Fresh from filming opposite Tom Cruise in upcoming thriller One Shot, director Werner Herzog will be crowned with a Lifetime Achievement Award at next week’s Dubai International Film Festival. Rob Garratt quizzed the notorious German auteur
The phrase strong-minded does not quite do Werner Herzog justice. This is a man who has declared war on the Greek military, dragged a 360-tonne boat over a hill, and once cooked and ate his own shoe after losing a bet.
More recently the German director refused to stop an interview after being shot – instead revealing to the camera a bloody flesh wound – before two days later rescuing Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoneix from a car wreck.
But to hide Herzog behind these headline-grabbers is to miss the point; to him they are just bumps on the road to completing his movies, which are more than respected enough to back up such brazen bravado. Over more than 40 years Herzog has built an absurdly dynamic canon of work – from medieval epic Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to gritty Nicholas Cage cop drama Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). Next week will see the director recognised with the Dubai International Film Festival’s highest honour; previous talents to earn a Lifetime Achievement Award include Sean Penn and Morgan Freeman.
It could so easily not have happened. Herzog was meant to be busy next week, because added to his the 69-year-old’s heroic list of achievements is that of Hollywood movie bad guy. The director has just wrapped up filming on his first major work on the other side of the camera, playing a ‘slimy dangerous villain’ (his words) in thriller One Shot starring opposite the festival’s other star attraction – Tom Cruise.
‘We’ll probably be sightseeing together,’ Herzog tells us sincerely in his infamous German accent. ‘We will have been battling each other in front of the camera and will be walking into friendship in Dubai.’
To mark Herzog’s anointment the festival will host a special screening of his epic 1982 masterpiece Fitzcarraldo. Inspired by the life of a real-life Peruvian oil baron’s deluded attempts to build an opera house in the middle of a rainforest, it saw Herzog recruit thousands of natives to haul the 360-tonne boat over a small mountain.
‘Nobody had ever moved a boat over land before, but we found a way,’ he remembers.
‘I’ve done about 60 films by now but this one stands out because it was quite a blind design. Now since then there’s no challenge I’ve turned away from.’
Indeed there is not – along his fiction films, Herzog has lived a dual life scouring the corners of the natural world as a documentary filmmaker. Recent works include last year’s 3D Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a stunning look at recently-discovered 30,000-year-old art works preserved in a hidden French cave, the Oscar-nominated profile of human life in Antarctica Encounters at the End of the World (2008) and Grizzly Man (2005), the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers living amongst wild bears in Alaska until they killed and ate him and his girlfriend.
That work has most in common with Herzog’s latest movie, which will also be screened in Dubai as part of the festival. Into the Abyss is a clinical account of a Texas triple murder from ten years ago, turning the camera on both the death-row killer and the victims’ grief-stricken families. Herzog tracked down and interviewed five inmates on death row before deciding to focus the picture on Michael Perry, a 29-year-old killer who is eight days away from execution when Herzog interviewed him, who slayed three people in order to steal a car to go joyriding.
‘I was somehow drawn to this story because it’s particularly senseless,’ explained Herzog. ‘I’m trying to discover an uncharted territory, something dark and deep and ruthless in our souls.
‘It’s quite fascinating that these are people who know exactly how they will die and when they will die, and we do not. Life has a certain urgency and you live it and you cherish it and you eventually die. And that you don’t know when you will die is a great blessing.’
The film, released in America just four days before we spoke to Herzog, has helped fire a fresh debate about capital punishment in the US, and is likely to sit as one of the most memorable from Herzog’s epic oeuvre. The director himself says he cares nothing for posterity (‘I’m not going to be around so I’m not worried’), but without a hint of arrogance maintains adamantly there will be an ‘afterlife’ for his work.
‘There’s no finish to my film’s lives, they will keep being discovered’ he said.
‘Things I did 40 years ago have become more mainstream; it’s 15 year old kids who write to me nowadays. I was never out of the picture. I’ve always been around somehow.’
Why did you eat your shoe, Werner?
There are more myths about Werner Herzog than most Greek gods. Here we put some of his achievements to the great man.
You’re notorious for once having cooked and eaten your shoe – would the 69-year-old Werner do that today?
‘Can we not talk about silly things? I also filmed on the edge of a live volcano (in 1977’s La Soufrière).’
And you threatened to attack shoot the Greek military (during filming for 1968’s Signs Of Life)…
‘Well yes, but that’s (just) working, somehow you just have to deal with the challenges.’
But that’s not the kind of thing most Hollywood directors would get tangled up in.
‘Probably not. I’ve done things that were real challenges but I’ve always delivered the results – I’ve never not delivered a project on time, on schedule and on budget – I’m a professional.’
Your book about the making of Fitzcarraldo, (Conquest of the Useless), lists at least five times you could have died.
‘A couple of times, yes, but who cares? The only thing the audience cares about is what’s on the screen. I was shot at when I did an interview (with Mark Kermode in 2009).’
And two days later you rescued Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix from a car-wreck on Sunset Boulevard.
‘That’s part of Los Angeles folklore. For me personally, I don’t care too much about it.’