Capturing Emotion: The Making of “Living the Light – Robby Müller”
The highly respected Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller died in July 2018, after living with vascular dementia for several years. Just two months later, Living the Light – Robby Müller, a film essay tribute to the man and his work, premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
Having worked on over 70 feature films, it is Müller’s cinematography with the likes of Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, and Lars von Trier that most influenced a generation of filmmakers in terms of his framing, evocation of emotion in his shots, and his use of light. Living the Light intertwines clips from Müller’s oeuvre with footage and images from his extensive personal archives. With the blessing of Andrea Müller, Living the Light director Claire Pijman — a friend of the couple and a cinematographer of nearly 30 years herself — was granted access to thousands of H8 video diaries, set photos, Polaroids, and more that were shot throughout his career; from his earliest days with Wenders to the final few films on his resume.
Largely avoiding a traditional biographical portrait of the man, Pijman’s structuring of the film allows for a free-associative montage of sorts, which gets at certain truths about Müller’s achievements, relationships, and philosophies towards image-making without having to rely on talking heads to fill an audience in on his whole history.
That said, Living the Light does feature the occasional bit of narration and on-screen tribute from various collaborators and fans, including Wenders, Jarmusch, von Trier, Steve McQueen, and fellow cinematographer Agnès Godard. Jarmusch and Carter Logan also composed the film’s score, which, when heard, brings to mind Ry Cooder’s contributions to Paris, Texas (1984), the Wenders feature that remains one of the definitive achievements of Müller’s filmography. But, for the most part, Müller’s images alone speak for him in Living the Light; as his illness took away his speech, this is the means by which his voice is conveyed in the film.
Claire Pijman and Andrea Müller sat down with Kinoscope at the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival.
How did you both first meet Robby Müller?
Claire Pijman: I first met Robby through Andrea. Robby was very famous in Holland, but he lived in Germany, so he was not around. And then I was working on a set as an assistant and Andrea was doing costumes there; they’d just moved from Germany to Amsterdam. And then when Robby needed an assistant, Andrea told him to call me.
Andrea Müller: I met him on set in 1989. They [Müller and Wenders] shot Until the End of the World (1991) over about eleven months and then at the end, some extra sequences were needed to finish the film. There was a reshoot in Berlin for about three weeks and I was working in the costume department, so that’s when I met him.
When did you decide you wanted to make a film about him?
AM: There were different attempts to make a documentary about Robby, but Robby was, at that time, getting ill and so it was difficult to make a film where he was an actual part of it. Claire knew about the archive, which we’d talked about a lot because we’re friends and I was always doing things with the archive. I had all these films from different periods and I didn’t know how to play them because Robby would sometimes put the film in the camera and it would get wrecked. As he was getting ill, I would throw some of it away because I could not play it anymore. Claire was digitizing stuff, so she said, “Let me take this and digitize it for you and then you can see it on the computer.”
CP: I knew there was this archive, but I never saw it, so from the moment when I started digitizing, I was like, oh, this is great because I can show what Robby’s vision is. I don’t need to interview him; if I show these images then it’s all so clear. So that’s how we started.
AM: And although Claire’s a documentary maker, I didn’t ask her if she could do a documentary about Robby, because other attempts had failed a couple of times. But I knew her and I knew she’d be fighting through and going on when other people would say, “Oh no, we’re not getting money. I only continue when I have money.” She continues even without it.
CP: It was too obvious with this footage that this film had to be made. There was no doubt.
Was Robby involved in any of the filmmaking process despite his illness?
AM: He was aware of it, of everything that was going on, but he wasn’t really actively involved.
Did he see the film before he passed away?
AM: Yes, lots of times.
Claire, how free were you to make what you wanted from that personal material? In light of your friendship, I presume there weren’t many restrictions.
CP: No, that was the great thing, that I could just do what I wanted to do to work with the footage. And because I saw a lot of things similar between the archive footage and his work, I focused on and played with that.
I suspect a more conventional documentary could be made from the material, but you allow Robby’s images to speak for themselves, even to the extent that there are many stretches of silence in the film. Was there any temptation to include more talking or more of the soundtrack you do use?
CP: No, because I, myself, like to watch. I really wanted to give the viewer a chance to experience and really look for themselves. And I also knew from a lot of people that when they see the film again, they see new things because you can view it in your own state of mind, instead of having a voice directing you all the way. There are some obliged things like explanations of techniques that I could not do without, but the thing of really looking and experiencing light, to feel the emotions of the images, that really requires quiet.
One thing I love about the incorporation of Robby’s personal footage alongside clips from the films is how similar they look. Like what Wim Wenders says at one point in Living the Light, it’s like he could never not leave his imprint on a shot.
CP: Robby told me that a lot of images are not made out of a technical point of view. You can be technically perfect but it’s really an emotion and it’s something of yourself; you put in yourself. And when I saw the private footage, I recognized this, so to put it next to his professional work was key.
Was it relatively easy to get Robby’s collaborators and fans to contribute to the film?
AM: They’re friends of ours. In the last ten years when Robby was ill, there were various events honoring him and all these interviews planned and he could never do the interviews, and so other people were asked to speak about him. They really supported him in these situations. There was also an exhibition before, so some things from the speakers for the exhibition were used in the film. It’s not the case that every month we needed someone to contribute. But they all did it for Robby.
Claire, do you share any of Robby’s philosophies about image-making and filmmaking with your own work?
CP: Yes, I think so, especially as a documentary filmmaker. I think a lot about your direction is about what you see and how you decide things. And also, to be able to really be yourself. Robby told us to work with people with whom you can be who you are, then you can make it so that you have your own autograph in your images, if you have the freedom and the trust to do it like that. That’s something I think is very important in making images.
What is the most important lesson you learned from him and was it something from before making this film?
CP: The most important was to really do what you want to do and not try to adapt. When I met Robby, I was not so long out of film school and I thought you had to be a certain way to cope with the work of a cinematographer. But he said you will find people who can work with you. You cannot work with everybody. That’s what he says in the film himself. You have to find people who tell stories you like and who you like, where you can be yourself. I think you can very much be lost in the profession if you just try to be a craftsman.
Could you discuss the vision for Jim Jarmusch and Carter Logan’s score for the film?
CP: I asked Jim to make the music and in the early stages I showed him a rough cut of the edit and how the footage would be used. The only thing I asked of him was to give it a certain mood, like the voice of Robby was in the atmosphere. That was the only thing I said and he gave me back several tracks that I could use how I wanted. What he very much held on to was that it was to be written with Robby in his mind, and I think he achieved that.
Do you have a favorite film among Robby’s credits?
CP: I always used to say Paris, Texas as one of my favorites, but I think it’s changed after seeing all the films. I got fonder of Alice in the Cities (1974) after seeing it again. I don’t have a favorite, per se, anymore.
Living the Light – Robby Müller premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival.