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A Documentary is Just a Feature Film In Disguise: An Interview with Werner Herzog

An interview with the director upon the release of The Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son.
Above: Werner Herzog looks into the camera's mouth of madness while Nicholas Cage contemplates insanity on the set of The Bad Lieutenant.
Around the time Tom Waits simultaneously released his albums Alice and Blood Money, he was regularly asked why he was putting out two titles at once?  His common reply: “If yer gonna fire up the griddle, you might as well make more than one pancake.”
Werner Herzog seems to have taken a cue from Waits (it’s not hard to imagine the two getting along) with the release of his first two productions in the United States since 1978’s StroszekThe Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a madman’s delusional romp and bayou fever-dream that revolves, reeling, around Nicolas Cage’s highly entertaining—even genius—performance, came out last month.  It was followed yesterday by the release of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, based on the true story of an adult son who kills his aged mother, running her through with a sword at the neighbor’s house before retreating back home across the street where a day-long stand-off with the police ensues.  Among its distinctions? A creepy and creeping American suburban surrealism spun by a cast including Michael Shannon, Chloë Sevigny, Willem Defoe, Grace Zabriskie, Udo Kier, and Brad Dourif (who puts in noteworthy performances in both of the new movies)…not to mention David Lynch as executive producer.  Both films feature Peter Zeitlinger’s virtuoso hand-held camerawork which comes across, as pointed out by a friend, like its own character, a documentary filmmaker who has inserted himself invisibly inside the shooting of a feature.
A lot of discussion leading up to the release of The Bad Lieutenant focused on the legitimacy of a “remake” of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 classic of a similar name.  However, a quick look at Herzog’s version confirms his repeated assertion that the two movies are connected by name alone.  Herzog has different fish to fry than remaking another auteur’s work, and viewing The Bad Lieutenant alongside My Son suggests a committed subversion of the American police procedural.  At the center of The Bad Lieutenant is Cage, Extreme Actor.  His performance is so incrementally demented and even appears so physically pained that it could challenge a tag-team of Ann Savage’s outer-space femme-fatale in Detour and Max Schreck’s still-blood-curdling portrayal of the vampire Count Orlok in the original Nosferatu.  Cage has successfully created a monster.  Yet at the same time, he’s also yielded an iconic figure of schizoid frontier “justice” while wading through Herzog’s flotsam-and-jetsam location choices.  In a keenly chosen theatrical gest, whenever Cage opens his jacket ostensibly to  display his badge of authority, all he’s really flashing is his gun, his force.  It's a repeated physical encapsulation of the character's true motivations that seems both funny and chilling every time.
Madness is more mundane in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, and leaves more questions unanswered.   Less frantic, but ultimately more unsettling, the film opens as Willem Defoe’s character, a homicide detective, reports for duty to a fresh crime scene only to realize too late that he’s already talked with the murderer (Michael Shannon) in the gathering crowd before letting him slip away.  As the fiancé and another friend of Shannon’s appear at the crime scene to lend their assistance to the case, we are filled in on contextual information about Shannon’s madness through numerous flashbacks that depict unmistakable warning signs, as well as unmistakably Herzogian staged shots.  Yet from these set-pieces, with their ecstatic imagery, we always return to the standoff in the streets of suburban San Diego, waiting for Shannon's next move.  Cage’s performance is a fireworks show, always surprising.  Shannon, we know more convincingly after each flashback, is a bomb still waiting to go off.
In spite of The Bad Lieutenant being unequivocally and self-consciously more hard-boiled, wearing its neo-noir status on its sleeve, My Son is the first Herzog film I can think of to use this film noir staple: a flashback structure itself emphasizing a world out of order and a mind out of sorts. The apparatus itself is disoriented and decadent having taken on the burden of standing solitary witness to Shannon’s deterioration while all other characters surrounding him appear oblivious to the very clear warning signs he regularly displays.  The man is undeniably plagued by visions.  “It was dreamed unto me…,” Kaspar Hauser would say.  But My Son seems even more closely linked to Herzog's 1976 Heart of Glass, a film I’d wager as commonly agreed upon by fans and foes alike as Herzog’s most ornery feature (more Ordet than Aguirre), a film about seers and the visions that haunt them, regularly cutting away from the already static action of the film’s narrative to obsessively contemplate panoramas of time-lapsed landscapes.  Or in the case of My Son, a lingering dessert-table tableau spontaneously struck around a bowl of unnaturally black jello.  Or a crowded marketplace in central Asia.  Or a woodland cabin inhabited by a midget in a tuxedo with no further explanation.  The Notebook spoke to Herzog over the phone to try to get some answers.
WERNER HERZOG: Where are you physically?
NOTEBOOK: I'm in New York, in Brooklyn.
HERZOG: Oh yeah, okay, I'm in Los Angeles.
NOTEBOOK: There are a lot of aspects of the two new films that seem like they might be new to you—they are the first screenplays, I believe, that you are not the sole author of, they're your first features in the U.S. in 30 years, since Stroszek, and they both seem to be the first explicit American genre films that you've done, the film noir and the police procedural.
HERZOG: Film noir I've done before, with Even Dwarfs Started Smaller [sic], Nosferatu, whatever. But of course much of it is new terrain, I'm always out for new horizons, new alliances, new actors, the collaboration with people, for example, who are from the stable of David Lynch, new actors like Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny...the screenplay of The Bad Lieutenant, a good amount was written by me, or changed, modified. It's not that I'd just take a screenplay from someone. And My Son, My Son was a screenplay co-writer with a friend of mine.
NOTEBOOK: My Son, My Son feels more like an ensemble piece, and The Bad Lieutenant seems really driven by a single performance by Nicolas Cage.
HERZOG: No I disagree! Nicolas Cage would be no man's land without the very strong chemistry and texture of the supporting cast, he would be nowhere! It's the same as with Humphrey Bogart, who'd be in no man's land without Ingrid Bergman.
NOTEBOOK: Both films deal with characters who are going mad; in The Bad Lieutenant we know from the get-go what has motivated Cage's madness, while in My Son, My Son we see the flip side of the coin where there's no concrete explanation of Shannon's mental illness. How did you go about structuring two films that show different sides of insanity?
HERZOG: I wouldn't emphasize the mental illness so strongly. Sure, in My Son, My Son there is an element of mental illness, but there is also something else, something other, something inexplicably scary about the story. If it's all explained by mental illness I wouldn't care very much for a story like that. I met the real man who committed the murder, who will spend 8 1/2 years in a maximum-security mental institution for the criminally insane. I met him and he was really…you could tell he was not right in his head. There were things like he wanted to be crucified on national television live, and he was upset that it wouldn't happen. There was real madness there, and I don't harp on it. I do not want to play with it too strongly, then all explanations come down to "it was insanity, period," which is not the case.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned working with David Lynch, who executive produced My Son, My Son. Beyond working with Grace Zabriskie, who has been in several of Daivd Lynch’s films, what sort of involvement with Lynch did you have?
HERZOG: Not much, you shouldn't overdo it. We somehow plotted to make films with fairly low budgets but with great stories and the best of the best of actors, almost like putting out a manifesto, that's how filmmaking should be done responsibly, where you would be in profitable terrain fairly early on. As we liked each other and respected each other's work very deeply we were talking about projects and he said do you have a story and I said yes, and David asked "when can you start?" and I said "tomorrow!." [Laughing] So he said it would be great if he could protect the film and he could have a look at the production, but he never interfered, he never showed up on the set or was there during editing or anything. It's something else, some sort of a spark that ignited a project that was long dormant. His main role was throwing a match onto a powder keg.
NOTEBOOK: What attracted you to the characters played by Cage and Shannon?
HERZOG: There are two sides. One side is the character as they exist in the screenplay, in the story. In both stories, for me, something that I felt was familiar. And second, the caliber of actors. Michael Shannon is an extraordinary talent, and you can tell right away. I saw that long before he got the Oscar nomination, I even invited him to join me on the set of The Bad Lieutenant. I didn’t have anything big to offer him, he was there for two or three days; I asked him to look at how I work and how I function, that I'd like to warm up with him as he would have to carry the central role of my new film on his shoulders. I think it was good that we had at least a few days time to warm up with each other. Five months later he got the Academy Award nomination and I really felt proud for him.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think these two characters inhabit a similar world?
HERZOG: I think they're quite different, otherwise Nicolas Cage would have played both parts; or Michael Shannon would have played the bad lieutenant as well. I'm always good in casting; or, let's put more solidly (it sounds like being conceited)—I think I've not made major mistakes in casting throughout my life as a filmmaker.
NOTEBOOK: A question about the look of your movies...Peter Zeitlinger's cinematography really shines in both The Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son. He's been a major collaborator of yours for years now, shooting with you since Gesualdo. How do you communicate with him about what you want in your frames?
HERZOG: Well, I have a sort of short hand communication with him by now, but it has always been quite brief and clear because I have such a clear vision of what I want to do. I start to work out a scene with him first, the kind of movement, the kind of camera position and things like that, and it goes very quickly. I think my footprint is very strong in all my films with him, but it was the same with Thomas Mauch who did Aguirre and Schmidt-Reitwein who did many others like Nosferatu. You can tell there's always a certain handwriting in it.
NOTEBOOK: Has your relationship with Zeitlinger changed over the years as you've moved to larger or different productions?
HERZOG: I've made much larger productions before, for example Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo, so these two recent films, The Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son are much smaller productions as a matter of fact. But—how can I say? We have a very physical approach to cinematography. There's a clear understanding between him and me. He actually got into filmmaking because he had seen The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, which was such a strong experience for him that he decided to become a cinematographer. He would be, for example, the only one who, when we are shooting and something doesn't feel right, he'd put the camera down and say, "Werner, this scene doesn't have a rhythm." He's the first cinematographer to tell me that, and he's totally right because he senses it physically. I think he's a wonderful collaborator, physically very strong, I mean strong like an ox!
NOTEBOOK: You've said before that you "direct landscapes," that you direct spaces. New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole are cast very well in The Bad Lieutenant, and San Diego has a very real sense of place in My Son, My Son. What was it like shooting in both locations?
HERZOG: New Orleans, I mean New Orleans after Katrina, has a big role; it is obvious it would play a bigger role than just the backdrop. San Diego isn't that essential to the film [My Son, My Son], it could have happened in Minneapolis or Boise, Idaho, but a kind of suburbia close to the Mexican border is something that translates into the film, and when you speak of directing landscapes I have some wide locations in Peru on the Rio Urubamba, and I also shot in Central Asia, a very, very strange dream sequence, a very essential piece in the film.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of dream sequences and subjective camerawork, those scenes you speak of in My Son, My Son remind me of Kausper Hauser’s dreams, both somehow are related, too, to Nicolas Cage's hallucinations with the iguanas.
HERZOG: That is all stuff I filmed myself. I wouldn't allow a cinematographer to do that in such a case, I'd do it myself. Central Asia, for example, I did myself, in My Son, My Son. The iguanas had to be a completely demented way of seeing the world, that only the bad lieutenant full of drugs would see, that no one else would see, so in cases like that I take over the camera.
NOTEBOOK: In The Bad Lieutenant press kit Nicolas Cage mentions a Cortez project you brought to him several years ago.
HERZOG: There are sometimes projects that are not really doable; in this case it was a production that would cost around $100 million, and you make a film like that only if your last film has made domestic growth, box office growth, of $250 million, then you can make a film like that. It was 14 years ago or so, but it was very clear early on that the film was not going to be made, and I can live easily with that.
NOTEBOOK: Do you have any other projects that are in the pipeline right now?
HERZOG: About 5 feature film projects and 3 documentaries. It's not that I am working on them, but that they are pushing me. I never search around for projects, they come to me like burglars in the night.
NOTEBOOK: So you don't necessarily feel a different impulse to make a documentary or a feature?
HERZOG: No, I don't care, it's all movies for me. And besides, when you say documentaries, in my case, in most of these cases, means "feature film" in disguise.
So glad to see that people are still reading this!
Good stuff… this man really knows his stuff. “No I disagree! Nicolas Cage would be no man’s land without the very strong chemistry and texture of the supporting cast, he would be nowhere! It’s the same as with Humphrey Bogart, who’d be in no man’s land without Ingrid Bergman.”

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