Like Flying Blind Without Instruments: On the Turning Point in Paris, Texas
This piece first appeared in the 1991 Wim Wenders collection The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversation (Faber and Faber), translated by Michael Hofmann.
The story’s about a man who turns up somewhere in the desert out of nowhere and returns to civilization. Prior to filming, we drove the length of the entire U.S.–Mexican border—more than 1,500 miles. Finally, we decided to shoot in an area called Big Bend, in the southwest of Texas. Big Bend is a national park with incredibly beautiful mountains, through which the Rio Grande flows. That’s the river the “wetbacks” have to swim. As it turned out, we didn’t film there, because when we were looking over the area again from above, in a helicopter, the old pilot, a local guy, told us there was an area a little way off called the Devil’s Graveyard. This godforsaken patch of ground wasn’t even entered on our maps, and it turned out to be a gigantic, abstract dream landscape. There are no police, and most of the immigrants who swim across there just die in the desert because there’s not a drop of water anywhere in it. So that’s where we started our film; that’s where we see Travis for the first time. After he collapses with exhaustion, he’s picked up by his brother. The first place they go is a little hamlet of about twenty houses called Marathon. It has a hotel, where Walt drops Travis, and goes off to buy him some new clothes. But when Walt gets back, his brother has taken off again. The next, slightly bigger, place that Walt and Travis pass through on their way from Texas to Los Angeles is Fort Stanton, a town with a couple of thousand inhabitants. We tried to arrange the film in such a way that all sizes and types of American towns appear in it.
Actually, the smallest place of all was the gas station where Travis collapses. It was called Camellot, and we only stopped there on the recce because we thought it was a funny name. Then came Marathon, then Fort Stanton, then El Paso, which is a middle-sized town, and finally the metropolis Los Angeles. I didn’t show Los Angeles as a city but as an enormous suburb. You don’t really get to see “L.A.” in the film. The only real city you see is Houston, Texas. Houston is one of my favorite cities in America. So, you see, I tried to show all kinds of towns, though of course there are also a lot of scenes that are just set in the countryside.
Actually, I was going to make a far more complex film, because I’d originally intended to drive all over America. I had it in mind to go to Alaska and then the Midwest and across to California and then down to Texas. I’d planned a real zigzag route all over America. But my scriptwriter, Sam Shepard, persuaded me not to. He said: “Don’t bother with all that zigzagging. You can find the whole of America in the one state of Texas.” At the time, I didn’t know Texas all that well, but I trusted Sam. I traveled around Texas for a couple of months, and I had to agree with him. Everything I wanted to have in my film was there in Texas—America in miniature.
A lot of my films start off with road maps instead of scripts. Sometimes it feels like flying blind without instruments. You fly all night, and in the morning you arrive somewhere. That is: you have to try to make a landing somewhere so the film can end.
For me, this film has come off better than, or differently from, my previous films. Once more, we flew all night without instruments, but this time we landed exactly where we meant to. From the outset, Paris, Texas had a much straighter trajectory and a much more precise destination. And from the beginning, too, it had more of a story than my earlier films, and I wanted to tell that story till I dropped. —May 1984