lot of photographers who don’t edit their work. In the case of artists you even sometime have to convince them to make new work for the book. It is sometimes necessary to reshoot something, or to remake something, so it works in a publication. You sometimes have to convince them that a catalogue is easy but boring, and it is about how to “translate” the work into a publication. That’s the interesting question to think about.
Are you doing any other book after Robby?
Oh, you mean like this? No, but I have some subjects I am interested in. This was really a love. Marietta and I shared that love for Robby’s work.
Yeah, sometimes this happens.
Yeah, it’s funny, ah?
The first time I came across the book, I was in college. My hometown is Changsha, a city of eight million people. But nothing really interesting happens there. Through the internet I gained access to films so I got very into them and found out about Robby Müller. When the book came out, there was no way I could buy it. I had to ask my friend who was studying architecture in the States to buy it for me. When I got the book, I loved it! But I didn’t pay attention to who wrote it, even though I read it many times. And I didn’t pick up on the design because it was just really simple and fluid; there wasn’t any one moment where I stopped to think about the “design.” I had no idea that the author of this book would become my teacher one day. (laughs) I just felt it was an important book for me.
That’s interesting! (laughs)
Yeah, I could really understand the book. Not only because I’m familiar with his films, but also because it’s kind of like reading those films. It gives new perspective and was a totally new experience. I also thought the cover with different colored lines was a smart idea.
I probably made sixteen covers. Every time, I would send a new one to Marietta. She said: That’s nice. Later I would send another, and she said: Also nice. And I would be like: How about this one? Do you think we should put an image of him on the cover? She would say: That could work too. The very last day before it went to the printers I again changed the cover completely.
You weren’t scared?
I’m scared of a bad cover. I need to somehow be excited about it. I hate it when it looks nice, but… it’s okay, but… you know? Sometimes you need to keep going another half a day to try something.
That’s more your instinct, though?
Covers are so complicated. The problem was also with these images. Because they were screen shots, the resolution was low. I couldn’t make them big, which was really annoying.
Yeah. What about the copyright?
Oh man! Copyright! It would cost so much money. Books on films unusually don’t have more than a handful of images. But a book with only film stills, with about 600 in this book…. we would ask for estimates. The costs for the use of stills from Wim Wenders’ alone would be something like 20,000 euros. I knew that was not going to work! And then we met Wim Wenders in Amsterdam. Robby got an award and he came. He did a really nice little talk. And we knew this would be the moment to talk to Wim Wenders. I was really nervous. We said to him this book was going to have a lot images. And then he said: Great! I took this “great!” as a kind of “yes.” (laughs) The next day I called his foundation: Wim is totally fine with it! But the lady was suspicious. And then I said, we are not going to earn a lot money from this book. If we do, we will donate it to the foundation.
It was out of a pure love for Robby.
Yeah, Wim never complained. But he also didn’t thank us for it.
But he wrote the foreword. Was that specifically for the book?
Yeah, we asked him to do it. That was the same evening when he said “great.” There is a still in it from Until the End of the World, but I still am not sure if the still is correct. Very funny. I actually want to see that film again. They screened it twice in the Eye Museum, and both times I could not make it. I never saw the film again and I don’t think it is out on DVD. When the film first came out, I was in New York. I remember it so well. I was probably 27 or 28. It was a cinema on Houston Street, which is still there. It was a super long film. And quite often, the American audience would just laugh. They were laughing at the film because they thought it was stupid.
Yeah, it was stupid. It had a lot clumsy technology scenes in it and was not very well done. The story was like: The world is ending! Let’s just go to Australia and lead our primitive lives!
I was so embarrassed. We as Europeans took everything so seriously. For us, Wim Wenders was a hero. All of a sudden we were confronted with such a different perception… That was the last film I saw of Wim Wenders.
Yeah, in cinemas.
I really liked the film. I think it was a film for himself and friends just traveling around the world.
Yeah, true. It contains scenes of every single films that he made before. It’s like he edited all his earlier films into one film.
You don’t watch his films now?
No, people make their best work when they are young.
Do you like Michael Haneke?
Yes, I do.
I think he still makes great film.
Yeah, absolutely true. But I didn’t think his latest film Happy End, was so interesting. But most of his other films are amazing.
But I think he is one of those directors who started his career late.
True, but he was a theater director for a very long time. And then he moved into cinema. This man is so focused. He has such important things to say about cinema. And he is so analytical, I mean, (sighs) he is amazing! There is no one like him.
He is holding a mirror to his audience.
Yeah. And he always has great cinematographers too.
The setting of Happy End was in France. I remember he said in an interview the French audience didn’t really like it.
Oh, they didn’t?
Maybe it just the way he did it that made the French feel uneasy.
Of course! Maybe they don’t have to like them. But they have to appreciate them. Because that’s more important with his work.
Is his last film Happy End?
Has he stopped?
No, I don’t think so. But he is old.
Godard is old but he is constantly making films.
His film is great, but I still can’t understand them so much. He seems to really like using young girls. (laughs)
Yes, he has a fetish for young girls. I read a great book on his work, written by Richard Brody from the New Yorker. At one point, it really becomes a bit gross. His actresses become younger and his relationships with them become more complex. I was like: Yuck! I don’t want to know all this! It’s a bit too much. Retrospectively, it is more or less obvious. Then again in French films, all actresses are young and beautiful. Not just in Godard’s films, right? In this book, his obsession comes close to pedophilia.
I’m taking this class called French Cinema through New Wave. My professor, Andrew Dudley, had this theory about French cinema: that they have the best beauty but they also know how to destroy that beauty. It made me think about Godard’s films showing beautiful people doing tiny little things. In a way it’s so boring but true to real life.
Add to that, he always uses some Bertolt Brecht strategies to break the fourth wall to create a certain distance between the image and the audience. So it’s not like you can completely identify. The entire time you are aware: Oh, I’m looking at someone. There are also these interruptions, people speaking directly to you, there are so many things that make the viewer very much aware of what they are looking at. What they should be thinking of. It’s very uncomfortable and painful to watch. It’s not like: Let’s let have ourselves be entertained. Not at all! It’s work, it’s a lesson, it’s a class.
The image is also very seductive. It holds your attention.
Totally! But it is destroyed. That is true.
What do you think about pigeon?
Pigeon? You mean pigeons in Amsterdam? We call them flying rats.