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

Day 3: Constructive Feedback

Our final day began with yet another strong note of caution. As if the previous evening and night had itself merely been an illusion, Werner jumped back into commenting on commentary and advised us to take it easy with text that is overloaded with too much depth. 'There are moments when you can depart far from the text', he said. He gave the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams as an example.

The commentary moves into the abstract form of perception with the albino alligators. Only once the audience is comfortable with the subject can you go wild but it is important to anchor it well. The audience has to be taken by the hand and guided through the film.

Werner then delved back into the staging of moments in documentaries. For example, there is the scene in the Kinski documentary where we are taken on a visit to his old house, which was all choreographed. The basic pattern of the trip was rehearsed. ‘Sometimes it is better to come as a surprise but here it was right to set up the scene. The real surprise renders the best effects but this is not only always the case. We must sometimes be quick to take drastic steps in order to solve a problem.’

‘Be cautious about festivals’

Turning the focus onto film festivals Werner delivered a scathing attack on the culture of film festivals. He called for a climate of cinema, ‘You have to get a film out to audiences. A movie is not alive unless it is played in front of audiences. Pay attention to what is going to happen with your film. There is a problem with film festivals. Today there are more than 4,000 festivals in which there will be an average of 4 good films. Out of 20 films up for awards at Berlin recently, 15 were garbage. Festivals have become dangerous. Only festival people see the film - there is no distribution. It is appalling that a film comes to life in the incestuous festival circuit. Be cautious about festivals.’

Suspicious of the climate that reigns at festivals, Werner described how Sundance was a complete disappointment. Sundance has 3,600 submissions but it was full of younger people talking to him about film. ‘You meet young filmmakers who talk to you, but they just put on a show about how good they are. They don’t talk about the style of a film, their aim is how quickly they will be signed by a studio. It is a dangerous life of festivals. Beware of this secondary type of culture which circles around its own navel. They are too structured around cliques. You have the duty to find the distributor, to get the movie out there. Don’t neglect it.’ In a post session moment we Rogues mulled over his festival musings, a relief seemingly apparent as conversations agreed that these words were refreshing to hear at a time when film festivals appear often the only way for filmmakers to have their work screened. I recalled how having The Great Flood screened at a certain festival felt frustrating as the people who wished to view the film were often in other meetings over funding at the time of it’s showing on the big screen. Perhaps the funding of films and the screening of films should be held at different times, or even at different festivals? The Rogues pondered this and on the randomness of festivals in particular when a film can be rejected one year from a festival only for the same film to be accepted the following year at the same festival. Surely there must be a better way, we gathered without forming any real conclusions.

‘When an actor can milk a cow, there is something solid about them...’

It was now deep into Monday afternoon and the feeling that the end of this illustrious, illuminating seminar was definitely apparent gained just a hint of momentum when Werner began to talk about the longevity of film directors. 'Very few directors survive longer than 15 years', he stated. Filmmakers are very much in danger of being broken by the system. 'Filmmakers don’t end well. Orson Welles for example had a very short life in cinema. You have to look at those who disappear. Very often it is about ego. They are lured into the abyss by earning too much money. If you are successful the system rewards you, if you are not the system punishes you. What can save us from this force? We are illusionists. It is best to do nothing other than be illusionists. If you have no other legs to stand on it can break you. When an actor can milk a cow there is something solid about them.’

‘Raising children brings you down to earth, do something different. It’s a good attitude to know how to handle a Kalashnikov. A man should know how to handle a hand grenade.’  There followed an exchange of views from various women in the group as to should women also know how to handle a hand grenade. Feeling the nature of his audience, Werner pushed through with his point, ‘You have to take it that you may be disconnected from your peers. Try to look beyond the profession that you are doing. The moment for me came after working on one film after another, for 10 years no one wanted to see my films. I was very lucky as I had a mentor and she said ‘film history is not going to allow you to quit’, and with that she munched on a cookie.’ With that and in wry defiance of his critics Werner uttered, ‘I’ll plough on doing my films because I know you’re all wrong.’

‘I am trying to make a film about dying languages but people are only interested in making films about fluffy animals at the moment, I envy you.’

Post coffee Werner set his sights on some more of our films. Some great examples of cinema were shown including animations, a trailer for a fabulous looking German winter set thriller made by Wim Wenders’ assistant editor, a cinematic black and white LA road movie starring a bunch of rock drummers made by Rich, the tattooed musician, and an Italian styled B movie with plenty of blood, guts and action. Werner took each film and criticized the flaws with dignity whilst singling out what he thought worked well. He advised where the film could be improved. For example, he examined the choreography of the actors in a wonderfully conceived single shot short drama whilst critiquing the director’s choice to over rely on her monitor specifying that directors should be watching the action instead. He also reflected upon the good acting performances of the two protagonists in Megan from South Africa’s short film about the misunderstandings of love.

'The Great Flood', 2009

It was a requirement for each filmmaker to come up to the front of the class and stand next to Werner after their film had been showed. Megan sat herself back down next to me flushed from the experience of having had her film critiqued by Werner. Those of us around her passed on encouraging comments yet before too much comfort could have been afforded to her Werner called up the next person for his critique. ‘The next film I’d like to show is The Great Flood by Marcelo de Oliveria, where is he?’ That stern gaze scoured the floor of rogues. Reluctantly I raised my hand, ‘Ah, there you are, can we show it please?’ he called to the assistant at the back of the room. The lights wilted in the room as I feared the wrath of Herzog.

‘Can you come up here to the front please?’ The previous five minutes having felt like five seconds. Staring out to my fellow rogues I noticed the uncontrollable shaking of my hands. ‘Can you tell us how you came to find these people?’ My voice trembled with humility and fear. I told him how I went in search of the story of the spirit of noise that was not true in the end. He said, 'do not worry about that'. I tell him of how difficult it was to go to Patagonia and the problems we faced in filming. My explanation summarized before Werner interjected, ‘There is great serenity in your film, it is deep with serenity. There is a good pace and rhythm, keeping to the rhythm of the pace of the footage and not pushed in the edit.’ He added to the other rogues that there is too much quick editing and not enough attention paid to the pace of the footage. Thank you Fiona and Josh, I thought. Werner then asked, ‘Did you do your own voice over?’ I humbly nodded, eyes down expecting retribution, ‘Stick to doing your own voice overs and I say this as someone who does his own voice overs.’ As the reverberation of that comment faded away within my mind I felt myself becoming incredibly emotional. Werner’s sentiments were the echoes of thoughts previously reflected by my father who, at that moment, had been very ill. Finally, with the shaking now spread to my toes he looked me in the eye and told the audience, ’You have been to this place where there are only fourteen people left in the world and their culture will soon be lost. I am trying to make a film about dying languages but people are only interested in making films about fluffy animals at the moment, I envy you.’ With that he ushered me back to my seat, I sat back down, my head spinning. My body trembled like someone walking barefoot for days in the Antarctic winter.

A final handshake from the man, a final smile, a perfect postscript

Back down on Earth, a book and individual certificate signing signalled the end of the session. We were called up in groups, a final handshake from the man, a final smile, a perfect postscript. So the curtain came down on the thoughts and insights of Werner Herzog. His reasons for conducting his own seminars are very clear; his mistrust of the traditional film school mixed with the desire to share the experiences of a maverick filmmaker, one who goes it alone when necessary. Now in his third outing of the Rogue Film School and perhaps his last for a while, his desire to share the craft of filmmaking that is changing quickly and yet celebrate it as an art form was clear. Could it be that he is out of touch with the new ways of filmmaking in an over saturated digital world, or is it that he has truly mastered his craft in a way few others have? Interestingly no one mentioned 3D. Whatever the answer, for me this experience was one that constructed new inspiration deep down; an experience that felt down to earth and truly rogue.

In the bar for the last time with the last pint, we Rogues mulled over why this had been such a unique experience. Werner Herzog’s convictions and his stoic belief that he is on the right path stood out, as did the extraordinary insights into how he makes films. When Werner told us to look into the hearts of men, I assumed I would be looking elsewhere. However maybe I ended up looking into my own heart. Perhaps this was not new confidence, just a reaffirmation.

I shall walk on foot whenever I can, I shall look into the hearts of people when looking for a character in my next film, I shall not be a slave to facts, and my first film document has already been forged with complete success…

With gratitude and dedicated to Jader de Oliveira.

For more info on 'The Great Flood' please visit: http://www.thegreatflood.org/index.htm

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.