In 2013, filmmaker Wim Wenders was shooting a movie with James Franco in Canada when he received an unusual letter at his production office in Berlin. Bearing a postmark from Vatican City, the letter contained a remarkable invitation: the opportunity to collaborate with the new pope to make a documentary about the pontiff himself. Wenders would be given access to rare Vatican television footage and granted several interviews with Pope Francis.
"I thought it was more intimidating than flattering," Wenders tells correspondent Jon Wertheim
Wenders' documentary is called "Pope Francis -- A Man of His Word." It was the brainchild of former Vatican press chief Monsignor Dario Vigano, who aspired to create a film about Pope Francis in the pontiff's own words. Monsignor Vigano had met Wenders years prior at the Venice Film Festival and was familiar with his eclectic body of work, including a documentary on the Cuban musical group Buena Vista Social Club, and Wings of Desire, a fantasy film about angels watching over Berlin.
"I didn't want Wim to tell the story of the pontiff, but rather I wanted the pontiff to tell his own story -- through Mr. Wenders' unique lens," Monsignor Vigano says in a press release for the documentary.
While Wenders' eye for filmmaking may be singular, a device he used in front of the lens is also distinct. It's called the Interrotron, and it was first developed by the documentarian Errol Morris. Similar to a teleprompter, the Interrotron projects the interviewer's face on a screen in front of the lens, so the subject -- in this case, Pope Francis -- can look directly into the camera but feel as though he's having a conversation.
In 2000, Morris talked with 60 Minutes II about his Interrotron and the impact it has on documentary filmmaking. "When you see this interview, it's not as though you're observing two people talking. You're one of those people. You're one of those people actually engaged," he said.
The result in Wenders' documentary is the sense that the pope is speaking directly to the viewer. The feeling of a quiet, intimate conversation is a world away from the speeches and sermons the pontiff typically gives in front of thousands. "You watch this film and you almost feel -- Catholic, non-Catholic, atheist -- you almost feel like this is a personalized message from the pope," Wertheim says.
In addition to changing the experience for the viewer, the Interrotron also affects its interview subject.
Because the physical interaction of a face-to-face interview is removed, interview subjects tend to be more forthcoming. Wertheim says it worked for Pope Francis: "Clearly this was someone who lost his inhibitions. He spoke very candidly."
Wenders told Wertheim that by the end of the project, he felt that the pope's eye contact with the viewer made the film. Behind his eyes, Wenders says, Pope Francis has a quality that even the best actors can't fake: "presence" -- a rare combination of charisma and authenticity.
The pope's demeanor also struck Wertheim on viewing Wenders' documentary.
"There's nothing dogmatic," he says. "There's nothing sort of self-righteous. He has doubts; he's not afraid to express those doubts. He radiates a real sort of human quality. There is not a sense of this is this exalted figure."
"It's pretty remarkable."
"Pope Francis -- A Man of His Word" opens in theaters nationwide on May 18th. To watch Wertheim's 60 Minutes piece about the documentary,.
The video above was produced and edited by Will Croxton and Sarah Shafer Prediger.
"Pope Francis -- A Man of His Word," a film by Wim Wenders, courtesy of Focus Features LLC
Pope Francis footage and photos courtesy of Vatican Media and The Palindrome