Back in 2001, audiences were mesmerized by the ephemeral creations made of ice, twigs or leaves, captured poetically in Thomas Riedelsheimer’s Rivers & Tides, about land artist Andy Goldsworthy.
Nearly two decades later, Riedelsheimer revisits Goldsworthy, following him to various countries, as he makes art with a variety of natural materials, ranging from rocks, stone, clay, to petals and even rain. On the phone from Munich, the director spoke with Documentary about his new film, Leaning into the Wind.
You made the highly acclaimed Rivers & Tides in 2001. How did you come about making your first film with Andy Goldsworthy?
Thomas Riedelsheimer: Well, back in the mid-’90s, I came across an article someone had written about Andy and his encounters with him. And he described quite a grumpy, interesting man, trying to understand film. And I thought, Well, that's interesting; how can someone say, “I want to understand film”? And then later on, I came across this coffee table book, and I really liked some of his work—and I remembered this article. I said, Well, that's the man who's doing this kind of work. So eventually, I wrote him a letter—that was the time before email and stuff like that—and sent him one of my most recent films. And he said, “Well, why don't you come over?” And I took some days off, and took my wife and our very young daughter, and visited him in Scotland. And that was the beginning. We started talking, and I think we very quickly found that we were on the same wavelength and had the same interests, and both of us wanted actually to do something about time, which is the book that came after the film. It's called Time. And of course, the second line of the film, the subtitle, was Andy Goldsworthy—Working with Time. So that was the beginning of our project.
I read that you had not seen Andy for many years, and then one day you bumped into him while you were filming in Scotland. Can you tell me about that?
After Rivers & Tides, there definitely was a kind of silence between the two of us, and I think that had several reasons. First of all, Andy is not that social type of person that you are connected with all the time and exchange emails and make phone calls. But another reason, I think, was that there were some things in Rivers & Tides that he was not quite happy with. And I think it took him a while to get used to it and to really start liking the film. It took several years. And after we met in Scotland, it was quite a funny thing; when we said goodbye, he said, “And by the way, it's a good film.”
So that was the best thing I could get from Andy for Rivers & Tides, 10 years after the release. When we met in Scotland, it was very strange, because it felt like we had just said goodbye to each other. We immediately started at the point where we had left off. He was still fascinating, and he started talking about his work, and I said, “That's still interesting, and I'm still not done with this person. I'm still eager to know more about him, to learn about how his life has changed.” And by then more than 10 years had passed by, almost 15. So that was the starting point.
Then after a month, both of us admitted that we actually were thinking of doing one more film. But then it took us another several months to really go for it, because Rivers & Tides, in that respect, was kind of a burden; it was kind of a strange, big thing that hangs, like the Sword of Damocles, above our heads. And we were a bit afraid of making another film, because of course we wanted to do a different film, and clearly not Rivers & Tides Part Two, but something else… a film that could also be understood by people who had not seen Rivers & Tides. And that was the biggest challenge.
It took four years to make this film and you travelled to several countries. I lost track as I was watching the film, but how many countries did you go to?
The film starts in Brazil, and then we went to America, to California. Two years later we went to America again, to film in New England. We've been to Gabon in Africa, and then to southern France, and Spain. And of course a big chunk of the film is filmed in Scotland.
And how did that work? Did he just tell you he had a project coming up, and where he was travelling and you followed him?
Basically Andy is busy the whole year round. Especially in America, he's a pretty big name, and he's traveling a lot these days. So in a way, he's always traveling. We sat down, and said what I found interesting, what he would find interesting for this film, and we decided on several projects that we wanted to follow. But then sometimes it just happened, like with the work that is called Passage, where the rock is split into halves and you walk through. He was so excited when he started to work that he called me or sent me an email and said, “You have to come and film this. This is exciting. This is something new for me.” And of course I'm happy to take his suggestion into account. And I think he was right; it's a great work.
And I have to say, the second time filming with him was a very relaxing, easy-going and very enjoyable trip. It was really nice to work with him. For four years, it was an amazing, enjoyable shoot, actually.
Were you editing it as you were shooting it or did you collect it all and then began editing?
No, with this kind of film, it took four years altogether, so we had a shooting period of almost three years. And of course in this period of time, the film changed. In the film, there are sequences from Gabon or from Brazil, but no projects came out of this research. The whole project was canceled at some point, which was a pity because it was a nice project. So we always had to change our concept, our ideas, and there was no way of editing the film in that process while we were still shooting.
But I did what I always do, especially with Andy: I put little bits of pieces of what we shot to show him what the material looks like. In a way it's encouraging for both of us, for him and me as well. And he sends little comments, like “Great” and “Well shot” and “Good capture.” And in a way you get more into the essence of what you want to do with this film. But it's not editing in that respect.
In this film he opens up a lot more about his process and he reveals himself a lot more, whereas the first film was mostly observational. Correct me if I’m wrong, but he did not speak much in Rivers & Tides.
He actually speaks a lot in it. Some people say too much. But I think you're right; the proof is that the composer, when he first saw Leaning into the Wind, said he loved the film very much, and liked it more than Rivers & Tides because, he said, “With Rivers & Tides, I see an artist doing something. I observe him doing something. Whereas in this film, I get into his head, into his thoughts, into his ideas of how the world works, and how art works.” So that was quite a nice thing for me to learn how people can perceive a film, and that it is taking the work a step further, trying to talk a little bit more about how his brain and his ideas work, and why.
What’s interesting to me is seeing the contrast: We go from this artist choosing his poppy petals so meticulously and doing very delicate work, and then the next scene he has assistants, and heavy machinery cutting through rock. We see more of the process instead of him being the lone artist.
What I find really intriguing is that he more and more sees his body as part of the work, as part of the art. And I think this is something that was probably the most exciting thing for me, with Leaning into the Wind: the crawling through the hedge, or using his body like the rain shadows. In this respect it becomes even more ephemeral because it's just his movement in a certain circumstance. I just love that idea, and the thoughts that occur in your own mind when you watch it. These are pretty old ideas that he's been following for several years now, but he always tries to take things to an extreme. Using the body is a kind of new way to express these things.
I’m glad you mentioned his art being ephemeral. Obviously I see it when he’s crawling through the hedges and with the rain shadows. But I felt that in Rivers & Tides, the art was very ephemeral, to be appreciated in the moment as it was decaying and dissolving and breaking apart. But with Leaning into the Wind, because of his use of rock and clay, the film was a lot more about permanence.
Of course if you think it through, it’s an illusion because there's nothing permanent. It would take maybe 200 years to decay, but it still will decay at some point. So probably there is not much difference. And I think that is what he says in the beginning, that he gets more and more confused by the term “nature,” because he discovers nature everywhere—in his body, in the cities. And I think that's the same, something that is ephemeral or not. We call it ephemeral because it lives only for maybe two seconds or five minutes. But when it stays for two years, is it then permanent or is it still ephemeral? So that is a concept, I guess.
So it's really talking about time, effectively, and how you view time?
Time is a mystery. It's a big thing to talk about. I think film, especially, is a medium that, like music, only works in time. So photography is different; that's another perception. But film only works through the sequence of time that you have when you watch a film. And this makes film a very special art, I think. Like music.
In a way, his work—and also this film—is something that has evolved with time, and he talks a lot about his own passing away, and the layers people leave on the earth, and his obsession with this kind of grave-like shape in the stone that he can lie in. And I think that is something that is very much connected to Rivers & Tides as well. He's still obsessed with this idea of time and flow.
You have both matured as artists and filmmakers. What I got from this film was the passage of time for both of you, and the passing of the torch to a newer generation— especially seeing his daughter becoming his assistant.
Yes, absolutely. That was something that was not planned in the beginning. So that's another example of how the concept or the ideas for this film constantly changed and were in flux. Editing films like that is always an adventure, because you start with something and you end up with something else. That's a process that I quite like.
And you are right: Seeing both of our kids working with us is a big thing in terms of, as you said, passing the torch to the next generation. And if you turn it into something negative, you see that you're one step closer to dying and to being the generation that has to go.
And that was very touching in a way, because in the scene when Harley puts the petals on his hands, and he's talking about his feelings of being cared for—that is a glimpse into the future, maybe, where at some point he will not be able to do all these things anymore. And I think that will be a very hard thing for him, because even now it's difficult for him to hand over work to another person, and only Harley can do this.
And for me also, my son started as a cameraman at the Munich Film School some years ago, so he's doing basically what I do, and following me. It will take maybe a few more years, and he will be better than me. That's how it should be. They should take over. But of course it's a big thing and a very realistic way to understand time [in terms of] a generation and how time passes. But we already decided to make a third film, which will be interesting, because in 15 years’ time, we might not be able to do anything and just direct our kids to do the film.
What is the most difficult part of making a film about an artist as unique as Andy?
Well, when we did Rivers & Tides, the most difficult thing for me was to let go of expectations. That was something that I understood from Andy, and that he taught me, because you have this very strange art as a documentary filmmaker. You have this very strange concept of control, trying to achieve something that has been created by your mind, and on the other hand you have reality, and things don't happen the way you want them to happen. And what do you do with it?
So this kind of improvisation, intuition, all these things that are not in control, that's a very interesting balance. And by making Rivers & Tides, I understood a lot about this balance. So for me, that was the most difficult thing. But it was also a very joyful experience to trust life and to trust how things could happen. So with Leaning into the Wind, there was not a problem like that. We just went along with the flow, and that was a very good thing to do. What I thought might be difficult for the film was that I knew him so well. So I was afraid that I would not ask some questions, because I would already know the answers, but maybe they would be important for the film. It’s a good thing to be very close, but it also can be a bad thing in a way.
In general with artists, it's always difficult because, as a filmmaker, you are interpreting what they do. That can be a problem, because they have a strong sense of what they do. And then you come and you say, “Well, this is the way I see it.”
I would not compare myself with Andy and say we're two artists creating something. But I have my own view, and of course, a documentary is my view on his work, my interpretation of his work. And this can be filled with conflicts. This has not been in this case with Andy. It's great if an artist has the relaxed manner to say, “I'm interested in how you see it. That's not my way, but it's your film, and that's the way you see it.”
Of course the problem we've already talked about is the editing, because you start pretty confused, with no concept, and you have to find your way through the material, and this is sometimes a very painful process. It's very hard to create a film that appears so logical. But it's hard work to actually achieve that.
With each new project, filmmakers learn something personal, in making a particular film. What have you learned about yourself in the process of making this film?
One thing for sure is that Andy and I are still very close. And now I would really call him a friend, which is a big thing for both of us. There is a very interesting similarity in our thoughts and ideas; that was a great discovery for me. And another thing, being with Andy out there, you always learn an awful lot about nature, about life, about how things are done.
What are some of your next projects?
I'm trying to do a film about algorithms, which is a very tough thing, because it's not a very visual subject. I have to find a way to make it visual, but it’s something I'm very interested in. And I'm doing a project with another filmmaker, a film about the trumpet and trumpet players, about the instrument and people who play it.
Leaning into the Wind opens in theaters on March 9 and is distributed by Magnolia Pictures.