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Werner Herzog has a near-mythic presence in world cinema. The 76-year-old German director makes brutally authentic features — Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fitzcarraldo — and, with the likes of Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, fantastically imaginative documentaries. “They are often fictions in disguise,” Herzog says, in that ponderous Germanic monotone familiar from the countless voiceovers on his films that has become almost as famous as the filmmaker himself.
The fuzzy and fluid border between the real and the imagined has been a constant in Herzog’s work — as it is in his new film, Family Romance, LLC, the story of a man who hires himself out as the missing father of a 12-year-old girl. Herzog shot the pic in secret in Japan (despite not speaking a word of Japanese) and will be debuting it Saturday in a special screening in Cannes.
The idiosyncratic, iconic filmmaker sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at the festival to discuss the origins of his latest film and the search for “ecstatic truth” in it, plus the secrets to his prolificacy (he never shoots coverage).
I was invited. I have never seen a Star Wars film, but it doesn’t matter. Whenever I accept an acting role, first and foremost I have to see the screenplay and [decide]: Does it make sense for me to play the role? So I have rejected many, many things that came at me. Hundreds of roles. The quality of the screenplay is the only criteria. And would I be the right choice? Can I do it? When it’s like in Jack Reacher — the badass, bad guy — yes, I can do it.
Basically through a young man, Roc Morin, the producer of the film. He was a former attendant of my Rogue Film School and he uncovered a phenomenon in Japan about friendship for hire. Hiring stand-ins for family affairs, to be your Facebook buddy, to have a great time with and documenting it. Immediately it became clear this is something very, very big. Because there is already an echo coming into our world. It’s not something exotic that only has to do with Japan. And this is why it became such a well-known phenomenon. Because we know these existential solitudes are coming at us. And the meaning of friendship, meaning of family, all of this is shifting.
You are incredibly prolific.
Yes, I’ve made three films in the last 12 months.
How can you make movies so quickly?
Easily. I’m not a workaholic. My shooting days are very short. I know what I am doing. I shoot what I need for the screen. You can edit very fast today when you are doing it digitally, almost as fast as you are thinking. I’ll give you an example, from [Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans] with Nicolas Cage: My shooting days were over by 3:30 in the afternoon. And everybody said, “But you haven’t shot coverage.” On the second day, I secretly asked my second director, “What do they mean by coverage?” I know what coverage is on my car insurance, but on film? He told me: a wide master shot then a close-up on the eyes, and a reaction shot and so on. Everybody got so nervous. And finally Nicolas Cage asked for an apple crate and stepped up on it and said: “Forget about all these demands for coverage. Finally, I am working with a director who knows what he is doing.” I know exactly what I am doing.
You’ve said your films are searching for an ecstatic truth. Can you explain that?
No. Because we would need 48 hours and I would need to show you examples. The briefest example would be the statue of the Pietà by Michelangelo. Mary holds the body of Jesus taken from the cross, a 30-year-old man, but she, the mother of the 30-year-old, is 17. So did Michelangelo try to give us fake news, or cheat us or defraud us? Of course not. By modifying facts, he intensifies a truth.
In your recent documentary, Meeting Gorbachev, you ask the titular former Soviet leader what he would want written on his headstone. How would you like to be remembered?
I don’t care about posterity. I won’t be there anyway. It’s the last thing I would be interested in.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter‘s May 19 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.