When he died in July this year at the age of 78, Robby Müller left behind a glorious legacy of more than 70 feature films and a reputation as one of the finest cinematographers in the business. Beginning in Germany, where his collaborations with Wim Wenders resulted in such seminal, early-70s European classics as “Kings of the Road,” “The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty” and “Alice in the Cities,” Müller enjoyed a brief vogue in the U.S. in the early ’80s, which is how he came to be closely associated with New York indie director Jim Jarmusch, starting with “Down By Law” in 1986. When the shift to digital occurred, Müller jumped right in at the deep end, finding an ally in Lars Von Trier, the provocative Danish auteur behind “Breaking the Waves” (1996) and “Dancer in the Dark” (2000).
Directed by Claire Pijman and scored with a piece written specially for the film by Jarmusch and Carter Logan, “Living the Light – Robby Müller” pays tribute to the late artist’s skills by interweaving his Hi8 video diaries, pictures and Polaroids with images from his films and interviews with some of his most famous peers. Variety talked to Pijman about the film, which screened as part of the Venice Classics sidebar, and the Remembering the Masters section at EnergaCamerimage.
How did you first come to meet Robby Müller?
Pijman: I was working on a film set in Amsterdam as an assistant, and his wife Andrea was doing the costumes. They’d just moved from Germany. Later on, Robby needed an assistant, because his regular assistant was not available, and his wife suggested he call me. I was really honored, because he called me himself and didn’t have the production office do it. He called up and was like, “Hi, it’s Robby Müller,” and I was like, “Oh, wow!” [Laughs] He asked me to be his assistant, but I had just decided that I didn’t want to be an assistant any more, because I really wanted to be a cinematographer, so I told him that. I said, “I’m sorry I can’t do it. I made this decision for myself,” and then he said, “Well, that’s great. Pop by and let’s meet.” So I did. He was just about to do the Amsterdam part of “Buena Vista Social Club,” and while they were preparing that, he asked, “Do you want to be one of the camera people?” So that’s how it started.
When did you decide you wanted to make a film about him?
Pijman: I’d known Robby and Andrea for a while, I think more than eight years, when Robby suddenly became ill. He lost his speech and he couldn’t really move very well any more. So I had this connection already, and I knew his vision and how special it was, and, of course, a lot of people thought there should be a film about Robby, but I really didn’t know how to do it, because he could not be interviewed anymore. So my first thought was not, “Hey, I’m going to do this.” But I did know that Robby had a love of archive and was always taking pictures and always shooting on videotapes. I knew they had those tapes, and at one point I said, “Maybe I should digitize them for you both, so you can see what’s there.” And then when I came over to get the tapes, Andrea said, “Well, maybe these tapes will inspire you to make a movie.” When I put the first tape in, I was sold immediately, because I thought, “This is what he’s always talked about. This is his way of looking at things, working with light, studying light.” And then I thought, “His images can speak for him. I don’t need to interview him – I just have to show these.” What I also liked is that his study material was himself, his own life, so you also really get to know Robby as a person.
How long did it take to put it all together?
Pijman: I think we worked four years on the film, and because it was more like an essay film, it was not easy to get it funded. So we said to the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam, who do these big exhibitions, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to include this film in a great exhibition of Robby’s work?” We had his professional work, his photographs, his Polaroids, and also his sketchbook and his video diaries. They were really very interested in the idea, and it gave me the chance to do some interviews. After the exhibition, I had more opportunities to fund it and to make the film as it is now.
How easy was it get all those amazing international directors to talk to you, like Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and Lars Von Trier?
Pijman: Well, they really did it for him, not me. I also did another small documentary like 16 years ago about the filming of “Dancer in the Dark” with Lars and Robby. Everybody said, “It will be impossible to get an interview with Lars,” but he knew that the documentary was about Robby. They all did it for him, and they’re really very fond of him. And grateful to him, because he made these images for them.
Was Robby at all involved in the filmmaking process?
Pijman: No, he and Andrea left everything to me. Also the family, they gave me full trust to go in the archives and use whatever I wanted, however I wanted to use it, but I did check in with them. Andrea could still communicate with Robby. Although he couldn’t speak, she really could read him and know if he would like things or not. So I was always confident that I would not do something that they didn’t want. He was at the opening in Amsterdam, and he saw the exhibition also in Berlin. So he knew what was the base of the film.
Was there pressure to finish the film before he died?
Pijman: We knew he was seriously ill, but we’d also known that he’d been ill for a long time, and we were all hoping that when the film was finished he would still be with us, so we planned the premiere in September. Suddenly things did not go well with him, and a week later he passed away. It was unexpected. But he did see the film. It’s just really, really sad that he couldn’t be here at this great premiere in Venice.