by Steven Prokopy
In 2001, filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer released the well-received and hugely successful RIVERS AND TIDES, his first collaboration with artist Andy Goldsworthy, who is best known for not only using objects in nature as part of his artwork—stones, colored leaves, sticks, rain, reeds—but also creating performance art pieces using nature as an unknowing partner. One such work, in which Goldsworthy stands perilously close to the end of a extremely steep and windy cliff and leans into the abyss, using only the win to hold him up and keep him from plummeting to his death. That singular event provides the title to the artist and filmmaker’s follow-up work, LEANING INTO THE WIND, which takes an deeper dive into Goldsworthy’s life 16 years later, now working with his daughter Holly as a sometimes assistant.
Although Goldsworhty is often hesitant to discuss his own life or explain his process or artwork, he gives Riedelsheimer just enough to provide narration to images of the artist creating some truly breathtaking, frequently impermanent projects, sometimes using his own body as part of the art. Both the film and the artwork feels fragile and intimate, and the resulting movie provides even more depth and gives more impressive and hypnotic examples of Goldsworthy awe-inspiring talent and skill. We spoke with Riedelsheimer about reconnecting with his most famous subject (he has made other films on different topics, many of which are related to nature as well) and how both men had changed in their time apart.
Question: I have a vivid memory of seeing RIVERS AND TIDES, your first documentary about Andy Goldsworthy’s work. Explain the process of getting back in touch with him and deciding to make a second film with him.
Thomas Riedelsheimer: After the release of RIVERS AND TIDES, Andy and I had not been in touch for 10 years or so. I guess both of us are persons who do not socialize all the time and are in permanent exchange. Plus Andy had some issues with RIVERS AND TIDES. He always loved the visual side of it but thought the film would promote the idea of nature as a romantic place too much. For him, nature is more than a place to go to for a relaxing weekend. He missed the rough, harsh and sometimes brutal aspects. So several years ago while being in Scotland for another project, I called him and we finally met again.
For me, it was a very profound and moving experience. He immediately captured my imagination again, and it felt like we’d said goodbye just yesterday. It must have been the same for him because some weeks later, both of us came up with the vague idea for another film. I think he was interested to add another color to his work. Everyone who has seen RIVERS AND TIDES—and there are many—think they know Andy just because of this film. The film is great, but it is also like a frozen monument. Everything within the process of filmmaking is so fluid, unpredictable, changing all the time. Once the film is finished, it becomes a product that doesn’t change any more. So it is both a blessing but also a kind of curse.
LEANING INTO THE WIND feels like a much more intimate and personal profile. Were you intent on letting us into Andy Goldsworthy’s life a bit more, meeting his family, showing us works that he created just for himself, as well as his commissioned pieces?
I guess the intimacy reflects our relationship. We started the project at a point where we were already quite familiar. I was a bit afraid of that because as a director I needed to think of an audience who might see Andy for the first time on the screen. So I needed to go beyond the old film but still be basic enough. Andy is quite a private person, not interested in spreading intimate news about his family life. I respect this very much but I also felt that his connection with the fallen elm tree is a very special one and rooted deeply in the experiences and emotions he went through in his private life. He struggled to talk about it in the film, and in fact this was the only part I needed his authorization for in the end. I guess he was just afraid that the audience would draw conclusions between art and private life that are just too simple. In general, I feel that LEANING is trying to get directly into the brain of an artist, while RIVER gets its strength through watching an artist doing things.
There’s a funny moment near the beginning of the film in which he’s attempting to explain his process/style, and he gets stuck trying to do so. Why did you leave that in, and what do you think that moment says about him?
This is an important scene for me. I think, in general, there is a paradox in asking an artist about his work. Art is a way to express something without being forced to talk about it. Art can and probably should be inexplicable. There is a limit to words, and this is exactly where film and visuals can take over. Our language was developed to deliver clear and unmistakeable messages. Artists touch on intuition, emotion, spirit—things that are more vague and need the deep involvement of the person addressed. So I like the fact that Andy is struggling in this scene, and basically the only thing he finally says is “I still want to make sense of the world.”
This scene at the beginning is also arching to the very end when Andy talks about the “moments of clarity.” He clearly describes those moments of understanding that he is striving for in his work. But again, he does not describe WHAT he understands in these moments but only the way it happens. I think for everyone, these moments of clarity are inexplicable with words but maybe comprehensible through film.
He seems willing but uneasy to talk about his process and the meaning of his installations. Overall, how is Andy as an interview subject?
Andy is pretty much aware of the limitation of words but he still enjoys talking about his work. But of course, like most artists, he does not give simple instructions in terms of reading his art. There is a whole universe behind it, and I more and more learn about how everything he does is connected. But he is a great partner in conversation, very honest and with a great sense of humor.
The beautiful opening sequence involves a beam of light in a dark room, which Goldsworthy makes more visible with dust, and then it vanishes. The impermanence of many of his works is what separates him from so many other artists—nature will always reclaim what he creates. What does it say about him and his relationship to his work?
I guess everything we do—and this of course includes all artwork—will finally be reclaimed by nature. I understand that this is a basic principle of time, which again is a principle of life. The difference is that Andy is very much aware of this, while many others are not. In RIVERS AND TIDES, he said, “The real work is the change.” I guess that explains everything about his relation to impermanence. In the end, all his ideas and works revolve around the fact that there is nothing on earth that lasts, and we simply have to come to terms with that, which is not easy because it includes the concept of our own death.
Andy is said to use nature in his work, but in watching this film, it almost feels like nature is using him as the instrument of creation. Do you agree, and do you think he would?
The question implies a separation between us and nature. I guess what is more appropriate is the idea that you cannot separate yourself from nature. You are nature and you are surrounded by nature and cannot get away from that fact. I think it is about learning about yourself by trying to understand nature.
How long was your shoot this time around, and when did you know you had enough material to attempt to piece together another film?
We were lucky enough to have very easygoing supporters who gave us the time we wanted to have. Making a film is a great process but to end that process has always had a flavor of randomness. Since we are not working along a written script, you could go on forever. You end it because you run out of money or because you signed a contract or (this is the best reason) because you feel you have enough. But honestly, there is no irrevocable argument for ending a process like this. The filming of LEANING took around three years. We started with a research trip to Gabun when we didn’t even have a proper project or financing. I love this way of working.
I loved his discussion of how each of his pieces triggers memories of a time in his life. That was quite a moving realization, and it made me realize that this is also a film about getting older and mortality. Did you realize that as you were shooting or editing?
I think the relentlessness of time is very dominant in Andy´s work. So it was clear that this would play a big role. When it came to shooting, we found ourselves in the situation that our kids were working with us, which was not clear in the beginning. And I started to realize that this is fantastic but also important for the film. Andy´s daughter Holly was working with him; his other daughter Anna was helping with production; and my son Felix was my camera assistant. There was a strong feeling of the new generation coming up behind us and finally taking over at some point. Not taking over our work, but they will do other things. Still, there is this feeling of being pushed to the edge a little closer.
I loved seeing him working with his daughter and how much he trusted her. Did involving her change the dynamic for you or Andy’s behavior at all?
This is hard to say because it happened that way, and it is difficult to imagine the “what if” question. I didn’t feel any problematic psychological issues. Of course, there were all of these Father-Kid things, but I think the kids had sometimes more issues working with their fathers than the other way around. But it felt great and right and very easy and harmonic. And by the way, it is one of the best things that ever happened to me to be working with my son.
Scenes with Andy putting down lines on city sidewalks using leaves are one of the only times we see both him in a city setting and how other people react to his work. Was it important to capture that experience this time around, how outsiders see what he’s doing?
You will have realized that one of the differences of RIVERS and LEANING is showing Andy in a more social context. He is talking with farmers, crew members, random audiences. Andy is very interested in how people use the land, how they work with the land (that includes a city as it is nature as well—at least underlying). So yes, it was one of the guidelines to have in social context.
I was utterly captivated in the sequences involving him climbing through/across hedges, trees, reeds, etc. What about that activity do you find captivating enough to allow the camera to linger on it for so long?
I think the length is crucial to understand the work. When you watch it, you might find yourself going through different levels of emotion. First, there is a funny aspect to the scene. You hear some noises and slowly you discover a man on the right edge crawling through a hedge. But spending more time with the image, you might go through some more ideas and emotions. There is the hardship and the suffering, there is the beauty of movement, and there is a metaphoric level. To me this scene—and the one with the floating leaves towards the end—are visual equivalents to the flow of life. I hope that giving the audience time does not lead to boredom but to deeper and very personal reactions. To me, it is a great example of the openness and poetry of an image that is not strictly defining what you should think watching it.
The moment when he struggles with the idea of cutting into bedrock is also quite moving. Talk about the experience of watching his inner turmoil at the time.
Andy took us there very early in the morning, and in the beginning, I had no idea what was going on. And then this inner struggle developed. I just stood there with my camera, and Andy was wandering around coming up to the camera every now and then and expressing his thoughts. I can´t remember asking; I think he himself wanted to talk about it. He was quite tense. I guess he was testing himself, trying to push himself to new boundaries. And I felt honored and happy that he allowed us to be with him. In fact, I think he even wanted me to be with him.
The shot you use during the end credits is amazing and hypnotic. Again, tell me about your decision to use that at that point in the film. I was convinced the figure in the tree was not a real person, and I gasped aloud when he finally moved.
That shot was a “present” by Andy. Through our collaboration and through his own work, he gained a great understanding for film. During one of our last shooting periods, he gave me this clip, which he shot himself without me. And when he framed it in his DSLR camera, I guess he had a clear idea of it being a credit background. It is just perfect. First you think it is a still image, then you are shocked by the cars passing, and then you are surprised by him climbing down in the very last seconds of the film. Again, a great example for his fine humor.
I wouldn’t qualify LEANING INTO THE WIND as a sequel, but it is a companion piece to RIVERS AND TIDES. How do they work together? What does one do that the other doesn’t and vice versa?
It was one of my biggest challenges to make a film that works as a standalone but also as an addition to RIVERS. My feeling is that it worked out, and I am very happy about that. A lot of people who have seen RIVERS (around 70 percent in an average audience) appreciate the new views and aspects. And also, a lot of people who haven´t seen RIVERS went to see it now. So I guess they work together.
What was Andy’s reaction to this second film?
Andy loved LEANING from the very beginning. He was not involved in the editing, and I showed him the film in a very elaborate state. Thinking of his criticism with some issues of RIVERS, I was super nervous. But he simply loved it.
The score of the film is once again provided by composer Fred Frith. How much guidance did you give him as to the atmosphere the music would provide? Or did you simply give him a rough copy of the film and let him work his magic independently?
Fred is a perfect match for this film. It is so hard to imagine any kind of music going with Andy´s work. Fred is not only a lovely human being but also a great and sensible musician. I showed him the film to be sure he liked it, which he did. Then we discussed some very basic ideas, and off he went and did his composing. When it came to recording the tracks, a lot was added, discarded or improvised. It is a very fluid way of working, very appropriate to the whole project. I just sit in a corner and watch him do his thing. He does´t need me.
You’ve made other films about artists and nature over the years. What is the most difficult aspect to capturing an artist on film—both their actual art and their essence?
I guess a crucial part of any documentary is the understanding of a protagonist that a filmmaker can only make a film about his own vision. It is not the artist’s/protagonist’s vision. This is important to understand. And of course, this needs a lot of trust and confidence in advance. The most delicate aspect is to build this trust. In the end with a film like LEAING, a new kind of work is created. There is Andy´s work, which in the end can best be seen live and present, then there is my interpretation of the work. This makes a new thing. I always want to understand how artists tick; I think it is wonderful to learn about the world through making art, but then I need to find my own entry into the artist’s work. I am not interested in biopics or a journalistic approach. I want to understand an artist’s essence and learn about what it has to do with me.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker & actor interviews under the name “Capone.”
LEANING INTO THE WIND opens March 23rd at the Music Box. CLICK HERE for Showtimes & Advance Tickets.