Werner Herzog is having a productive week in Switzerland. For the duration of the Locarno Film Festival, which concludes its 66th edition on Sunday, Herzog has been the subject of a career retrospective that includes an outdoor screening of his profound jungle epic “Fitzcarraldo” as well as his most recent work, the latest installments of his “Death Row” interviews produced for the Investigation Discovery channel. For his maiden voyage to Locarno, Herzog hasn’t wasted any time.
On Thursday, the Bavarian director appeared all across town: In the morning, he joined some half dozen journalists for a freewheeling roundtable discussion about his films. At a lunch following the conversation, Herzog finally met Abel Ferrara, the famed underground director whose gritty Harvey Keitel vehicle “Bad Lieutenant” sparked a controversy a few years back when Herzog remade it as “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” starring Nicolas Cage, then claimed he had no clue about the original version.
Within earshot of this journalist, Herzog initiated conversation with Ferrara about that situation, claiming that the problem originated when Herzog received a script from producer Ed Pressman — who initially didn’t mention Ferrara’s film, and later refused to change the title, agreeing at Herzog’s assistance only to tack on the additional words. Ferrara noted his frustration over the project, but their dialogue was a far more cordial one than the debate stirred up by both men in the media when “Port of Call New Orleans” was released.
Having got that out of the way, Herzog hosted a master class in front of hundreds of festival attendees, including many aspiring filmmakers attending the festival as part of its Summer Academy initiative. While talking to the press, Herzog spoke mainly about his current activities, but at the master class — where the director shared clips of his work and fielded dozens of questions for some two hours — he mainly focused on dispensing practical advice. Here’s a rundown of a few highlights from the two appearances Herzog made throughout his busy day.
“Cinema” means something different to Herzog than it once did. In recent years, Herzog has extended beyond directing movies to play other roles. He recently co-produced “The Act of Killing” with Errol Morris, directed the popular online anti-texting short film “From One Second to the Next,” produced “Death Row” as a television miniseries and developed the installation piece “Hearsay of the Soul” for the Biennale (though it has since opened in Los Angeles). “I have done things I have never done before,” Herzog said at the roundtable. He noted the popularity of “From One Second to the Next” on YouTube and added that the 35-minute film will be screened at high schools around the United States. “It’s a complete different form of expression. I love everything that has to do with cinema.”
Now that he has produced two sets of “Death Row” episodes, he has no plans for more. “Although ‘Death Row’ lifted the crime television show to a much higher level, it was unclear what audiences thought about it,” he said. “But apparently it was so strong that the network asked me to do some more. I’ve done four more and this is the end of it. You can’t do it too often. It just gets at you. If you want to see ashes of me, give me four more of these films to make.”
He never shows his documentary subjects what they look like in interviews until after his films are finished. At the master class, Herzog screened clips from his documentaries “Encounters at the End of the World” and “Bells of the Deep,” prompting a question about whether he lets his subjects see the rushes. “Never show anything to anyone in a documentary,” he said. “They will become self-conscious and freak out. They will think, ‘Oh, the light on me was bad,’ or ‘My hairdo wasn’t good enough,’ and ‘My god, I spoke too fast.’ Never, ever, ever, ever do that. And if you have to work like a man like [Klaus] Kinski, never show him a second of your footage. He’s going to completely freak out.”
Herzog thinks “Viva Zapata” contains the best opening scene of all time. The director screened the first few minutes from Elia Kazan’s 1952 drama, which culminates with Marlon Brando revealing himself in the title role. “I’ve never seen a better introduction of a character in a film,” Herzog said.
He has always worked fast, but works even faster now due to technological advancements. “I’ve never written for more than five days on a screenplay,” he told the master class. “With digital editing, I can edit much faster now.” As examples, he cited “Grizzly Man,” which was edited in a matter of days, and “Bad Lieutenant,” which took three weeks. Working digitally also suits his fast and loose style on set, said Herzog, recalling an experience on “Bad Lieutenant” when an assistant asked him if he wanted to shoot additional coverage for a scene. “I thought, ‘What do they mean by coverage?’” he said. “I have coverage for my car. I shoot what I need for the screen.”
While making “Fitzcarraldo,” one of his cinematographer suffered a lot. While most “Fitzcarraldo” production stories revolve around wild man Klaus Kinski, camera operator Rainer Klausman may have had the hardest time. According to Herzog, one day the entire production team accidentally forgot Klausman in the middle of the jungle. “When we had breakfast, we wondered, ‘Where’s Klausman?’” Herzog recalled. “It dawned on us we had forgotten him on this rock. It took us another half a day until we reached him and took him out. That was 30 years ago and I think he has forgiven me now.” At another point in the production, Herzog added, Klausman suffered from a foot injury when he was bitten by a piranha.
The Internet is an importance resource for everyone, including Herzog. “There are billions of people who have cell phones,” Herzog said. “All of them can make photos. You can shoot a movie on it if you want to do that. The Internet is spread out into everywhere, so you have to find your own means, your new outlets for distribution. I’m right in the middle of discovering it.”
His role as the villain in the Tom Cruise villain “Jack Reacher” was a result of Herzog’s performance in “Julien Donkey-Boy.” “It was a specific case,” he said when asked at the master class how he landed the gig. “They needed somebody who looked dangerous before he even spoke. They tested quite a few well-known actors and none were that scary without saying anything. So Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie came upon me because they’d seen a film by Harmony Korine, ‘Julien Donkey-Boy,’ where I’m completely vile and debased. I was good at that. So they hired me. They paid me well for being scary.”
He’s making more movies about women… finally. Herzog is currently in pre-production on the adventure film “Queen of the Desert,” which is likely to star Naomi Watts and Robert Pattinson. “There are some actors I’d very much likely to be in the film and it’s problematic to get them in the same place at the same time,” he said with regard to the delays, pointing out that he needs to shoot the film in the summer. “One thing that’s maybe significant is that I do have two films [in pre-production] where the protagonists will be women. That hasn’t happened to me much before. People have always been asking me, ‘Why is it always men?’ It’s not true. I’ve made at least four or five films where women have been the protagonists. But this is new terrain for me.”
He doesn’t mind that people imitate him a lot. “When you look on the Internet, there at least two or three dozen fake Herzogs out there,” he said, referring to the YouTube videos that contain Herzogian renditions of “Curious George” and other unlikely materials. “Sometimes people answer back to my questions as if they were me. I could shut down these websites very quickly, but I don’t want that. I consider them my unpaid bodyguards. Let them battle out there. It’s a completely separate life out there that has nothing to do with me. I see it with a certain amount of fascination. I have no problem with it whatsoever. Let it be. That’s the nature of the Internet now. Let the Fake Herzogs do battle. I’ll do the films.”