DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Herzog Vs. Nessie; Zak Penn & Werner Herzog Talk about “Incident at Loch Ness”
by Wendy Mitchell
As a screenwriter, Zak Penn has worked on Hollywood hits from “X-Men 2” to “Last Action Hero” to the forthcoming Jennifer Garner vehicle “Elektra.” But his directorial debut is anything but Hollywood — it’s a documentary-style project, shot for just $1.4 million, about film legend Werner Herzog making a film about the Loch Ness monster. But things aren’t exactly as they seem — this isn’t really a factual “behind the scenes” documentary. We don’t want to spoil the surprises by explaining much more than that. (To explore further, visit www.incidentatlochness.com.) As director Penn explains, “The movie is a more interesting experience if you don’t know everything about it going into it. That’s part of the experience: when do you start to realize what’s up and what’s real and what isn’t?”
What we can reveal is that Herzog stars as himself, and Penn appears on screen as his producer. The two men are friends in real life — they met when Penn was hired to help write a feature adaptation of Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Working with famed cinematographer John Bailey, they shot “Incident at Loch Ness” in Los Angeles and on location in Scotland for 17 days in the summer of 2003. The film has already stirred up a bit of “Blair Witch”-esque buzz, and it captured the New American Cinema award at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival.
indieWIRE’s Wendy Mitchell recently spoke (separately) with Penn and Herzog about the project, trying to skirt around a few questions that might ruin your viewing experience. “Incident at Loch Ness” opened at select Landmark Theaters on September 17 (booked by Richard Abramowitz), and the filmmakers promise that the early 2005 DVD release will reveal all their secrets.
indieWIRE: How did you get this insane idea?
Zak Penn: Werner Herzog is a subject I’ve always been fascinated by, and I’m friends with him and I wanted desperately to do something with him. Plus I’ve been interested in these “In search of…” type ideas. I almost thought of it as “Alien vs. Predator” — Herzog Vs. Nessie
iW: What did you admire about Werner and his films?
Penn: There’s a lot to admire. Part of it is that he’s almost like someone from another age, he’s this incredible adventurer. He’s so incredibly committed to his own dreams and his own visions. That’s a rare thing to find, someone who is willing to live in the jungle for four years to make a work of art [“Aguirre, The Wrath Of God”], or who is willing to fly to a volcano that’s about to explode for a story that needs to be told [“La Soufrière”]. You don’t see much of that in filmmakers, because they get paid a lot of money and people kiss their ass.
iW: Why did you want to make yourself the Hollywood asshole villain in this? Was that fun?
Penn: It wasn’t so much fun as it was necessary. Werner thinks I enjoyed it. It’s easier to play the villain, no question, you get the good lines. But the movie needed it. I was writing everything in my head as I was going, and I realized this is working so I have to do more of it. It’s creating conflict, so I have to do more of it. It’s making people say funny things, so I have to do more of it. I have to confess that I never really thought that carefully before I started, because I’m playing myself, using my real name. So far it hasn’t been so bad but a few people are really gotten angry at me for things that they perceive that I’ve done. It’s pretty fucked up to honest with you. I don’t think I’ll do it again.
iW: Had you wanted to direct for a while? You’ve been very successful as a screenwriter, so why direct now?
Penn: All the clichés about people wanting to be director are true. If you have strong feelings about the material that you write, as a writer you are limited in how much you control how that material is presented. I’ve been rewritten, in my mind atrociously, a number of times. “Last Action Hero” was my first movie, and the second that movie happened, I was like, “Jesus Christ, I’m going to have to direct my own movies eventually if I want my sense of humor to get through.” I’d wanted to direct for about five years, I wanted to direct my script of “Suspect Zero,” which someone else ended up doing. And I wanted to direct a movie called “John Doe,” which almost went into production twice. In frustration with that happening, I thought I would just go do something crazy. When people ask, “What is representative of your work?” I wanted to have something to point to. You know, I wrote the first couple of drafts of “X2” but a lot of other people worked on that. I wrote a bunch of “Behind Enemy Lines,” but that’s not my passion project. Most of the movies I’ve worked on have other people’s stamps all over them and I’m just a cog in the wheel. Also I hate sitting in a room by myself.
iW: Did you like working on the indie scale instead of a big Hollywood project?
Penn: I loved it and hated it for all the most obvious reasons. I’m used to working on $100 million movies, where there are huge amounts of money and the PAs probably could direct a movie themselves. I was really spoiled because of that. I’ll bet the craft services budget for “Last Action Hero” was more than the entire budget for “Incident at Loch Ness.” But I don’t think anyone would have let me make this movie if I had to answer to them. That’s the most fundamental thing.
iW: Was it hard shooting it for the budget that you had? The film looks like it cost more than $1.4 milion to make.
Penn: It’s always a struggle, it’s exhausting. To be fair, I waited a long time to make my indie debut… if you look at the people who made this film most of them are experts — John Bailey has shot 50 films. I had a ridiculously overtalented core staff. We used to joke on the staff that I’ve worked on about 20 films, Werner has made 50, John has made 50, Russell [Williams] has made 22 and won two Oscars… you had a tremendous amount of experience on a set where we were eating tuna sandwiches. In the technical aspects of the film, we definitely excelled because everyone was willing to work for our budget because it was for Werner.
iW: Was it intimidating as a first-timer director working with people like John Bailey and Werner? Did they give you a lot of advice or did they just let you do your thing?
Penn: It was kind of intimidating, particularly the first couple of days. John particularly is a very intimidating presence because he has so much experience. So is Werner. But the thing about Werner, because he was my friend, it was kind of like playing pickup basketball with Michael Jordon on your team, any time you made a mistake, anytime anyone gave you shit, Michael would say, “Shut up,” and they’d say, “OK, nevermind!” Werner never questioned any shot. And if he ever did have any issue, he would be the last one to question me in front of the crew. Merely by his presence, people were almost embarrassed — “Wait, this guy almost got killed making a movie in the jungle, and who am I to complain that craft service wasn’t any good?” Also he was this incredible force to have around.
iW: How collaborative was this film with Werner? How willing was to he to make fun of his own image?
Penn: Werner’s sense of humor about himself is pretty apparent when you see the film. In terms of collaboration, it couldn’t have been more collaborative. There was no screenplay, so he’s coming up with his dialogue.
iW: It’s interesting that you come from a screenwriting background yet your directorial debut doesn’t really have a screenplay. Was that conscious to get away from being stuck to words on paper?
Penn: It wasn’t conscious but you’re probably right, I think that probably had something to do with it. Since I’ve written a lot of screenplays, I felt comfortable internalizing the lessons of story. Also, the kind of dialogue that gets people excited about scripts often is dialogue that doesn’t translate as well to the screen as it should. My favorite dialogue in movies is when it seems real. But the stylized stuff that reads well in a screenplay, that’s not really my tastes. But you can’t do that in Hollywood — you can’t say “Wolverine and Storm have an offhand conversation” — that doesn’t fly. I understand why. But I long for the dialogue to seem real, and there’s no better way to do that than to improvise.
indieWIRE: This film is a little bit crazy. Did Zak have to convince you to do this or did you immediately think it was a good idea?
Herzog: No, no. I thought it was a good idea, the whole phenomena of these collective monsters, alien abductions. It’s a very fascinating subject because the borderlines of fact and truth and illusions and fabrications — all this has become indistinguishable.
iW: Is this something that’s always interested you with your own films, the hybrid of fact and fiction?
Herzog: Yeah, not really hybrid. But because of much experience with movie making, I’ve always asked myself, “Where’s the borderline of fact and where does truth begin?” Truth is something much deeper then fact. And how do you get there, how do find a deeper stratum of truth? So I think that the idea that Zak had played very intelligently with these things.
iW: Why were you willing to make fun of your own image, playing around with the idea of how people might perceive you?
Herzog: I think Woody Allen does the same thing. I’ve acted in at least a dozen other films. You may have seen “Julien Donkey Boy” by Harmony Korine. I do that because I love everything about filmmaking — producing films, directing, writing, editing, acting. I just love everything about it.
iW: Is it surreal playing a version of yourself on film?
Herzog: Well, of course it is stylized. Zak organized the film in a way that each character has somewhat his own identity. I mean, not completely — he looks like a real bad guy in the film. I can confirm he is not that guy.
iW: When he started telling you about the premise of the film, how much of it was a collaboration between the two of you to decide exactly what path the film was going to take? Did you take his lead or did you offer a lot of suggestions?
Herzog. No, I took his lead. There’s was something in the man, who was a writer so far — he has this quality of leadership that you need as a director. And I always felt confident in him. Of course, many of the dialogues were spontaneously somehow invented, and much of what I say about Loch Ness monsters or alien abductions is my text in this case. Some of it was very precisely scripted, but most of it was organized around the real characters.
iW: Zak was saying that you were such a help to him on the set because you supported him, and wouldn’t question him.
Penn: Sure, sure. Just imagine how awful it would’ve been if I would have somehow every day told him how to do it. You have to give him the possibility. He very often was right in choosing moments that were very hilarious. And I didn’t see what was so hilarious about it, but he had the right instinct and I trusted him. One little example was that he saw me fiddling around with this razor and this particular razor blade would never fit, and I thought it was very banal to film that, and he said, “No, this is very funny.” Now seeing the film with an audience, I see that every single male in the United States has had the same problem of razor blades that do not fit the razor. He saw much more of the hilarious side of things, and he was right, because people are laughing so hard throughout the film more than in an Eddie Murphy film. And, strangely enough, we kept saying to each another, this has to be a film where we “out Eddie” Eddie Murphy. Or “out Woody” Woody Allen.
iW: What did you think about Zak’s directing style, as a director yourself?
Herzog: Well the style has to be established. You cannot speak of a directing style when somebody does his first feature film. But I can say a few things. Number one, you have to be a conceptualist. That’s very important. You have to be good at casting. And both of those things he’s done very, very well. And he has leadership. So what else do you need? I wouldn’t know.
iW: Has the Loch Ness monster been an interest of yours? Or the idea, the need people have to create this monster?
Herzog: Well, I always said to everyone, I’m not out there to search physically for the monster. You just don’t find it. It’s just not there. Find it somewhere else in our collective paranoia. Find it in our collective dreams and nightmares. Why do we need the monster? That was the important question.
iW: How do you think audience members should go into this film?
Herzog: The real fun, the real joy of the audience is not knowing everything — exactly what is fact, what is truth, what is invention. If you don’t know, the great joy of the film is trying to figure out constantly throughout the film. So it’s good if you don’t give everything away. Yes, I invented elements. Yes, there are factually correct things. But where the crossovers occur –that is very puzzling and very hilarious. You would take too much of the joy of exploring the film if you give away everything.
iW: Do you think you’ll pursue more acting in the future?
Herzog: It really depends on the project. There were quite a few projects that were offered to me and I didn’t do them. It has to be something that I would also enjoy, where I had the feeling that would be a good film at the end.
iW: Going back to the idea you were talking about before of a larger truth, obviously this film isn’t factual in certain parts, but do you think it’s a truthful film?
Herzog: Well, we shouldn’t start to get into philosophy. But at least it is searching for something. It is searching for an inner truth. It is searching our souls. Where is the monster and why do we need it?
iW: And what about truthfulness in its portrayal of you and your character?
Herzog: It somehow plays a little bit around that. Quite often I’m not how you see me in the film, but that’s the joy of acting. And very much of the dialogue, when I speak about “ecstatic truth” and about facts and about why do we have so many people in the United States who have encounters with aliens and why do we have so many women abducted and gang raped, most of them over 350 pounds and why now — the real question is — why haven’t we heard of a case like that in Ethiopia? So those are all my dialogue, my own thinking. And Zak plays with that. That’s the nature of filmmaking and I love everything about it.
iW: Do you think you’ll work with Zak again?
Herzog: At the moment, you may not believe it, but he’s plotting to do a straightforward comedy, and I will probably be included. Nobody had discovered the Woody Allen in me.
[EDITORS NOTE: “Incident at Loch Ness” is available on DVD.]