Werner Herzog's Secret Mainstream Part 2

The German director who couldn't care less about Hollywood talks more about his film Bad Lieutenant, crashing cars, defrosting alligators and meeting Charles Manson.
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What's your favourite moment in the movie?

I like the whole film as it is. Favourite moment? Wherever people laugh is all my favourite stuff. The recognition. And there is no joke there. But there is a secret conspiracy between the film and the audience, and they are laughing about the things that they've always loved to laugh about and were never allowed. I think there is a conspiracy between film and audience which establishes itself itself.

In Venice, by the way, it was harder, because much of it is dialogue-driven, and if you have to read Italian subtitles all the time, more than half the audience, the half that doesn't speak English well enough, has to read, read, read, read, read... And even though they laughed a lot, it wasn't as much as those who were native English speakers.

Can you talk a little about the iguanas?

They were not in the screenplay. (Laughs) I just invented them quickly, and I actually shot it myself. I wouldn't allow the cinematographer to shoot them, and I shot from only millimetres away from their skin or their face, with a tiny little lens which is not much larger than the... how do you say? The head of a match. A match head. And with a fibre-optics cable! (Laughs) I would move along their skin, only millimetres away, and move to their eyes. I knew they would look with deep stupidity and perplexity. I hoped for that effect!

When I first saw the dead alligator in the car accident scene, I thought that it would perhaps be a symbol or a metaphor in the movie, but no...

No, no, no! I think, in this case, “How did that happen?” Again, all that was not in the screenplay. The accident site is. I thought, if you're in Louisiana, it's not a deer that's run over, that's the roadkill left on the road, it should be a huge alligator that has been run over, with a car on its roof, still burning or smoking. And people are really asking me, seriously, “What happened to the alligator?” Because one of its legs is still moving. What happened is that the alligator had been dead for three weeks and was deep frozen, so we defrosted it over two days, (Laughs) And then I had the idea that it should still move one of its hind legs, so we just attached a nylon thread and pulled on it!

"Sometimes Nicolas Cage was so impressive after, let's say, sniffing cocaine that I had a suspicion it was really cocaine. He would almost instantly transform into... someone else."

It's a very extravagant scene, because not a lot happens in that scene. It could have been covered with a phone call...

What happens is that he tries to bribe a policeman on an accident site.

But you crashed a car and defrosted an alligator, when you really didn't need to!

Yes! (Laughs) But some people thought we ran over the alligator and it was still alive. Or half alive. (Laughs) I can assure you, that alligator had been dead for at least three weeks.

Would you say the film is a comedy or a drama with comic aspects?

I don't know. I have no idea. But I love the fact that audiences sense that there's a very dark humour in it. You see, a comedy would be Eddie Murphy. I wouldn't say it's a comedy, but it's very hilarious.

There's almost a kind of Buster Keaton quality in Nicolas Cage's performance. There's a lot of pathos in his face...

No, that's not correct. When you see him with the elderly ladies, for example. No. Buster Keaton is completely stoic and always the same. From first image to last image, Buster Keaton is the same, stone-faced character who moves through the most crazy moments you can imagine. And encounters the craziest obstacles that you can imagine. No, it has nothing to do with Buster Keaton. I find that would be a misleading reference.

But when he's calm, he has a very blank expression.

In rare moments, yes.

So how did you develop the character with Cage? The look, the body language...

We were thinking how he should physically look, and I said to him, “Have a slanted shoulder line, preceded by your gaze.” (Laughs) That was my instruction! Which he understood immediately. So his shoulder  line is slanted and his head is moved forward, and the gaze is preceding his figure. So it was as short as that, from the first day of shooting onward.

Has it been  a long time since you had a working partnership like that? I know Christian Bale  is a very physical actor...

Yeah. And Michael Shannon now, and Willem Dafoe. No, I have always worked very intensely with actors. And they know it. They all know that I make them at their best.

But in this case, there's a role where the actor can really throw everything into it...

Not everything, no. There was a strict discipline around it, because otherwise you dissipate things and it becomes unstructured and doesn't have the urgency of narration, doesn't have the drive. So it's a very tricky balance, and it's always established during shooting, never during editing. It's always established in shooting.

I suppose what I'm trying to do here is contrive a connection between Nicolas Cage and Klaus Kinski. I'm sure this has come up before...

You can't real compare them. I wouldn't know where to start. (Pauses) No, I think that would be far-fetched.

Did Nicolas ever ask you about Kinski?

Not really, but sometimes we talked and laughed about things that I told him about Kinski, but [these were] some sort of crazy episodes that were outside filming.

I wondered Kinski he was ever a touchstone for the lieutenant...

No, no, you have to stay away from whatever preceded this very film. It was as if it was the first film I ever made, or that ever existed, maybe, even.

Bad Lieutenant does seem very fresh for you. I think a lot of people will be surprised that you can make a film in the American idiom.

Yes, but if you look at other films, like Rescue Dawn or My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done, or Grizzly Man... I have no problem with it. Because, you see, I have never left my... (Pauses) I have left my country, in a way, for filming in other locations, but I have never left my culture. I have never left the fact that I am Bavarian, who are [people] rooted in Bavarian culture. For example, when you look at Emmerich, Roland Emmerich, or [Wolfgang] Petersen, they had this dream from very early on: they wanted to make Hollywood films. Within the definition of the Hollywood industry.

And they made films like Independence Day and so on, and that is, of course, very much within the definition of the American Hollywood cinema. And I have never gone for that. I have never had any ambitions for that. And what I do is still very Bavarian in spirit.

Have you been offered big Hollywood movies?

Quite often, but the projects were too insipid.

"Favourite moment? Wherever people laugh is all my favourite stuff. The recognition. And there is no joke there."

What kind of things do they come to you with?

Whatever you see – always the kind of films that come out of mainstream Hollywood. And there were some actors who approached me. I mean, some of the biggest stars at the time, because some of it dates back many, many years, wanted me to be their personal director for the next 15 or 20 years.

Who was this?

Well, there a few. But one of them, for example, was Richard Gere...

Oh my God!

...Who wanted me to do Pretty Woman. And, for the next 10-15 years, all his films. At the time he was the hottest, hottest star in the world. (Laughs) And I politely declined.

I can't think of anything more ridiculous, if you don't mind me saying.

No, I wouldn't say ridiculous. No. Hollywood films, all these mainstream films, serve a very clear function, and they are part of an industry that is in demand. There is a popular demand, not only in America but pretty much worldwide, and there is a justification for these films, because it's not that Hollywood tries to make audiences stupid – it's because they follow the urgent demand worldwide. So we shouldn't worry about that. But it's not Bavarian enough!

I can't see that capturing your passion at all!

No. So... I've been fine with my films, and they have been doing well with their films. So be it. (Laughs) I have no problem with them!

My Son, My Son is a very interesting project: it's a fiction film based on a real-life matricide case in San Diego. How did you get involved with that?

Oh, that was an old project that had fallen dormant, and I was put in touch with people who had worked with David Lynch for about a decade and had formed a company. It's like an offspring of Lynch's company. And I like David Lynch – I like his films. And we were talking, more casually than anything, about the exploding costs of films – $100 million, $180 million – and I said, “We should make credible, great stories for $2 million, with the best of the best of the actors.” He just casually asked me, “ Do you have a project?” I said, “Yes, sure.” He said, “When can you start?” I said, “Tomorrow.” And he said, “I'll put my name on it. I would love to present the film.” I said, “Fine, yeah.” And that was the only time we ever met over the project!

There was a lot of applause for the film when it screened at the Venice Film Festival, first for David Lynch's name, then for yours...

It had more applause than The Bad Lieutenant, but we shouldn't say it aloud...

You haven't worked with another 'name' director before, have you?

No. I mean, there is no attachment. You should be careful about the two names on the film. One name has no relevance to the movie, and that is Lynch's. But he was very friendly. And I even put in a slight moment of homage to him, when you see someone behind a glass wall, on a treadmill in an aerobics studio, with a breathing mask on. (Laughs) I wanted to remind the audience: “Yes, this this is a little reference to David Lynch.”

I thought it was a very good film about the strangeness of true crime.

Yeah. And it's very scary. It's really scary. And the scariest moment is when they are all sitting quietly together, and one of the black ladies pours [the murderer] coffee. He says, “Boy, Mrs Roberts, you sure make the best coffee around.” And it's so strange, because it's a moment which, if you see it isolated, only that scene, you would never know how scary it is in context. It is the scariest moment that I ever filmed in my life. But you cannot explain why it is so scary. You have to see one  and a half hours of film, almost, until this moment, to understand how terrifying he is.

...With his Razzle Dazzle coffee mug.

Yeah, yeah.

Is it pretty much based on the real murder case?

Let's say the hard core of the story is based on the real case, yes.

The flamingos?

No, that's all invented by me! (Laughs) And the hostage taking – all invented by me!

What about the Quaker Oats?

All invented by me.

But the details of the case are the same?

Yes, sure. Some of the dialogue is verbatim, Some of his statements, verbatim, were taken from homicide detectives on the murder scene, and the first things he would say to them. Some of it is taken verbatim. Some of the strangest lines are taken from the real case.

Is it true you actually tracked down the real murderer, Mark Yavorsky, to his trailer park?

Well, I didn't have to track him down, because I wrote the screenplay together with Herbert Golder, who has studied the case much longer than I did, and he knew where he lived. So we went to visit him. Herb Golder has seen him at least 20 times, but after the one time I met the real murderer I instantly decided I had to stay away. He is not really sane yet. He was released after eight and a half years, spending it in a maximum-security mental institution for the criminally insane.

How did you know he wasn't well?

You could tell from miles away! Not well, no. You could tell from miles away that the man was dangerous. (Laughs) Period! I have enough street wisdom in me! And I stayed away from that moment on.

Have you met many murderers in your career?

Ah, yes, including Charles Manson. And including Edmund Kemper. The very, very first film I ever wanted to do – which, thank God, never happened – was a film which I was going to shoot in a maximum-security penitentiary in Bavaria. And of course I have seen murderers there.

How did you meet Charles Manson?

Oh, I ran into him by coincidence. He was in an institution for the criminally insane at that time – Vacaville in California. He's somewhere else now. He was just sliding along a corridor with his shoulder against the wall. I was in a side corridor, and he almost fell into my arms! (Laughs) Of course, I recognised the man instantly. Very puny. A puny runt. I mean, he's amazingly tiny. And I just said, “Hello, Mr Manson, how are you doing?” (Laughs) And he just looked at me and walked on. So... that was the only encounter I had.

This ties in a little with Grizzly Man. Are you interested in the human mind?

No, I am interested in good stories. I am a storyteller. And there is a very good story there.

It's interesting that you used a narrative structure in Grizzly Man. It's not a standard documentary.

Most of my... what you would call “documentaries” – and I would only put it in quotes – are feature films in disguise. And in Grizzly Man we have some sort of a feature film, a monumental film, where [the subject, Timothy Treadwell] wanted to be the hero and the star in his own movie. And I gave him the space to be the star. And the right music for real stardom! (Laughs) So I must say I respected his wish to be the star in his own movie.

Do you ever go back to your old movies?


"I recognised the man instantly. Very puny. A puny runt. I mean, he's amazingly tiny. And I just said, 'Hello, Mr Manson, how are you doing?'And he just looked at me and walked on."

Are you only concerned with the next movie?

(Sighs) Well, I do not see many movies. Maybe two films a year, as an average. And I do not see my own stuff. (Laughs) Sometimes, in retrospectives, I am curious – “What was that film all about that I made 35 years ago?”

So if you wanted to watch one again now, which one would you pick out?

They're all like children that are very dear to me. They are, in a way, part of me, but, at the same time it's very good to see that they start to walk, they start to speak to their own life – develop their own story, their own relationship with audiences. But it's like being a parent. You can't ask [a parent], “Which is your favourite child?”

With each movie, do you feel that you've actually worked out an idea that you've been thinking about? Or is it like a painting: something you accomplish, and then move on?

No. Moving on, you see, that's a tricky way to describe it. I couldn't see it like that. It's always been like a home invasion. Like burglars in the deep of the night – at 3.30, four in the morning, you wake up and you realise there are four burglars in your kitchen and in your office. What do you do now? How do you get them out? Through the door, through the window, through the chimney?

So I always find myself in the presence of five or six new burglars that have invaded my space. And now, you see, my problem is that I cannot keep abreast of all this. I can't work fast enough to get it all done. In the last 11 months I have made three films, I staged one opera. I worked on the translation of a book – Conquest Of The Useless – and I founded my film school. And yet, today I was speaking to some people for British co-financing and I find myself with four or five feature films that are already crowding me, coming at me, and I don't know how to get them out.

Is it true that you were inspired to become a filmmaker by a reference in an encyclopaedia?

No. No. This is one of those strange distortions. No, I knew I was going make films, and I wanted to learn a little bit about basics. I wanted to know, how does a camera function in principle? And I learned that from some sort of an encyclopaedia for film and radio and television. For instance, I figured out myself how to do slow motion and time lapse. Because by understanding the very principle of a camera, I would understand how to do slow motion, and I figured it out myself.

I never knew, for example, that there was such a thing as an optical soundtrack, and that you could not cut the film at one spot because the image and soundtrack would be at different spots, because film itself is moving, in standstill, while the sound has to move continuously, like a conveyor belt. All these things I didn't know, but you could learn that in a few days. Like the lab, how to develop films, and the very basics of projection. That was enough to make films. There was nothing inspiring about it. It was just that I wanted to learn some very basic facts.

Why did you choose film?

I don't know.

Because you're interested in so many other things...

Well, I'm probably a better writer than filmmaker. This book, The Conquest Of The Useless, on the table here [he points to the book], will probably outlive all my films.

Tell me about the book...

Well, it was written mostly during the time of the production of Fitzcarraldo. They're diaries, but they're not diaries about the making of the film. You see, that's a fraud by the publisher to find an audience who sees films. But this is pure poetry or prose, a fever delirium in the jungle. Eventually, sometimes, the book speaks about events during the shooting, but that's not the key of it.

Do you think people still have a vision of you still being out there in the Peruvian jungle?

Well, that's OK. I can live with it easily, and these things disappear quickly. You see, they do not last longer than ten years. A decade or maybe two decades. So what?

Do you ever listen to rumours about yourself? All the stories?

Some of it I know because people are asking me, and I have no problems with it at all, because I know how the media are functioning – and in a way I feel protected, that there are doppelgangers out there. And it's not just one type of doppelganger – the crazed one, in the jungle – there are many others out there. It's a healthy way to see it.

Is there one story that makes you laugh more than others?

Its not that I need to laugh. It's just like a protection, like an army. A small army of those who are protecting me. Like paid stooges. You see, if they didn't exist, it would come all at me directly.

What do you hope to achieve at the end of your life? Are you on course to do everything you wanted to do? Or will you be disappointed?

I've basically done everything I really wanted to do, with maybe one or two exceptions, where a project was simply way, way, way too expensive to raise funds. Which is OK, I can live easily with it. Now I try to live some kind of a meaningful life. But otherwise I have no clear idea.

Do you see yourself continuing as a filmmaking?

I will continue writing. I also act in films, and I like it. I do other things. I opened my own film school, the Rogue Film School.

What advice does that offer?

It's completely against the trends of what you learn in film schools. Actually, it's not a real film school – I do long weekend seminars. Three days, maybe four days. It was meant in the beginning for two days only, but it will be longer than that. It's more about a way of life. If you want to learn something about techniques to make a film, you better apply at your local film school. (Laughs) Not at the Rogue Film School!

So what is the best piece of advice you have to give?

I have no piece of advice. No, no.

Would you put that on your tombstone, “I have no piece of advice”?

No. Number one, there won't be a tombstone for me, ever. And secondly... I couldn't care less about posterity.

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