Interview: Werner Herzog

By  · Published on April 2nd, 2010

Waiting for someone like Werner Herzog to come to the phone is one of the most nerve-wracking things someone like yours truly can do. Even as a fan of the man’s work, and someone who is coming into the interview having seen and absolutely loved his latest film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I’m a wreck. He is perhaps one of the most intimidating working directors in film today. Perhaps only bested in his ability to make me over-prepare and clam-up by someone like Scorsese or Steven Spielberg.

Unbeknownst to me, this nervousness will lead to a train-wreck of an interview, in which Mr. Herzog stops me here and there, tells me to skip questions and is ‐ at least as far as I can tell ‐ annoyed by my very existence. So much so that I thew the interview file in the depths of the FSR archive, never intending to bring it out. But with the DVD release of Bad Lieutenant: POCNO looming in the distance (April 6, to be exact), I decided to dust off this unpublished interview and put it out there for the world to see. Looking at it now, months later, it isn’t as bad as I had once thought it to be. In fact, it may actually be good. At least, it reads better than it sounded in my head as it was happening. Perhaps that was my way of coping with being truly star-stuck. Not like the time I caught Gwyneth Paltrow checking me out (it happened) or the time some famous director said he was a fan of the site. With Mr. Herzog, it was reverence. True, simple and deep-felt reverence for a man whose work (and methods) are as unique as the man himself.

Here now, is my conversation with director Werner Herzog:

Werner Herzog: This is Werner Herzog. Hello.

Neil: How are you today, sir?

Good. Thank you. Where are you physically, if I may ask?

I am in Austin, Texas.

Ah, OK. Good. I’m in Los Angeles.

Oh, nice. I’m assuming you’re having quite a busy morning.

Yes, but that’s a part of the profession and I don’t complain.

I understand. Well thank you for taking time to talk me about Bad Lieutenant. I am very interested in what drew you to the script, I guess, that Bill Finkelstein wrote for this project.

Well, it was the caliber of the screenplay, which was immediately evident in the caliber of the dialogues that he write, which immediately attracted me. However, I told him I would like to have modifications, like a completely different beginning, a completely different end, or an Iguana or something- the dancing soul. That was evident.

Yes, I have to shape it into my own world, as well. There was never any confliction, actually. Billy Finkelstein became so close to the project that I cast him as a gangster in the movie. He plays the one with the pink jacket whose sole is dancing. That was not in the screenplay.

I find it interesting because when I watched the movie, personally, I felt like those moments where the soul is dancing, the iguanas, and the close-up of the alligator kind of led the audience to feel like they were kind of going on this journey, almost as if we were also under the influence just like the main character.

[laughs] That’s a very nice description. I have not heard that yet. And, of course, it becomes very, very hilarious in what I kept calling “the bliss of evil”. That’s what I told Nicholas ‐ enjoy it. Enjoy it to be as vile and as debased as it gets. And that creates a very strange, dark, subversive humor.

Definitely. I found it to be very funny toward the end, especially the scene at the end. Where everything seems to come together. All of a sudden, everything seems to start going right for him after all of this bad stuff has happened. Was that something that was planned in the script?

It was scripted. Yes, it was planned. But it is almost like a fake happy end, because then it gets even worse ‐ he is threatening another young couple coming out of a nightclub. But I had the feeling it ended in a tone that was way, way too dark, and I had a mysterious…I added a very beautiful end, in my opinion, which was very mysterious and very open somehow, in an aquarium where he meets the man who he saved at the beginning of the film from a flooded prison that they had forgotten.

And so it has a different tone, now, to the end. And, of course, it is not a happy end, but it doesn’t end it such deep darkness as the screenplay did.

I see. I’m curious because I had read somewhere where you had talked about leaving the camera on and allowing Nicholas Cage to just sort of react and continue on even after the scene was done. How much of that do we see in the final product?

Well, for example, in the scene which precedes the aquarium at the very end where I kept the camera rolling and he didn’t come up with anything. And he knew I was waiting for something. Quite often, he would come up with something unexpected and he said, “What for God’s sake could I have said in addition?” And I, without thinking I said, “Do fish have dreams?” I’ve got the final…I’ve got the best dialogue in my life.

In your opinion, do fish have dreams?

I do not really know but I wanted to verify it, and I said we have to go to this aquarium and it’s full with slowly moving stingrays and sharks, and you really get the feeling that they’re all dreaming. And it ends with a very mysterious long time and then Nicholas laughs. Cut ‐ end of film. And I think it’s a very beautiful end like that.

Definitely. Now I wanted to ask…

But to answer your question a little bit more profoundly, quite often, I had the feeling that we had to work almost like in jazz music. And Nicholas Cage quite often would refer to music and to jazz and sometimes there has to be a moment of improvisation. And I would have the feeling that was a moment and “Turn the hog loose,” I would say. Or “Turn the pig loose.” And he understood these moments and created some very, very remarkable moments in the film that you don’t forget.

What was it about Nicholas Cage? You’ve said that this was a movie that either you and he were going to do it together or it wasn’t going to get done at all. What was it about Nicholas Cage that you knew, going into this, that he was the one who was going to bring this character to life?

Well, I instantly knew that. I don’t know…There’s no argument. He’s a man who really has the grace of God upon him as an actor, in a way. It’s just phenomenal. The strange thing is that we observed each other’s work for decades. And I admired Nicholas Cage and he loved my films. And it did not really occur to us that we should work together. And all of a sudden we found it an outrage. And Nicholas said, “I’m not going to sign my contract if Herzog is not on board.” And I said, “For me it’s the same. I’m not going to sign my contract if you are not on board.” So that gave us an instant sort of very, very secure platform of working and trusting in each other.

Your director of photography, Peter Zeitlinger, had talked about this being your first movie shot inside a large American city. What was the difference for you or what were some of the challenges you faced going into a bigger city as opposed to some of the work that you’ve done out on your own in the past?

Well, there was no challenge for me at all. Why should it be a challenge? The only thing is I immediately said, because I had not known New Orleans before and I was constantly on the move, very quickly, very short time for pre-production, and I had to find 40 locations and had to cast 35 speaking parts, had to put a crew together, and I said, “Concerning New Orleans, there’s one thing very clear: we have to avoid the clichés ‐ the postcard clichés for the tourist. No French Quarter. No jazz club. No voodoo ceremony. No Mardi Gras. So now this is what we eliminate; now let’s find the New Orleans as a different and separate and congenial leading character in the film.” That was my directive to everyone. And it fell in place very easily, so what else can I say? You see, I’m always out for new horizons and new challenges, and it came easily.

What drove the decision, because I know originally it was set in New York. Other than the tax breaks, what kind of drew you to New Orleans?

Well, of course tax incentives was one side. That was the producers’ side. And they approached me, almost apologetically, whether I could consider the film in New Orleans. And I said, “Well it can’t get any better. Yes, that’s why we have to shoot after Katrina and with collapse of civility.” And at the same, time Nicholas Cage wanted New Orleans as a real character in the film for its musicality, for its flow. So from all sides, we were converging with different arguments, of course.

I know you probably get a lot of questions about this movie and Abel Ferrera’s 1992 film…

I think we can skip it because I never saw it and we know now that both films have nothing to do with each other. With the exception that one of the producers owns the rights to the title. And I immediately said, “This is a mistake and it will only lead to questions and to misunderstandings.” Which it did, but it’s over now. Everybody knows it now.

It’s definitely a much different movie. Let me see. What else? I actually wanted to ask you a little about your rogue film school and kind of what was the driving force behind that, because it’s seems like it’s…

It’s not me. No, no. The driving force is young people going into filmmaking who see me as some sort of a…I don’t know…as a person of hope, as a guiding… somebody who gives them orientation and guidance. And there has been so much pressure. I mean for decades now, more and more young people are converging upon me and I thought I should somehow address it, give it a form, but it should be completely and utterly wild, if you want to learn techniques about filmmaking applied to your local film school. But this is going to be rogue. It will give you courage for your own dreams and it will show you a climate from where films originate. And among others, I have given a reading list, a recommended reading list, which includes Virgil’s Georgics- 2000 year old poetry in Latin. Of course, we’ll read it in translation. Or Icelandic poetry about a thousand years ago, The Poetic Edda and a short story by Hemingway. And so that’s where films come from, and wild thoughts that have, originally, nothing to do with cinema. And all of a sudden, the climate of it, the excitement of it, transforms into a movie.

I find that to be a really fascinating and amazing take on filming. I’ve always been interested in the way that you make films. And we’ve been having this discussion, in my circles, about independent film and finding it hard to find the money or the means by which to make the stories that filmmakers want to make. Now is this…but you don’t seem to have… you seem to just go out and do it.

You know, yes, and that’s what people see, but there is something…You don’t just do it. It’s not like it’s the Nike ad. But my argument is if you have a vision and if you have a great story, a fantastic project and actors who want to be in it, wonderful actors who want to be in it, money will follow you like the common cur in the street with its tail between its legs.

And speaking of unique visions ‐ what is in the future for you? What are you working on next?

Well, this is already the past, The Bad Lieutenant. I have made two more films since ‐ a short, very short film, in the south of Ethiopia and another feature film, My Son, My Son What Have You Done?, which will be released in December. And I have also released Conquest of the Useless, a prose book which I think will outlive all my films anyway. And I have five or six feature films pushing at me already. Some documentary projects also. So I have to sort it out quickly, what is pushing hardest. It’s just like home invasion. My films never were invited guests.

And when you look forward and you see all of these different ideas and projects that you have, how do you go about organizing all that and what do you…

Well that’s always my problem, that I have never coped with projects quickly enough, although I’m working faster today than I used to. Editing, for example, I can do it…as it is digital nowadays, I do it almost as fast as I can think. Grizzly Man was edited in nine days. I finished editing My Son, My Son What Have You Done? five days after we were done shooting. But, of course, I was editing while I was shooting already. So things go a little bit faster nowadays. But still, I’ve made three films in the last 11 months. But I’m not a workaholic; I work very steadily and calmly and quietly. But still, there are always way too many things pushing me than I can get out the window.

Thank you very much again for taking some time.

All right. You’re very welcome. Okay. Good. Bye- bye.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)