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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

This past March Black Factory Cinema hosted a 10-day workshop with Werner Herzog at the facilities of the International School of Cinema and Television (EICTV) in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. Over the course of the workshop, 50 students from around the world made short films under the guidance and supervision of one of the most interesting and unconventional filmmakers working today. IndieWire reached out to eight of the participants to find out what they learned.

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: Here’s Your Chance to Go to Cuba to Make a Movie with Werner Herzog

Don’t Call Him a Teacher (At Least Not to His Face)

Corey Hughes (Baltimore, MD): “On the first day of the workshop, Herzog came into the Masterclass and told us he had nothing to teach us. That you must go out and figure things out for yourself; that in filmmaking and in life you are totally and completely alone.”

Katja Lautamatti (Helsinki, Finland): “He is a poet. Such things as his intuition and anarchism are things that he cannot transmit to his pupils in a mechanistic way. And I think he’s aware of this: he is not a teacher in the conventional sense. I guess he does not believe in this kind of hierarchy and as he has said in many occasions, is openly against film schools. Instead he tried to encourage us, cultivate anarchism and courage and sensitivity.”

Werner Herzog helping a student in Cuba.

Werner Herzog helping a student in Cuba.

Guillem Manzanares

Carlos Eduardo Lesmes López (Tallinn, Estonia): “We came out from the auditorium and another classmate asked him for a picture and he agreed, so we were all standing, ready for the photo. But, as I was standing in front of Werner, I bent down my knees, so he would be more clear in the shot. Then I heard him from behind me saying, ‘Never make yourself shorter.’ I stood straight and kind of ruined my colleagues photo, but I think that was the best advice, in filmmaking and life. Just never make yourself shorter.

Angels Melange (Barcelona, Spain): “He continuously talked about being a ‘Soldier of Cinema,’ but that really translates to life. Being capable of sacrificing little things for a higher reason, being smart enough to forget your limits and just go for what gives you breath to live.”

Lautamatti: “I am a doctoral student in film and with Herzog we were also discussing the problem of mixing theory and art. He told me to stay away from theory, and seminars. If this was not possible I should compensate by making many, many films: 120 films a year was the prescription.”

“Chance is the Lifeblood of Cinema”

Hughes: “Herzog talked about the importance of filmmakers to travel on foot. By traveling on foot you are experiencing environments in a much different way — a way in which you are forced to be self-reliant and face things alone, but allow more of the rawness of nature into your life and hopefully into your films.”

Werner Herzog Filmmaking School in Cuba

Max Barbakow filming Cuba


Max Barbakow (Los Angeles): “He constantly preached ‘conspiring’ with characters and ‘inventing’ scenarios. With a challenge like going to Cuba, finding a story, and making a short true to the place all in under two weeks, this advice proved invaluable as it fostered a connection with my surroundings and helped me engage with the setting. Filmmaking – especially writing – can be a lonely, arduous process where self-isolation in the pursuit of flow and creativity is justifiable. Not with Werner. Rather than working from the inside out, he works from the outside in, giving up control and being open to the life around him.”

Lautamatti: “He talked about being in conspiracy with the actors/main characters… Regarding problems with my film, [he] suggested that one of the problems was that of casting, of finding the right people who will ‘play the game.’ Herzog said something like he ‘sees into people’s hearts.’ I think he was talking about being present and trusting one’s intuition when meeting someone.”

READ MORE: Here’s What It’s Like to Make A Short Film with Abbas Kiarostami in 10 Days

López: “[My] film is about a typhoon that takes away all the pigs, leaving only one behind. He first told me that the key for my film was to find a ‘really smart pig, a fucking smart pig.'”

On Nonfiction: “You Are a Filmmaker, Not a Garbage Collector”

Hendrik Faller (London, UK): “He told me that no matter if you are making a documentary or not, if you need to make stuff up to tell the story, then do it!

Barbakow: “[I learned] being a fly on the wall is the stupidest idea. It is like a security camera filming a bank for 14 years without ever seeing a single robbery. ‘What you must do is be the hornet that stings.’ And: ‘You are a filmmaker, not a garbage collector.'”

Werner Herzog in Cuba

Werner Herzog in Cuba

Black Factory Cinema

Lautamatti: “What also seems ‘crazy’ is his method of interviewing: he does very little research and very short interviews. It seems to me he has a very strong intuitive side, which he is not afraid of using. As Herzog said at the Q&A in the Cineteca Cubana, one of his assets is his profound confidence.”

Faller: “I asked him about his interview techniques and he told me that choosing how to interview an individual required one ‘to know the heart of men,’ then he added, ‘but that I cannot teach you.’ I understood that to mean I should use my instinct… if I had any. The next day, I was interviewing a carpenter father and son. I had 20 minutes, had never met them before, and was supposed to make a film about carpentry. In the first five minutes I realized they had a special relationship, so instead of asking ‘how do you build a chair,’ I asked ‘how long have you known your son?’ At first the question baffled the father, but then he smiled wide and slapped his son on the back and said, ‘I’ve known him 17 years. He’s my son… but I couldn’t be there the day he was born because…’ I knew with that question I had found a story… Before meeting Werner I would have made a boring film about carpentry.”

This story continues on the next page.

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