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Werner Herzog’s Film School Advice: 6 Crucial Lessons From a Master to His Pupils

Eight students share the unorthodox and extremely practical filmmaking lessons they learned making short films in Cuba with the master.

Werner Herzog in Cuba

Werner Herzog in Cuba

Angels Melange

“Get Them On Their Horse Quickly”

Faller: “Werner told me to get them on their horses quickly. In a western, that means the audience has come to watch people riding horses, so don’t waste time getting to that scene. In general, filmmaking means getting the audience to care about your story immediately.”

Matthias Günter (Switzerland): “In my short film the protagonist tells the story of the kidnapping of his younger brother and the suicide of his mother caused by the abduction. Despite this heavy history, Herzog advised me not to conduct long preliminary talks with the protagonist. He advised me to interrupt the protagonist during his work and to confront him with his past immediately. The deepness of the conversation through the immediacy was impressive.”

READ MORE: Learn How Music Inspires Werner Herzog’s Filmmaking in His 100-Minute Lecture — Watch

Editing: “Don’t Overcook”

Editing with Werner Herzog in Cuba

Editing with Werner Herzog in Cuba

Black Factory Cinema

Hughes: “While editing, I showed him what I felt like was a pretty rough cut of the film. He told me to stop editing. That it was done. To not mess around with it anymore. Don’t spend too much time editing and re-editing your film, or it will lose its sense of life and energy.”

Barbakow: “I anxiously snuck glances at him silently watching my work, wincing at all the things I would change as he took in the film. When it was finished, he unclipped his glasses from the bridge of his nose, turned to me, grabbed my hand in an arm wrestling grip, and deadpanned: ‘Do not change a frame. If you change a frame you are a coward, and I will stab you in the back with a snow shovel.’ I laughed, told him ‘please, no,’ and then asked him about the scattered inadequacies in the work, but he shushed me. ‘No, you are done. On to the next one.’

“The short’s indeed imperfect, but Werner’s point was never to be precious about the work. He loves to say ‘don’t overcook,’ and hates film theory and any over-analysis of cinema. He despises being safe, or putting the end product over process. To him, relying on instinct and collaborating with the elements around you (namely, the wonder and peculiarities in location and human life) is paramount, much more vital than any of the logistical or technical distractions in filmmaking.”

Angels Melange (Barcelona, Spain):  “I made two films in Cuba: The first one [didn’t talk] about anything that I wanted to talk about, it didn’t have any of the ‘ideas’ I wanted to show. So I made another film and I was pretty happy with the second one. I told this to Werner and he insisted on seeing my first film. He watched, I felt shy about it, and he started to laugh in joy and looking at me he said, ‘How can you be so blind? Are you stupid! This is pure cinema! You have made pure cinema here! And the worst of it all is that you would have thrown this to the trash without showing no one!'”

López: “I mentioned to him that I planned to have a sound designer go over it once I was back at home. He said that was fine as long as I wouldn’t give him too much time to do it. I said, ‘Sure, like two weeks.’ He then turned around and loudly told me: ‘No! Two days! In two weeks you make another film!'”

It’s a Job, So Treat It That Way

Werner Herzog with his students in Cuba

Werner Herzog with his students in Cuba

Max Barbakow

Hughes: “Treat filmmaking like a job. Work hard and put all your energy into it but clock out, step away and experience other things. Don’t spend too much time talking about films… Make films, but also live your life.”

READ MORE: The ‘Mr. Robot’ Experiment: Can a TV Show Be Shot Like an Indie Film?

Nastia Korkia (Moscow, Russia): “This experience changed me profoundly and made me remember about my first steps in filmmaking before I started working in the advertising industry. It made me think about the very basic and yet the most important thing — you just need to do something, to make your own mistakes, to write your own story, to find your own way. And you should do it now. Right now. With all the urgency.”

Melange: “It gave me confidence. I can easily doubt [everything] and not even start making my films because of silly doubts and high expectations. Now if I get an idea for a film I will just start thinking of solutions instead of problems. Just do it, and never, never ever complain.”

Faller: “I used to complain about how, as a director, I couldn’t practice my craft enough, but Herzog showed me that there are stories everywhere, all the time. All you need is the right perspective, a little bit of cheek and a good sense of humor.”

Hughes: “He also told me smoking is bad for you. Over the course of the workshop, he bummed half a pack of cigarettes from me. Werner Herzog owes me ten cigarettes.”

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