Berlin: Werner Herzog Says Nude Scene Was Nicole Kidman's Idea (Q&A)

Werner Herzog P 2015
Marc Valesella

"How blessed are we that we have women?" says the director as he talks shooting his first nude scene for 'Queen ?of ?the ?Desert.'

Werner Herzog surprised everyone with his Berlinale competition entry Queen of the Desert. Not only is the film, which stars Nicole Kidman as real-life desert explorer Gertrude Bell, his first feature with a female lead, it is also, unabashedly, his first attempt at a romantic love story. The critics have not been kind, but Herzog, 72, has no regrets.

The director of Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about feeling a kindred spirit with Bell and how he drew from his own life — including the way he proposed to his wife — to shoot his first-ever love scenes.

Why did it take you so long to make a film with a female lead?
It's true it is the first feature film, the first narrative film. I have done documentaries with female central characters. But the story came at me with such vehemence, with such intensity, that when I wrote the screenplay, it didn't occur to me that this was my first with a female protagonist. And when I was shooting, it didn't occur to me. Only when I was finished, and now here at the Berlinale, people are saying, "Ah, it is the first time you are doing something with a woman-centered character." It's correct, and I thought I should have done it a long time before.

What was it about Gertrude Bell's story that so appealed to you?
Gertrude Bell's story came at me through her letters and diaries, and there was a voice, a human being of great complexity. I think it is the complexity of the character, a certain actuality of her character and of course a great, great story. Essentially I am a storyteller, and it immediately appealed to me. There was something really big about her. There was not a second of hesitation.

You are known for putting actors through their paces. How did Nicole Kidman react to your approach as a director?
Well, it was clear that the team would follow me wherever I would go. And when there was a sandstorm, it was clear we were not going to hunker down in a hotel room, but we are going out to film in the sandstorm. It is tough work, but it is always worthwhile. I knew that Nicole Kidman would be extraordinary, and I would take her where she has never been before. And I don't mean geographically; I don't just mean the desert. I knew there would be something in this part that she could embody — something that we have not seen in a long time.

When I work with "big stars" — let's say Nicolas Cage, Christian Bale or so — for me, they are not stars; they are royalty. Everyone in front of my camera is. Small parts as well. They are royalty. And they know it. They sense it. And I can give them a deep sense of confidence. Nicole said she was stepping into "Werner's World," and she did. It is very easy to work with her because she is like the best in Australians, the outback, the kind of camaraderie, hard work, down to earth. She was extremely prepared, extremely professional. She would have accepted to sleep in a Bedouin tent.

There are aspects of this film that we've never seen from you before, such as love scenes. What was it like to shoot those for the first time?
There's no real secret behind it. That's what I do; it's my profession. You have to know the heart of men, or in this case of women, to do it right. There is also a distant echo of my private life there. I am one of the very few men that I know that is really happily married, truly blessed. I am a very lucky man. And I looked at how things happened to me and how I proposed to my wife — I'm married now 20 years. When I proposed, I was so low in my voice that my wife barely heard me, and she said, "Did I hear you right?" I repeated it, and she said, "Shouldn't you be on your knees?" And it is almost identical to how James Franco proposes to Nicole Kidman [in the film]. It is something very easy for me. I think I do understand women, and I think of what a miserable existence it would be if there were only men on this planet. It would be unbearable. How blessed are we that we have women? That they exist — it is just something I have to thank creation for.

Do you think with this film you are able to show a side of yourself that you haven't been able to in your other films?
No, I wouldn't say that, because I have done very sensitive scenes before. It isn't foreign; it isn't completely new terrain. But of course I have not done a real scene with romance before. I have not done nudity. By the way, it was Nicole Kidman who said, "Please give me a scene where I can take a bath in this foldable canvas bathtub," which Gertrude Bell had on her travels. So I said, "Yes, we will do it. There will be nudity, but it will not be exploitative. I do not want to do it voyeur-style." And it is a very beautiful, poetic scene.

It came as a surprise to many reviewers that Herzog is suddenly doing a film about a woman and he is doing a love story. And a film about longing. It was somehow stunning for them. But it came very naturally to me.

Do you see parallels between the life of Gertrude Bell and what you have done in your work?
Yes, there are some affinities. And we are speaking now of Gertrude Bell the historical person. The sense of restlessness and going out, the curiosity for the world. The sense of language, sense of poetry. Also solitude, and longing. It's all in the film. In a way — and I say this with the necessary caution — she is a kindred spirit.