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Werner Herzog’s Way of Life: How He Makes a Living and Why He Teaches Filmmaking

From his epic films to his tight budgets, the legendary director gives a tiny peek into what makes him a valuable resource for aspiring storytellers.

Werner Herzog

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Werner Herzog is not your average film school teacher. A self-taught director, his globe-trotting adventures and chaotic man-versus-nature dramas are not the easiest projects to transform into a curriculum, but that hasn’t stopped him from giving it a shot.

Whether it’s through his Rogue Film School or, most recently, as one of the A-list instructors featured on online learning empire MasterClass, Herzog has no interest in teaching the technical elements of moviemaking. The German-born filmmaker, whose career includes epics like “Fitzcarraldo” as well as idiosyncratic documentaries such as “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”  wants to create what he calls “soldiers of cinema,” and the path to victory can be stoking his students’ appetites for experiencing life.

READ MORE: 12 Things I Learned at Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School

He finds his lessons in obscure corners: Herzog touts Icelandic poetry for its ability to teach editing, and believes digging a hole in the ground contains more creative power than any app (more on that later). You might think some of this advice might carry just a teensy element of self-parody from the man who also delighted the world with his audiobook reading of would-be children’s book “Go The Fuck To Sleep.”

But that’s not the case, as his MasterClass clearly demonstrates. Watching Herzog across the 26 lectures in his course (with excellent production values, as always), you hear his passion. However, there’s real power in watching him explain how a set of “laconic, fragmentary, dense” poems can help unlock the mysteries of editing. And he clearly loves his work: as he breaks down Marlon Brando’s first scene in “Viva Zapata!”, Herzog’s Teutonic features transform into a vision of unfiltered delight. That alone may be worth the price of admission.

IndieWire spoke with Herzog earlier this week in Los Angeles.

You’ve been offering your own educational program through the Rogue Film School since 2009.

Probably. I haven’t counted the years. I do it very infrequently, very rarely, whenever I have time for doing it, and I have to announce it five months ahead of time. I have to know that I’m not under contract for doing anything, that I’m not shooting a film right now. Since I’m a working man, it’s sometimes not easy to settle on a date far in advance because I’m announcing and I get written applications and I also ask everyone to send a film. So for the Rogue Film School, it’s not just amateurs. They’re all, in a way, professionals already. I watch every single film, so I need my time to go through hundreds and hundreds of films each time I announce it.

How much of your film school is reflected in the MasterClass curriculum?

I think much of the content, yes. Although, the Rogue Film School has some completely wild and irreverent sort of content. How to, for example, pick a lock, how to forge a shooting permit and things like this, the MasterClass doesn’t do. Of course, in the Rogue Film School, you do have direct physical contact with a very small, select group of students who can immediately voice their problems, their obstructives, their questions. So it’s a different type, but the spirit of it is the same, although the Rogue school goes much, much wilder.

You’re very quick to point out in the MasterClass that not only did you not go to film school, you didn’t even know that movies were necessarily a thing until, I think you were, 11. And nowadays, we have a world where we literally have babies interacting with screens before they can walk. What do you think that means for the future of filmmaking?

Yeah, that’s a big question because we have to see the repercussions in the lives of the babies or the toddlers who are interacting with screens. So ask me this question in 2016. I still believe that children, instead of exploring the world through applications on cell phones, should dig a hole in the ground.

Literally dig a hole in the ground?

Yes. I mean what I am saying. Dig a hole in the ground. That’s how you examine the real world. Doing it through screens has certain dangers if you do not have the capability and conceptual thinking to create your filters. I believe that there will be a dangerous absence of filters in these children who are too young to explore the world only through the internet and through screens.

What do you think the risks are when you don’t develop the filters?

That you have no clue about the real world and you are not anchored in anything. There’s of course a huge danger.

And by the inverse of that, if you’re digging a hole in the ground, what’s that teaching you?

I don’t know. I’m just talking about… and strangely enough, the one who kept talking about this was Roger Ebert. Whenever I met him, he would discuss with me children who should dig a hole in the ground, find a tree and build themselves a treehouse.

To actually have some experience and not treat it as an abstract.

I just wanted to point out. I’m not the only one. Roger Ebert was a champion of children who should dig a hole in the ground. And he’s completely right, you don’t have to explain it any further.

Werner Herzog teaches a MasterClass

Werner Herzog teaches a MasterClass

courtesy of MasterClass

Today, we’re seeing many of the best and brightest filmmakers moving toward television and even blockbusters as their second act. Once they prove themselves in making personal films, they go on to make something for Marvel. What do you think of that?

Well, the results are very convincing. There are very, very good TV series and for the first time, filmmakers, me not included, but filmmakers have a chance to develop big, epic films — big, epic stories with ramifications and different strata in it. In other words, “War and Peace” by Tolstoy all of a sudden is possible again, but now in filmmaking because you have six years of… I don’t know, eight films per year, whole series. And some of the results are very convincing. It’s not the only thing we should do as filmmakers, but it is a fine possibility, no doubt.

So you it’s legitimate and a worthy thing to do?

Sure. Not for me, but I see a point.

Has anybody ever offered you that?

Yes, but the basic, big stories were not good enough.

What did you talk about doing?

I’m not going to give you details because these projects are still in search of filmmakers and I would diminish the possibilities. I’m not going to give you names.

Would you want to work on that kind of scale?

No. Not really. I’d rather make a big epic film that is just something like two hours and a few minutes long, like “Queen of the Desert” or “Fitzcarraldo.” I’ve covered epic filmmaking and I have done it in a format where I feel much more at home.

So if someone gives you $150 million for a film, that’d become essentially a corporate product.

Not necessarily. If you give me $150 million and never show up again [laughs], I would deliver something big and beautiful. But when you have to deal with a corporate world and every single line of dialogue has have the approval of a boardroom decision, then you are probably having too many limitations. And it becomes lifeless very easily. This is why all of these films, many of the big films that the industry creates, are very predictable and very much in a format that is ironclad. It’s not a kind of filmmaking for me.

How do you make a living these days?

Oh, it’s the same way. I live a risky life, doing projects that are unusual and quite often or not in the ephemeral trends of the day, but I have always survived somehow. And I do other things in filmmaking. I have earned some money as an actor, as a villain. I have done some teaching. I have done, for example, an art installation, which was at the Whitney Museum and it was followed up by the Getty. It’s called Hearsay of the Soul.

I could always make money, let’s say, as a chef.

Are you a good chef?

Yes, but my program is very limited. I’m very lousy with soups. I’m lousy with sweet things. I’m lousy with quite a few things, but things I do, I do well.

What do you do well?

Fish, meat, solid peasant food. What was considered peasant food 100 years ago today has become very high level sort of cooking.

What advice would you have for filmmakers in terms of how to make a living, how to continue their work?

Nobody has an answer to that. I only survive because I’ve had a long-term survival, meaning that film directors normally have a shelf life of many 14, 15 years and it has hit the strongest of the strong. D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, many others. You just see it all around. So I think it’s not just making a living. The question is, how can you make a long-term living? I’m going very, very deep into this question in my MasterClass. That means you have to start longer-term relationships with producers or actors or financiers, and you always have to think with their minds as well.

I brought in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” with Nicolas Cage well under budget… way, way, way under budget. And for that, I had a clause in my contract that I was allowed to look into the daily cash flow. Each day after shooting, I would sit with the line producer and accountant and look where did problems emerge. I saw it quickly and before they were full blown, I stopped them and that made it possible. All of a sudden, the producer Avi Lerner, a big Israeli former officer and a bear of a man, wanted to marry me.

That would totally make Avi Lerner want to marry you.

And you’ll see that it’s not just making a living, it’s making a long-term survival in living and a lot of that, you can see in the MasterClass. I’m a regular hard-working person and I work pretty fast. I’ve done four films in the last 12 months.

Four in the last 12 months?

Yeah. Well, there’s one I have to release, which shouldn’t count. “Queen of the Desert,” which hasn’t been shown here yet, but I’ve done a feature film, “Salt and Fire,” and I’ve done a film about the internet, “Lo and Behold,” and I’ve done… well, the MasterClass, I count as something almost like a film. I’ve done a film on volcanoes and I am writing a screenplay for a future film, so it’s all overlapping and going very quickly.

READ MORE: Werner Herzog Artificial Intelligence Simulator ‘WernerBot’ Lets You ‘Talk’ to the Director Directly

Do you get more pleasure from doing documentaries or features?

It comes as it comes. I like it all. For me, it’s all movies.

What inspires you to pursue a documentary versus pursuing a screenplay?

It’s always the subject, the story. I saw that there was something big when I was invited to do some tiny little films with YouTube on the internet. And on day 2 of shooting, I sensed there was something really big out there and I should go much deeper and do a much bigger, wider, feature length documentary.

And that became “Lo and Behold”?

Yes. But nobody expected it. It just stumbled into me and I’m a curious person. For example, “Grizzly Man,” the moment I heard about the story and stumbled into it, I knew this was big and I had to do it.

Is that a strange feeling when you get that click moment of, “This is a thing I have to do”?

Yeah, as a storyteller, you can tell. You know it right away. It’s not even a click moment. You sense it five miles against the wind. You sniff it.

We just did an interview with Charlie Kaufman out of Karlovy Vary and he said something interesting. He said he tends to run a set like he’s hosting a party, even though he thinks that could hurt the quality of the movie. This is the quote: “I’m not Werner Herzog. I’m not that guy and I’m never going to be that guy.” It got me wondering, what kind of set do you run?

It doesn’t matter what kind of set you are running. The only thing that counts is if your film is any good or not. You see, you can have a drunk party and you can create a wonderful film out of it. For me, and the MasterClass goes into very much detail, it’s a very focused set. No cell phones in the vicinity of the camera. Yes, you can use a cell phone, but move 200 feet away. Then, it’s fine. And it eliminates those who are not interested in what’s going on anyway, people who are not focused.

So there are certain, simple set rules that allow everybody to focus on what you have to do. Otherwise, it’s very quiet, very relaxed, almost like open-heart surgery. You are very focused, basically whispers, you go for the heart and you do not give a pedicure to the person at the same time. You better do the essentials.

And because of that, and since I see very clearly what I am going to shoot and see what I need for the screen, I hardly ever shoot what they call coverage. And because of that, my shooting days are normally over at 3, 3:30, 4 instead of 7. I’ve never, ever been overtime in any of my movies in my life. Not a single hour overtime. It makes everybody nervous because today there is this attitude of ‘collect as much material from all angles’ and you take the decisions where they shouldn’t be, down the line in post-production. Bad acting you cannot correct in post-production, for example. So, it’s focused, quiet, and very pleasant to work. Everybody who works with me always remembers it as very, very pleasant shoots.

And it sounds like you keep the budget in line as well.

In 70 films, I never went over budget. In six films I think, I went under budget. Six or seven films, and in some of them significantly.

Was that an effort of the discipline you bring to the production process, a financial awareness, or was it a combination of the two?

It’s a combination of everything, even more than that. But I had to produce my early films myself and I know the value of money. The first featurettes I did, I worked while I was in high school. I worked night shifts as welder in a steel factory and when you work all night long and are in school during the day, you know the value of every single dollar that you have made. You know the responsibility. So, that has been an element that has guided me into a more long-term survival as a filmmaker as well.

That seems to also go back to the value of digging the hole in the ground in terms of just knowing what things are.

[laughs] Probably as well, yes.


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