Werner Herzog’s soul is still dancing after 58 years of filmmaking. The acclaimed German filmmaker returns to the screen with Family Romance, LLC, which explores Japan’s rising “rent-a-family” industry. While the story is pure fiction, Herzog blurs the lines between reality and fiction by shooting the film with the authenticity of a documentary. Furthermore, the film stars Yuichi Ishii, the real-life founder of a Japanese rental family service known as Family Romance.

In the film, Ishii is hired by various clients to fulfill markedly different needs, but the most substantial storyline involves Ishii posing as the long-lost father of a 12-year-old girl named Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto). Even though the latter service has been performed by Ishii in real life, Herzog decided to fictionalize his take on the story since it raises many ethical and moral questions.

Herzog explains, “If it were a real event and had I done a documentary, I would have been complicit with my camera to cheat the girl (Mahiro), to defraud her and not tell her that her father is an imposter. It would have been unethical to make a documentary.”

Ever since filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise aggressively pursued Herzog to play their villain in Jack Reacher, acting offers continue to pile up including a 2019 role he couldn’t resist on Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian. Naturally, Herzog remains enamored with 2019’s pop culture phenomenon, Baby Yoda.

“It’s wonderfully created and sculpted, and a mechanical device that is a massive achievement for cinema. You can see it with your eyes, and you can touch it,” Herzog explains. “That’s why I said, ‘Don’t try to have a fallback, a plan B, and shoot it now in a digital remake of what you already have in the can. It’s so wonderful. You cannot outdo it. Don’t be cowards. You are trailblazers.’”

Herzog also speaks highly of The Mandalorian’s cutting-edge StageCraft technology, which immerses the actors in CG environments via a wraparound LED screen.

“What The Mandalorian is doing with its technology, it replaces what has been very difficult for actors, cameras and for everything: the green screens,” Herzog shares. “But here, with these round horizons, as an actor, you know where you are, and the camera knows and sees the foreign planet on which you are moving. This is a wonderful achievement. It’s cinema where it always has been and where it should be back.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Herzog elaborates on the joy of acting on The Mandalorian, the “phenomenal achievement” that is Baby Yoda and creating solidarity with Christian Bale on the set of Rescue Dawn

Since you tend to work a lot, are you quite restless these days?

I’ve never been completely restless. I’m not a workaholic. I finished another film, and I was lucky because I finished shooting in December. And I did all the editing and delivery of everything during the lockdown. So, it’s a film that will be released on Apple TV+ later in the year and probably will be shown in Telluride and Toronto. It’s a film of meteorites called Fireball and then a secondary title, Visitors From Darker Worlds [Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds]. And I’m writing now since I cannot venture out with a camera. I’m writing poetry and prose texts.

I know you only watch four films a year on average, but have your viewing habits increased at all during this quarantine period? 

No, not beyond my average. I’m not much of a moviegoer. I do not watch many films, but I do read. I enjoy reading more. That’s where you will find me.

So, what was the genesis of the idea for Family Romance, LLC?

Well, a former student of my Rogue Film School — which is a wild guerilla style answer to the stupidity of film schools all over — came to me and said, “I have discovered something,” and he wrote about a man in the company Family Romance. I said, “This is so big. You have to make a film instantly.” His name is Roc Morin, and he’s a producer of the film now because he didn’t feel ready to make a feature film now himself. So I said, “Well, it has to be made and shouldn’t I make it then?” He said, “Wonderful,” and he’s the producer now. I directed and wrote the film.

On the set of Family Romance
Lena Herzog

This is a fictional film, but it’s shot like a documentary. What was your reasoning behind that choice?

It was always clear. It had to be a fiction film. I see an entire film in front of my eyes, as if it was in a projection already, and it was always clear it has to be a feature film. Of course, it is directed, scripted, rehearsed and acted, but that it feels so authentic is a badge of honor because I do not speak the Japanese language. I think it’s a good sign that you feel there’s something very authentic about it. So, the reason that I really had this directness and authenticity was because I did not speak the language, so I had to be extra insistent and careful about an authentic tone. If it were a real event and had I done a documentary, I would have been complicit with my camera to cheat the girl (Mahiro), to defraud her and not tell her that her father is an imposter. It would have been unethical to make a documentary.

Family Romance
Lena Herzog

And rental family services like Family Romance are part of a booming industry in Japan, right?

It is, and it’s growing massively. When I did the film, Family Romance had 1,400 employees who would be sent out to play roles such as joining you as a friend in your solitude, or going out and hitting the bars, having a great time and taking selfies, which would then show up on your Facebook account to show the world that you have a great life. So, yeah.

Have they dealt with a lot of scrutiny over the ethics and morality of their work? 

I think they are questioning themselves, and they have clear answers. For example, a clear answer is you must not fall in love when you are rented out, let’s say, in a wedding. And I know from Yuichi Ishii that at 60 weddings where he participated as a missing family member — 30 times, half the time, somebody would have loved to marry him. You see, there is a strict code of behavior. You are not getting involved emotionally, and if emotions take over, you must step out of the job.

Do struggling actors end up working for these operations usually?

Very few, I think. Maybe 1 percent or 2 percent. I do not know. I don’t have the answer, but all the actors that you see in my film have done performances for this company. They know how to deal with situations. They can react.

Family Romance
Lena Herzog

When Mr. Ishii encountered the robots at the hotel, it seemed like he was researching his eventual replacement since this work has clearly taken a toll on him. Are we closer than we think to robot companions?

Ah yes, I do believe. Of course, we do use inanimate companions like dolls or teddy bears. And dolls even speak now. But what is interesting, my wife has been at Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently, and they are working not so much on industrialized robots that weld car chassis but on companion robots. They’re fluffy, very cute creatures with big eyes, and they can read your facial expressions. They are intelligent, and if you are sad, they read the sadness in your face and will immediately tell you jokes or sing a song to you. My wife said to herself, “I’m not going to buy,” and the creature reads her attitude correctly, puts its head to the side and blinks with his big eyes and says with a very sweet, soft voice, “Ah, you do not trust me.” And my wife, within five minutes, was hooked and loved the creature. It will come big time at us. Two Christmases from now, it’s going to be one of the big items under the Christmas tree, and I think that it has some good sides. It takes some of your solitude away from you, and it’s a tool, for example, for people who are longing for companionship. That’s why we have such an intensive communication with pets. We delegate emotions.

Family Romance
Lena Herzog

The ending is note-perfect, and I consider it to be one of your best. Is it exactly what you had on the page, or did it evolve during production?

No, it was exactly as I wanted, but it was my most difficult scene because it’s shot from outside through an opaque, glass door. And you do not see the child that’s approaching the door; you only see the hands from inside, like handprints in a Paleolithic cave. The little child was only two and a half years old, and directing a child, doing a certain thing at a certain moment, is something that’s very difficult. It goes to the limits of what a director can do. It took me a long time until I achieved this end, but I wouldn’t get tired until I had it in the can as it had to be and as you see it now. It’s a very mysterious, very moving end.

I presume you hired someone to translate the script as well as your direction on set?

Of course, it was a necessity. I had a very, very intelligent translator, and she would explain the scene as I scripted it. The actors only had to learn the action, the gist of the scene and the dialogue; only some essential dialogue had to be verbatim. I told them, “You go into the situation and do the dialogue on your own, but it has to hit certain marks.” There’s a scene where the 12-year old girl (Mahiro) shows Instagram photos to her father (Ishii). I selected photos from the real cell phone of the girl and lined them up in what they have to talk and what they have to speak about it. On the fourth photo, you see her in a yoga pose on a beach, and the father has to ask, “This is a wonderful beach, where was it done?” Although her father is lying about being her father, the girl starts lying as well, and she tells him, “Oh, it was done on a beach in Bali.” In the next scene, when the main leading character collects his weekly paycheck at her mother’s home, we learn that the photo was never done in Bali; the family was never in Bali. The girl starts to invent and make her life more interesting to her father, and I asked [the translator], afterwards, “Did that part of dialogue come very precisely?” And I was told, “Yes, that was absolutely good in what they talked about. The previous Instagram photos were wonderful.” But since I was my own cinematographer, I was so close to the actors that I sensed that they had the right tone, the right familiarity and the right enthusiasm.

When you compare your fictional work to your non-fictional work, do you feel a different type of fulfillment or satisfaction from each?

No, it’s all movies that I make. And of course, my distinction between documentaries and feature films, as you are seemingly making it, it does not exist for me. I stylize documentaries. I script them, partially. I rehearse some of it. I repeat. Of course, I modify facts, but sometimes, I modify facts to such a degree that they resemble truth more than reality. You see what I mean? To give you a deeper illumination. And the completely fact-based cinema, like cinéma vérité, has its days in the ‘60s. It’s an answer of the ‘60s, but I’m after something that is stylized, has invention in it and gives you a deeper access to what might be the truth. To give you an example, the statue of the Pietà by Michelangelo, arguably the most beautiful statue ever created, depicts the Virgin Mary with dead Jesus in her lap. When you look at the face of Jesus Christ, it’s a tormented face of a 33-year old man, and when you look into the face of this mother, this mother is 17. And now comes my question: does Michelangelo give us “fake news”? Does he try to cheat us? Defraud us? Lie to us? No, he does not. He modifies facts, so that we can grasp a deeper truth. And that’s a truth of the man of sorrows, and it’s a deeper truth of his mother, the virgin.

A new generation was just introduced to you via The Mandalorian, and now they’re discovering your films as a result. Did you enjoy your Mandalorian experience more than you initially expected?

No, I enjoy acting. I enjoy, actually, everything that has to do with cinema: writing, directing, editing, acting. Of course, I do only things where I know I can actually deliver what is asked for me. And whenever I’m within the demonology of the villains, of the true villains, I do my best, and I think I deliver. So, it’s a joy. It’s a joy to see that everybody’s delighted behind the camera with how I delivered my lines.

The Mandalorian
Courtesy of Lucasfilm

Have you come to grips with the fact that you’ll be asked about Baby Yoda (aka The Child) for the rest of your life?

I’m not really into the Internet, social media and the comments on the Internet. So, of course, it took me by surprise. But what’s wrong with saying something good about Baby Yoda, which is really a phenomenal achievement? It’s wonderfully created and sculpted, and a mechanical device that is a massive achievement for cinema. You can see it with your eyes, and you can touch it. That’s why I said, “Don’t try to have a fallback, a plan B, and shoot it now in a digital remake of what you already have in the can. It’s so wonderful. You cannot outdo it. Don’t be cowards. You are trailblazers.” What The Mandalorian is doing with its technology, it replaces what has been very difficult for actors, cameras and for everything: the green screens. But here, with these round horizons, as an actor, you know where you are, and the camera knows and sees the foreign planet on which you are moving. This is a wonderful achievement. It’s cinema where it always has been and where it should be back.

I’m being facetious, but who was easier to control: Baby Yoda or the Dancing Chicken from Stroszek?

(Laughs.) Well, neither one was easy to control, but thank God I didn’t have to control Baby Yoda. There were two highly, highly sophisticated, highly trained specialist technicians who managed to operate it with remote control buttons. It’s highly complex and needed two people and four hands to control the lips, the eyes, the voice and the facial expressions. I could never have managed to control a single movement of that creature.

Did you intend to become a bona fide actor, or did the offers begin to snowball once you appeared in Jack Reacher?

No, I was always dragged into it. I did not compete for being in Jack Reacher. I was invited — and invited with such vehemence that I had the feeling that they really wanted me as the villain. And Jon Favreau invited me with great enthusiasm and great warmth into the role. I think he did it because he likes how I am as an actor, and I think he likes my movies. He said that many times to me. And I thought, “That’s fine. Yes, show up at a set where we really exchange the best of what we have in us.”

Rescue Dawn
MGM/Photofest

My father is a Vietnam veteran, and I recently showed him Rescue Dawn, which he loved. Whenever I watch that film, I’m reminded of the extreme lengths that you and Christian Bale went to in order to pull it all off. Of course, Christian lost a great deal of weight, wrestled live snakes and ate live maggots like Dieter Dengler had to do to survive. In general, do you admire that level of commitment from your actors in an effort to bring your stories to life?

Of course, but I would not ask anything of an actor if I wouldn’t be willing to do it myself. I didn’t know that Christian Bale lost 65 pounds over half a year so that he was almost skeletal. But he did it under medical supervision, and I said, “Out of solidarity, Christian, I’m going to lose half the amount of weight that you are losing.” And I actually lost 30 pounds. When it came to eating live maggots from a spoonful, I said, “Christian, before you do that, hand me the spoon and I’ll show you that it doesn’t do any harm to you. It’s lots of proteins.” And he took the spoon away from me and said, “Don’t be silly. You don’t need to do that.” But I would have done it.

The pandemic continues to be out of control across the U.S. However, the film and television industry is still holding out hope that it can resume filming somewhat soon with strict safety protocols in place. Will you return to a movie set as soon as it’s allowed, or are you in no rush to get back on set?

Well, I’m writing at the moment. I’m writing poetry and prose text. But I wish I could be out, although I just finished a film after Family Romance. Yeah, I would like to be out, but I can show up easier than if I have a full crew. When I did Family Romance, I was my own cinematographer with hardly any crew at all. It was so unobtrusive, as if I were out with a cell phone and doing a movie. So, I can do a film with somebody helping me with the sound, and I can direct the film and be my own cinematographer. I can do a feature film like that, but I would not jeopardize my environment with a 250-persons crew. You have to go guerilla style and reduce your crew to the absolute minimum. And then, being cautious enough, you can make movies.

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MUBI will present a one-day free virtual preview of Family Romance, LLC on July 3 and it will exclusively stream on the platform starting July 4.