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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Jan. 5, 2007 | 8:15 PM

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An Interview with ABSOLUTE WILSON director Katharina Otto-Bernstein

The legendary Robert Wilson (Einstein on the Beach, CIVIL warS, The Black Rider) is one of the most visionary theater artists of our time. Filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s richly provocative and moving portrait delivers a surprisingly candid look at Wilson’s troubled and lonely childhood, his early learning disabilities and his fascination with the downtown New York avant-garde scene of the late ‘60s. What emerges is a life full of impressions, colors and rhythms, revealing how Wilson’s early hardships ultimately shaped his groundbreaking aesthetic vision. Features a lively mix of interviews, including musician David Byrne, writer Susan Sontag, singer/songwriter Tom Waits, composer and collaborator Philip Glass and opera star Jessye Norman.

What did you know about Robert Wilson before you started making this film?

I grew up in Germany, where Wilson?s work is far more popular. In Europe he is known as a very versatile and omnipresent artist, a sort of rock star of the performing arts ? he pushes the limits and has a tremendous influence on contemporary art. Initially, I had seen the Rock-Musicals: The Black Rider, his successful collaboration with Tom Waits and William Burroughs, and Alice and Time Rocker, which he did with Lou Reed. I thought they were absolutely spectacular and I was very moved by them. There is this saying, that once you have seen one Wilson show, whether you liked it or not, you will never forget it, and that is absolutely true. On the other hand, I knew nothing about him or his life, but then no one really did—he is notoriously walled off and doesn?t like to give interviews.

Why did you decide to make a film about Wilson?

I was researching a project on artists and their muses, when Wilson literally walked into my life? at a cocktail party. We had a vodka together and began talking about art, about what I was doing, about what he was doing. And at the end of the conversation he said, ?Why don?t we do something together?? Of course Wilson has the most unusual muses—a deaf-mute child and an autistic child—so that fed clearly into my subject matter and I was delighted. Two days later I wrote him a long letter about how excited I was to be working with him and how meaningful I found his work to be. He replied with a very short note back that said, ?Thank you, but I make Art, not Meanings. When do we start shooting?? And I thought, ?This will be a very interesting collaboration.?

Why do you think Wilson, who is renowned for his reticence, opened up to you?

I am often asked this question because many people had been following Wilson?s career for decades and were ?better qualified? than I. I think there were two factors: one was simply our chemistry—we share a similar sense of humor, and we are both foreigners, explorers of other cultures and their history. He is an American who mostly works in Europe; I am a European who mostly works in the States. Each of us brings a different perspective to the table. The second factor was, I believe, that I didn?t enter this project with much pre-conceived knowledge and didn?t squeeze Bob into a corner with conjecture. The project began as a clean slate. It was an organic process that evolved over four years and my questions grew out of genuine interest in his personality, as much as in his art. It was all so unlikely!

What fascinated you the most about him?

Bob was an outsider and came to the theatre as an outsider. He grew up in Waco, Texas, the homosexual son of the mayor in a segregated America. He hardly spoke until the age of five. He not only had issues with language, but he was a late walker and had problems with comprehension. A typical clinical processing disorder. Children who have this disorder are usually visual learners. Even today, Bob will often, in conversation, explain something to you with a drawing. So it?s not surprising that Wilson?s staging communicates with stunning, emotionally resonant images and language is often secondary. He sometimes uses nonsense language or deconstructed language as a layer of sound, which for some audiences is difficult to digest. However, if you put that in the context of his work as a therapist and his work with deaf mute or autistic individuals who can almost be seen as his alter egos, it makes sense. Especially in his early career, when he worked with the deaf mute Raymond Andrews and the autistic Christopher Knowles, he was validating ?artists? who possessed different modes of 7 communication and perception. Bob still thinks like that; he is still is drawn to and influenced by marginalized individuals.

Fortunately, Byrd Hoffman, his sister?s ballet teacher in Waco, recognized that Wilson wasn?t a mere stutterer (as his parents thought) but that he suffered from a delay. She told him to slow down his speech and his motion, and it became easier for him to speak and to comprehend. He translated this slower pace into his work and ended up calling his theatre group the ?Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds,? in honor of the woman who helped him overcome his learning disabilities. It?s utterly fascinating how Wilson?s distinctive style turns out to be not at all some kind of self-conscious theatrical gimmick but rather a very organic outgrowth of his personality and his early development.

Today, Robert Wilson is one of the highest-paid theatre and opera directors in the world. He works with great regularity at La Scala, the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. However he spends all his money on and is constantly fundraising for the Watermill Center, where he brings together young artists from all over the world ? including people with handicaps ? to foster creativity. To him, his vision is more important than personal comfort and security. I find that remarkable.

How does one make a film about Robert Wilson?

You need a lot of time, which wasn?t clear to me in the beginning. The main criticism of Wilson?s work has always been that it?s very abstract and inaccessible, full of symbolism and layers. Yet when I met him, he seemed very open and human. He did not appear to be an intellectual who enjoyed playing mind games but a man who passionately believed in his vision, a vision that was visual. It occurred to me that if he didn?t draw most of his inspiration from intellectual sources (of course he was influenced by performance art and visual artists in the 60?s), his influences must be private. So the big task was getting Wilson to reveal himself ? something he had never done before. It took four years, but once he decided to open up, like a puzzle, the pieces began falling into place.

Then there was the question of the audience for this film. There is the perception, among American audiences, that Wilson?s work is quite rarified ? yet on the other hand, European audiences are more aware of his achievements in changing the face of contemporary theater. In fact, Wilson really is one of the few artists who came out of the theatre of experimentation ? the 60?s avant-garde theatre ? who works successfully in the international theatre arena. Yet, he still makes references to his roots: he is a very American artist, despite the fact that he is more renowned in Europe. So I really had to provide a framework for his mindset: the scene in the New York of the 60?s, which was artistically groundbreaking and a reflection of the political and societal changes which were then occurring. On top of all this, I wanted the story to be interesting to younger audiences. In the end, I believe the story of Wilson?s life and his struggle is so universal and engaging that this narrative can appeal to all kinds of people.

How was the film constructed?

I believe the New York Times called Wilson the ?Master of Light and Space, the Magician of the Theatre.? One thing was immediately clear: it would be impossible to replicate the threedimensional experience of a theatre performance, and in particular the monumental scale of a Robert Wilson piece, on film. The other thing that became clear was that neither avant-garde editing techniques nor abstraction were right for this film; such experiments in the editing room failed miserably: it literally was a big cryptic mess. Furthermore, since the materials we had to work with were so varied (stills, 8mm, 16mm, video), we had to take a somewhat classical
8 approach in order to weave all of the footage into a cohesive tapestry. Film is a naturalistic medium and there had to be clear contrast to Wilson?s surrealistic images. Additionally, I felt it was important to create a film with a strong narrative, in stark contrast to Wilson?s deconstruction of language, because I wanted the audience to gain access to his frame of mind. Consequently, I placed a lot of emphasis on the early years of his life ? the developmental phase? which I thought would serve as a key to unlocking an understanding of his later work. The construction of the film, however, was very Wilsonian. Wilson?s favorite shape is the
triangle, so the film was constructed as a triangle: two timelines, past and present, starting far apart and meeting in the end. In his theatre pieces, Wilson usually does not have intermissions, he connects the acts (or scenic changes) with an entr?acte ? a little piece of vaudeville, he refers to as ?knee-play? ? or a joint piece. I took that idea and made the knee plays my present-day timeline. I divided his life into acts that followed a biographical timeline and after each act I returned to the present day to chronicle aspects of his current life and show a lot of the contemporary work. These knee plays are much looser in structure and are cut in contrast to the more rigid and conservative storytelling in the biographical acts.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

This is always a difficult question, because filmmakers you admire often have such a particular style that it would be foolish to emulate them: you enjoy their work, but try to find your own voice. In this case, however, because the film was extremely difficult to make, I took a very close look at the work of Federico Fellini and Luis Bu?uel.

Usually I begin a film with the music. I listen to music and wait for the images and the story to unfold in my head. In the case of Wilson, I couldn?t think of any music ? he works either with atonal contemporary classics, such as Tania Leone or Luigi Nano, or with monumental 19thcentury masters, like Richard Wagner or Richard Strauss, which I found too heavy. Then I looked at Wilson?s lifestyle ? this hectic running around ? and it reminded me of Fellini?s Roma or La Dolce Vita, which was of course cut to the music of Nino Rota. I think our composer, Miriam Cutler, contributed a wonderful sense of that same musical feeling to this film.

The other dilemma was conveying Wilson?s early years growing up in the Bible belt and showing that influence in his work. There is no one who weaves subtle religious and political symbolism into the fabric of his narrative as well as Luis Bu?uel. I took a close look at Tristana, as well as Viridiana, a critique of Catholicism under the Franco dictatorship; both helped me a lot with the film?s construction.

One thread that weaves through film is the conflict between father and son ? how much impact did that have on Wilson?s career?

When we began filming, Bob always cited his mother as a primary influence on his work; her elegance, her posture, her remoteness explain a lot of the aesthetics in his theatre. However his super-human energy ? this sense of perpetual rebellion ? was rooted in some other place. Wilson and his father couldn?t have been more different. Diguid Wilson had been the captain of his high school football team and was a conservative, athletic, all-American lawyer and a leader in the Waco community; he had very little patience for his artistic, homosexual son and his abstract theatre. A different person might have grown indifferent to such discord over the years, but Wilson tried over and over again to interest his father in his work. Their conflict was never resolved, but when Bob watched Absolute Wilson for the first time and realized that his father (according to his sister Suzanne) had been proud of him after all, it was a very emotional moment. For Bob, in a strange way, it meant closure on an issue that had been haunting him all his life. Yet that friction was also the motor and inspiration for a lot of his work.

How did you find the images for the film?

Good question ? it was a treasure hunt that led us to theatres all across the globe. Even worse, most theatres film their dress rehearsals on a VHS format. When I requested a tape from the Metropolitan Opera of Wilson?s famous production of Lohengrin, Joe Volpe (the Met?s former general manager) told me that unfortunately they only had a black-and-white VHS tape with a line through the middle! That was very discouraging. So the search for usable material began in New York and finally extended to theatres all around the world.

Fortunately, Wilson has rather extensive archives at his Byrd Hoffman Foundation in New York and granted me complete access, which was very generous and helpful; he had saved not only production stills, but also personal photos throughout his life. He also leaves deposits in various institutions for storage. For example, we got a call from the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard; they said they?d found ten unmarked boxes of ?Wilson stuff? and asked if we wanted it. We sure did!

In addition, there is this famous warehouse in New Jersey where Wilson stores things and forgets about them. This is where we found the film cans of his early work, incorrectly marked and basically forgotten. Consequently, we were able to call Prof. Arnold Aronson, the definitive voice of avant-garde theatre in the 60?s ? whose latest book on the subject notes that ?Wilson?s performance of Baby Blood can only be recalled by a few eyewitness accounts? ? and tell him that we had found the footage of the production if he wanted to see it. He couldn?t believe it, so that was fun.

For the cin?ma v?rit? sequences, we traveled a little bit with Wilson; however it was financially and logistically impossible to keep up with his schedule. So I ended up giving his two assistants
cameras to capture at least a glimpse of his workaholic existence.

Did Wilson interfere in terms of making the kind of film you wanted to make?

He never interfered. He was very generous ? he put his office at my disposal but never asked to see the film. At times, I think, he forgot that I was making the film, or what he had actually said. At the Berlin Film Festival, a journalist came up to him and asked: ?Mr. Wilson, what is your favorite part of the movie?? He looked completely baffled, turned to me and said: ?Katharina, why don?t you tell him what I liked most.?

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