Werner Herzog is regarded as one of our greatest living film directors, and recently gave an intimate insight into his thought processes when creating some of his masterpieces.
Although many people will know only his distinctive German accent from his many narration sequences, he is widely recognised as a visionary filmmaker, writer, author and actor, having created such masterpieces as Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo, Little Dieter Needs to Fly and the upcoming Queen of the Desert. Often his films have a bleak tone and deal with people facing overwhelming challenges.
He is about to release a training series on Filmmaking at www.masterclass.com and as part of that he recently took part in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit. He answered questions on a whole slew of subjects, especially the thoughts behind people’s favorite films, and his creative process.
Here I have collected some of his answers which I believe can teach everyone about what goes on inside the mind of a true creative genius.
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You once stated that to be a film maker one should read, read, read, read, read, read. In another instance, you said one should walk across Europe. I am surprised that you have made up a series of video lessons about film making. What can these videos provide that reading and walking cannot?
Well, I would say, reading is some kind of essential prerequisite to everything you do. Whether you are a scientist or a filmmaker, or just a normal human being working in a more “normal” profession. I cannot argue much about it. Read, read, read, read, read. The other side, traveling on foot, nobody does it and what I said will disappear into thin air any moment from now. Traveling on foot has actually given me insight into the world itself. The world reveals itself to one who travel on foot. I can give you one example, you start to understand the heart of men. I was, for a film, at the Johnson Space Center and had to take to five astronauts who had done a space mission in a space shuttle. I wanted to persuade them to be extras in the film in a very strange way. They were sitting in a semi circle when I was taken in and my heart sank that I didn’t know “what should I say? what should I do?” I looked around and looked into their faces and all of a sudden I had the feeling, I understand these people. I understand the heart of these men and these women. I said “since I was a child, when I learned how to milk a cow with my own hands, I can tell that since I’ve traveled on foot and in the meadow first you milk a cow to have something to drink. I know by looking at faces, who is able to milk a cow.” I looked at the pilot and said “you sir!” and he burst out in smiles and says “yes, I can milk a cow.” Somehow when you make films, you understand the heart of men. In a way you cannot learn it, the world has to teach you. The world does it in it’s most intense and deepest way when you when you encounter it by traveling on foot.
I’d like to add that when I travel by foot, I don’t do it as a backpacker where you take all your household items with you, your tent, your sleeping bag, your cooking utensils. I travel without any luggage and I do not travel, let’s say, the specific trail 2000 miles which is marked. I do traveling for very intense quests in my life. I do that on foot.
Focusing on an idea seems to be the hardest thing for me and I’m sure others.. Is there any method or practice you use to help get focused on one idea to pursue for a picture?
That’s hard to answer, because I do not follow ideas; I stumble into stories, or I stumble into people who all of the sudden, the situation makes it clear that this is so big, I have to make a film. Very often, films come with uninvited guests, I keep saying like burglars in the middle of the night. They’re in your kitchen, something is stirring, you wake up at 3 AM and all of the sudden they come wildly swinging at you.
So, I try to–it’s not focusing on ideas, but I know exactly what the problem this is. Once you have an idea, it wouldn’t help to sit down and keep brooding, brooding, brooding…just live on but keep it in the back of your mind all the time. Keep connecting little bits and pieces that belong to it. Sometimes it’s only a word, sometimes half a line of dialogue, sometimes an image that you squiggle down. And when it kind of in this way materializes, then press yourself with urgency.
When I write a screenplay, I write it when I have a whole film in front of my eyes, and it’s very easy for me, and I can write very, very fast. It’s almost like copying. But of course sometimes I push myself; I read myself into a frenzy of poetry, reading Chinese poets of the 8th and 9th century, reading old Icelandic poetry, reading some of the finest German poets like Hölderlin. All of this has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of my film, but I work myself up into this kind of frenzy of high-caliber language and concepts and beauty.
And then sometimes I push myself by playing music; in my place it would be, for example, a piano concerto, and I play it and I type on my laptop furiously. But all of it is not a real answer, how do you focus on single idea; I think you have to depart sometimes, and keep it all the time alive somehow.
With the advent of HD camcorders and DSLRs, do you feel the market is oversaturated, or that there are more talented filmmakers being discovered?
That’s an interesting concept and question. Has photography very subtly improved because we do have 3.5 billion people who use their cell phones and take photos and all sorts of things? I don’t believe that the art of photography has improved much. It’s the same thing as its value in filmmaking. I do not believe that we have found the completely hidden unknowns who all of the sudden, who through a cheap digital cameras, make their movies. They would emerge no matter what, whether they have a cell phone or a video camera.
However, I must say, we have seen some good surprises, and sometimes you see them on Youtube of all places. But not really that it has advanced the art of filmmaking much.
When you remade Nosferatu in 1979 did you have any qualms or anxieties with re-making such an iconic piece of cinema history? And how did you approach such a process?
Nosferatu is a vampire film loosely based on the film by Murnau, a film made in 1922, and it’s one of the scariest and most beautiful silent films that you can ever see.
Now, for me as a young German filmmaker, growing up I was raised in a generation after the Second World War. We had no father figures. Our cinema fathers and our real fathers were all caught in the barbarism of the Nazi regime, and the best ones either were murdered or they were exiled, and Murnau was one of those. And I had the feeling, since we had no fathers and since we were orphans, I was an orphan in the flow of cultural history in Germany. There was something interrupted, and that was barbarism. I wanted to connect to the generation of the grandfathers. And for me having connected with the film, Nosferatu, I had the feeling all of the sudden that I had solid ground under my feet. This is why I feel thankful now of anything connecting, I’m going to do alright.
If it is possible to put into words, I would like to ask you how you feel your fundamental philosophy towards creating a moving picture has changed from when you started, to your more recent creations?
Well, I started very early. In fact when I was a teenager–and you have to understand that I had no background in cinema–in other words I saw my first film when I was 11, when a traveling projectionist arrived at the schoolhouse in the mountains in Bavaria. I didn’t even know that cinema existed until I was 11, so I didn’t see many films, and I started very early to make my own films. It’s an odd thing.
Of course I grew up with my own films. As a teenager, as a young kid, I made my first film when I was 19. By the way, I made my first phone call when I was 17. Nobody can believe it nowadays. And when you’re 19, and now at my age, I have worked in the profession half a century now, of course you grow up and you change, and you still…I must say, I don’t recognize my voice. I do still recognize my worldview. Very basic things have never really changed. A certain combative attitude helped too; my type of film projects have never changed.
But of course when you see my most recent films, you would instantly see that it’s a film by Werner Herzog. You could tell. But I have not trodden the same path all through my life. I have not made Aguirre 2, 3, 4, or 5, or Fitzcarraldo 6, 7, 8, or 12. And yet, there’s something very coherent in my filmmaking.
What tips would you give to amateur filmmakers?
Well give me six hours non-stop and I would wait. In this case I would advise connect with masterclass.com and take a look yourself. It’s got hundred and dozens of tricks and practical advice in there. Let me give you one thing in general, find your own voice and don’t be afraid of doing it because there is no such thing as amateur film making. You are making films for others, not just for your family to for your siblings. Make your films for a wider audience. You will find a platform on the internet, don’t be afraid, just go for it. Maintain your own identity as a filmmaker.
You’ve covered everything from the prehistoric Chauvet Cave to the impending overthrow of not-so-far-off futuristic artificial intelligence. What about humankind’s history/capability terrifies you the most?
It’s a difficult question, because it encompasses almost all of human history so far. What is interesting about this paleolithic cave is that we see with our own eyes the origins, the beginning of the modern human soul. These people were like us, and what their concept of art was, we do not really comprehend fully. We can only guess.
And of course now today, we are into almost futuristic moments where we create artificial intelligence and we may not even need other human beings anymore as companions. We can have fluffy robots, and we can have assistants who brew the coffee for us and serve us to the bed, and all these things. So we have to be very careful and should understand what basic things, what makes us human, what essentially makes us into what we are. And once we understand that, we can make our educated choices, and we can use our inner filters, our conceptual filters. How far would we use artificial intelligence? How far would we trust, for example into the logic of a self-driving car? Will it crash or not if we don’t look after the steering wheel ourselves?
So, we should make a clear choice, what we would like to preserve as human beings, and for that, for these kinds of conceptual answers, I always advise to read books. Read read read read read! And I say that not only to filmmakers, I say that to everyone. People do not read enough, and that’s how you create critical thinking, conceptual thinking. You create a way of how to shape your life. Although, it seems to elude us into a pseudo-life, into a synthetic life out there in cyberspace, out there in social media. So it’s good that we are using Facebook, but use it wisely.
It may be hard to describe but what feelings passed between you and Kinski, deep in the Peruvian jungle when you had found out he had shot a gun towards the hut where your cast and crew were? [Editor: This refers to Klaus Kinski during the filming of the 1982 film Fitcarraldo, who later turned out to have a lot of skeletons in his closet, and who’s relationship Herzog detailed in My Best Fiend]
There’s not much feeling you can allow yourself. The fact was that the excess deep in the jungle, after work, it was a tough day at work, played cards, we had some beer, we drank beer and we were laughing. Kinsky couldn’t take it. He was on a hill nearby, all alone, and he wanted to have his absolute quiet around him. He screamed and yelled, and fired three shots from his Winchester. That’s a serious, serious, weapon. Bullets went through these very thin bamboo walls of the hut but nobody got killed because about 40 extras were pretty much crammed in this one hut. He didn’t kill anyone, he only shot the middle finger away from one of the guys. There’s no feeling, there’s no thinking, I just rushed and wrestled the gun away from Kinsky and that was that. I actually still have it and it’s one of my prized possessions. Take him to the crowd and take the rifle from him, no feelings, no thinkings, nothing. Just stop that bozo.
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