Werner Herzog despises technology for pulling us apart rather than connecting us, and he’s called film school a waste of time and money. So why is the Munich-born filmmaker, best known for death-defying epics like Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo, getting involved with an online film school called the Master Class?
“I have a lot to pass on,” the director says between sips of iced coffee. We’re sitting at a small eatery between Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, where the sun is blasting 107-degree heat.
Even in his 70s, the man is a machine, having just returned from a shoot in Indonesia. Herzog has four films coming out almost simultaneously, including both fictional and documentary encounters with volcanoes—Salt and Fire and Into the Inferno. But after years of bashing the system, it’s a surprise to hear him speak glowingly about teaching nascent filmmakers. And it’s doubly surprising to hear that it’s actually his second foray, after the Rogue Film School. Herzog is a man of paradox and passion. Getting up close feels like an encounter with a wild animal.
Sometimes he shoots a stare that fires right through your core. The next moment he’s looking away, gathering thoughts, measuring his words, never revealing all the magic—just enough to keep you wanting more.
We spoke about Netflix distribution, his disdain for cell phones, the fallacy of independent filmmaking, the rise of disparate outlets and his many upcoming releases. And then he finished his coffee and vanished into the summer heat. A rare creature, here and there and then gone.
You’ve said film school is a waste of time—why get involved now?
I do not really trust in film schools as you would conventionally see them. However, in the last 20-25 years, an increasing number of young people have approached me. What I’m doing with my Rogue Film School is giving a systematic and organized answer to what young, aspiring filmmakers are looking for. When I was approached to do the Master Class, I felt it was also a good instrument. However, it doesn’t have the wild guerilla style of my Rogue Film School. The Rogue Film School is for select participants that I find among hundreds, sometimes thousands. I’m the committee. They come from all over the world. It’s interactive: They ask questions, they talk about the obstacles and problems they have, they ask for direct advice. Of course, the spirit is very rogue. A conspiracy. One of my postulates is form secretive rogue cells everywhere. They actually do gang up and make features. One was shown at the Berlin Film Festival competition and won an award. So they’re good.
I’ve made a lot of films and I know I’ve learned a lot. And I have made so many mistakes that if you listen, you could avoid quite a few of them.
What mistake stands out?
Narrative structure, for example. In the losing of voice-over in the early films. Using of music…just name it.
I encourage [students] to go straight into filmmaking and become independents. Independent cinema is a myth; it doesn’t really exist. Only your home movies of your last Christmas or your beach in Hawaii—that’s independent cinema. But it doesn’t exist in the real world of cinema and distribution. What I try to encourage is to become self-reliant as quickly as you can. Instead of waiting five years or forever for a studio or a quote-unquote producer or television network or a grant, earn it in half a year as a taxi driver, a butcher, a bouncer in a sex club. Make your film because today you can make a feature professional feature film for under $10,000.
Today there is no excuse, because the tools are very inexpensive and very easy to handle. A camera—4K—you can buy for a very small amount. You can record your sound with your cell phone. Of course, you have to attach a professional microphone. And you can edit your film on your laptop.
The tools today do not allow you any excuse not to make a film.
What are your thoughts on the new distribution models, with streaming and Netflix?
I encourage it, and I’m experiencing it. The film that I’m doing right now is straight financed by Netflix. So, I’m going into that [with Into The Inferno], on volcanoes. I’m not the forefront with Oculus Rift, 360-degree surround virtual reality. I’m not somehow lagging behind, the guy of celluloid or something. Not at all. But I do believe that the tools today do not allow you any excuse not to make a film.
Once you have a film like this, you have to look into new ways of distribution. The Internet has phenomenal possibilities. You have to be very vigilant with what you are doing in the Internet. But, for example, a film that I did for YouTube about texting and driving, From One Second to the Next, had phenomenal success. Millions saw it. It was a completely different setup of distribution. And I’m completely open to it and I see extraordinary possibilities. But I personally still prefer, as the mother of all battles, theaters. Theatrical distribution.
It has some very surprising, even stunning effects. But we do not really know how to handle content and editing. I believe it’s not an extension of 3D movies, it’s not an extension of video games, it’s completely new. It remains to be seen what will be done. I have not seen real convincing content yet. That’s the problem.
If you have an established body of work and name, it seems easier to move to ancillary platforms.
No. It can come out of nowhere. That’s the great thing: People come out of nowhere and have 20 million views on YouTube. Normally, it’s a cat video, 60 seconds long.
If you give it away for free online, how do you turn viewers into paying customers?
There are ways to make money on the Internet if you are very successful. The beauty of it is you can come out of nowhere. It’s even more minuscule in the world of studio films or in the world of films that Harvey Weinstein would produce.
You don’t have a cell phone. Does that help you minimize distraction?
I still read. I do not see many films, but I do read. And because of that, I have certainly maintained the ability of conceptual thinking, flow of narration, poetry. Many things come through that.
What do I do without a cell phone? I have a much more focused life. I have time to contemplate, I have time to think. Everybody believes I have four finished films not published yet. It’s piling up, head over heels, I’ve made films, but it was not head over heels. I’m not a workaholic. I work very quiet hours. I show up at editing after 10 in the morning, after traffic is over. And I normally end at 4 o’clock pm, and I quietly sit there and we eat a meal together. During shooting I never go overtime. Not in my entire life, not a single hour overtime. I finish my shooting days around 2, 2:30, 3, sometimes 4. I shoot quietly, very focused, very calmly.
You don’t need to be distracted. Everything that’s important reaches me anyway. And on the set when I’m shooting, of course there are cell phones, and you need them, you need walkie-talkies. One of the strict rules that I have is wherever you see the camera, wherever it’s placed, idle or actively shooting, for your phone call you have to move 200 feet away. And they do it and nobody complains. You get a completely calm, concentrated, focused set.
My problem is that I’ve never been able to catch up with everything that’s coming at me.
Is it fair to say filmmakers have the training, but because they haven’t seen historical films, they’ve lost the soul of the art?
Those people never become real, great filmmakers. Those who do not read—and I mean deep reading, not just tweets or Facebook entries—if you do not read, you will become mediocre at best. Never a great one.
What about conversation? Everyone seems to have their heads down; are we missing our humanity?
Sure. And I see it. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or anything. My social network is my kitchen table, with a capacity of six. Which means my wife and me and maximum four guests. And we laugh. There’s cooking and the joy of having a meal together, and the joy of being in a focused conversation—half of the conversation is laughter. Constant laughter. And then something serious in between, and the joy of feasting, having a good glass of wine. That’s probably something which is dying out. I personally don’t want to lose it.
The moments of reflection and deep thinking—people seem afraid to be alone with their thoughts.
That doesn’t frighten me to see everyone on a cell phone. I try to understand what is going on. Maybe it’s a distant cultural echo of the early days of humanity. Foraging, hunting and gathering, bands of people, maximum 25 or 30, walking in a line through the savannah. Everyone hears what the others are saying, everybody knows what all the rest are doing and thinking.
How is what’s coming next with technology going to impact the way people watch films?
It’s not going to disappear; it’s probably going to solidify or spread more. And about art and cinema, it’s not going to go away. It’s too much embedded in our humanness, in our striving for extraordinary images or poetry or music. It’s not going to disappear. I’m not worried.
The head of Netflix, Reed Hastings was quoted as saying film is going away in the next 100 years.
Well, it’s not going to go away.
What happens when someone in a position of power, who can make or break careers, says something like that?
He doesn’t change my career nor does he change your career. He only gives tools. They’re new tools. And nobody gives us filters. We have to conceptually think, "How do we filter this cornucopia of information?”
Isn’t it too much?
It’s a task you always have to go through. To start as a child, to examine the world, you do not necessarily have to examine it through your cell phone applications. I think kids still love to dig a hole in the ground and climb on a tree. No, it doesn’t disturb me. It’s so new that we just don’t have a real attitude towards it yet. Many things we are doing today with all these tools will strike us as bizarre in 30-50 years from now.
Do you feel a duty in getting involved with the Master Class?
I’m trying to be a good soldier of cinema. But there’s no surprises there. Everyone in the world tries to do the same. To those that want to enter the world of cinema, it can be something for aspiring filmmakers who have never made a film. My Rogue Film School is not for the uninitiated; you have to be a filmmaker. Otherwise, I would not consider you as a candidate. Apparently, after the trailer for Master Class was shown, presales were extraordinary. So, I anticipate it’s probably something that will last for a while. I have moved some of my energies into passing on things to the very young.
Today, because the Internet, and because of my YouTube successes, all of a sudden a 15 year-old contacts me. And when Lo And Behold, my Internet film comes out, it will be 12 year-olds contacting me. It has created a huge amount of excitement. This is very new for me. And the Master Class is for 17 to 25 year-olds. That’s when you should start making films. Not much later.
Tell me about your other projects.
Well, the Master Class film school is going to be out mid-July. Mid-August, Lo And Behold, my film on the Internet. There’s a huge buzz about it. Then I have the volcano film. The feature film Salt and Fire, not released in the States. Then yet another feature, Queen of the Desert, which was released in a couple of countries, but not in the states. It was shot in English with Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, James Franco.
I did them all one after the other, but quietly. With steady, calm pace. My problem is that I’ve never been able to catch up with everything that’s coming at me.
Is there a subject or genre you haven’t done that you want to do?
There’s at least 5, 6 films somehow pushing at me. It’s like a dog that’s in the middle of the night, uninvited, but it’s there. I can even give you the title of the films, tell you the story, but at the moment I have to finish the volcano. I have to work on the marketing campaign of four films now. Maybe even five.