Why a First-time German Filmmaker Spent a Decade Making a Comedy About Willie Nelson

by 24USATVFeb. 6, 2024, 8:01 p.m. 24
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Willie Nelson is probably as responsible for romanticizing Texas in the eyes of the rest of the world as John Wayne movies, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and barbecue. The reach of his music pulled in Eva Hassmann all the way from Germany, where the 51-year-old actor, writer, and director was moved enough by Willie to center her first feature on him.

The resulting film, Willie and Me, had its theatrical and video-on-demand debut this week. In it, Hassmann plays Greta, a dissatisfied German housewife who, upon unearthing her copy of Always on My Mind for the first time in years, learns that Willie is playing a farewell show in Las Vegas. From there, the adventure begins—she sells her husband’s Porsche, books a flight, and hits the road to be there in person, setting off a string of wacky misadventures that see her carjacked, ripped off, robbed, and rescued by a charming Elvis impersonator on her way to catch the Red Headed Stranger in person one last time. (It also features not one but two performances by Willie himself—as both himself and as a mysterious medicine man—as well as the final screen performance from the great Peter Bogdanovich, one of Hassmann’s mentors.)

The film’s journey to the screen was nearly as circuitous as Greta’s own adventure. Texas Monthly caught up with Hassmann to learn what Willie means to her, how she toughed out a series of challenges to get the movie made, and why she couldn’t imagine making this movie about anyone else.

Eva Hassmann: To show how inspiring music can be, specifically for someone who’s kind of stuck in a life situation that is not obviously bad but is still depressed. In fact, how that can make someone even more depressed—if you have a house, a car, you’re married, and so there’s no reason you’re depressed, this can trigger even deeper depression. So there’s this key moment where she listens to Willie’s music for the first time since her childhood, and it’s kind of a wake-up, and music is the transmitter for that. It’s about following your heart through music, even if it’s chaotic and naive, when you’re inspired by music. For me, it was Willie—but it can be any music for anybody.

TM: What’s your relationship to Willie’s music like?

EH: Intense. It helped me write the script. It inspired me. It was there, inspiring me, through my childhood, but then, all of the scenes I wrote were written while listening to his songs.

TM: When did you shoot the film? If you look at Willie today, and you look at him in the film, he looks just a little more spry in the movie than he does in person these days.

EH: Oh, it took a while to get the whole film together. I had to sometimes shoot in episodes, so there is a time gap between . . . I mean, it took me nearly ten years to get everything, up to the end, finished. There’s a gap of at least eight years between the first scene we shot for the film with Willie and the one where he plays the medicine man who drives Greta to the concert.

TM: That’s a long time to stick with a project. What can you tell me about that journey?

EH: It’s mainly really simple: financing. Finding producers and investors who believe in you, which I just didn’t find for a long time.

TM: It seems like it must take a lot of self-belief and confidence to commit to making a movie that takes so long.

EH: It’s not really self-belief, because there are a lot of doubts. But my heart was beating for this story the whole time, and with passion, there’s power. And it was really my passion that drove me the whole way. It was there in moments when things didn’t work out—I was still sitting there, and I was feeling a gratitude that I’m still able to do it and move forward and have the support of an amazing artist like Willie. And Peter [Bogdanovich] as well, who greatly helped me with the script. So, that gave me a lot of power to move on.

TM: We cover Willie a lot at Texas Monthly. He’s an icon. What do you think translates across cultures about his music?

EH: International language. He has a universal language. His songs are poetry—timeless poetry, I think. Time and space don’t matter with Willie’s music.

TM: For you, and for this character, this is a story about Willie’s music. But for another character, it could be someone else’s music. I was wondering as I was watching it, if Willie hadn’t been available to appear in this movie, could you have made this movie about Smokey Robinson, or someone else who’s an icon in their own way?

EH: No. No, no, no. It’s really his music and his songs. That’s what makes the whole film and the story for me; that’s what makes it credible and important. The first time I saw Willie was at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. I was there with Peter Bogdanovich, and to see him onstage, we were sitting down and Willie started singing, and I immediately started crying. I was so surprised by my emotions—I never expected to respond that strongly. And it was basically each and every song for the whole concert. Peter was giving me a handkerchief like, “Calm down,” and I said, “I’m not sentimental; I don’t know what’s going on with me.” But I just have a lot of connection to his music and to this story.

TM: How did Willie get involved in the movie?

EH: That was also through Peter Bogdanovich. He read the script, and he sent it to Willie’s management, and that’s what opened the doors.

EH: Oh God, there are so many. But right now—I love to listen to “Still Is Still Moving to Me” right now.

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