An essential contributor to the wave of New German Cinema produced in the seventies and eighties, Werner Herzog solidified his reputation as a legendary filmmaker long ago. Since the release of “Grizzly Man” in 2005, Herzog’s popularity has become more prevalent than ever before. Herzog himself, however, hasn’t vanished into his persona at the expense of staying busy. After 2009’s double-header of narratives, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and “My Son, My Son, What Ye Done,” Herzog returned to the non-fiction realm with “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” his first production shot with 3D cameras. It opens in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago on April 29.
Provided with unprecedented access to the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, Herzog explores the remarkably advanced cave paintings covering its walls, some of which date back more than 30,000 years. The cave itself was first unsealed in 1994, but only a few scientific experts have been able to study its contents, many of whom speak to Herzog in the film. During a roaming conversation with indieWIRE this week, the director spoke about shooting in 3D, gaining access to his subject, and other random tangents–like how he had never seen an episode of “The Simpsons” prior to voicing a character on the show for a guest part earlier this year.
What was it like to watch “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” with its first audience, during the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival?
I noticed, leaving the theater with the audience, in semi-darkness, nobody spoke of watching a film. They all spoke about having been in a cave, which I think is wonderful.
Was that the first time you had watched the movie in 3D?
No, I had seen it in 3D for a test, but only on a large plasma screen, which was very different.
How essential do you consider the 3D for this particular viewing experience?
It’s not essential; it’s imperative. When you look at the film in 3D, there’s no argument that it must be seen that way, although I’m not a great advocate of 3D. But here, it was imperative, because the formation of the walls–the wild drama of the bulges and niches and pendants–was utilized by the painters 32,000 years ago.
So you don’t think someone should watch the movie if they can’t see it in 3D?
Well, I have seen it in 2D recently and it’s still good. But the 3D really adds depth to the experience.
Where did the idea to shoot in 3D come from?
Originally, it was suggested by my producer, Erik Nelson. I was skeptical until I saw the cave. Then it was immediately clear to me. What you see now in the theater, it’s beyond explanation. You just don’t need to explain it. You would know it at the first moment.
Having now shot in 3D, do you think that earlier films you’ve made would benefit from being viewed that way?
No. When I look back at the sixty or so films I’ve made, none of them–even if you gave me a lot of money–I would not do any of them in 3D. What I’m shooting right now, “Death Row,” is not in 3D. I also have a feature film project, a big epic, which I’m not contemplating in 3D either.
What do you make of George Lucas re-releasing the original “Star Wars” movies in 3D?
I wouldn’t like to do that. For films like “Star Wars,” yeah, why not? But not for the kind of films I make.
What about the spectacular scene from “Fitzcarraldo” where an entire boat gets hauled up a hillside? Wouldn’t that look great in 3D?
No. It should stay as it is. In 2D, the audience has much more space–an inner space–to create a parallel story. It’s a different story that may depart from what you are seeing. For the audience, it’s an operatic event, an event of a music. For instance, in a romantic comedy, we develop a parallel story of hope: “Oh, for god’s sake, let them find each other in the end.” We have a tendency to tell our own parallel story as an audience inside our hearts. With “Avatar,” it’s only fireworks. That’s the only thing that’s important about it. It’s legitimate, but it doesn’t really allow you to have that parallel story. I have a dictum: I predict there will be porno films in 3D, but it’s nothing beyond fornication. However, a romantic comedy should not be shot in 3D, because it would not allow the parallel story inside an audience.
There’s a twitter feed with your name as its handle that included that statement as a tweet recently. Was that your twitter feed?
I do not use Twitter or Facebook, although there are quite a few “Facebook Werner Herzogs” out there. It’s all not me, it’s all fake, they’ll all impostors. There are websites, all sorts of things out there, pretending to be me. It’s okay. Let the doppelgangers sprout out there.
As long as they don’t start making movies under your name as well.
You would be able to tell within 20 seconds that it wasn’t me.
That’s a pretty specific timeframe.
Maybe less than 20 seconds. Maybe in five seconds you would know it was not me. You see, when you zap on your television, within, let’s say, less than five-tenths of a second, you know, “Oh, this is a football game. Oh yeah, this is a commercial.” You would identify a commercial within two-tenths of a second. And you zap on, and you would see a TV movie, and in half a second, you would know it’s a TV movie and that it’s bad. Zap on. It’s that quick. Probably, if somebody tried to make a Werner Herzog film, you would know it was an impostor.
Those who have followed your work across several decades know that there are many themes and stylistic decisions connecting them, but since “Grizzly Man,” your voice and outlook have gained a level of mainstream exposure that wasn’t there before. You have pop culture currency now.
I had my apotheosis in popular culture playing a role on “The Simpsons,” on “Boondocks” and in “Plastic Bag,” a film by Ramin Bahrani, which is a very fine film. It had a huge life on the Internet. It had a few hundred thousand hits within the first couple of hours it was online.
How did your voice acting on “The Simpsons” come about?
Well, the crazy thing that I have to confess was that I did not know it was an animated show. I had never seen it. However, I knew what it looked like because I had seen it in print media. I thought it was a comic strip, like Charlie Brown or something. When they approached me, I said, “What do you mean by speaking a guest part? Do they speak?” And they couldn’t believe it. They thought I was pulling their legs. But I really didn’t know, and I asked them to send me a DVD with some samples of the animated show, so I would understand how cartoonish the voices were. Still today, I think they believe I’m joking.
Well, that is pretty hard to believe. It’s “The Simpsons.”
Yes, I was told it has existed for more than 20 years, and they have been moving and speaking for more than 20 years. But I didn’t know. I watched a DVD of two or three excerpts from the last few episodes.
You should know, then, that the earlier seasons are a lot better.
I think these ones are still quite good. There’s some wonderful, vitriolic, subversive humor in it. I really liked working with these people and I think it is a wonderful step for me as an actor. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve done well, but of course my scope as an actor is limited. I’m always really good when it comes to violent, hostile, debased characters.
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Speaking of those types, what’s the status of “Death Row,” your TV project for Investigation Discovery about prisoners in Texas and Florida sentenced to death?
I’m still editing it. I don’t know when it’s going to air, but I should be finished with it in a few months.
It sounds like a departure for you to work to deal with a hot button topic like this.
There’s no social activism in it. That’s what everybody would normally do with this. I’m not an activist. You have to understand that I’m a guest in your country. I’m not an advocate of capital punishment, but that’s it. End of story. I’m interested in other aspects. You see, the debate about capital punishment belongs somewhere else–in the political arena. But let’s not talk too much about death penalties or “Death Row,” since it’s still in gestation.
You say you’re a guest in this country, but you’ve been here a pretty long time.
Yes, but I’m not a citizen. You see, I cannot vote. If I were a citizen, I would probably be more active. I’m a guest.
Don’t you think “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” has an activist quality to it? I mean, you’re essentially advocating for access to these cave paintings.
But the film would have come no matter whether I was around or not. Somebody else would have done it. There are certain things in the film that are outside of the political debate.
Do you consider yourself to be political in any particular fashion?
I’m politically interested, but I have no particular talent as a political beast, stepping out and running for office. You have to have it in you. Let’s put it this way: I’m well-informed. When I vote, when I step into a cause, I do it when I’m informed.
That sounds like the way you make movies, too.
But sometimes I don’t do any research. There was no research with “Grizzly Man.” I just stepped into it. And “Encounters at the End of the World” had no research to it. That would be too expensive. You’re being flown down there only once and six weeks later they fly you out and how you have to come back with a movie. Going to Antarctica, you can only go there as a guest of the National Science Foundation. Otherwise, they will not feed you, or give you a bed to sleep in, or a flight out.
Was it difficult to get access to your subject for “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”?
All the key presentation and discourse I had to do myself. You had to have the permit from the French Government, or in this case the Ministry of Culture. I proposed to them that I work as an employee of the French Ministry. My fee would be one euro, but I would return a film to them that they could use forever in non-commercial ways–like they can show it at cultural events and in 35,000 classrooms all across France. That was an idea I had and they liked it. But of course you had to have the permit from the regional government, and another permit from the scientists. I had to be well-prepared. It was fairly clear to them that I was a competent filmmaker. I didn’t need to bring much proof for that, because the French Minister of Culture happened to be a great admirer of my films, so I was very lucky. Still, the kind of fire within me to make this film was probably what convinced them. You have to be well-versed in paleolithic art. You just don’t do something like this as an amateur.
Has anyone in France seen the film yet?
No, but they will very soon. There have been a few hiccups in the production itself that have resulted in some delays with the French release. Actually, the United Kingdom is already showing it theatrically. I think France will get it sometime in September.
Have any of the scientists in the film seen it yet?
Some of them have seen it on DVD, yes. I think they’re very pleased.
How important is that to you?
It’s not of decisive importance. I think that since I’ve been deeply into cave paintings and prehistoric art from very early on, from adolescence, I had ideas of my own and I presented things to them beyond what an amateur would. There was a screening here in New York just for archaeologists just so they could take it seriously. The instruments of archeology are so refined nowadays that it’s stunning to me. It’s not like Indiana Jones with a couple of guns and some shovels.
How important is it for you that your movies do well?
That’s the only goal of a film–well, making money is a concomitant of it doing well, but if it doesn’t make money, that’s not the end of me as a filmmaker. No, it has to be seen. It’s so phenomenal what the cave offers, and I can bring that to theaters. It’s the mother of all battles to make it to theaters. I’m not into digital marketing, downloading, or streaming–I’ve always been a man of the theaters.
It was recently reported that you were developing a project about Gertrude Bell with Naomi Watts attached to star. Is that still on?
I want to do it, but it has to be financed first, so let’s not talk about it. Let’s face it: At the moment, the entire region of the Middle East [where the story takes place] is in turmoil. I have to wait until the dust settles. I mean political turmoil–you have it almost all of the Middle Eastern countries.
Ridley Scott is reportedly also developing a movie about Gertrude Bell. Does that bother you at all?
That’s fine. There are at least six films on Jesus Christ and at least three or four about JFK. Why not?
Would you ever let someone remake one of your films?
I wouldn’t allow it, no. There have been some requests, but I would never allow it. I wouldn’t make “Rambo 3,” nor would I make “Aguirre: Wrath of God 3.”
It’s been 40 years since the release of “Fata Morgana,” your documentary about desert mirages. When you look back at a film like that, which is much more experimental than your recent work, do you still feel a connection to it?
I’m not very eager to sit and look at my films all the time. Just recently, I attended a retrospective of my work in Guadalajara. They have 56 of my films and I was there for the first two days and saw a film with an audience, an early film, and I don’t even recall which one it was. But I have the feeling that, yes, it’s all coherent what I’ve done–although “Fata Morgana” is so different from the others, but there’s some coherence there.
What was the last movie you saw in theaters?
“The King’s Speech.” I liked it, particularly the performance of Colin Firth. For a decade, we haven’t seen a performance of that caliber, with the exception of Nicolas Cage in “Bad Lieutenant.”
When those stories about Cage getting arrested in New Orleans came out last week, it was almost like life imitating art.
Oh, come on. It’s a minor incident. Let Nicolas Cage get through it. As he’s a celebrity, there’s attention on him, but I think it’s not a serious thing. He just challenged the police when he was drunk. He said, “You cops had better arrest me,” and they did. So fine. Why not? He will get through it and apologize to the police. He may get fined. He’s a wonderful actor. There’s something great about him. Let’s look at this aspect of Nicolas Cage.