Werner Herzog’s Secret Mainstream: Part One

The acclaimed German director on Bad Lieutenant, Hollywood, Nicolas Cage snorting 'cocaine' and how arthouse doesn't exist any more.
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The acclaimed German director on Bad Lieutenant, Hollywood, Nicolas Cage snorting 'cocaine' and how arthouse doesn't exist any more.

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In the early 80s, Werner Herzog was a giant of world cinema, but his legend rested squarely on what he was prepared to do for his art rather than what was actually on the screen. He reached a peak with Fitzcarrado (1982), a film that began as a vehicle for Mick Jagger but was completed with mercurial German actor Klaus Kinski playing the insane opera-loving businessman who decides to bring classical music to the Peruvian jungle, via a plan that involves the overland transportation of a 320-ton steamboat. Herzog, then 40, would stop at nothing to reach his vision of “ecstatic truth” and moved the ship for real, at great physical cost to his cast and crew. The shoot is one of cinema's all-time-great debacles, and Herzog still refuses to confirm or deny rumours that he pulled a gun on Kinski to stop him walking off the set after one of their bitter, screaming arguments.

Herzog and Kinski's relationship alone, as charted in Herzog's hilarious 1999 documentary My Best Fiend, would have finished off any other director. But, surprisingly, this tumultuous collaboration, which had already resulted in the extraordinary triple whammy of Aguirre: The Wrath Of God (1972), Woyzeck and Nosferatu The Vampire (both 1979), resulted in one more project – 1987's Brazilian slave drama Cobra Verde – before Kinski's death in 1991. But by this time, Herzog's style of filmmaking was fast reaching its sell-by date; as the recession bit down and the film industry grew more conservative, few backers were prepared to indulge him in his exotic adventures, which relied heavily on non-professional actors and real, inaccessible, often highly dangerous locations.

Looking back, there's no way anyone could have predicted what would happen next – because there was no way, surely, that Herzog could sustain the energy, and withstand the tensions, that had gone into those films. But Herzog had no intention of letting the film business dictate to him. First of all, he segued into shooting idiosyncratic, low-budget documentaries (films he described as “feature films in disguise”), making his comeback of sorts in 2005 with the astonishing Grizzly Man, the story of unhinged adventurer Timothy Treadwell. And then, just when it seemed he'd given up fiction altogether, he quietly, and effortlessly, switched back to narrative. Not only that, but Hollywood mainstream narrative, complete with A-list stars and slick, commercial storytelling.

After 2006's Red Dawn, starring Christian Bale as a US pilot marooned in Laos during the Vietnam war, Herzog made his boldest, most bizarrely accessible film to date: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. Loosely inspired by Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, a dark Catholic crime drama starring Harvey Keitel, Herzog's film is a delirious modern film noir, with a psychotic, on-point performance from Cage as Terence McDonagh, a disgraced cop who injures his back in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and becomes addicted to hard drugs of every kind.

Almost immediately, Herzog teamed up with David Lynch for My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a disturbing true-crime docudrama about a San Diego man who killed his mother with a samurai sword. This would be admirable for a director even half his age, but given that he made his debut in 1968, with a film called Signs Of Life, Herzog's productivity, not to say longevity, is incredible. When I meet Herzog in London's Covent Garden Hotel, however, the 67-year-old director expresses surprise when I suggest that his career has followed a somewhat circular path, and he denies ever being concerned that his filmmaking style might ever have led him to obscurity. “I was never worried,” he insists calmly in his unmistakable Bavarian brogue.

The first time I met you was in 1991, I think, when you were brought to London by Palace Pictures. And I was worried for you, because I thought your time as a director was passing out of favour. But it now seems to me that you're gaining a new career and a new kind of favour. Did you ever feel that yourself?

No, no, no. I do not make more or less films today than, let's say, '91.

It's not a question of the amount of films, I just thought you might fall out of favour with the taste of arthouse cinema-goers.

Arthouse cinema doesn't exist any more. It has disappeared. All the distributors that did that do not exist any more. Nor does an audience exist any more. Nor do the theatres exist any more. But I never worried, because I was always mainstream. In a way. Although sometimes it took three decades until people realised, 'This is mainstream.' I've been the secret mainstream!

What's the secret of the secret mainstream?

It turns out all the others are not mainstream. But I am.

And that's how you've managed to keep working?

Yes. Because I make films that have very strong stories, which you do not see very often nowadays. With great actors. Great storytelling... (Laughs) I have to advertise myself, even though I don't like it. (Laughs) No, I occupy the centre, and all the rest is marginal.

There are lots of theories about the themes that appeal to you: characters with dreams, people that are outside society... You can imagine what they are. What interested you in Bad Lieutenant?

There is some sort of a persona, or various personae, out there, which people believe is Herzog. But of course they are all doppelgangers, invented by the media. Which is fine, I can live with this easily, because they are somehow almost like paid stooges who protect me, who take the brunt! It's fine. But whether I have common characters... It's very hard for me to make a judgement, because I don't like to look at my films from far outside. I don't spend much time in reflecting. But in a way, let's say The Bad Lieutenant belongs to a certain family; you would see there is a new relative there.

Which films would you put it in with?

I wouldn't like to put it in with anything, but...

Not even something like Woyzeck?

I wouldn't know. I believe that it fits into the family, but I'm cautious because I couldn't really give you a straight, clear answer.

What attracted you to The Bad Lieutenant?

Oh, there was hardly any time at all, and it was good to know that I would work with Nicolas Cage, because he would not sign his contract unless I was on board. For me, I wouldn't sign unless he was on board. After keeping an eye on each other's work for decades, we discovered [sic] to our dismay, 'Why haven't we worked together ever?' And it came about almost the same time; when he called me from Australia it took me 60 seconds and we were in business.

And the other part was New Orleans, which I liked as a backdrop. It's kind of a separate leading character in the film. Although the screenplay was written either for Detroit or New York – I forget what it was. But the producers were kind of anxious to let me know it would be so much better to shoot in New Orleans because of massive tax incentives. And I said, “Forget about tax incentives, this is the place I prefer. It can't get any better!” (Laughs) So those were the only reasons. I had hardly any time for pre-production. Three weeks for scouting 40 locations and casting 35 speaking roles, and I had no team. So it had to be done very quickly.

So you had no time to go through the script?

I did go through the script and I immediately deleted a lot of things. I wrote new scenes and new dialogues and elements into it. But basically it is a screenplay by William Finkelstein, who actually plays a gangster in the film. He's the one with the pink jacket whose soul is dancing! (Laughs) But that was, of course, my idea. The iguanas, and the beginning of the story, with the spoon – with the silver spoon – that was all not in the screenplay.

Why did you bring those things in?Was it to add humour?

Yeah. There's a lot of humour in it, and I'm very pleased that audiences sense it, and see it and react to it. It's very hilarious, yes.

When did you realise it was going to be as funny as it is? Even though it's still very dark...

I sensed that there was something in the screenplay, but, of course, during shooting and reworking things I emphasised it. And I knew it was going to be a very dark form of humour. And it started out with Nicolas Cage on the second day of shooting – he asked me, “Why is he so bad? Is it the drugs? Is it the destruction of the city? Is it the corruptness of the police?” And so on. And I said, “Oh, come on, I'm not into this kind of talk about motivations. We have to go for one thing: there is such a thing as the bliss of evil, the great joy...” (Laughs) “...which hopefully we will share with the audience.” This kind of secret bliss, about being as bad as it gets. So we were in business very quickly.

You say you've never seen Abel Ferrara's 1992 film of the same name...

No, I have no idea what it's all about. However, I must say Finkelstein swore a solid oath that his screenplay had nothing to do with another film with a similar title. I accepted this, and I knew I would change so much anyway. The only thing which is regrettably set one of the producers held the rights to the title and they wanted to keep it. And I was battling against the title from the first minute on – I wanted to have it Port Of Call: New Orleans. And I did not prevail.

"Arthouse cinema doesn't exist any more. But I never worried, because I was always mainstream. In a way. I've been the secret mainstream!"

How do you feel about the people who think it's just a remake? Which includes Abel Ferrara, who's not very happy about it!

I mean, it's a thing in the media. Which is fine. It makes cinema beautiful. I keep saying that it's like in baseball in America, The audience is waiting and hoping for the moment when the coach of the team storms out to the umpire and they yell at each other! (Laughs) Five inches away from each other's faces, pointing and yelling at each other, then the coach takes two steps back and kicks sand in anger! (Laughs) It has nothing to do with the outcome of the game, it has nothing to do with the quality of the game.

It's part of the show?

Yes. And I heard that Abel Ferrara, in the early phase, thought it was going to be a remake, and he was the one who kicked sand.

Didn't he say he wanted you to die in a bus crash!?

Yes. Which is fine. Yeah, let these things happen. They belong to cinema. Today, everybody, even the most stupid [people] know the films have nothing to do with each other. He knows.

To anyone who has seen his film, the ending of yours is really funny. Ferrara's ending is very dark and very Catholic, but yours is very American and very amusing. Are you making a comment about America at all? You live there, and you like it there, so I don't mean to suggest you're disparaging it...

No, no, I think it's not a big comment on America, but people sometimes see it as a darker side of America. But also so dark, so over-the-top dark, so deep dark, that it becomes hilarious.

I was interested to hear that you were inspired by The Dark Knight – you said it was time for film noir to come back...

And what was a real surprise, and I've spoken about it publicly, is... (Pauses) The film The Dark Knight, the Batman film, I saw because I worked with Christian Bale and I was curious to see how he was doing in this film. And I was completely surprised by how utterly dark the film had turned, against all expectations. And yet, although the film was so dark, it did very well with audiences. Somehow, there was something in the air. And film noir always is a consequence of deep insecurities and collapse of finances. It has happened before. Film noir is having its good time. However, some films anticipate this, and they come earlier. The Dark Knight was a clear, clear signal for me.

And at the same time, I, through a total banality, realised that there was something, a huge, major collapse, coming at us. And it was simply [this]: I tried to lease a car and I learned at the dealership that my credit score was abysmal. In trying to find out why, I was told [it was] because I've not used mortgages, and I've not borrowed money, and I have not used, excessively, a credit card. And you get punished for it. And you get rewarded, with this credit-score system, for spending money that you don't own. And that was a moment where I said to myself, “There is something fundamentally wrong.” So fundamentally wrong that I immediately withdrew some money that I had tied in the stock market – against the furious, fervent, crazed arguments of the bank, who said, “No!” So I took it out immediately, and four months later the whole thing collapsed.

And 85 per cent of the portfolio was Lehman Brothers! Somehow I sensed there was something coming at us which was severe and very momentous. And the Batman film somehow shook me in a way that I thought there was something coming. Cinema was sensing something.

You could've given The Bad Lieutenant a very downbeat ending. But not only does he have a redemption story, everything goes right!

Because he's so bad! (Laughs) Yeah.

Can you explain that?

No. I just loved every day of working, and it somehow translates into the mood of the film. You can see that there was not much time of thinking and organising parts, and doing this or that. I had three weeks pre-production and I had a fortnight's post-production, and I delivered the film, in fine cut, a fortnight after shooting was done.

How long ago was that?

Two months, all in all.

But when did you deliver it?

Oh, a year ago. And I stayed two days under schedule, and I stayed $2.6 million under budget, which is completely unheard of in Hollywood. And the producer, who is normally doing action films – he produced the last Rambo – he has never heard anything like this. (Laughs) He wants to marry me now!

At the press conference at the Venice Film Festival, someone asked if you had ever taken drugs, and you said, very definitely, no. A lot of people will be surprised; they think of you as quite a curious guy. Not a drug addict, but someone who might experiment with drugs.

No, I am not curious about things where I know instantly that there is something utterly wrong about it, and where I instantly sense that the entire surrounding culture is something I do not like. I have not one single friend, not one, who is in drugs. I do not relate to these people. And I do not relate to them culturally. Of course, many of them are dysfunctional, but I have been with dysfunctional people before and I can handle it. But I don't like the culture. I'm not a moralist; I'm not into the argument of policing it. I don't care.

You just don't want those people around you?

Yeah.

So it's interesting that you made a film that is so drug-heavy. Is it true that you cut down some of the drug use?

Yes. There were at least three, four or five more scenes in the screenplay, which are all throughout, because it would hint too much that the character is too much drug-driven, which I didn't want. And number two, I did not want to show too many moments with drugs, because I just don't like it, period. There has to be a certain amount, to understand certain dysfunction and function within the dysfunctional character.

You have the balance about right...

But, of course, I had to ask for competent advice! (Laughs) “What is the effect of, let's say, heroin?” “What's the effect of cocaine?” “What's the effect of crack?” I had to rely on advice. But sometimes Nicolas Cage was so impressive after, let's say, sniffing cocaine that I had a suspicion it was really cocaine. But it was not. I mean, we had a props man who would dish out some saccharine, or whatever, which is totally harmless. But Nicolas Cage would almost instantly transform into... someone else. Totally, totally scary and impressive.

"Film noir is having its good time. However, some films anticipate this, and they come earlier. The Dark Knight was a clear, clear signal for me."

It's a great performance...

(Laughs) We haven't seen anything like this in a long time! And not only among the films he did – in general! You have to wait many years before you see a performance of that calibre.

The first scene that sticks out for me is the interrogation scene, where he pulls over the guy with the hooker outside a bar. How did you approach that scene? Is it exactly as scripted?

No, it was... (Pauses) Let's say the content of the scene was basically scripted, but it was much longer. So I took some elements out, otherwise it would have been way too long. Yes, it was very well scripted, as a matter of fact. And Nicolas Cage would always know that there was some freedom to put something extra into it, and I always expected and hoped for it. For example, that he fires a shot in the air to intimidate the young man into watching what is going on. (Laughs) That was his idea, for example.

How far were you prepared to go?

Well, he knew that working with me meant I would go to his limits. That was without much communicating, but of course I said it to him as well. I said, “I want to take you where you have not been before.” So we had great confidence in each other.

There's also the amazing scene where Cage's character interrogates the two old ladies...

Yes!

Now, I understand that there were two different takes on that scene...

Yeah, yeah. Well, we shot the wild scene as it is in the film now, and for a moment I thought it may be over the top, so I shot the same thing without intimidating the women with a gun. I thought, Maybe he doesn't need it to be as scary and as dysfunctional as that. In editing it, it became very clear in the moment that, yes, what we had done first was the best. And from a certain moment, and towards the end of the scene, he ad-libbed the entire text.

Things like “You selfish cunt”?

Yeah, yeah, and about eating up the inheritance, and “This is why the country is going down the drain”. I knew he had something prepared in his mind, but until the moment it came... He probably didn't fully know where he would carry himself. Those are the wonderful moments of doing a film.

How did you prepare the little old ladies?

Oh, they were scared! They were scared! Really scared. I know that after the sequence was shot, we had lunch, and we waited five minutes. My wife sat with them, and they were completely upset. (Laughs) They were still upset, and they argued among themselves that he really could have killed them! Of course, I laughed it off. Then, after ten minutes, they accepted that it was only a movie.

So you didn't prepare them?

Some of it I didn't know either, and some of it Nicolas Cage didn't know either. You see, sometimes there were moments where I would tell him, “Now turn the hog loose!”

The hog in the scene or the hog in the character?

The hog in the character. “Just go wild.” (Laughs) And there were at least three or four scenes in the film where the hog is coming loose!

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview with Werner Herzog.

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