Your film is like your children. You might want a child with certain qualities, but you are never going to get the exact specification right. The film has a privilege to live its own life and develop its own character. To suppress this is dangerous. It is an approach that works the other way too: sometimes the footage has amazing qualities that you did not expect. -Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog listened to the audio tape that records the last moments of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard as they’re killed by grizzly bears. Contrary to some beliefs, he never owned the tape. It is owned by one of Timothy’s friends who has never listened to it. However, out of respect for the late couple, Herzog declined to feature it in the film although there is a scene with Herzog listening to the footage.
1. Always take the initiative. 2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need. 3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. 4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief. 5. Learn to live with your mistakes. 6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. 7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. 8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. 9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere. 10. Thwart institutional cowardice. 11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. 12. Take your fate into your own hands. 13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape. 14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory. 15. Walk straight ahead, never detour. 16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver. 17. Don’t be fearful of rejection. 18. Develop your own voice. 19. Day one is the point of no return. 20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class. 21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema. 22. Guerrilla tactics are best. 23. Take revenge if need be. 24. Get used to the bear behind you.
“Werner Herzog—A Guide for the Perplexed” by Paul Cronin
It’s only since dropping Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss that Werner Herzog became a staple of conversation between you and your friends. Before that, he was just the award-winning, critically acclaimed father of modern European cinema—the man who lugged a 320-ton boat over a hill in the Peruvian rainforest and cooked and ate his own shoe for a short documentary.
This month, Faber published A Guide for the Perplexed, a compendium of conversations between Herzog and the writer Paul Cronin. As a testament from one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers, it reads almost as self-help. “Get used to the bear behind you,” he tells us, ostensibly referring to the ambition and drive to create, but equally evoking images of Timothy Treadwell, a.k.a. Grizzly Man. I’m putting my neck out and saying it’s the best book I’ve read all year.
I caught up with Herzog on the phone last week, and we spoke about films, football, WrestleMania, and the loathsome trend of children’s yoga classes.
Werner Herzog at his home in Los Angeles
VICE: I’ve just finished reading A Guide for the Perplexed. Have you had a chance to read it? Werner Herzog: Yes, I did when we were looking through the entire text for corrections. We left no stone unturned.
Is it strange reading yourself back? I took a professional distance to it because I think it is unwise to stare at your own navel. Now it’s out for the readers. I’m plowing on with a lot of projects, so don’t worry about me.
What are you working on at the moment? I’m finishing Queen of the Desert, I’m preparing three feature films, and I am doing my rogue film school at the end of this week.
Can you explain a bit more about the rogue film school? I can explain it easily. For 20 to 25 years there has been a steady avalanche of young filmmakers coming at me who wanted to be my assistant, or who wanted to learn from me or be in my team. And this has grown rapidly in numbers. For example, a few years ago, when I did a conversation on stage at the Royal Albert Hall—which has something close to 3,000 seats—it was sold out in minutes. And of these 3,000 people, there were at least 2,000 who would have liked to work with me. So I tried to give a systematic answer to this onslaught. The rogue film school can happen 50 times a year or once a year. I just need a projector. I could feasibly do it in the middle of the desert.
Writer and academic W.G. Sebald once said: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” In truth, an animal understands nothing of its place in the world, their mind focused merely on food and the prospect of comfort, if available. In cinema, there is an old actor’s adage that states: “Never work with children or animals. They will always upstage you.” When an animal performs successfully in a film, it’s undeniably captivating because we know that animal is unaware of its role in the overall story. The camera has recorded some beautiful cosmic miracle, appearing from the outside to somehow defy Sebald’s words.
Whether fictional friend or foe, the relationship between humans and animals in cinema has always captured our imaginations. These sometimes expand beyond the borders of the normal, and, beyond the Bourgeoisie pooper-scoopers and barked-out cry conveying that some hapless child has fallen down a well, these relationships can become a little unusual.