Saturday, August 8, 2009

Werner Herzog Remembers the Good Old Days in Peru, the Bad New Days in New Orleans

Fitzcarraldo, the 1982 epic that Werner Herzog shot in the jungles of Peru, using a team of locals to pull a 320-ton steamboat up a mountain, may have been the most troubled production of the director's long and adventurous career, though the competition for that title is fierce. (Herzog had shot an estimated forty percent of the film when his star, Jason Robards, was sidelined by amoebic dysentery, after which his co-star, Mick Jagger, had to abandon the project to fulfill a commitment to tour with his day job, the Rolling Stones. Herzog wrote Jagger's role out of the script and replaced Robards with Klaus Kinski, the only known instance in movie history of someone bringing Klaus Kinksi in to stabilize a situation.) It's probably the most well-documented production in Herzog's career, though. The director Les Blank recorded it all in his won 1982 feature documentary Burden of Dreams, and now it's reported that, in June, Ecco Press is bringing out Herzog's journals written during the production, under the title Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. For those of you who can't wait, The Paris Review has a selection in their Spring 2009 issue. ("These texts are not reports on the filming --of which little is said. Nor are they journals, except in a very general sense. They might be described instead as inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle. But even that may not be entirely accurate--I am not sure." Coming from anyone else but Werner, this sort of thing would count as discouraging.) The excerpt isn't available online, but hey, it's a good magazine, so throw them twelve bucks if you're so inclined.

Herzog also just checked in with John Patterson, giving him a quick rundown of the current busy state of his movie career at his Laurel Canyon home, because he still considers himself to be a filmmaker and all this "man of letters" business is making him nervous. Herzog, who credits his global viewpoint to the fact that he "had seen much of the world before I was 20, and I had experienced it in a very fundamental way - being on foot, in Africa, in danger," actually had to take his age into account--he's now 66--when deciding not to imperil his life by shooting some icy underwater footage himself on his Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World. However, he braved New Orleans, Nicolas Cage, and the wrath of Abel Ferrara on the movie he recently finished, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Werner insists that, previous reports to the contrary, this is not a remake or a reboot of or a sequel to Ferrara's 1992 scuzzball classic, which came complete with rape on a church altar, visions of Jesus, and full-frontal Keitel. It seems that producer Ed Pressman owns the rights to the title and just wanted to use it on a new project. "I was assured," says Herzog, "that this was not related to another film of a similar name. I told them, 'If you swear on the heads of your children.' I also had hints from Nicolas Cage that he wouldn't sign unless he knew I was directing, which is a good way to start a film." Herzog was keen to shoot in New Orleans "because, after Katrina, you were in a situation where civil life came to a breakdown. Not merely because the hurricane caused a lot of material destruction, but it also created a collapse of civility - looting and, by the way, the police were heavily involved in that, too." And the producers were hot to shoot there too, because of "the tax incentives."

Herzog is "also in the process of wrapping up another film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, produced by David Lynch and loosely based on a gruesome matricide in San Diego in the 1980s, starring Michael Shannon...This being a Herzog movie, the suburban footage is interspersed with scenes - visions, perhaps - captured in Central Asia and Peru. He calls it 'sort of a horror movie'." This all amounts to the most time Herzog has spent working with actors and scripts for quite some time, now; most of his filmography for the last several years has been devoted to nonfiction filmmaking. (The biggest and most recent exception, 1996's Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale, was based on the same story that Herzog had already used a decade earlier for his documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly.) Not that he sees much difference, of course; this is a guy who, in 1991's Lessons of Darkness, presented footage of the smoking, apocalyptic aftermath of the Gulf War as a science fiction film, and who later, in 2005's The Wild Blue Yonder, intercut NASA footage with film of the actor Brad Dourif improvising a monologue recounting his life as an extraterrestrial immgirant. "The distinction between fiction and documentary," says Herzog, "is the last thing I would spend a sleepless night over."

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