“Fitzcarraldo” is a legend in the history of film production — its infamous five-year production was arguably the most ambitious, troubled, and controversial ever recorded. Among many ludicrous feats, Werner Herzog demanded that a 320-ton steamship was carried over a mountain in Peru in order to depict the struggles of the film’s protagonist, Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald. The film’s trials and tribulations were documented in Les Blank’s film “Burden of Dreams” and, later, in Herzog’s own memoir, “Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo.”
30 years later, filmmakers Sam Pressman, Luke Wigren and Harley Adams set out on the fiery trail of the “Fitzcarraldo” legacy. The question of what they sought remained entirely unanswered. Rather than have a plan, the filmmakers hoped to discover their film in the process of making it. It was an ambitious idea; its only solid premise was to follow in “Fitzcarraldo’s” production footsteps while exploring the concept of modern tourism. But ultimately the charm of “Reconquest of the Useless” stems from this very uncertainty and openness. Like Herzog, the filmmakers began with a risky idea and persevered despite gargantuan challenges.
Indiewire sat down with Sam Pressman, the film’s director, Luke Wigren, its producer, and Walter Saxer, who produced “Fitzcarraldo” and appears in both “Burden of Dreams” and “Conquest of the Useless.” (Pressman and Wigren tracked down Saxer in Peru, where he still lives, and brought him along for their journey.) Below, we discuss the filmmakers’ encounter with Herzog, who gave them some strange advice; Pressman’s experiences with Terrence Malick on the set of “Tree of Life,” and how they influenced his film; the immense scope of the editing process; and so much more.
“Reconquest of the Useless” premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival this year and just screened at the Havana Film Festival.
What inspired this journey-turned-movie?
Sam Pressman: It was Herzog, the man himself. He was so welcoming and kind and not at all the persona you’d seen in a magazine, or in “Burden of Dreams” for that matter. I’d shot the behind-the-scenes for “Bad Lieutenant.” It was a very normal production. Nothing like “Burden of Dreams.” So to watch that production was just the most insane vision of a filmmaker being unrelenting in his will to create. Learning more about that was what we wanted to do. To find out how in God’s name anyone could do that.
Fitzcarraldo is that metonymic character that’s unwilling to give up on his dreams. Meeting Walter was the point in which all of these dreams coalesced into a very real person with a very real story. Fitzcarraldo is a mad dreamer. He’s willing to sacrifice everything in order to make his vision of an opera house. That metaphor of pulling the boat over the mountain is so integral to anyone making any creative effort. It’s that universal Sisyphean struggle.
Did the challenges of filmmaking and tourism complement or conflict with each other?
Pressman: There were the classic challenges any tourist faces, like getting lost, getting sick, losing things, getting in a fight… All these things happened numerous times. The only point of the trip that was defiantly challenging was a point that’s not actually in our film. At one point, we were stuck at the border of Peru and Colombia and met this large Haitian population that was stranded there without passports and couldn’t move. We had this revelation that, as tourists, we were so free to move, and here was this other population who couldn’t cross borders.
Luke Wigren: Every time something went wrong, it opened the door to something much better. We encountered this thing locals called “jungle time,” which means that time is swallowed up…. Everything that you want to happen won’t happen, and everything else will. Kids will steal your camera, but they should, because then you figure something else out.
Walter, what is your relationship to the filmmakers, and then to Herzog and Fitzcarraldo?
Walter Saxer: These guys got me out of bed at one in the morning. I was pissed. They were dressed in white suits, dirty as hell. They matched the characters in “Fitzcarraldo.”
I met Herzog in 1969. I got involved in his second film, on the Canary Islands. By accident, I got into film production. I sort of just decided I liked it and they took me with them to Germany, and two years later I came to Peru and made “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” which was an enormous challenge. We were nine people making a film. That film — I don’t know how — made it into Time Magazine’s List of 100 Best Films of All Time. I was in charge of production. It was more Klaus Kinski who made that film than Werner Herzog because Klaus didn’t allow anyone to direct him. He set the pace, the style, the high tension in that production. So it’s more his film than Werner’s film. Same thing with “Fitzcarraldo.” We started with a different actor, who was completely miscast…. Everyone knew it except Werner Herzog. We shot six weeks with that cast and it went from bad to worse. “Fitzcarraldo” was a disaster until we had Kinski in the film. It was Kinski who made Herzog. Without him, Herzog would be one of [many] directors.
Do you think Herzog knows this?
Saxer: Of course he knows it. But he hides it. But of course he knows it. Werner needs people to challenge him. Because he’s not very good at directing actors. He’s good at creating strange moments in strange places —
Pressman: But he’s a great model for a young filmmaker —
Saxer: But you need the craft. You must know the craft. Werner has a little bit of a problem. I mean, we didn’t know how to make these films at the beginning. I didn’t know. Werner didn’t know. Then we had Klaus Kinski who had made films all his life. Look at what he did in “Doctor Zhivago.” He knew it was his face that made the film.
Did Walter’s perspective on the production of “Fitzcarraldo” change your reverence for it?
Wigren: We don’t feel worthy of watching that boat go over the mountain anymore after listening to Walter talk about how much hard work it was.
Saxer: Certain things are too hard for me to watch. This was really hard work. Nobody believed it was going to be possible, not even the crew. They were betting when we were going to fail from day to day. We did it with a group of Peruvians. We did it. We worked seven days a week, 18-20 hours a day. “Fitzcarraldo” was one of the most difficult productions in movie history. I was working for three years without pay, and if we had failed, I would have lost everything.
But these movies are 33 years old, and they’re still being talked about. Now, films are being made for hundreds of millions of dollars and after two weeks nobody talks about them. It’s really incredible.
Did Herzog give you any advice before you went off to shoot?
Wigren: He gave us about an hour and a half’s worth of advice. We were just sitting there eating apricots from his tree, talking to him asking him questions about locations and people like Walter.
Pressman: He insisted that no one was still in Peru who would talk to us. He wouldn’t tell us anything.
Why would he do that?
Saxer: Because he was there. And that was enough for him. He wants people to think he’s done it all by himself. When he does interviews now, he says things like, “When I had the ship on top of that mountain,” as if he did it alone. He truly believes that it was only him.
Pressman: What we definitely agree with Walter on is that filmmaking is teamwork. It’s one of the only arts that is truly based in the work of a team. Anyway, Werner he told us a lot of practical things. How to hang a hammock. He’d circle a map and give us a notebook with directions to get to certain places that were out of the way. He told us to drink the river water and not use purifications tactics that only “New Age assholes” used. He said that if we saw piranhas, we should jump in and swim with them. We did all of this. We took his word as gospel.
And nothing crazy happened?
Pressman: We got sick. Luke got bit by a piranha.
Wigren: It was only a nibble.
How is this film going to change the way you approach filmmaking in the future?
Pressman: The lessons learned on a pure practical production standpoint were immense. It instilled a faith that you can accomplish what you want if you just believe and stick together and continue to work at it. In that sense, it gives me the confidence to go into the next project with the belief that we can do it. This was an experiment in whether you can find a film without a singular conceit. Maybe we succeeding in completing it, but it was very challenging. We had to find everything in the editing because of the chaos that production was.
Wigren: We didn’t go with a guide other than this idea of Herzog making “Fitzcarraldo,” and we built our film with the stresses of not knowing what we would find. I don’t think this film could be any other way. We didn’t want to go make a typical film. We wanted the stress of that organic creation.
Pressman: It’s organic. It’s like a river. One stream comes in and it meets another stream and becomes the Amazon.
How did you find the story in the editing process, then?
Wigren: We had a massive amount of footage — over 500 hours to sift through. We set about reliving our trip literally hour by hour.
Pressman: First, the three of us holed up in winter in a cabin and took the 500 hours down to twelve hours. Then we found an editor, Lambis Haralambidis. He took that twelve hours and brought it to five. Then we get together and started taking the ax and chopping off different parts of our film.
Wigren: Whittling it down was an excruciating experience.
Saxer: Editing is one of the most important parts of a film. I have problems with what happened with Werner on “Fitzcarraldo,” because it took us five years to make the film and Werner goes and edits the film in six weeks. It would have been much better for the film if Werner had taken the time. There was no need to rush that part of filmmaking. It did some harm to the film.
Pressman: That was the imperative that made us stick to the editing. Because of Walter, we did it the other way around. We also worked with an awesome sound designer named Will Patterson who just worked for four years on Terrence Malick’s films. He did a lot of conceptual work to make the soundscapes in the jungle have this surreal quality, to blend these two films because a lot of the images are about this parallelism between the movies. The sound was very integral to fusing everything.
Did working with Malick on previous films help inform your process?
Pressman: I worked on “Tree of Life.” It was just magical. It was like a little family. A fleeting, beautiful alliance to forge something meaningful. It was amazing, like a transcendental experience to be on the set.
Herzog and Malick both have this very unique naturalist intentionality to their process. It’s about creating the mood, creating the focus and having discipline, but not prescribing what the performance was supposed to be. Neither of them are really directing their actors into a performance. But Malick is so far on the other side of the spectrum in terms of his character. Malick is a complete recluse, and not at all driven by ego or championing who he is as an individual. It’s all about the art. Whereas Herzog is constantly placing himself into the engine. Malick is such a gentle poet.
So you employed this openness in your process?
Pressman: Yes. It’s Heideggerian. It’s letting go and staying open to the mystery.
The biggest lesson we took was when Werner said in a meeting with us that the mother of all challenges is to get your film seen in theater. To finally share this film has been so gratifying. The way audiences have responded, too.
What are audiences saying?
Pressman: Just like, “What the fuck, I don’t know what I just watched but I love it.”