Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, the experience part III

Day 2: Being a lion tamer

The morning session began with an unexpected occurrence, an occurrence that sublimely facilitated the forgetting of the Fitzcarraldean trial that was reaching Crawley train station first thing on a Sunday, whilst engineering rail works shut down the entire local network. There was, of course, the other painful recollection that it was indeed early on a Sunday morning. Werner began the day with the reading of the passage of the horse’s death from Virgil’s Georgics. His eyes gazed at the manuscript with intent yet they burned wildly, completely transfixed in the text. Werner read the passage with that distinct accent of his whilst we hypnotically stared, captivated in a long gone moment in time. He explained how Virgil saved his Antarctica film. Arriving with no notion of what he would find Werner stepped onto the South Pole, looked around and thought 'We will do it like Virgil!'

‘Yoga will not make you into a great filmmaker as it empties out your thoughts’

Digressing somewhat into the notion of the outdoor spirit, Herzog encouraged us, film students, to do constant sports, particularly physically challenging ones. For example, we should try boxing or basketball, the choreography of which is good for understanding cinema, he said to a surprised audience.

With that Werner changed direction into the topic of producers. ‘I never stick to schedule and I finish much earlier,’ he proudly pronounced. 'Try to see the film from their point of view' he said; 'do not go over budget and deliver on time. Do not, for example, produce a cut that is over 4 hours long. If a director cannot deliver the film then you are an incompetent director. The film will be wrestled away from you. At least earn your money for your film. Then you will understand the necessities of budget, financing and marketing.’

‘Directing is practical. It’s an endless chain of humiliations, banalities, and you have to be a lion tamer out there. If you are not the lion tamer you may not make a film on time, to budget, nor make a good film.’ Must remember where I put that whip, those boots and the top hat, I thought.

‘Yoga will not make you into a great filmmaker as it empties out your thoughts’ he bluntly stated to scattered gasps. In provocation Werner asked, ‘Do we need to declare holy war against yoga classes?’ Werner championed the opposite of emptying oneself of meaning and thoughts, ‘You do not always have to understand all the ramifications of what people are doing. There are limits to understanding. Dismiss pre-conceived ideas in a documentary. Only find out what drives these men. Go there and make sure the camera does not fail in extremities.’

In Antarctica there was no clue as to what would happen but he went there with some order. Werner underlined that he does not believe in writing scripts for documentaries.' This only creates dead films as seen on TV', he said. He does not need a proposal for TV, though he will write one when it is needed. He does it reluctantly however, and is pushed to do it if it is necessary. Otherwise, he said, be cautious of scripting a documentary.

Werner probed us about character finding, how do you fall in love with someone and blindly follow him or her around? How do you introduce your character and bring the audience to like your protagonist? He showed us the beginning of Viva Zapata where Herzog claims that you cannot achieve any better than how Brando’s character is introduced to us. At the start of the film the other Mexican workers hide Zapata from the audience and yet, when he is revealed, you cannot help instantly liking him and it's not just a question of camera positions.

Editing, commentaries and funding

Seamlessly adjusting his thoughts onto editing, Werner advised us not to shoot a large amount of material. Editing is related to what you are shooting. For example, Werner has never been a slave to continuity. ‘Material of great substance will always fit together. Be relentless with your footage. You have to be able to throw out a scene. Throwing away a scene is hard but it is the fate of filmmaking.’ Werner recalled how he was very careful with his raw stock, as he was conscious of the expense. Poverty and a question of filming in barefoot in the past affected his expense, but even now he tries to be disciplined and economical with his footage. He had thirty hours of footage for Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 'With digital technology you can edit as fast as you can think', he warned. ‘This is dangerous. You can make too many versions and become lost in parallels.’ Editors may be surprised, as may those who like to edit in their own space, to note that Werner always sits with the editor except if there is technical stuff to do.

Commentaries can be an art form per se. There were wild commentaries in Grizzly Man and in Antarctica. He underlined that he tries to say something intelligent. He has no problem in being opinionated yet he stepped in to say that he is not totally wild about commentary. Interestingly enough he mused on being a character in his own films. ‘It is not too healthy to become a character in your own films – it becomes embarrassing. The joy of storytelling is throwing yourself in it, it is healthy to look at yourself with a sense of irony.’ Admitting he often makes up quotes at the beginning of his documentary films Werner summed up, ‘Think the unthinkable, go anywhere when making a film.’

Before the afternoon break Werner spoke about how hard it had become to find funding for his films in today’s climate. However, his determination to follow the topics he thought were achievable showed no sign of waning. Werner’s current project, a documentary film about inmates on death row, is not too expensive to film yet he confessed to us that the proceedings of this Rogue Film School seminar were to be invested into this film. A Rogue in the audience roguishly exclaimed if we were therefore all owed a credit on the film. Thunderous laughter resonated in the room, Werner laughed and smiled but without any further comment he moved on. By no means though did this seminar give the impression that it could feel comfortable sat among the ever- increasing ranks of gala fund-raising events by previous prime ministers or CEOs. There was passion in what was said and shared by Werner. Yet the fear that many of my fellow Rogues felt, that this would just be a session of anecdotes and memories, also failed to materialize even if some of the more biographical questions from the floor could have encouraged that type of seminar.

During the coffee break, I went up to Werner to tell him that I liked the idea of my fee going into his latest project. I reflected that I had wondered what would be happening with the money. I also commented that it was a shame that we could not choose which of his projects these funds could be applied to, as I would have preferred to have my money funding his dying languages project. Werner replied that right now the climate does not wish to know about endangered human species whose cultures are almost extinct. The TV channels, he mustered, merely wish to see films about fluffy animals. There was an air of resignation in the sound of his voice that perhaps reflected his perception that this project, although perceived as an incredibly important aspect of humanity to document, was as doomed as the people he is trying to film. His words resounded the saddest point of the seminar for me, that a filmmaker with the experience and achievements of Werner Herzog cannot find funding for a film that he is so passionate about. It was perhaps a little naive of us to assume that a legendary filmmaker such as Werner Herzog could just brainstorm an idea one moment and make it happen the next. That look of resignation upon his face brought my general mood back down to that of the real world, even if only for a moment.

Wild imaginations and the passion of people from within

With the end of the break, Werner announced that the guest speaker would be Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, the volcanologist from Encounters at the End of the World who he met up a volcano in Antarctica. He had come to talk about wild imaginations and the passion of people from within. Him and Werner dove into a discourse about the fragility of human culture and civilization. They delved into the world of volcanic eruptions and pondered with great excitement and depth into how 74,000 years ago the population of the human race became decimated to as low as between 2-10,000 people due to the huge volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in South East Asia. Humanity was almost at its end. Fascinated in their personal, yet public imaginations, it seemed as if they were lost in their topics cocooned within a certain childhood splendour and curiosity. These conversations led Werner to step out from their world for a moment to ask us in the audience to imagine what would happen here in the UK if all the power were to be cut off, 'after 2 weeks there would be pandemonium!' he exclaimed.

Day two did not quite finish at that moment but continued in my mind, past the now traditional post class bar session and onto the 21:34 train from Crawley, elatedly musing upon the power of the human mind, it’s wonderment and our desire to tell stories even if these desires were slightly tarnished by the realities of financial restraints.

Marcelo de Oliveira is a filmmaker and sound designer who graduated with an MFA at eca. His graduation film, 'The Great Flood', granted him a place at Herzog's Rogue Film School, earlier this year.