Werner Herzog on Capital Punishment, Interviewing Inmates and the Notes he Never Got (Q&A)

"On Death Row," the four part docu-series follow up to Herzog's festival darling, "Into the Abyss" premieres tonight on Investigation Discovery.
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Werner Herzog

Investigation Discovery is heading to death row.

The Discovery-owned cable network teamed with acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog for a project that has spawned a festival circuit film, Into the Abyss, as well as a complementary four-part documentary series, On Death Row.

The latter, which premieres tonight, delves deeper into what Herzog has called the “abyss” of the human soul. The series will feature interviews conducted with four men and one woman awaiting their execution dates on death row. It was filmed on location in Florida and Texas.

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Herzog, along with his production partner Erik Nelson and Investigation Discovery president Henry Schleiff, sat down earlier this year to discuss the decision to split the project in two, the process of getting death row inmates to open up and Herzog’s own thoughts on the criminal justice system.

THR: How did you convince these inmates to share their stories with you?

Werner Herzog: There is a clear protocol to go through first. You have to get in touch with the inmates in writing. The next step is  to ask the prison authorities, and if it's a complicated case you have to get a permit from the state and there are certain rules. You have 50 minutes. Forty-eight minutes into the conversation, you feel a soft hand on your shoulder and it's a guard who means business. The guard lets you know you have another 120 seconds. That said, they normally gave me a little bit more time because they liked me. The guards and the prisoners, they all wanted me back.

THR: How aware were they of your previous work?

Erik Nelson: They weren't. They weren't students of film so they just thought we were coming in with Investigation Discovery to do a traditional sort of film. We'd pick up local crews, who would say, "I really like that Werner Herzog guy." In a strange way, I think we got better access because we had Investigation Discovery, which was a known and trusted brand and they knew what that brand meant. They didn’t think it was some kind of wild filmmaker coming in, which might of made them nervous.

Henry Schleiff: What was so surprising to me was that normally it takes some period of time --the second or third interview-- before you get into the kind of questions that Werner was asking in his first and only meeting with them. The amount of personal detail, access, intimacy and emotion as well as the relationship that he establishes whether he’s in for 15 minutes or 55 minutes is incredible. I mean, it's kind of a parlor trick.

THR: What was your secret?

Herzog: You have to give them a kind of security. With Into the Abyss, for example, a woman who lost both her mother and her brother in this senseless crime said that I was the only one in ten years that made her feel safe. Or the only one outside of intimate family members, that is. But you have to have that in you somehow; you can't learn that. It helps that I don't have a catalog of questions when I go into these interviews. It's a conversation from man-to-man, or in that case, man-to-woman.

THR: Werner, you've covered so many different subjects, why this?

Herzog: I had a deep fascination with these cases for a long time, and I said to Erik Nelson, "We should do something and I want to do it for television." So we got into business almost instantly, [and Henry Schleiff] was the next one to know. There was no deliberation. There wasn’ta committee that would sit on it and send in a proposal and then amend the proposal. It was an instant yes.

Schleiff: It was a remarkably and uniquely easy decision to make. So when I got this call from Erik saying, "Would you be interested in working with Werner Herzog in this specific subject?" I think I said yes before I said, "Now tell me a little bit more."

THR: What kind of notes do you give Werner Herzog?

Schleiff: Erik asked what level of control the network would have, and I laughed. Obviously, like any network, depending upon who we're dealing with, we will assert ourselves a little bit more here or there. In the case of Werner, I said, ‘This is truly an auteur. Let him go off and do his thing. We're happy to be here for him if he has questions about logistics -- how many minutes for the hour or how do you want to cut it. But in terms of the story and the actual content, just let us know when you're through or how we can be helpful.’

Nelson: When I talked to Werner about going to an American television network, I said, ‘You should know something about American TV networks, they'll always give the artist the final word, final cut is the way it’s done, you get total creative freedom, and they're not going ask for an outline. Basically, not only will they not give you notes, but they may not even watch it when it's on the air because they respect the artist.’ Werner said, ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘Trust me on this.’ Now, Werner hasn't worked for anyone other than Henry, so let's just keep this between us. [laughs]

Schleiff:And don't tell him anything different because we're anxious to do the next thing with him, whatever the next thing is. And you're the first person to hear, the answer is, "yes." I just don't know what it is.

THR: Any ideas brewing, Werner?

Herzog: If there is a very strong reaction from the audience to this, we could continue the Death Row series.

THR: What does the film platform offer than the TV one does not? And visa versa?

Herzog: For example, with the Death Row project, we could do these very, very condensed portraits and stories of one individual person on death row. You can't do that in the theaters, because it's too short and too narrow. You see, if you go to a theatrical release you'll need to have a one and a half hour film, and I wouldn't do a one and a half hour film on one character on death row. It wouldn't be the right thing and it wouldn't be the right audience.

Nelson: Also I think one of the benefits of television, when you're watching it in the privacy of your home, is that there can be an intimacy to it if it's properly done. And these stories, these one-on-one interviews, are remarkably personal. There's not car chases, back-story or B-roll, it's just simple and classic. And by virtue of that, it’s not something that you’d want to see in a theater with a lot of other people. Into the Abyss, which we showed in theaters, was a much broader story.

Schleiff: It's funny, we had no intention of doing the film originally. But after doing the research, Werner came back and said, "There are just so many aspects to this, would you mind if we separate this out, do it as a film first, and then come back and do this television project?" And again, we're not as easy as I want this to sound, but it seemed like a no-brainer for us. Our answer was, “Of course.”

THR: Werner, how did your opinion on capital punishment change in the process?

Herzog: It didn’t change. I think it's a question of principle. I come from a different historical background and being a guest in the United States I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment. As a German I have no business becoming an activist, and I should be the last one to tell American audiences how to deal with their criminal justice system. But I do voice my position. 

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