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Interview

Going Rogue With Werner Herzog

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Going Rogue With Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog is the kind of daring director who shoots his documentaries ("Encounters at the End of the World," "Grizzly Man," "Little Dieter Needs to Fly") like narrative films and his narrative films ("Rescue Dawn," "Fitzcarraldo," "Aguirre: The Wrath of God") like documentaries. Forever chasing what he calls "ecstatic truth," Herzog shoots fast, captures only what he needs, and incorporates locals. He dislikes rehearsing and refuses to storyboard ("It's an instrument for the cowards who don't trust in their imagination").

So when Herzog cast the glamorous Eva Mendes as the prostitute-love interest in his refreshingly hilarious take on the tired cop genre, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," he was not so welcoming with the demands made by her business manager, agent, and attorney. "She was apologetic and said, 'Yeah, they demand the star treatment.' I said to her, 'Eva, nobody in my film is going to be a star. Not one. But whoever steps in front of my camera is royalty. And that includes not only Nicolas Cage; it includes an extra in the background," says the Academy Award-nominated director. "Whoever is on my screen is royalty."

German-born Herzog has the distinction of being the only director to shoot professional films on every continent, including Antarctica. Out of his 50-plus films, he has never once gone over schedule or over budget, even coming in under budget four times. "I was $2.6 million under budget on ['Bad Lieutenant'], and now the producer wants to marry me," jokes Herzog, who shot three films, staged an opera in Spain, and published a book, "Conquest of the Useless," this past year.

"It sounds as if I'm a workaholic, but I'm not," he says. "I work quietly and steadily." In "Bad Lieutenant," out Nov. 20, Nicolas Cage gives his strongest performance since "Adaptation." As Terence, Cage terrorizes prostitutes, gangsters, and little old ladies, wielding his "lucky crack pipe" as often as his gun. The bizarre story is mesmerizing because Herzog puts his signature on every frame. Herzog likes to keep the cameras rolling beyond the script and punctuates the story, as he often does in other films, with hallucinogenic close-ups of wildlife like iguanas, fish, and alligators.

"I think we always sensed that there was a dark, subversive humor in the screenplay. As vile and debased the character gets, the more he should enjoy himself, so there's such a thing as 'the bliss of evil,' and then it creates a strange humor. People laughed and responded, which is wonderful to see," he explains. "Nicolas Cage very often had complete liberty, like in jazz music, to have his own voice, to improvise, so those are real, convincing moments in the film."

Cage Match

Cage says his first collaboration with Herzog was "a perfect marriage" and credits the director with having the "guts to let me do it." Herzog used a Bavarian proverbial saying to clue in Cage on the more gonzo moments. "I would say, 'This is the scene where you should turn the pig loose,' " Herzog says proudly. Cage more than obliged, even calling his performance in "Bad Lieutenant" impressionistic versus his photorealistic Oscar-winning performance in "Leaving Las Vegas."

"A lot of people like to say things like 'over the top.' You can't say that about other art forms. You can't say 'over the top' with a Picasso or a Van Gogh, and why can't it be the same with acting?" challenges Cage, whose character does coke, crack, and heroin in the film. "And so when I think about it in those terms, 'Leaving Las Vegas,' yeah, I had a couple drinks. I wanted to. I had some prescribed scenes where I said, 'I'm going to get drunk and anything goes,' and I'm glad I did it. But with 'Bad Lieutenant,' I say that this is impressionistic because I was totally sober and I was looking at a landscape from over 20 years ago, and I wasn't sure I could do it. It was a challenge, but I believe that the filter of my instrument would give you something more exciting because it was impressionistic."

Herzog used casting director Johanna Ray on this film and his next film "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done," both of which feature Michael Shannon ("Revolutionary Road") and Brad Dourif ("Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"). "She has the wisdom that very few in this profession have, and she understands casting the way I always understood it," Herzog says of Ray. "Casting has always to do not just with casting a role; it means casting a texture. I would see seven actors for one role, and every single one of them was excellent." The classic Herzog player was Klaus Kinski, whose ferocious talent matched his ferocious temper. The two collaborated only five times, but in a way they defined each other artistically. Herzog explored his relationship with Kinski in the documentary "My Best Fiend." He loves actors who have a great, lasting presence onscreen. For instance, when Shea Whigham ("All the Real Girls") auditioned to play a small part, Herzog was not initially impressed.

"Then I had this spontaneous idea. Let's try once more, and I want him to be defiant. Whatever is thrown at him, whatever insult, he would say, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,' and all of a sudden, this man transformed himself into a fantastic character. He was immediately on board. He's so wonderful that you pray and hope to see him again in the movie. And when you do, everybody is kind of applauding. He's a quintessential wonderful surprise during auditions. And they do happen," recalls Herzog, who also cast Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, and Val Kilmer in "Bad Lieutenant."

Hanging With Lynch

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" is based on a real San Diego man who stabbed and killed his mother with an antique saber. The film, executive-produced by David Lynch, will be released in December and boasts yet another quirky, solid ensemble of actors. So did the two iconic filmmakers do much on-set bonding?

"There's no real bonding," Herzog says, smiling. "David Lynch is involved but not as a direct player. He felt proud to present the film and have a little bit of eye from the distance of the production. I had the feeling that, yes, this is a fine way to connect not really forces but connect a common spirit." Herzog remembers how much he loved Lynch's "Eraserhead" when he first saw it at a midnight screening; he even told his good friend Mel Brooks about it afterward.

" 'There's a phenomenal talent out there. You must see the film. The name of this director is David Lynch,' I said. And Mel just laughs hard and opens the door and says, 'Do you want to meet David Lynch? I'm producing his film ["The Elephant Man"].' We walked a few doors down, and he opened the door, and there's David Lynch. So that's how we met. Of course, we kept an eye on each other's work for a long time and respect each other very, very deeply. It's strange because we are so different in character and so different in our private lives. It almost looks like a contradiction, but it is not."

Herzog isn't just making films. For more than 20 years, aspiring filmmakers have come to the director asking for advice. So he finally put together his own Rogue Film School, which begins with a seminar Jan. 8-10, 2010, in Los Angeles. But don't look for it on the USC, NYU, AFI, or UCLA class schedules.

"I was invited by universities, but I said, 'No, I would rather go into an abandoned quarry in the Mojave Desert than link with an existing film school,' " says Herzog. "It will be completely and utterly wild, rogue, guerrilla-style. If you want to learn how to make films and how to do it against all odds and have the courage for your own dreams, then you're right [for this]. The usual things I do not care about: credits in films or academic achievements. I said, 'I prefer people who have worked as a bouncer in a sex club,' because they know about real life and they probably can transform it better than somebody who comes from college and has learned it in a film studies class. It's all on the website [http://www.roguefilmschool.com/seminar.asp]." The seminar will be small, and Herzog has already received hundreds of applications.

"It will be pretty wild, and I will do it at infrequent, rare occasions," he says. "I have to limit it to a very small amount of people so that everyone can address his own visions and obstacles or her own dreams."

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