On Friday, as torrential rain storms were hitting Los Angeles, we talked by phone with legendary filmmaker and first-time Oscar nominee (for ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD) Werner Herzog, about his recent work and the perception that his longtime questioning of documentary "standards" has made him somewhat of an outsider in the documentary community.
Since his much lauded, Antarctica documentary feature, Herzog has directed two narrative films - a new version (not a remake, all insist) of BAD LIEUTENANT, with Nicholas Cage in the Harvey Keitel role, and a short film based on Puccini's La Boheme that was shot in Ethiopia. He is prepping for his new narrative feature, MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE, to star fellow Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and to be Executive Produced by David Lynch.
ATWT: I’m always enthusiastic about this idea that you can make a film, a documentary film, in a relatively short period of time and I was always curious about GRIZZLY MAN because you did that from start to finish in less than a month, correct?
Werner Herzog: Yes.
ATWT: And is that something you like doing?
WH: In substance it is correct. But, of course, I didn’t have final music yet and that took about two or three months more until we had the music, and then we did the mixing and in the time while we were waiting for the music, I made some slight modifications. But very minor modifications. But I would say the shape of the film, shooting the film was something like eighteen days and editing and writing commentary and recording commentary and doing a primitive mix was nine days.
ATWT: That’s obviously not the norm in documentary, to do something in such a short period of time.
WH: It was so evident what had to be done. And I work fast. I do not make twenty parallel versions of the edit and then cannot decide which one would be the best. I just do it once and then plow on until I’m through the film and then that’s the film then.
ATWT: You know, over the last few years there’s been a lot of attention paid to this notion that you’re somewhat of an outsider amongst documentarians.
WH: I’m dead center.
ATWT: I think that’s true. But especially recently, I think that the debate that you’ve been having, your calls to expand the idea of what documentary can be – if that’s been a debate, it seems to me that you’ve won.
WH: No, come on, it’s not winning or losing. We are not in horse races. No, it is just finding, how shall I say, finding an adequate answer to the massive onslaught on our sense of reality. And I’m speaking of digital effects in cinema and photoshop and virtual realities on the net and video games and reality TV, you can continue on. In the last decade a massive onslaught on our sense of reality and we, as filmmakers, are called upon to redefine our sense of reality. That’s what’s behind it. And cinema verite’s the answer of the ‘60s.
It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about finding new answers.
ATWT: Now it seems that the films that are out there, certainly the films, including WALTZ WITH BASHIR in another category, that are nominated this year, these are films that correspond more to how you’ve been talking about documentary and nonfiction then perhaps what was common perception five, ten years ago.
WH: Yeah. But I have postulated it for feature films as well, I don’t make so much of a distinction. I think filmmakers are called upon to respond to this challenge of virtual realities. I just do not want to hear that it’s about winning or losing. It is a totally necessary sort of excitement going on and I happen to be one of those who have pushed the debate early on.
Let me put it this way – twenty, twenty-five years ago, I said the same things. But now, of course, they resonate more because the situation has changed so dramatically.
ATWT: But certainly there are more filmmakers who adhere to what you’ve been saying for decades, I mean there are more people who are embracing it then there were.
WH: That may be. I do not really know.
ATWT: There was an interview between you and Errol Morris and you were talking a little bit about cinema verite but you also said that there was something else emerging and “we should really go and lower our heads and charge against this kind of structure, and this post-modernist, post-structuralist sort of film studies in aesthetics.”
WH: That’s academia who is trying to undermine the vitality of moviemaking. But that has happened to literature and poetry as well, that kind of academia, the vivsection, the termites that hollow out the substance or try to. They haven’t destroyed poetry and they won’t destroy cinema either. But we have to be alert, this kind of theoretical, academic babble is one of the enemies out there.
ATWT: And what can filmmakers do? If there’s something to fight, what should filmmakers be doing?
WH: I do what I’m supposed to do, I lower my head and charge when I come in contact with these theoreticians of film studies. It’s actually good fun to do good battle.
ATWT: Let me ask you about this book you have coming out, “The Conquest of the Useless”.
WH: Ah yes, that’s a book, a prose book that’s going to be released in the summer by Harper Collins. The translation is just finished and I’m working on the translation, I’m doing some corrections and modifications. But it’s good that you mention it, because this book is certainly better than all of my films together.
ATWT: Really? Why do you say?
WH: When it’s out, read it and you will know.
ATWT: OK. I will. You know there are a lot of young filmmakers who look at you and the fact that you do so many films and you’ve done such great works in nonfiction, but you’ve also been able to have this larger life where you’re writing books or operas and you’re doing narrative films –
WH: And I travel on foot.
ATWT: Yes indeed. And they wonder, a.) how do you do it and b.) how can they become more like you.
WH: I do not really know. I’m just trying to be a good soldier of cinema.
ATWT: Are there lessons that young filmmakers should take from what you’ve done?
WH: No. I don’t want to be the prophet on a high rock. No, but maybe one thing that would be very much in general. Just have the courage to follow your vision and have the courage to do the projects that are close to your heart.
ATWT: The film that you were nominated for, ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, it was partially funded by Discovery Films, which is no longer around, and it was put out by THINKFilm, which has had a great deal of trouble. What do you think of the state of distribution?
WH: I think it always has been difficult but today we have a situation where audiences are turning more attention to documentaries than they have in previous years. And probably it has to do with a much larger question, that audiences are looking out for, are trying to redefine the sense of reality. We’re seeing too many big films with digital effects and too many photos manipulated in photo shop. So there’s probably a new focus on documentaries because of that. And I will find the production and eventually they will find distribution.
For the production of ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, essentially, and I say that as encouragement for young filmmakers, essentially it was a film made by two men – the cinematographer and me, who directed it and I did the sound.
ATWT: Last question, just return to a couple things that we talked about earlier, because you both embraced the idea of going to battle but you didn’t like the idea of winning the battle. Is the battle itself the thing and not really who wins or loses?
WH: The necessities arise. It’s not that I’m searching for battle, the occasions arise and you have to be ready to face it. And it had become visible for me many, many years ago. I saw it coming at the horizon. That’s why I’m one of the early persons who spoke out for new ways to make films and new ways to make documentaries. I just saw it earlier than others saw it.