Courting Disaster: Werner Herzog

Adventuring filmmaker Werner Herzog has been lots of places; until recently, on a film set with the likes of Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes was not one of them. His latest project, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, stars Cage as one of the most messed-up cops you’ve ever seen. It’s a gonzo film noir, a hallucinatory dispatch from the post-Katrina gutter–a movie that is, like most of Herzog’s work, best described simply as a Herzog film. I talked to the veteran provocateur about what he’s learned from disastrous shoots in the jungle, “the bliss of evil,” and the importance of Anna Nicole Smith.


DARRELL HARTMAN: You’ve been making movies for almost 50 years. Any particular reason you decided to try your hand at film noir now?


WERNER HERZOG: I think there are specific times where film noir is a natural concomitant of the mood. When there’s insecurity, collapse of financial systems–that’s where film noir always hits fertile ground. The whole thing was conceived and done before the financial collapse, so it was a premonition.


HARTMAN: Watching this film, you can almost read Katrina as a foreshadowing of the financial collapse.


HERZOG: Sure, but the project was not originally written for New Orleans. It was written for York, and all of a sudden the three main players–the producer wanted tax incentives; I said this is the ideal place, New Orleans after Katrina and the collapse of civility; and at the same time, unbeknownst to either of us, Nicolas Cage was pushing for New Orleans. It’s a very important place for him. He always liked the fluidity and the kind of music, and always hoped he could work there in a film like this and have it as an influence for his performance.


HARTMAN: Did you see cop movie clichés as an obstacle?


HERZOG: No. I think in this case we have a different step in film noir, where what is dark and pointing at an abyss in the human heart and in society is not an oppressive thing. It’s almost getting so vile and so debased that it’s hilarious. And that will come across. There’s something like a secret conspiracy between the audience and the leading character, and I truly like that audiences [seem to] understand the humor.


HARTMAN: How did Nicolas Cage end up playing this depraved, rotten character?


HERZOG: The strange thing is that we had an eye on each other over decades. It never really occurred to us to work together, and then all of a sudden it was clear we were to be in business. He called me from Australia and literally, in less than sixty seconds, we knew we would do it. He said to me, “I’m not going to sign my contact unless you are on board.” And I said to him, “I’m not going to sign my contract either, unless you, Nicolas, are on board.”


HARTMAN: Before this film you’d met him once, right? A long time ago, at Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyard.


HERZOG: I vaguely remember him; he was an adolescent, very shy. He still, today, is a shy man.


HARTMAN: His character has a line in the film: “It’s amazing how much you can get done when you’ve got a simple purpose guiding you through life.” You’ve made so many movies, especially lately, that one’s tempted to think this statement is about you!


HERZOG: No, I do other things. I staged an opera in between the three films I made in the last eleven months, and I’m acting–as a paid stooge!–in some films by Harmony Korine. I like him a lot. And I have published a book, Conquest of the Useless.


HARTMAN: But your film career has allowed you some very personal explorations. Why make that move over to writing?


HERZOG: It’s not moving over, it’s always in me. Conquest of the Useless is actually based on diaries I wrote during the time I worked on Fitzcarraldo. It’s not reports or reflections, as [in] the undertitle–”Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo“–wrong! That’s only a way to promote the book. It’s more like fever dreams, wild fantasies, strange poetry in the jungle. I’m very convinced the book will have a much longer life and more substance than all my films together.


HARTMAN: The Fitzcarraldo production was famously filled with disasters.


HERZOG: My leading actor, Jason Robards, fell ill and had to be replaced. I had built a camp for 1,100 people the middle of nowhere in the north of Peru, and I ran into a border war between the two countries. The camp was attacked and burned to the ground. I had two plane crashes–this is serious stuff, very serious.


HARTMAN: Do you ever look back and think you were crazy to try to make that film?


HERZOG: No, no, no. Sometimes bad luck hits you like in an ancient Greek tragedy, and it’s not your own making. When you have a plane crash, it’s not your fault. It’s not that you manufactured this disaster. But I have the clear knowledge that my last resort, in all the travails and tribulations, was language. Poetry. And that’s what’s in the book.


HARTMAN: You’ve said this before: “The poet must not avert his eyes.” Do you mean from the barbaric side of humanity?


HERZOG: Not necessarily. That was one of the reasons why I insisted that Roger Ebert, whose judgment and whose caliber I love–I love this great soldier of cinema more than I can even tell you–I said to him, “Roger, you have to watch the Anna Nicole Smith show.” There’s something big about it, a big shift in the wider public’s concept of female beauty, in how vulgarity is invading everyday life more than ever before. And he said, “No, never in my life.” But then he watched it.


HARTMAN: I’m sure he’s never been the same since.


HERZOG: In my Rogue Film School, which I just founded, I say–and not even as a provocation–that I prefer people who have worked as bouncers in a sex club, or have been wardens in the lunatic asylum. You must live life in its very elementary forms. The Mexicans have a very nice word for it: pura vida. It doesn’t mean just purity of life, but the raw, stark-naked quality of life. And that’s what makes young people more into a filmmaker than academia.


HARTMAN: But you could also argue that reality TV shows humanity in its most basic and uncomplicated state.


HERZOG: You shouldn’t avert your eyes from that, either. But there’s also something very precious about life and something very dignified. Television has transformed more and more into the medium of the undignified.  That’s where the vile and debased manifests itself more than anywhere else. Of course it also manifests itself in blogs and on the internet, [with] that kind of cursing and vitriol and poison. You do not need to take part in it. But don’t just look aside and pretend it doesn’t exist.


HARTMAN: Reality shows play into human vanity. But on the internet, so much of that vitriol you’re talking about is anonymous.


HERZOG: It’s interesting: one of the best German newspapers, the Deutsche Zeitung, has some sort of a blog that they turn off from eight at night until six in the morning. The editor in chief told me the amount of swearing, the amount of debased comments, multiply at nighttime–it’s unreadable, unwatchable, you just cannot believe it. In the morning they open the website again, and all of a sudden you have arguments, and of course severe criticisms and this and that, but not all the dirt and poison that’s coming out in the dark of the night.


HARTMAN: Back to the film for a second: is it true that in the original script, as in Abel Ferrara’s 1994 Bad Lieutenant, drugs played a much bigger role than they did in your film?


HERZOG: Yes, I diminished it. I have never had any experience with drugs, because I personally do not like the culture surrounding drug-taking. So I reduced it, and it’s not the explanation for everything. Nicolas asked me, “What makes him so bad? Is it the drugs, is it Katrina?” No, I said. There’s such a thing as the bliss of evil. Enjoy it. The viler and more debased it gets, the more you have to enjoy it.


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens in theaters on November 20.