Thoughts on Herzog - Text from a Speech I Gave to Screenwriting Students
Four weeks later, I’m still gathering my thoughts on my experiences at Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School. First of all what it is not. It’s not some film school that Werner Herzog lent his name to, nor is it one that lasts several years or months. It was four days of discourse with Herzog himself.
You can see it in the interviews he has done in the last few years when he mentions RFS he says the most important thing for filmmakers to do is, “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” From the very beginning of the seminar he said that to be a filmmaker you must seek knowledge and the best way to do that is by reading. My librarian mother would be proud to hear that. From then on knowledge was dispersed as things came to his mind. He asked me during the first break if I was personally okay with the curriculum, or the fact that there was no set curriculum. I said yes. In the end though, I believe he always had set markers in the discourse he wanted to hit on and being the master director that he is, he always knew when and where he wanted to land on certain points and would lead us into the questions or discussion points that would make it happen.
One of the biggest lessons he wanted us to learn was that in filmmaking the most important thing is to “do the doable.” He used an example from when he was filming his upcoming volcano documentary in North Korea. His Director of Photography kept mentioning how he wanted to shoot the volcano either with a crane or a drone, but Herzog said if they were to do that they would be arrested for espionage by the North Koreans and locked away. In this case a drone and a crane were not doable, but in other instances where they or something like them are, then they should be attempted. And doing the doable is also about taking risks, and going out on a limb, but taking smart risks that will ultimately lead to a better film. But never ask someone to do something you would not do.
The thing I think has stuck with me most on an intellectual level when it comes to filmmaking is that when watching a film there is a parallel story that only happens to the audience. Audiences disconnect themselves and think about how the film will come to an end. It is a filmmaker’s purpose to give space for the audience to dream. To him there should be moments where the audience can reflect and come up with their own ideas about where the films will go. To Herzog audiences want to be taken into poetry.
That being said, Herzog is not a sentimental man and doesn’t portend that anything he has personally done is of any more importance. He told us “Do your job, don’t make it a mythical experience.” That’s interesting coming from a man who has had what many consider to be one of the most mythical careers in film history. To him why you make films is not important, making films is what is important. You must go into it like a wild beast and go into it without asking too many questions of yourself. He said, “Who cares if it takes 5 days or 5 months of writing, just do it.”
The thing I’ve learned from all the working filmmakers I have met in my life is that he is telling the truth. Most working filmmakers do just that. They make films. They don’t wait, they try to do something. That’s why in between all of Herzog’s narrative films, especially in the last fifteen years or so, he’s made several documentaries. Waiting to secure funding for narrative films can take years, if you’ve got access to a camera there is no reason not to go out and film documentaries.
There was a lot of little simple advice on really practical things that Herzog would give, like don’t use director’s chairs because they create an environment of laziness, try to have meaningful discourse while on breaks and don’t just BS through them with people, and try to have a sense of economy of time while filming, in either documentary or narrative film. These are things to keep in mind.
I either read or saw an interview with Herzog prior to my trip where he mentioned that he continues to make films because he needs a steady paycheck. His films don’t make a lot of money. In fact his highest grossing film, Rescue Dawn, only made $5.5 million and that was nine years ago. His second highest, from 5 years ago, was Cave of Forgotten Dreams and that made nearly as much. Herzog saying that reminded me of a panel I saw at Indie Memphis Film Festival with indie stalwart Kentucker Audley on DIY cinema. He said don’t go into filmmaking, especially indie filmmaking, if you expect to make a living out of it. I see a lot of truth to that now. At present I don’t make money from filmmaking. I usually lose money from filmmaking, but it is something that I am decent at and want to try harder and harder to excel which is something I have a long way to go on.
Herzog also told us he was not married to 35 mm film and was truly fascinated by the potential for GoPro cameras and what they can do to revolutionize filmmaking. He showed us a film from one of the students of RFS that was a documentary shot in Syria following mercenaries fighting ISIS. The filmmaker had attached a GoPro to an American mercenary’s flack jacket giving the effect of a first-person shooter video game which gives the viewer a sense of normalcy to the proceedings until the real bullets start flying. But Herzog thought this intimacy in filmmaking was something to behold. The important thing here though is that a GoPro camera only costs about $300. DSLR cameras aren’t much more expensive. Of all the time in the 120 year history of cinema this is the best time to be a filmmaker, as long as you attempt to make films.
If you’ve googled or searched youtube for interviews with Herzog you’ll find a theme where he talks about finding the ecstatic truth in film. To him facts can protect or create norms, but not necessarily the truth. What make a film immortal is not that it is fact checked in every aspect. Facts inform, truth illuminates. He transforms what he is observing into something new that you wouldn’t expect. I found this deeper explanation on what ecstatic truth is from a Roger Ebert article from 1999 where Herzog laid out what he meant by the term: It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.
I brought up Kentucker Audley earlier and the idea of a DIY outlook to making films. His film Team Picture from 2007 is a good example of this. Shot in and around Memphis with his friends, the hour long film is an example of making a film and using the tools you have at your disposal. This has lead to an interesting career both behind and in front of the screen. Since this film he has gone on to star in films like V/H/S, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and last year’s Queen of Earth.
Another example of this would be the musician Grimes’s video for her song “Oblivion” from 2012. She directed the video and it was shot at public sporting events. She would wear headphones in order to lip sync to the music and created an interesting atmosphere with real word aesthetics. It’s realism set in an otherworldly glow from the vapor lights at the stadiums.
I feel as though both of these work in ways that any filmmaker with the courage to pick up a camera and make a film can find some sort of cinematic truth, much like Herzog desires.
To me Werner Herzog is one of the top intellectual minds of the 20th and 21st centuries so it is daunting to put all my thoughts out there about a once in a lifetime experience I had with him and fifty others. It’s daunting because I am not the best proxy for his intellect. The fact that I was able to study under him was amazing. The fact that he chose me to do it was an insane honor that I still have trouble believing. In the end though the most important thing to remember is to just make films. Anyway you can. I also know that I need to read more poetry.