There are few filmmakers who have become as legendary – literally – as Werner Herzog. He’s not just the creator of dozens of ambitious, wildly different, incredibly accomplished films, he’s a guy who got shot while conducting an interview on camera, and then just a few days later pulled Joaquin Phoenix out of a car after an accident. Herzog and his films have become as mythic, a place where fact and fiction merge into an awe-inspiring whole. Ironically, his latest film “Into the Abyss” feels incredibly small, intimate, and painfully real. Centering on interviews with two young men from Texas who committed a brutal crime, Herzog examines capital punishment as an incidental component of humanizing two men we might otherwise call monsters.
The Playlist sat down recently with Herzog where he talked about staying open-minded when tackling tough subjects, discussed how documentaries and fiction films equally feed his creativity, and reflected on the legendary persona that has surrounded him, as much because of his larger-than-life adventures as his career being one of the world’s most important filmmakers.
When you start off with any documentary subject, how much have you already made up your mind about how you feel about it, such as in this case, capital punishment?
Yes, capital punishment…it’s not the subject, and I don’t have to make up my mind. It’s obvious for me as a German with a different historical background, I respectfully disagree with the practice of it. And not just in America, in China, in India, in Pakistan and Japan, for example. But I never make up my mind, I am just very curious, and I start exploring. And of course, in this case, I had very little time with every single individual in the film — none of them I met with for more than one hour in my entire life. But even after shooting, I keep my mind completely open, and because of that, all of a sudden I discover something in the footage that I had never anticipated – and that’s life, the urgency of life. This is why the film has the title, “Into The Abyss,” and then under it, it says, “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.” In the last chapter of the film is the urgency of life. And this is something completely unplanned, but it came from all of the footage at me so strongly that I had to include it, even as a chapter in the film.
What do you find is the best way to approach your interview subjects while also being sensitive to their circumstances?
The difficulty is how do you find the right tone for every single one, and I’ve been very straightforward. For example, with the inmate who was executed eight days later, I said to him, “I respect you as a human being, but the fact that you had a bad childhood or so doesn’t exonerate you and it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you." But they like me for this, being so straightforward, and in a way, you have to have it in you as a filmmaker. I’m very focused and I’m completely aiming my conversations and going straight and deep, looking into the heart of men.
Did those time constraints give you a focus that might be different than what you might apply in other circumstances when you have more time?
I’m always focused. You see, I’m not one of those who collects 400 hours of footage. In this case, I had something like maybe ten hours of footage, all in all, and that’s one of the things – how do you find the right tone? How do you have a background from which you can quickly draw two things, experience in life, like traveling on foot, or being like in the jungle and having seen lots of the world, and secondly, reading – read, read, read. That’s what I tell my students at the Rogue film school. I even give them a mandatory reading list which doesn’t have to do with reading about moviemaking. It’s Roman antiquity poetry, or it’s a short story by Hemingway, or whatever – the Warren Commission Report! I mention it because at the moment, I’m inviting students to send in their applications.
Do you see fiction and documentary filmmaking as two different disciplines? Does one feed into the other?
The borderline for me has never been as clear as for other filmmakers, and actually hardly anyone makes documentaries and feature films – I’m one of the exceptions, but it shouldn’t make you nervous (laughs). But how can I say it? I just love whatever is coming along. In this case, however, with “Into The Abyss,” it’s more the classic form of a documentary, you see. I’m not wildly inventing, and I’m not doing something like a chapter about albino crocodiles like in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Here, you have to stick to what you find, so it’s much closer to, let’s say, cinema verite, although I’m not a great friend of cinema verite.
How intuitively do you approach each new project? Are you fully able to follow whatever material interests you at a given time?
I’ve never planned a career. The films always came at me wildly, almost like uninvited guests, like burglars in the night, and then I have to decide – with whom do I deal first, the one who comes most ferociously at me. So that’s how I do my films.
It seems like you’ve been embraced as much as a personality in the last decade as you were as a filmmaking luminary the decades before that. How much do you think about that as you continue working? At a recent film festival someone was doing an impersonation of you in a short film.
Impostors, yes, doppelgangers, they’re out in the internet. I tell myself, these are my doppelgangers, these are my bodyguards, so let them do battle out there. I don’t mind that there are impostors out there pretending to be me, but otherwise I’d prefer to be anonymous, which you can’t do nowadays in a business that has many people involved. You can’t do a step without taking a photo with a cell phone, and it’s going to be out on the internet in the next 20 seconds. So if I had a choice, I would be anonymous, but of course through my voice, doing commentary for example, or through my acting parts in movies – I did “The Simpsons” or “Plastic Bag” or you just name it – and all of a sudden my character, my person, and also my screen persona have caught on. So I take it as it is, there’s nothing wrong about having a voice that draws the attention of audiences.
Did you have to think twice when you decided to play a villain in a Tom Cruise movie?
I’ve played dangerous guys before, violent, debased, dysfunctional characters before, but no – I love everything that has to do with cinema. And I did not compete for the part, I was invited, and I found it interesting – so why shouldn’t I do it?
As an omnivorous cinephile, do you make any distinctions about the steps you’ve made more recently towards doing more mainstream films?
Let’s face it – all of my films are mainstream, including the documentaries. I mean, look at “Grizzly Man” or “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” and all of a sudden they are mainstream. It ['Cave'] has been the most successful documentary this year, maybe, I’m not completely sure. And some of my films I made decades ago, like “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” have become some sort of mainstream. I always felt like mainstream – maybe the secret mainstream, but it becomes more and more evident, so I have absolutely no problem with mainstream. I’ve always aimed at it, or let’s say, I’ve aimed away from my own navel; I’m out for audiences, working for audiences.
Though you teach students, do you feel a sense of responsibility to the people who enjoy and admire your work?
In a way, yes, and it has become an increasing avalanche over the last two decades. A really huge amount of young people who want to learn from me or work with me. It has increased in numbers, and I’m trying to give an organized answer by establishing the Rogue film school. And whenever I have time, I mean this year I’ve done five or six films, some shorter films of course, and I’m acting and I’m doing the film school and all of these things, whenever there’s a gap where I could do it, I would open the doors of my film school and invite people to attend.
It seems like people who would want to learn from you are big cinephiles…
No, not necessarily. Absolutely not. They are people who have something glowing inside, a fire, and they cannot coordinate it yet. And I’m not teaching anything practical, apart from forging documents and lock-picking. It’s the only thing I get over with in the first half hour. But otherwise, it’s a way of life, and it’s very, very intense in giving them some sort of guidance. And I do not want to create clones of myself; I would not want people to have the feeling they are trying to imitate me. Let them have their own vision, let them find their own path – those are the more interesting ones.
How difficult is it to have a normal life that isn’t tied constantly to filmmaking, especially when you’re making as many films as you did this year?
Well, that’s not the average, but I am not a workaholic. I work very fast and steadily, and I don’t hardly ever notice that I’m working. It feels like just breathing or walking when I do films. And of course I do things that are beyond filmmaking alone.
At this point, how comfortable are you in the legend that has sort of sprung up around you because of stories about experiences like the one you had with Joaquin Phoenix and others?
It’s not legends, it’s actually real incidents – yes, I have taken him out of a car. It was not a big deal. And two or three days before, I was shot. These things happen – it’s a folklore in Los Angeles. And you have to accept it as it is. It doesn’t make me nervous, and I have never worked on becoming a legend. But it doesn’t make me nervous. I live my life outside of the glitz and glamour of the red carpet events, and so you’ll never see me there. I’m never at parties. I think I know how to live well.
"Into The Abyss" is in limited release now.