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Herzog Talks Death Penalty Doc Into the Abyss, Myth of Indie Filmmaking, and Getting Shot At

Herzog Talks Death Penalty Doc Into the Abyss, Myth of Indie Filmmaking, and Getting Shot At

The 7th Annual Film Independent Forum (presented by indieWIRE) kicked off at the DGA Friday night with a screening of Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy and a Saturday morning keynote Q&A with filmmaker Werner Herzog, covered by Sophia Savage:

His latest film, death-row documentary Into the Abyss (set to open the DOC NYC Film Fest November 2) dominated the conversation. Herzog has continued to prove his relevance and prowess in an ever-changing film landscape, and while he dismisses rumors that he’s insane, he is clearly one of a kind. As moderator Stephen Galloway put it, “There are so many things in Herzog’s life that seem larger than life and bizarre.”

Herzog was recently cast to play opposite Tom Cruise in Christopher McQuarrie’s One Shot. Is he a good villain? “I’m always good as a villain,” Herzog replied. On screen, yes [I am very debased], but you have to ask my wife; I am a fluffy husband.”

On Being an Independent: It’s a Myth

Herzog doesn’t believe in shooting coverage. “It’s riskier; you have to know what you’re doing.” He delivered My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done five days after shooting wrapped. “I am accustomed to short times of shooting and editing.” This is how one survives filmmaking. And how you become “independent,” which he considers a myth. “Independent cinema only exists for the Christmas video you do at home. All of the rest is dependent on money. By continually questioning the expenditure of a film (i.e. meeting daily with the line producer), he cut $2.6 million off the Bad Lieutenant budget and finished two days early. Understanding that your film becomes immediately more profitable when you keep production costs as low as possible, is how you come to be taken seriously by producers and colleagues, he says. “That’s how you can survive in the long run, you have to take [what’s going on with the money] seriously.” Putting more money than necessary into a film is “nonsense.”

The budget for Into the Abyss was well under $1 million, Herzog says. In the editing process, he would only look at the footage once, and keep a log book with timecode, descriptions, and exclamation points for the “really good stuff.” “Footage with great substance always connects,” says Herzog, who always edits quickly. But today, with digital editing, you can work “ten times faster.” He says his 1972 film Aguirre: The of God was edited in six weeks, shot in five weeks, and had a budget of $365K. Does he have the answer for how he makes low budget films look big? No, but he says that with a film like Into the Abyss, which doesn’t look expensive, “it immediately touches you on a deep human chord, and that’s all you need to do a film like that.”

Does Herzog regret any hasty choices in his past films? No regrets, he says: “I accept all my errors; all my films are full of them. Just accept it; the child has a squint.” Looking back at his older films, he says he “loves them even more,” and would never go back and fiddle around with them. Besides, he can’t: He throws out all the outtakes, everything. Negatives are gone; he only keeps the finished film.

Herzog says he is looking to get back into producing, and hopes to start his own distribution company, but acknowledges that that is an uphill battle. Despite his disbelief in the idea of independent filmmaking, he acknowledges the differences between independent vs. studio filmmaking. “In a studio system, you can’t change a screenplay unless there is a boardroom meeting. There are certain strata of independence.” He says it’s about self reliance (he uses an example of how he shot one of his first films with a stolen camera). He says sure, with your own production or distribution company you can have more independence. But how do you manage that? With today’s equipment access and laptop editing, you can do a feature for $10K. How? “Just roll up your sleeves, just work where there is real intensity of life. Don’t work in an office; work as a bouncer in a sex club. Or something like that. Work as a guard in a maximum security prison. Work, earn your money, make your film–no matter what.” Herzog knows from experience: He worked as a night shift welder in a steel factory during high school (“Because I knew I had to make my own films; no one would finance them”) and as a parking attendant at Octoberfest in Munich; “You had to deal with 3000 drunk people every day,” and he assures us the drunk driving rules then and there were virtually non-existent.

As for his reputation for being an insane, dangerous director, Herzog confirms not a single actor in his sixty films was ever hurt, and that every crew person put at risk made the choice for themselves. “I am good at evaluating dangers. You have to learn it, you have to embed it in real life..When working in situations that are potentially dangerous, you will learn very quickly.” Herzog adds that he has at least seven doppelgangers on Facebook “all claiming to be stark raving mad,” and he doesn’t mind at all. “I see them as my body guards; let them do it.”

Herzog believes he hasn’t changed at all over the years, because he’s “never stood still” and is always finding new ways of doing things. He and his wife (originally from Siberia) chose Los Angeles as their home after living in San Francisco, where he “had the feeling this place is way too chic; it’s all for the tourists, and it’s a joke!” The city was good to him, but he had to choose a place “with the most substance,..the decision came within a few minutes with my wife. In fifteen years everybody will say, yes, Los Angeles is the city with the most substance.” He means culturally, the way New York City is about finance and Houston is about oil. In Los Angeles, “You have to look beyond the glitz of Hollywood.”

Into the Abyss: Of Squirrels and the Death Penalty

Herzog shared a clip from Into the Abyss (which premiered at Telluride, here’s TOH’s flip cam interview), in which he asks a death row chaplain: “Why does God allow the death penalty?” The man doesn’t know, but trusts that God has a purpose for everything, even if we don’t know or understand it. He spent an hour or less interviewing each person interviewed in the film, including death row prisoners, and that’s all. He had to gauge the atmosphere of each interview immediately, knowing his time was brief. He couldn’t get emotionally involved. Immediately following his interview with Herzog, the chaplain was due to be by a man’s side during his execution. He always asks permission to be there, and to hold their ankles until the last breath. Herzog says he knew that the chaplain, who speaks of the relief of turning his phone off and playing golf (being with nature, with life), would “unravel by asking him to tell a story about a squirrel [on the golf course].” He does, and the man is no longer a mouthpiece for God, but a human being who–whether he wants to admit it or not–is conflicted by a God he trusts and a society that allows the death penalty. Yes, he can save squirrels from being hit by a golf cart, but he can’t stop the execution of a man or woman, even though he wants to. “All life is precious,” he says to the camera, “be it that of a squirrel or a human being.” Knowing to ask the question about the squirrel is “not something you will learn from film school,” says Herzog; “If you don’t know the heart of men, you can’t be a director.”

Did making Into the Abyss changed Herzog’s mind about the death penalty? “No, not in principal,” Herzog says. He is not an advocate of capital punishment. As a guest in our country, “I respectfully disagree with it.” He refuses to be a citizen of any country–and American is not the only one–that allows capital punishment (and also because there is too much of his culture ingrained in him. “I can leave my country [Germany], but not my culture.”) Even if his wife was murdered, he says he would not wish the death penalty upon the person responsible. “No, never, under no circumstances. The state should never be in the position to kill anyone, period.”

His intention was not to save death row prisoners or argue a case. He says he dealt with everyone he interviewed, including the convicted prisoners, in a way that showed he respects them “as human beings.” With the prisoners, one of whom was executed eight days after the interview, Herzog says: “You have to be straightforward; they can tell from a mile away if a phony is approaching them.”

So what do you do? “The situation is grim and you just face it together with the person.” Getting access to the prisoners involved many steps, including permission from the state (Texas and Florida), prison wardens and the convicts themselves. One of the “delicate grey zones” was determining if the film could in any way damage the convicts, some of whom were amidst appeals. Herzog was clear with them: “I am not interested in innocence, [the film] is not a platform to prove your innocence,..It’s not me who is going to exonerate you.” He is not a journalist, he confirms. He is only “an echo of what is going on.”

He shared the story of a man who was the head of a “tie down team” (an executioner, essentially), who after 125 executions, quit his job (forfeiting his pension) because two days after executing a woman, he was so shaken that he had a nervous breakdown. Herzog calls this man a “national hero, a man of great integrity.”

While Herzog may not have allowed himself to get emotional during the brief interviews, always knowing a guard would shortly tap him on the shoulder signaling 120 seconds to go, he admits the emotion comes in in the editing room. During editing, he and his editor spent five hours a day with their subjects. “It’s important to be steady, disciplined, and to focus,” Herzog says. “Editing should go fast. I see colleagues that boast that they have 450 hours of footage and that they edited it over two years. They should have edited it over two weeks.” Into the Abyss was edited quickly, in part because there was under ten hours of footage. Herzog adds that Grizzly Man (2005) was edited in nine days. “The film I did with Nicholas Cage, what’s it called?”–The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009)–“I never went over time. We usually finished by 3pm or 4pm.”

A woman in the audience, who had worked for three years in a death row prison in Florida (where only one woman has been killed–Eileen Wuornos–the subject of Monster), asked if Herzog spent any time looking at differences between the men and women on death row. Herzog shared two stories. He recalls one woman in Texas (“a fascinating case” and the “most bizarre, unbelievable murder story”) who fully denies any responsibility, and was denied legal support that she was owed through an agreement between the US and UK (through which they are meant to assist each other in capital punishment cases). Herzog says she was very poorly defended, having been given “the world champion [lawyer] of loosing these death penalty cases.” Her innocence or guilt is beyond the point. And Herzog does not take the stance of saviour. His second observation: Across the US, states use lethal injection, except in Utah where convicted men, but not women, have the option of death by firing squad. “I find it very sexist,” Herzog says. A woman “should be able to tell them you want a firing squad. But, there shouldn’t be capital punishment in the first place.”

What kind of danger has Herzog faced on location? He recalls a rhino who was not happy to be filmed during a shoot in Africa, and subsequently rammed into a car, turning it on its side. “Otherwise,” he says, “I’ve been shot at various times. But not hit, thank god,..It’s a very exhilarating feeling for a man to be shot at.”

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