Werner Movie Classics : Werner Herzog’s 60-plus filmography continues to grow

Some would call film director Werner Herzog brave and bold. Others would call him crazy. Nobody would deny he is some kind of genius, whether making feature films about impossible, sometimes doomed missions, like “Aguirre, The Wrath of God,” or “Fitzcarraldo,” or documentaries about doomed people (“Grizzly Man”) or inhospitable worlds (“Encounters at the End of the World,” about Antarctica). On Wednesday night he will sit down with another well-traveled soul, Pico Iyer, and talk about ? well, nobody’s decided just yet.

We talked to the 67-year-old director, who continues to make films at least once a year, and now has started up his own “Rogue Film School” to foster a new generation of rebels.

What do you and Pico Iyer plan to talk about? Both of you love to travel?

I have no clue. I will just show up and I am ready for anything. But those moments very often are the liveliest. You see, when you have a prearranged script, very quickly life is left out.

This sounds a little like your movies. I hear you refuse to storyboard.

Yeah. Well, unless you are doing something with digital effects involved, then you have to be precise, otherwise you run into huge problems later on. But I think very often the quality of preproduction very often decides the battle. So, however, when it comes to shooting itself, I am the only one completely and utterly unprepared and I let things evolve very quickly and I put life into it. So that’s one of the reasons why I am against storyboards.

I assume you didn’t use storyboards when you started out, either. Was that a choice or were you not even aware of them?

Well, storyboards were not in vogue at that time, and very much in principle, I think, it is the instrument of those who do not trust in their abilities on the set, and it’s the instrument of the coward, and it’s the instrument of those who lack imagination.

How is your Rogue Film School? Has it started?

Yes, sure. I had one round in January, and I am doing something now, another one, on the East Coast in June. But I am doing it not in New York, as it was prohibitively expensive for students from out of town, and most of them here in Los Angeles were out of town or even out of the country, and they need to have a place where hotel accommodation is inexpensive. So I chose a place in New Jersey, not very far from Newark Airport.

The first round was in L.A. What were the students like?

Completely different backgrounds, age groups, just totally worldwide almost. We had students from Korea, from Australia, from Brazil, from Mexico, from Belgium, you just name it. And I would say about 20 percent were out of the Los Angeles area, all the rest came from, let’s say, about 60 percent from the United States and all the rest from all over the world.

By the end of the course, what did they leave with? Did they make something?

No, no, no, you do not make a film in such a short period of time, but all of them had to submit a DVD of something they had made themselves, and they had to submit some sort of short written text about themselves. So I wanted to figure out what kind of person I would eventually encounter.

What were their DVDs like?

Well, I had hundreds of submissions, but I had only a very few students who knew completely ? there was even an animated film, which was extremely good, by the way, completely violent, debased and wonderful, and just completely rogue. I mean, as many different films as there are flowers in the field.

One text on your reading list was Virgil’s “Georgics.” What is this about?

Well, Virgil grew up on a farm in Northern Italy, near Mantua, so he really understood about agriculture. It’s probably the finest long poem of Roman antiquity, about the glory of the beehive and the wonders of pruning apple trees and the horrors of plague invading the stables and killing off sheep and goats. So just read it, because that will make you a filmmaker ultimately, more than literature or movies.

When did you first read it?

Well, I had to learn Latin and ancient Greek in school. I had nine years of Latin, six years of ancient Greek, and I hated it, but now, in the last 15-20 years, I have gone back to reading Greek and reading Latin, and I started to discover the beauty of it. But the reading list includes, for example, the Warren Commission Report, and it includes a short story by Hemingway, and it includes the Poetic Edda, which is old Icelandic medieval poetry. So you just name it. It’s not that these books, these individual books, will make you a filmmaker, but I mean, branch out, read. My daily mantra to the students was read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read; if you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker.

It does seem that students of film mostly watch other films.

It doesn’t make you a filmmaker, yes, it doesn’t work, but when you look at real good, great filmmakers; Coppola has his own library, he even engages a librarian. Look at how much Errol Morris reads. So it’s just a very clear indicator; you have to make your students read.

I read that at age 14, you converted to Catholicism and were baptized. What led to that?

Oh, we need 48 hours to talk about that. No, I can just say that I had a dramatic religious faith when I was in adolescence, and it dwindled away fairly soon, but it was an important thing in my life.

Though it drifted away, what did it leave you with?

Yeah, I think in many of my films there’s a vague distant echo of that. That’s all I can say. But again, we need much more time than over the phone in the interview.

You are attracted to people who live extreme lives. Did you encounter these people in your adolescence?

Well, it really depends on the definition of extreme ? and let’s move away from my biography, but let’s move toward cinema. I think cinema needs characters larger than life. It’s part of storytelling in cinema. And if you are not into that, you will always make boring films and films that are insignificant. In our collective dreams, we want these figures out on the screen.

David Lynch was the executive producer of your latest film, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.” Has that been released?

Oh no, the film was shown last year at the Venice Film Festival and it was shown in two theaters. So at the end of the year it will hit some theaters fairly soon. But David Lynch was some sort of a stumbling block, which led to the production of the film. He is more a person who sparked off the making of this. We were just discussing once about doing films for very limited budgets but with the best of actors and great stories. And he said, do you have a project? And I said yes. And he said, when can you start it? I said tomorrow. But he didn’t have a practical involvement in the whole thing. It was mostly that a production company, which is an offspring of his own company, produced the film, but these people are completely independent of David Lynch.

Both you and Lynch seem to enjoy living in Los Angeles and appreciate it from an outsider’s point of view. Did you talk about that?

No, but if you are talking about it, I think Los Angeles is a city with the most substance in the United States and that’s why I find it very exciting to be here. You see, if you are in finances, you have to go to New York. If you are in the oil business, you have to go to Houston. If you are into culture, you have to go to Los Angeles.

Do you see it as a noir city?

That’s too simplistic, but of course there is a lot of glitz and glamor at the surface and you have to dig beneath it.

For “Bad Lieutenant,” I read you cast Nicholas Cage in a 60-second conversation. Did he have any preconceptions of working with you?

No, not really, but he had seen my films and I had seen his work, and it was very strange because it hadn’t occurred to us that we should work together, and all of a sudden, at the same time, almost exactly at the same time, both of us had the feeling that it was an outrage that we had never worked together. And both of us were trying to find each other’s telephone number. And he had mine first and called me from Australia. So it was clear we would work together. And he wouldn’t sign his contract unless I was on board.

And the same happened to me. I said, “I am not going to be on board if Nicolas Cage doesn’t sign.” So it was a very, very good basis. He was totally pleased with the fact that I shot only what I really needed for the screen. The crew always asked, “now let’s shoot the coverage,” and I never shot the coverage, I didn’t even know what it meant. And I said, “I shoot what I need,” and my shooting days were normally over by 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 4 p.m. I never went one hour, not one single hour over time, and I stayed $2.6 million under budget.

How hard is it to find a crew that understands that?

Oh, they understand it no later than on the second day. It’s a question of leadership and what I am doing makes a lot of sense and it gets the best imaginable results and it stays under budget and under time, under schedule, and it’s a great joy to work with me, for everyone; actors and crew.

Sounds like an interesting balance between spontaneity on set, yet a structure.

Yeah, there’s a great amount of discipline. It’s the same like in open heart surgery, that’s probably the best comparison; very, very focused, going for the essential, talking only in whispers. There’s never any loud word. No cell phones around. No walkie-talkies, no viewfinder, no video playout, just very, very focused.

What happens in editing? Are you there in every stage?

Sure, all the time, and I am very fast because now I edit digitally, and when you are working digitally, you can edit almost as fast as you can think. “Grizzly Man” was edited in nine days. “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” was delivered in final cut five days after we finished shooting, but I was editing during shooting. For “Bad Lieutenant” I was also editing during shooting; it was delivered a fortnight after the end of principal photography.

How do the studios handle this?

They love it, they love it because I don’t waste time; I come up quickly with the best imaginable result. For example, “Bad Lieutenant,” you normally go through a procedure of having test screenings or so, but the film had such an immediate, direct impact on audiences that it’s a director’s cut, even though it was not in my contract. But what you see is director’s cut, because director’s cut is a myth. The director’s cut never belongs, it doesn’t belong to the studios nor to any specific director or the distributors or anyone, it belongs to the test audiences. You see, Spielberg, for example, on all his contracts says final cut and he does test screenings, and 85 percent of the report cards come back and they say, the end is too long. You know what happens? Thirty minutes later, Spielberg is back in the editing room and he trims his end down.

So you’re saying that’s bad?

No, no, it’s not bad. I think there is a certain logic in it. We do not make films for ourselves. We do not circle around our own navel. Films are for audiences. However, I must say, never ever in my whole life I have had to re-edit a film because of the audience demand. It never occurred to me in my life.

The scene in “Bad Lieutenant,” where Cage’s cop says “his soul is still dancing,” was that made up on the spot?

No, it had to be better, it was not in the screenplay, so much of what you see is my own invention. However, I had to find a good break dancer, and we had to give him the same costume, the same gaudy pink jacket. So we had to have the person for three, four days before shooting took place. So in a way it was prepared because of the costumes, but otherwise what happened then on the set was freely arranged.

And I love those shots of the iguana and the crocodile.

Yes, which I filmed myself, of course. Things like that I would not leave to the cinematographer.

You travel a lot. Would you do this much travel if you weren’t filmmaking?

Sure. I can give you an example. On Monday, I have to fly to France, Southern France, because I am shooting in and around the Paleolithic cave, the oldest cave paintings ever discovered. And since these caves are not in the Rocky Mountains, I have to fly all the way to France. I am returning and after 10 days or so I am going to be in Boulder, but that’s because I promised to show up at an event that Roger Ebert loves, and then a day later I will be in your town. Which is OK, no, I mean why not, I mean Santa Barbara is within easy reach and it will be quite all right.

But if I had the caves with the cave paintings somewhere near San Diego, also there are some very beautiful caves, if I had it there, I would rather prefer to shoot there. But unfortunately, 32,000 years ago nobody had the idea to create paintings in the cave.

We have our own Painted Cave here in Santa Barbara.

Yes, they are much younger in origin. You have to be aware that in Southern France, in these particular caves, that the paintings date back to a time where there were still Neanderthal men roaming around, the last ones.

Is this the cave that has the famous handprint?

There are some yes, there are some handprints in it, but you have handprints in quite a few other caves, in particular in the Dordogne area, but they are much younger. They are something dating back 15,000 years before our time. But this particular cave is 32,000 years old, dating back when there were rhinos and woolly mammoths and lions in France.

So what is the next project?

Oh, I have six or seven future film projects, but I have to see which one can be financed and which one can be done. In one case, I need two identical twins, young women, and it’s very hard to find them, because they have to be real twins. So I will see what’s going to happen. But the very next one is next week in France.

WERNER HERZOG, in conversation with PICO IYER
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Campbell Hall, UCSB
Cost: $14 general, $8 UCSB students
Information: wwww.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu, (805) 893-3535

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