6 Filmmaking Tips From Werner Herzog

By  · Published on September 12th, 2012

Werner Herzog got shot by an air rifle in 2006 during an interview with the BBC. He, of course, continued the interview and declined to get the police involved because, you know, they would have overreacted by trying to apprehend the shooter. Unsurprisingly, this happened shortly after he pulled Joaquin Phoenix from a crashed car on Sunset Boulevard.

To look at his work, you have to look into a colorful life ‐ the details of which approach folklore ‐ because there’s often a clear connection between the two. The best example? When he was doing location scouting for Aguirre, Wrath of God and cancelled a plane ticket that would have seen him inside a turboprop that was struck by lightning mid-air with only one survivor. We all have stories of narrowly avoiding danger, but few are as dramatic as that, and almost none of them result in a movie being made. Yet that’s what Herzog does. He makes movies. So why not make Wings of Hope where you focus on the only woman to survive a plane disintegration that you should have been in? Why not push a giant boat up a mountain if that’s what the script demands? Why not eat your own shoe?

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the mad man of Munich whose last name means “Duke.”

Great Artists Steal

“Herzog has claimed that his solitary wanderings in the mountains on the Albanian border at age fourteen made him into a filmmaker. A fifteen-page encyclopedia entry on filmmaking gave him ‘everything I needed to get myself started,’ and a pilfered 35-mm camera from the Munich Film School gave him the tools, a theft he has since justified on Nietzschean grounds: ‘I know it was not theft. I had a natural right to take it.’ He would make his first seven films with that camera.”

Okay. So, we can’t really condone stealing cameras, but Herzog does (at least through his own actions). It’s really that last sentence that’s the most significant, though. He didn’t just take a camera; he made something with it. He proved that is was a crime of artistic necessity (and hopefully he’s gone on to donate enough money to the school to replace it).

Maybe the more general tip here, since it can’t really be “go steal something,” is to take your career as a creator into your own hands. To find some rules worth bending or to be ready to gamble big on becoming the next Herzog (as opposed to going to jail for burglary).

Of you can reject the level-headed version and go for Herzog’s. The poet must not be hindered.

Just don’t call us for bail money.

Look Benevolently Outside the Norm for Access and Funding

Sites like Kickstarter are incredible assets, but they have at least one drawback: making prospective filmmakers complacent in what counts as an alternative to studio financing. There aren’t just two sides of the coin, and Herzog proves it. Although it’s probably his solution to gaining creative access that’s most laudable.

When he was trying to convince the French Ministry of Culture, the cave scientists and the regional government involved to let him film in the Chauvet cave for Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he sweetened the pot with a philanthropic incentive to give him access. It helped that the Minister of Culture was a big fan, but in this AV Club interview, Chris Kompanek asks if there was a pressure from the government to have a French director document the cave.

“Not really, but I know there were others out there who really wanted to do the film, and they were French. I addressed it straight away why I, as a Bavarian, am trying to make this film. I had a proposal to work as an employee of the French Ministry, and I would ask for a fee of one euro. I would return to them a full 3-D film, which they could use for free. They could show it in 30,000 classrooms all over France, and at cultural events and festivals.”

It also helped that Herzog was competent both as a filmmaker and as a man steeped in information about the subject. So there are several lessons here. Know what you’re talking about, get creative when it comes to convincing officials, and make something you can give away free as education while selling in theaters.

Search For the Current Reality

You May Have To Choose Between Shampoo and Food

Many people talk the talk about the salad days, claiming they’ll go flat broke for their art, but Herzog is the rare person who’s done it. And he didn’t even have any salad.

“The distinction between Apocalypse Now and [Fitzcarraldo] is that Coppola always resolved films with ready cash. There was always a lot of money flowing around. In my case, because I had to produce the film myself, I was down to the utmost limit. So I lived in a chicken coop and had nothing to eat anymore. But I remembered from Miami I had two bottles of shampoo ‐ well, one was shampoo and the other was conditioner ‐ and I traded it at the local market for four kilos of rice, and I ate rice for three or four weeks. That’s how I survived. No one can imagine how far down I was sometimes.”

Dedication. Surviving-on-rice-levels of dedication. Would you really be willing to sacrifice comfort for creation?

Maybe Go Work At a Strip Club or Lunatic Asylum

“In my Rogue Film School, which I just founded, I say–and not even as a provocation–that I prefer people who have worked as bouncers in a sex club, or have been wardens in the lunatic asylum. You must live life in its very elementary forms. The Mexicans have a very nice word for it: pura vida. It doesn’t mean just purity of life, but the raw, stark-naked quality of life. And that’s what makes young people more into a filmmaker than academia.”

You will not become a filmmaker by sitting around watching movies. That helps, but there’s a big, insane world out there filled with life in all its gorgeous, disgusting glory. Attacking its throat will make you a storyteller purely because you’ll have stories to tell.

Movies Can’t Change the World

What Have We Learned

There are not many filmmakers as bold and uncompromising as Herzog, which makes it even more humbly impressive when he applauds John Waters for having more guts than he, and it shows not only in his movies but also in his life philosophy. He’s the kind of man whose experiences could make anyone feel lazy or afraid of living. He’s aggressive in his pursuit, and he’s rewarded with stories and a mastery of skill.

He’s traveled all over the planet (including Antartica), seeks personal and universal histories, and he leaps before he looks. There’s clear passion there, but there’s also a kind of pragmatism that comes with accepting the reality of what pursuing this kind of artistic life means. Sometimes you have rice to eat, but you don’t have shampoo. Sometimes you leave the safety of the world you know. Sometimes you get shot.

And then you make a movie about it.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.