Interviewing Werner Herzog is a humbling experience. At 67, the director of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: Wrath of God – and mysterious miniatures like Heart of Glass, where the cast famously acted under hypnosis – continues to work at a rate that makes one feel shamefully slothful in his presence.
In the 11 months prior to our meeting at the Venice Film Festival, he tells me, he has completed two feature films – Bad Lieutenant, a riff of sorts on Abel Ferrara's grungy 1992 cop drama of the same name, and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, filmed in China, Peru, Mexico and the United States, and executive produced by David Lynch. He has also staged an opera in Valencia, shot a short film in Ethiopia, and translated his book about the making of his Amazonian odyssey Fitzcarraldo, Conquest of the Useless, into English. He even managed to narrate a bizarre 18-minute short, directed by Ramin Bahrani, called Plastic Bag. The only thing he has not done, apparently, is watch a film. But then, he only sees two to three a year on average anyway. "Most of them real bad ones," he smiles.
Herzog's intellectual restlessness means that new ideas are assailing him all the time. "I'm sitting here with you and there are five or six other films that are like a home invasion," he says, his thick German accent seemingly undiluted by years of living in Los Angeles. They come to him like "burglars in the night," he continues. "At four in the morning I wake up and there's five unknowns in my kitchen. So my problem is that I have never been able to keep abreast with all the ideas and projects. I just do what is most urgent right now."
That he gets so much done is not because he is a workaholic, Herzog insists – "Please don't believe I am one"– but because he works "steadily and quietly", rather than chaotically. Such is his focus when he's directing that he does not need to plan scenes out on storyboards. "That's an instrument of the cowards," he sneers, "of those who do not know what they are doing." He knows exactly what he wants to see on screen, he says, and does not film anything he does not intend to use. "It's like open heart surgery. When you do open heart surgery, you don't go for the appendix, or you don't go for the toenails: I go for the heart."
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