Renate Leiffer, assistant director of World on a Wire talks about making the ground-breaking Sci-fi series with the iconic German filmmaker whose career as a director, scriptwriter, producer and actor was short but prodigious.
Renate Leiffer with Rainer Werner Fassbinder (photo courtesy of Leiffer).
How would you describe Fassbinder as a director? What was his technique?
He wrote the scripts himself, having the actors in mind for the roles. Mostly he did not like to see the set before the shooting-day, it would have bored him. He trusted his crew mostly chosen by himself, in the leading jobs at least.
When the cameraman was ready and Rainer was asked he came on the set, mostly with a good humour and self-confidence, not doing much rehearsal before the shot, and not giving many more new orders to the actors so as not to confuse their minds. So everybody was switched on and tried to give their best. Everybody knew he would like to do every take only once, liking the performances better [in a first take] than in a second or third one.
What was Fassbinder like to work with?
You always had the impression that you were working on something very important, and that every member of the crew was important for the result, no matter which job you were doing – that was motivating. Mostly the crew members liked and respected him. In real life Rainer was a shy person, therefore he always needed a crowd of people around him, also because he was afraid being on his own, being left like his parents did after their divorce.
Professionally he was strong, he learned by going to cinema already as a young boy, he learnt to cut his films and was shooting the scenes so there was no chance for a cutter to change anything. He understood the camera-angles very well, and knew where to set a close up. He was a real professional. Producers who worked with him the first time were anxious, but were surprised after the first days. And professionally he was not resentful – if you told him a mistake you made, he would defend you. I am speaking of his professional life, in his private life one better not get involved, there were a lot of manipulations.
Fassbinder famously struggled with drugs – did that affect his work?
In the beginning, he was consuming too many drugs – it hurt to look at him. It was not only drugs but medications as well, he could not work without it.
Rainer hated when someone in the group was only smoking Haschisch, he did not want them around him. And then in the Sixties it was in to smoke at least grass. He got involved in it in 1974 during his work at the theatre in Frankfurt.
At the end he was taking drugs and a handful of medications at the same time. And alcohol, that was too much. He told me during [filming Berlin] Alexanderplatz: I will not be older than 40. He only got to 37 – and I am still cross with him that he left so early.
How did the shoot of World of a Wire go, generally? Was it a smooth shoot, any incidents?
I do not remember any real difficulties on those shoots. Except that we missed the dawn several times for a scene with Eddie Constantine, a homage to Godard and Eddie. On the 4th day (cinematographer Michael) Ballhaus got more time to set his light, and was called Monsieur Crepuscule [Mr. Twilight] for a long time.
Still from World on a Wire – courtesy of Second Sight Films
Also, at the end of the film, there is a black bird that should have been trained to pick at the gas-pipe, so the audience gets afraid and thinks: “Oh, now the hut will explode,” – and it does. [When we were filming] that bird did not pick, Rainer went mad, but that silly bird did not pick at the pipe. It picked somewhere else.
Did you get a sense that you were making something good / bad / mediocre?
My feeling was that I was doing something good, but not that his work would be so overwhelming one day. No one expected that, except Rainer himself. In Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), I worked as production-assistant and did not want to be written on the titles. I wanted to go on working as assistant-director with other people. Already then, 1971, Rainer answered me: “But with me it will be for eternity!” He was the most ambitious of all.
World on a Wire is out now in a limited edition Blu-ray box set from Second Sight.
[Edited for clarity]