The Film Independent Forum opened Saturday at the DGA in Los Angeles with a “keynote Q&A” from Werner Herzog. And while the format might have been a cheat, his conversation was honest and direct.
“I have a reputation of being insane,” Herzog said toward the end the hour, which was moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway. “Which is kind of weird because I am clinically sane. I’ve always been the quiet, steady, focused worker.”
Indeed, while Herzog held forth on a range of topics that included capital punishment, his latest film (“Into the Abyss”) and why he believes that independent film is a myth, he provided an onslaught of good advice and practical ideas. Even if he was speaking to an audience of Film Independent members who have dedicated their lives to a purpose that, per Herzog, doesn’t exist.
Here, then, is a roundup of the eight best notions that came out of the Herzog keynote.
Be a sex club bouncer with the work ethic of a bank clerk. “People always say, ‘The production companies are all so stupid; they do not even want to read my screenplay.’ My answer is just roll up your sleeves and work where there’s real intensity of life. Don’t work in an office. Work as a bouncer in a sex club. Something like that. Work as a guard in a maximum security prison. Earn the money and then make your film, no matter what.”
Herzog’s real-life jobs included working 2 1/2 years as a night-shift welder in high school and as a parking attendant at the Munich Oktoberfest. “Dealing with 3,000 drunk people every night was hard,” he said. “Bavarian police in the late ’50s, early ’60s would let you drive unless you were half unconscious.”
Shoot fast; edit fast. “Editing has to go fast,” Herzog said. “I see directors, particularly young ones, who boast, ‘I edited over two years.’ They should have had two weeks.” By example, “Grizzly Man” was edited in just nine days; he delivered the final cut of “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call– New Orleans” two weeks after shooting wrapped.
Independent film is a myth, but self reliance is real. “I’m not an advocate [of independent film],” Herzog said. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as independent cinema. It exists only for your last Christmas video or your beach party in Cancun. That’s independent cinema. All the rest is dependent on money, on distribution systems.”
However, he acknowledges that “There are degrees of dependent film. In the studio system, you can’t change a screenplay unless there’s a boardroom decision that the line can be modified. It’s more self reliance. Look for self reliance. For my first eight films, I used a camera I’d actually stolen. If you have your own production company, your own distribution company, you have a certain amount of self reliance. The tools are inexpensive. You can do a feature for $10,000.”
While Herzog no longer relies on stolen goods, he’s increasingly interested in controlling more of the filmmaking process. “I’ve started getting into producing films again,” he said. “I’m raising money outside the United States and I hold all rights except for North America. A year ago, I went to MIPCOM and you have 10,000, 11,000 sales people from TV stations all over the world. A director hardly ever shows up. And everybody knew there was a new film by Herzog and everybody knew to look out for the booth of the salespeople. I would like to take control of distribution. it’s not easy, but maybe I’m going to found a distribution company.”
Make mistakes. “I accept all my errors and my films are full of them. Just accept it: The child has a squint. This child has a stutter; this one has a limp. I love them even more for it; I accept them as they are.”
Don’t be sentimental about your work. While Herzog knows he’s made about 60 films, he can’t always remember their names. (“The one I did with Nicolas Cage — what was the title?”) Similarly, he failed to remember the name of a documentary that he shot on a volcanic mountain. (It was the 1977 “La Soufrière – Waiting for an Inevitable Disaster.”) However, this doesn’t suggest amnesia or disregard so much as his overriding interest for what comes next, not what’s come before. For example, there’s his take-no-prisoners attitude toward excess footage. “I throw away all the outtakes, all the superfluous,” he said. “The entire negative is thrown away with the exception of the cut negative.”
Don’t be impressed by directors who fight for larger budgets. Herzog says after producing or co-producing about 30 of his films, he fights for smaller budgets, not bigger ones. “In ‘Bad Lieutenant,’ I never went overtime — not one hour. Shooting days were finished by three, sometimes four. I had a clause in my contract that I was in a position to check into the daily cashflows. I delivered $2.6 million under budget and two days under schedule. You are being taken seriously by the producers, by the financiers. That’s how you can survive in the long run. You have to take it seriously with money. A film becomes profitable quicker if it’s produced for a lower amount of money.”
Know your contracts. If you’re a self-reliant filmmaker, it’s not enough that your lawyer understands a contract; make sure you do, too. “Make sure the procedure of revenue becomes transparent for you,” said Herzog. “Make sure you know what they are going to spend on prints and public relations and advertising. If you don’t fix it in a contract, it’s going to mushroom. Try to talk to someone who has had very bad experiences with distribution companies. Ask this person how the contract was structured.”
Los Angeles is the best city in America. Herzog chooses to live in Los Angeles. “We lived in San Francisco first for three years or so and I had the feeling that this place is way too chic,” he said. “Nothing gets done; it’s for the tourists. And it’s a joke. It’s not really good to say that because San Francisco has been good to me and I truly like to be there, but I had to make the decision. For work, I have to be in the city with the most substance in the United States: Los Angeles. In 15 years, everyone will say, ‘Yes, Los Angeles is the city with the most substance.’ I mean cultural substance and you have to look beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. For finances, New York; for oil business, it would be Houston. But for everything else, Los Angeles.”