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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Werner Herzog, 2004

WITH DOUG AITKEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DOUG AITKEN






Video artist Doug Aitken, obsessed with desolate landscape, encounters Herzog, master German filmmaker, who moves mountains to shoot movies. [Visiting from LA, Doug Aitken spoke with Werner Herzog at a screening in New York City.







DOUG: What is your starting point for making a film?
WERNER: If I don't have something physical to work with, then I don't feel comfortable. That's still how I work today. Only thirty hours ago, I was twelve feet away from a bear while filming in Alaska. You have to physically assess the situation to be in the right place at the right time. It's like holding an outpost. You have to be the good soldier. You have to be unafraid — even physically — in order to make films that touch a deep truth inside us.

DOUG: I filmed in the jungle in Guyana once. We had to sign in at the police headquarters because murders were so common in the region at the time. On the wall of the police station there was a series of Polaroids of decapitated heads — all female. I asked the police chief why they were all women, and he said it was common for that to happen when a wife cheated on her husband. Then he paused and said, "But maybe it's really because of the jungle."
WERNER: Of course, every one of us who is really working has been in those situations. I just finished another film four weeks ago in Guyana. The real question is how you wrestle meaning from film, meaning from life. Please know that I am laughing when I say this.

DOUG: What are you working on now?
WERNER: A film about a man who lived among wild grizzly bears. Last year he was actually attacked and eaten, along with his girlfriend. I was filming at the spot where it happened. I even met some of the bears. I don't find them fluffy, I don't find them lovable. I respect them. I assume that, even though the bear looks friendly and nonchalant about your presence, it's still a bear.

DOUG: So what kind of film will it be?
WERNER: I don't know yet for sure. I'm in the middle of shooting.

DOUG: In general, do you script the narrative before filming, or do you improvise?
WERNER: In the movie about the grizzly bears, I know what's happened already, so I am trying to illuminate the events. In other cases I've worked with screenplays. And then there are those times when I use a very rough screenplay and just plow into it. In films as in life.

DOUG: A project isn't challenging unless there are obstacles to overcome.
WERNER: I'm not searching for obstacles.

DOUG: But obstacles tend to present themselves.
WERNER: Making films always involves obstacles. It's not easy for anyone, whether you're filming in China, Iran, Hollywood, Germany, or wherever. The world resists filmmaking. We are not welcome because of the kind of stuff we are doing physically. But that's okay, we can live with that. We have to accept it, otherwise we could not be filmmakers.

DOUG: Some people might argue that the arduous circumstances in which you choose to film are inherently full of obstacles.
WERNER: I'm the last one who would actively seek out difficulties or obstacles. I try to minimize them and minimize risks. That's why I have survived everything that has come my way — disease, prison in Africa, everything imaginable that could have killed me off. Why am I still around at this age? Because, rather than searching out stupid risks, I'm considerate, professional, and good at avoiding them. And if they are unavoidable, then I assess the situation.

DOUG: Perhaps the distinction between documentary and fiction in filmmaking no longer exists. It is all fiction now.
WERNER: For me, the border between feature films and documentaries has always been blurred. Fitzcarraldo is my best documentary and Little Dieter Needs to Fly is my best fiction film. I don't make such a clear distinction between them — they're all movies.

DOUG: Does that mean that anything that's filmed becomes fiction?
WERNER: Well, you're touching on a very deep question. Probably the only non-subjective cameras are the surveillance cameras in supermarkets. Even then, you're filming from a certain perspective. In the film Incident at Loch Ness by Zak Penn, there's a scene in which I describe the most frightening film footage from the last decade.

DOUG: Incident, in which you play yourself, is a pseudo-documentary about the hunt for a mythical monster. What footage do you talk about?
WERNER: The footage was recorded with a surveillance camera in a shopping mall in England. You see shoppers strolling around. And then, in the middle of everyone you see two ten-year-old boys leading a toddler by the hand. At that moment, they're abducting the child, who they ended up murdering in the most unbelievable way. They are about to commit the most gruesome murder in recent English criminal history. But the image caught on camera is the most unobtrusive, most unstaged, most average shot you could possibly take with a surveillance camera in a shopping mall. And all of a sudden, it becomes the greatest of all horrors — the horror lurking in our everyday environment.

DOUG: It also says so much about the aesthetics of the real. Is pornography now being filmed with home video cameras to make it appear like something from the everyday? Does removing the polish of commercial filmmaking create a greater sense of reality? Is rawness more real than reality?
WERNER: Porno films are movie movies. Karate films are movie movies. Fred Astaire films are movie movies. I scared my wife recently by saying that I should be the first director to make a real porno movie.

DOUG: I think Russ Meyer beat you to it. I was sad to hear he died recently.
WERNER: There was something ingenious about Russ Meyer's films.

DOUG: I absolutely agree, but his greatness has been obscured. His vision has been forgotten as if it were just another plastic sign on the highway of cheap strip malls and hotels.
WERNER: And nobody sees this. He'll be recognized for his work many years from now.

DOUG: Shortly before Fellini died, he invited Meyer to a large private gathering in Rome to celebrate his films. For Meyer, it was a huge honor to be acknowledged by Fellini, who was part of the established avant-garde. For forty years, Meyer lived as an outsider in the Hollywood Hills.
WERNER: He captured the vilest and basest instincts of our collective dreams. His work is all about dreams.

DOUG: I think he created an encyclopedia of the human anatomy.
WERNER: No, it's not about human anatomy. It's about deviant dreams. He articulated something that is deep inside of us. Not that he articulated my dreams, but I saw something big in that man.

DOUG: I see a similarity between Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and your 1970 film Even Dwarves Started Small. In both films there's a sense of anarchy, a feeling that the tension and volatility in front of the camera is also really happening behind the camera. The camera seems to join the dance of madness. Scenes are fired off like bullets and fill the screen with anarchy and violence. These films have no relationship to staged drama.
WERNER: Theater is dead. It's lived off its own substance for two hundred years at least. Forget about it.

DOUG: I thought you directed a few theater pieces?
WERNER: Only one, Woyzeck, written by Georg Büchner. I worked with a fragment of the play. It's probably the most intense use of German, my own language, that you can find. I was fascinated by it. And having Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes on stage together gave it a texture that went beyond theater. But forget about theater. There is something not right about it. It's had its day and it's night now. You see, I like to read plays but I don't like to watch them onstage. I can't stand actors on a stage. It just makes me cringe. Whether they're good or bad, it just makes me cringe.

DOUG: So what can we do about the situation?
WERNER: Nothing, just let it expire like food in the supermarket.

DOUG: Has cinema expired?
WERNER: No.

DOUG: Why not?
WERNER: It's a medium that attracts people from every other medium — writers, composers, actors, directors, image-makers. Everyone.

DOUG: And cinema is always changing.
WERNER: In the past, film images were technologically twenty years behind film sound. Now the images have caught up to the sound. With computers we can create amazingly believable dinosaurs in a way that you never could with just film. It's an incredible achievement of human intelligence.

DOUG: When I met you for the first time many years ago at the Telluride Film Festival, you said you were about to go to Mexico to shoot on video. I was surprised you were working with video.
WERNER: Yes, I did one film on video because there was no other alternative. Firstly, the environment was very hostile, and it would have been really difficult to use film equipment. I was run over twice by angry people. Secondly, I had no chance to set up lights — the light was really bad. Very dark. The only way to film was to use a small digital camera. So yes, I'll switch from celluloid to digital recording when it's necessary. But I'm still a man of celluloid.

© index magazinegelatin1
Werner Herzog by Doug Aitken, 2004
© index magazinegelatin1
Werner Herzog filming The Incident at Loch Ness
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All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller