Werner Herzog Interview

Werner Herzog talks about The Bliss of Evil, inventing cinema and having no hobbies.

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The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Credit: Millenium Films
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You should probably drop everything and familiarize yourself with the films of Werner Herzog. Here are five reasons that people who really know movies go bananas for this guy.

  • He grew up in a home without electricity and didn’t even know a thing called the Movies  existed until he was an early teen. He stole his first camera because he felt he “had a right to own it.”
  • After barely surviving a location shoot in the Amazon for Aguirre: The Wrath of God, he returned for the even more strenuous (and dangerous) Fitzcarraldo.
  • He has made three “science fiction” films comprised of found/repurposed footage. The Wild Blue Yonder incorporates film from underwater Antarctic dives, Lessons of Darkness uses images of burning Kuwaiti oil fields and Fata Morgana is, basically, a bunch of crazy-ass stuff Herzog shot without permits or a plan in the Sahara.
  • Days before the camera rolled on The Enigma of Kasper Hauser he had no leading man, until he met a mentally deranged street musician named Bruno S. Bruno S. was nearly impossible to work with, concerned more with stealing things from the set than actually acting. Herzog later cast him in the starring role of Stroszek
  • With the exception of one scene in front of giant stoves, all of the acting done in the film Heart of Glass was under hypnosis.

This friday sees the release of what could be his most mainstream film ever, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Yes, that's the full title, no, it isn't a sequel to the Harvey Keitel film and, most importanly, I loved it.

I lived a movie lover's dream and got to talk to the man face to face recently.  Here are some highlights.

If you've seen Grizzly Man, you know all about Herzog's slow, thick accent.  Please do your best to play that in your mind - it makes this all the more fun.

Jordan Hoffman: Outside in the hall, all the movie geeks lined up to talk to you are just giddy. Why is it that critics love you?

Werner Herzog:  It is not correct. I’ve had only bad reviews. One thousand four hundred people at the Berlin Film Festival howled in disgust at Lessons of Darkness. When I walked out of the theater I was spat on by at least one hundred people. Aguirre: The Wrath of God had very bad reviews, too.

Jordan Hoffman: Well, okay, let me re-word that. Film enthusiasts, cineastes, people who consider movies their hobby, people who collect DVDs and Blu-rays, this group of people are all rabid fans, whether it is your documentaries, your features, your short subjects, there is near total agreement within this group.

Werner Herzog: I think my films are for a wider basis than just film enthusiasts. I think, in a way, I have been mainstream all my life. However it was more the secret mainstream. Today, for example, Aguirre: The Wrath of God is a household name film – but it took forty years.

Jordan Hoffman: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is certainly the most mainstream thing you’ve done. However, for some audiences, perhaps those who come to it thinking it may be similar to the TV show Law and Order, it is very unconventional,  and they may be confused, disoriented.

Werner Herzog: Nobody feels disoriented in my films. I think what comes across more clearly in this film is how much humor is in it. Although you can not name it. It is not slap stick. It is not Eddie Murphy. And yet it is hilarious.

Jordan Hoffman: Did you discuss this a lot with Nicolas Cage?

Werner Herzog: Never. I only said things to him when he asked, “Why is he so bad? Is it the drugs, is it Katrina?” I said, “No Nicolas, we go for one thing: that there is something called the Bliss of Evil. The more vile and debased it gets, the more you enjoy yourself.”

Jordan Hoffman: Does Nicolas Cage’s character think of himself as a moral character?

Werner Herzog: I never thought about that. No. There is just a fine story. And, of course, it is a different step in film noir. It is not an all-pervading human and social abyss like an oppressive dark shade over a whole film. There is great joy in this film.

Jordan Hoffman: I find myself returning to your films when I am in a quiet, contemplative state. Maybe late at night if everyone else is asleep I may put on Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Lessons of Darkness or Where Green Ants Dream or The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner or Wild Blue Yonder. Are there films that you turn to when you are in a meditative mood?

Werner Herzog: No, no. I move on.

Jordan Hoffman: I don’t mean of your own work, I mean others.

Werner Herzog: I hardly see films. I see maybe two films each year.

Jordan Hoffman: How is that true? You are always at festivals, you don’t see the other films?

Werner Herzog: I was in Venice for three days and had not one moment to watch another film. I was in Toronto for one day and a half, and I had no time to watch anything.

Jordan Hoffman: You don’t watch DVDs or Blu-rays at home?

Werner Herzog: I don’t like DVDs. I watch DVDs only when it comes to casting. I watch a two minute excerpts of an actress from different roles compiled to ten minutes. I need it for that. But I do not watch movies on DVDs.

Jordan Hoffman: You prefer the theater?

Werner Herzog: Yes, but I hardly ever go to theaters. In a way, it has to do with the fact that I had to create cinema as if I were the inventor of cinema itself. Because I hardly saw any films in my youth.

Jordan Hoffman: You grew up in a home without electricity, correct?

Werner Herzog: We had no running water and no toilet. We had an out house. No phone, no radio. We had some electricity.

Jordan Hoffman: Well, it is funny, I suppose, that there are some filmmakers who live and breathe movies. They watch the classics, they root out new films.

Werner Herzog: Yes, Scorsese is like this.

Jordan Hoffman: You get inspiration through literature? Through nature? Through music?

Werner Herzog: I don’t know.

Jordan Hoffman: Meditating?

Werner Herzog: No. I am not into that. I like people. I don’t like Americans who meditate. I like the ones who think and come up with a coherent argument. But, let’s face it, Scorsese and Tarantino, who watch two films a day, they are wonderful filmmakers. So it does not matter.

Jordan Hoffman: Of course, I suppose I’m just curious about you. What are your hobbies?

Werner Herzog: I have no hobbies.

Jordan Hoffman: Come on. Gardening?

Werner Herzog: No.

Jordan Hoffman: Wood working?

Werner Herzog: No. How can I say? But thanks God I am stepping out of directing movies soon because I write - [my recent book] The Conquest of the Useless will certainly outlive all my films– and I act as a paid stooge in other directors’ movies. I opened a film school. I stage operas. So it is not that I am sticking day and night to moviemaking. But I am not a workaholic, even though in the last eleven months I made three films, staged an opera, released the book Conquest of the Useless and I started the film school. However, shooting days with Nicolas Cage were over sometimes at 2 PM. I never went into overtime.

Jordan Hoffman: I’ve heard you say that when you make a film you constantly strive to find a “new image” with each scene. Some of the previous stories have been so unique this has never been a problem, but with this, with a police procedural, there are some standard scenes you simply have to have – like the police interrogations. You have a desk. You have a person on either side. How did you approach this problem?

Werner Herzog: It is a stereotypical scene that you see every day in a detective drama. However, at arm’s length, outside the window and there is a freeway, and silently the cars are swishing by and you do not hear them. We had special glass – a second and third layer of glass – it was very carefully planned. And you have never seen iguanas at a stakeout, or a dancing soul or fish dreaming, have you?

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is in theaters November 20th.

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