In late August in a nondescript hotel banquet room in a nondescript section of Los Angeles, I gathered, along with about 50 other people from far-flung places around the world, to hear one man speak at the Rogue Film School. Who else but Werner Herzog could bring such a diverse group of strangers together? We came from the UK, Argentina, Canada, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Russia, Iceland and Louisiana after applying to and being accepted into his fifth "Rogue Film School."
Our work, his "Rogues" as he affectionally called us, was as distinct as we were: A quantum physicist and first-time filmmaker was making a film about something that is invisible but makes existence possible (how do you make the invisible visible?), another person was working on a film about an indigenous language in Canada that dying out along with its last speakers, then there was a creepy love story between a man and a corpse, and finally, an engrossing Hollywood-style thriller/horror movie.
Far from being surrounded by well-off dilettantes who could afford to pay the tuition (the cost of the 4-day seminar is $1500), I found my fellow participants to be serious-minded, talented documentary and narrative filmmakers, some of whom (like myself) had made great sacrifices to attend. Luckily, I benefitted from friends and strangers who generously gave to my successful online crowdfunding campaign and I only had to travel up the road, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to attend.
I had come to the Rogue Film School to hear from someone I revered as a filmmaker and learn how he managed to make the films he wanted from within and without the system. Maybe then I could figure out how to do it too.
I first encountered Werner's work while working at Channel 4 in London and watching TV at my desk when "Fitzcarraldo" came on. The volume was on mute and I although had no idea what the story was, I became riveted by the images on the screen. Before that moment, I had no idea who Werner Herzog was, but from that moment on I was captivated and have been ever since.
I applied to the film school without ever thinking I had a chance at being selected. My work is not the usual Hollywood fare, but then again, that's not necessarily what interests Herzog. What gave me the temerity to apply was this quote on the front page of the Rogue Film School website.
"The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted. It is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lock picking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense of poetry. For those who are pilgrims. For those who can tell a story to four year old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within. For those who have a dream." -- Werner Herzog
I read it and thought "Yep, thats me!" Amazingly, I was accepted.
On the first night of the seminar, a "meet and greet," I opened the double doors into the crowded banquet hall intending to down a glass of wine before jumping into the fray and was immediately accosted by Werner dressed in a suit and holding a clipboard (I mention his clothing because later during the seminar he explained that he wears suits to show respect).
"You!" he called to me. I stopped and adjusted my eyes to the small group of people by the door now all staring at me. "You must be…" He then glanced down at his clipboard which I noticed had neat columns of our names along with notes about our films. He pronounced my name with his distinctive German accented English. "Marie-Françoise... yes, I remember your film. Very good. You are one of the only ones with a BIG story. It's very important. We should show it."
When Werner addresses you, you have his undivided attention, a rarity in most encounters I've found in life, much less in L.A. He then gave me what felt like an on-the-spot psychic reading. I had no idea what he was fucking talking about. I could only nod my head in stunned silence.
During the seminar, we watched a few of the great films from the participants. When I thought he had forgotten about mine, I felt slightly relieved. It was a surreal moment when, on the last day of the film school, he screened my award-winning short "rebel in the soul" in its entirety and not just the five minute clip that I expected. Although I knew he had watched it previously (Werner watches all the submitted film clips personally), while sitting there in the presence of Werner and the other amazing filmmakers while it screened, I felt a mixture of extreme pride and nerve-wracking humility.
His reputation for wild antics aside, I found Werner to be warm, serious, humorous and immensely approachable. He hung out with us during breaks and for a good part of lunch, often continuing the conversation while relaxing in the sun. We bumped into each other in the hall after the first long day and far from avoiding additional conversation after talking non-stop for nearly eight hours, he earnestly seemed to want to know if I was enjoying myself and getting something concrete out of the experience. He lamented on the small ratio of women to men participants, a difference from the "Rogue Film School" fourth session where he said there were more women applicants. Each day, we started right on time, as per his dictum "who is late will be punished by life." The rule of no laptops or cellphones was refreshing as everyone was freed up to actually talk and connect with each other. Wow. What a concept.
What most impressed us was Werner's passionate mission to cultivate a sense of urgency in lighting a fire under our asses to make films that have big stories and convey a sense of poetry, wonder and awe. He wanted us to write, film and edit as if we were on death row and they were coming to strap us to the gurney. There is no time to waste on fear or self-doubt. You're about to die. It takes a ridiculous amount of courage and inner fortitude to follow your instincts. It's not for the faint of heart. Be up to the task.
It was an immersive seminar that lit creative juices and left me burning to take the next step in my filmmaking journey. There's no way I can encapsulate all that I absorbed in those intense, too brief 4 days, but the experience reinvigorated and changed my artistic practice forever. I recommend that you go go and experience it for yourself. In the meantime, here's a list of my personal favorite commandments that landed on our heads from on high:
1. READ. READ. READ. READ. READ.
And then READ SOME MORE. Compulsive reader that I am, it was music to my ears when Werner commanded us to "Read. Read. Read. Read." He had put us to work weeks before the seminar with a slew of books on the reading list that included poetry, Hemingway and nonfiction that was delicious to behold (The Warren Report was surprisingly engrossing). READ LITERATURE. READ POETRY. Not books on making films or scriptwriting. Throw out formulas, where on page 7 this has to happen and on page 10 the protagonist has to say that, let go of Aristotle ("Aristotle is not that good for screenplays") and get fucking rid of that cat and tell the STORY. Don't know how to tell a story? READ A BOOK. Read in different languages from different periods. This confirmed my personal decision made long ago to extend my reading beyond the Eurocentric and to learn to speak Haitian Kréyòl.
2. Write Quickly.
"It takes me 5 days to write a screenplay," said Werner. "If you're spending more than two weeks on it something's wrong." Rats, not so happy about this one. So that screenplay I've been working on for…uh, YEARS… that's not normal? I was curious about his writing habits and yeah, I was the one asking all those questions about Werner's ability to write so quickly, a skill that I hoped to emulate. He was bluntly honest in saying, sorry, he couldn't help me and that I would have to figure it out for myself. He said that he doesn't sit down to write until the story comes full blown into his mind and is bursting to come out. He essentially dictates what is in his head. But he realized that what worked for him wouldn't necessarily work for anybody else. Plus he didn't want little Werner's running around. Really? Then he took pity on what I am assuming was my dejected face, relented and gave me a secret that I now share with you (shhh...come closer): four or five days before he begins writing, to warm up, he only reads poetry.
3. Get Paid.
"The director has to be paid for their work. Never use your own money," said Werner. Well, unless you really really have to. But if you plan and negotiate your terms right you shouldn't have to. Werner had a special guest director speak with us about his process of getting his film made. I felt for him when he explained a situation that involved an unexpected post-production expense and then having to use his own funds to complete the movie. Werner flatly stated the situation should never have happened. He wasn't chastising him as much as giving us the know-how and tools to avoid those circumstances, if at all possible. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
4. Don't Be Afraid of Failure.
"I am a product of my failures," said Werner, who later added: "The film set is a no cry zone." Everybody laughed at this one. It hit me in the sweet spot because although from the outside Werner gives the impression of unimpeded success (on his terms) he also embraces failure and isn't afraid of it. As creators, we're going to get it wrong, often. But that's to be expected. It's better to fail doing the right thing rather than succeed at doing the wrong thing - just don't cry about it on set.
5. Dive Deep.
"Go to the deepest level possible as quickly as possible. Take them to the highest level and do not allow them to come down," said Werner. Just start the movie. No beating around the bush. Dive deep into the heart and stay there.
6. Defend Your Vision.
"Hold firm to your vision but don't be a tyrant on set," said Werner, noting that when you have a clear vision, you must be prepared to defend it. If someone criticizes your idea, come up with a coherent argument. Be flexible, but remember that sometimes you may have to convince others to go along with your clear vision. Make decisions on set and stand by them without being bossy.
7. Educate Yourself in the Business.
"Be self-reliant, not independent," Werner told us. He advised us to earn basic legal concepts, know your budget and raise your financing. Also, don't hire an attorney until you already have an agreement in the works. "Never allow an attorney to negotiate for you," he said.
8. Keep Track of the Money.
"Look at the cash flow" and "know the price of the camel" were just two of Werner's financial tips. Every night after shooting, Werner said, he counts the money. He's a firm believer in knowing where the money is going and how much. This gives new meaning to balancing your check book. I'm guessing it helps avoid dealing with #3.
9. "If you don't have a deal in two days, you won't have a deal in two years" - Werner Herzog
10. Create Your Own Truth.
"Facts do not constitute truth," Werner reminded us. He advised us to "construct a reality that illuminates the truth" more than stating a simple fact which tells you nothing about the inner emotional world.
11. Travel on Foot.
"Tourism is sin. Traveling on foot is virtue," said Werner, who urged us to see life close-up on the ground level. Right now, one of the Rogues in my class is traveling by foot to Bristol via the English/Welsh border. I've been on several pilgrimages in my life to many different places, all I realized, on foot. There is something to experiencing life from this vantage point that is both visceral and life-affirming. There's probably good reason why many religions and cultures have some aspect of going on a pilgrimage or quest to mark going from one level of consciousness to another.
12. Do it.
Most of all, Werner told us to just go ahead and DO IT. He said we should never doubt our own significance. He said that he needed to make money so he can continue to make films, but they have to be about topics that he feels are significant. The duty of the filmmaker is to instill a sense of awe and wonder in the audience. Don't let bureaucrats or gatekeepers stop you. Take what you have, take the next step whatever it may be and MAKE YOUR MOVIE.