The Cinematography of “Paris, Texas”

Today, we’re going to discuss Paris, Texas, one of the best-looking films of all time, and explore how it was shot.

Paris, Texas is one of those films you simply can’t recreate. I don’t mean you can’t recreate the story, the look, or even the stellar soundtrack by Ry Cooder. I mean the feeling you get while watching. The script, written by Sam Shepard, the loose, yet tight direction by Wim Wenders, and the masterful cinematography work of DP Robby Müller creates a weird, unique experience that you just can’t put your finger on.

The neon, sun-dripped look of Paris, Texas. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.

The movie is great, obviously, but one of the stand-out aspects of the film is the now-iconic neon, sun-dripped look the film takes on. Incidentally, most of the information I’m referring to comes from an issue of American Cinematographer from the 80s. So, lets dive into how the shoot went down.

Minimal Setup

Shot on 35mm film, Müller opted for a minimal, camera-on-tripod setup to mimic the simplicity of the story and the general themes of the script. In an interview with American Cinematographer, Müller said this about returning to form with a minimal setup:

So, I brought myself back to looking—really looking and thinking—over what it’s all about. And when you strip everything down, it really is a film, lens, a camera, and one knob—on and off.

The Focus on Storyline
It was important that the landscape not overpower the story. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.

This simplistic take went further than gear choices. Müller discussed with Wenders the desire to not let the vast American landscape overpower the story, as in, they don’t want it to look too good. This level of control is what makes the film work so well. The visuals act in support to the story, not the other way around.

This means slow pans, stationary shots, or very matter-of-fact tracking shots. If you want a similar look at how this simple, non-obtrusive camera work can play out, see any of Yasujirō Ozu‘s films or watch Nerdwriter’s video on the power of simple shots and cuts.

Allowing More Contrast

One of the signature looks of Paris, Texas is a heavy contrast for the interior shots. Usually characters will be back lit or be completely cast in darkness, as secondary characters in the background are exposed more clearly. Müller elaborates on this decision and how it played into the story, in particular, referring to a scene where the main character walks into a bar:

Contrast in Lighting
The lack of light and ominous shadows adds mystery to the overall look and feel of the scene. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.

You don’t have to say everything to make yourself clear. I don’t feel the need to see his face that well because I’ve got most of my information anyway. In this specific scene, if I start lighting up the whole bar, it loses a lot of its character—it becomes a film set. The location is really the means of telling a story, as well, and when I blow it away with light, you lose something substantial.

Müller’s work can be borderline frustrating. You’re looking at these scenes and they look so effortlessly DIY. But, it seems like most of the shoot was pretty DIY, given the location and resources the production had.

Natural Light

Landscape in Paris, Texas
Wenders made a point to document the landscape prior to shooting. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.

A major influence on Müller’s work came from his past apprenticeship with DP Gérald Vandenberg, who similarly had a preference for using natural light. Paris, Texas starts with a bright, mid-day sequence of our central character wandering through the desert. Müller’s blending of these over-exposed tendencies with some of the more stylized, neon-heavy shots works perfectly well to create an almost other-worldly feeling to the characters’ lives. Much of the setting and ideas behind the film’s look were influenced by Wenders taking a medium format camera out West and documenting the urban landscape.

Color Contrast
Color contrasts are especially evident in the outdoor settings. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.

The saturated, contrasty look shot by Müller could have come about from push-processing the negative in the development stage. However, I couldn’t find any solid evidence of this. Either way, Müller shot these outdoor scenes with color at the forefront of his vision, whether that means how he approached the DI process or wardrobe and compositional choices.

Operating the Camera

Operating the Camera
Müller took a hands-on approach to operating the camera. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.

Müller operates the camera himself, preferring specific movements or compositions that only he feels comfortable shooting. So, it’s very clear that his approach is very “hands-on.” And, while I think it’s easy to look at this as controlling or stern, it’s also just low-budget filmmaking at its finest. You’re often going to find yourself playing the role of the DP, camera op, grip, and whatever other small jobs need to be filled for the rest of the shoot. But, for a film like Paris, Texas, this is just one more way the vision and voice of the film aligned between director and DP to create the singular vision you now know as the final product.

Just Light the Scene

Lighting the Scene
Müller’s approach to lighting a scene was anything but by-the-book. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.

Müller mentioned how one of his first experiences dealing with professional lighting technicians and gaffers was a stressful one due to the instance of identifying the types of lights he needed—like key, back, fill, etc. He says he just knew that he needed a certain type of light in one position to light the scene a certain way. It wasn’t about labeling everything for the sake of tradition.

When you need a key light, it means you need another light to complete the system and I never thought about that. I just needed the light that I needed. To give it a name made no sense to me.

While it does help to know terms and systems for on-set workflows (and job assurance), he makes a good point for not falling into a boring by-the-book approach to lighting. Roger Deakins discusses this same sentiment many times in his podcast. Deakins likes working with newer, fresher grips and gaffers because of the lack of rigidity that comes with a crew more willing to take chances and try new things.

Final Scene
The last scene of the film was an eight-minute, single-take monologue. Image via Twentieth Century Fox.

If you needed any more reason to love this film, apparently the last scene they had to film was on their last 1,000 foot roll of film and they had to shoot a single-take, eight minute monologue. It’s just nice to hear some of the all-time greats were made under intense stress with minimal resources.

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For further cinematography tips from the greats, check out these articles.

Cover image via Twentieth Century Fox.

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