How Werner Herzog survived being shot
VIDEO: Director eats maggots, stands on volcano for filmsWould you eat maggots? Would you stand atop a live volcano? Would you murder your star? Six indie stalwarts -- directors Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan"), Werner Herzog ("Caves of Forgotten Dreams") and Oren Peli ("Paranormal Activity"), along with actors Catherine Keener ("Trust"), Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") and Sam Rockwell ("Conviction") -- gathered at Kultura restaurant during the recent Toronto International Film Festival to discuss these and other matters with THR's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway.
The Hollywood Reporter: Werner, word has it you have no cell phone?
Werner Herzog: Well, it may sound odd, but one of the explanations is that I made my first phone call when I was 17. I grew up in such a remote mountain valley that until I was 11, I had not seen any films; I didn't even know that cinema existed. So in a way, I'm an odd person who hasn't had experiences with phones. [But] I use computers and I drive a car and have e-mail and I use it frequently.
THR: You don't think of yourself as old-fashioned?
Herzog: No, it's an essential way to live. And living in a substantial way doesn't mean old-fashioned.
THR: Sam Rockwell: I don't have a computer yet, so I guess that's somewhat old-fashioned.
THR: That's interesting, because so many of you have done avant-garde work. Darren, do you think of yourself as avant-garde?
Darren Aronofsky: Since I was very young, I've had a taste for the alternative. I remember as a teenager always looking for different ways of looking at things. I wasn't in the Bavarian mountains, but in South Brooklyn [and we] didn't get art film. I grew up on the mainstream films of the '70s and early '80s. It wasn't until I started university that I realized films were made in Europe as well and latched onto [art films] because finally aesthetically something clicked.
THR: Was there any one film that did that for you?
Aronofsky: "She's Gotta Have It" by Spike Lee. It was just a seminal moment; I had never seen cinema like that. [But] I didn't really know what a filmmaker was. When I got to university, I started reading a lot of dead white men and my roommate would get high every day and work on Anatomy of Film and get an A, and I was like, "Hmm, something's wrong here." So I switched over and I had a drawing class with this incredible teacher who just taught you how to look at the three-dimensional world and represent it in two dimensions on paper, and it radicalized the way I looked at the world.
Catherine Keener: I got high in college. (Laughs.) I wrote great papers that way, too. (To Herzog:) But I wanted to ask you what film you saw at 17?
Herzog: No, my first phone call was when I was 17. I saw two films when I was 11, and only because a traveling projectionist just arrived at this one-classroom schoolhouse. One was about Eskimos building an igloo and it was lousy, and the other was about pygmies in central Africa building a bridge. Both really didn't impress me that much.
THR: What impresses you today?
Herzog: Always great stories, of course. "Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
THR: That's not today.
Herzog: Well, it could have been made yesterday. Or Abbas Kiarostami's "Where is the Friend's Home," which is 15 years back.
Rockwell: Did you see the French film, "A Prophet"? That's a great film.
Herzog: I do not see that many films -- as an average, maybe two or three films per year. So I've never seen many films.
Melissa Leo: I'm the same way. It's never been a habit of mine. I grew up on the Lower East Side; I didn't see a lot of film, we didn't have TV growing up. I don't read newspapers, I don't read books, I don't see movies. I watch bad television or I garden.
Herzog: For directors, you will never be a great director if you don't read. I run my own film school -- I call it a traveling circus, a rogue film school -- and I have a mandatory reading list for those who apply. It starts with Virgil's "Georgics." Read it in Latin if possible. I have a short story by Hemingway; old Icelandic poetry; and, among others, the Warren Commission Report. It's a fantastic piece of reading.
THR: Oren, listening to this, do you relate in any way?
Oren Peli: I watch about two or three movies a day. I love alternative stuff, I love mainstream stuff. I'll watch anything. I enjoy watching great movies and I enjoy learning from bad movies. So I try to kind of reverse-engineer them and analyze what works, what doesn't work, and I try to just kind of figure out intuitively what makes a scene or a movie or a sequence effective.
THR: Elia Kazan wrote a piece about what it takes to be a good director -- knowing architecture, art, history, literature, everything. What skill is foremost?
Peli: Storytelling. [And] the ability to work with actors. Also, there are a lot of personality traits like perseverance and being able to power through all the possible obstacles. [But] working with the actors is the most important thing.
Aronofsky: That was very well put. I'm definitely a dilettante: good in lots of little things, but not great in any of them. But perseverance is such a big part of the game.
THR: What's the one area in filmmaking you feel the most confident about?
Aronofsky: I always had a very strong visual sense. I was shooting photography when I was a teenager and spent a lot of time in high school in the dark room and did a lot of writing as well. So those things I was confident in. But I had no idea how to talk to someone about performing. So I took acting classes. My goal was to cry in front of the class without being conscious of it. And the day I did that, I quit.
THR: Sam, how about you?
Rockwell: Gosh, I don't know. I feel like I'm getting into a zone with my work, a little bit, but it's always with help. I go to an acting coach. Sometimes I'll go to a couple.
THR: Is there a best and worst moment you've had?
Keener: A couple. I was mad at Spike Jonze when I was working on "Being John Malkovich." He was working on this stunt for so long.
Rockwell: Saved the acting for the last part of the day?
Keener: It was 5 o'clock in the morning! I said, "Get away from me or I'll push you down the hill." We're close friends, and he knew I meant it. I would've pushed him right down the hill.
THR: Werner, there's a famous instance where Klaus Kinski held a gun to you.
Herzog: No. He didn't hold a gun to me. In fact, I threatened to shoot him, but I had no gun in my hand.
THR: Would you have shot him?
Herzog: Sure. Actually, he plotted to kill me at the same time, I found out later. I plotted to do him in and he deserved it at that moment. He was walking out of a film, "Aguirre: The Wrath of God." You just don't do that. And it was always clear that we had a duty beyond him and beyond me and we were out there in the jungle to fulfill it. You don't bail out. It was just one of these jungle-fever dreams and madness and fits of insanity that he had. You have to have the gift to domesticate the wild beast once in a while.
THR: Melissa, when you hear that, does it seem belittling?
Leo: No, I have a great respect for it. There's absolutely nothing a director must never do, except not be prepared, you know? Anything goes. If you have to threaten someone or if you have to yell at them or tell them their dog died -- anything goes. On the other hand, directors who scream just for the sake of screaming, that's not what I'm talking about, either. Tommy Lee Jones [who directed Leo in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"], I would go back and work for him as a director in a second, and he was not pleasant to work for. He was brilliant.
THR: Why was he not pleasant?
Leo: It's not only the actors he yells at, it's everyone on the set -- [cinematographer] Chris Menges, everybody. I think it's because it's so desperately, deeply important to Mr. Jones to succeed as a director. And I hope someday he gets a chance to direct more and I hope he can realize that everybody is dying to do whatever he would ask of us. When we shot "Three Burials," I had made a choice that I lean back against the car when I told Pete [Jones' character] I knew who killed his friend. I lean back against the car. Suddenly, Mr. Jones was there: "Stand up straight!" I stood up straight. I wasn't happy about it, but I stood up straight. Some long time later, I saw the film for the first time and when the character stands, the Texas sun is setting right behind my head, which it would not have been if I was leaning back. So ...
THR: I guess you were also racing against time. Independent films don't have the money of studio projects.
Rockwell: There's a huge difference. But at the end of the day, you're doing the same job. I just worked a big, honking-ass-budget movie called "Cowboys & Aliens." Now there's a lot of waiting around. The end result might be amazing, but there's a lot of waiting around. Then there's low-budget movies where you shoot in 23 days or 33 days -- we shot "Moon" in 33 days -- but sometimes that's too short. You get three takes on a very emotional scene or one take and they don't even get a safety. What's nice to do is a medium-sized film. That's really the perfect way to go.
THR: Those are exactly the kind of movies that are getting made less frequently.
Darren Aronofsky and Werner Herzog
Rockwell: I know, I know. It's all relative to what you think is medium.
THR: Oren, you spent $15,000 on your first film, "Paranormal Activity." What would you have done differently with more money?
Peli: It worked out perfectly. I was going to spend $10,000 on it, so I actually went over budget. But the fact that it was low-budget added credibility to the premise. Probably the only difference was in post; I would have farmed out some of the visual effects instead of doing them myself.
THR: Do you have a dream movie you want to make?
Peli: There is one. I'm not going to discuss it. It'll be more traditional.
Herzog: I think there's a common denominator between a studio movie and what we are doing "independent" -- very huge quotes around this word. As directors, we should try to be responsible in terms of spending money, so I have never been over budget in more than 50 or 60 films. And I've been under budget five or six times, quite notably in "Bad Lieutenant." [I was] $2.6 million under budget, and this is unheard of. Why? Because I know what I am doing and my shooting days are normally over by 2-4 p.m. I shoot what I need for the screen. In a way it is risky, but you can do it if you know what you want, if you have a clear vision. A clear vision, by the way, is also one of these prerequisites for doing a good film. If you have a clear vision, then you persevere. But I would be cautious to speak about "independent cinema." It is a myth.
THR: Does everybody agree with that?
Rockwell: Well, what is independent cinema now? HBO is doing independent films.
Peli: You can separate [elements]. The production process [on "Paranormal"] was as independent as could be, but it still needed the support of the studio to get it out there. It may be [there's] a process that's more independent and a process that could be more studio, but in the end of the day, you do need someone to pick it up for people to see it.
Herzog: Of course, when you do "independent" cinema you can do certain things that the studio system would not allow. In "Bad Lieutenant," I had a feeling that there should be an iguana on the coffee table. I filmed it in such a mad, demented way I told the producers, "Listen, I'm including iguanas now in the scene. You may take me out of the set when you see that, but I'm going to do it." They were all alarmed and they looked at the footage and they found it totally hilarious. A regular studio production company would carry me out in a straitjacket. And that's the beauty of what we are doing.
THR: What's the most dangerous thing you've done for a film, Werner?
Herzog: I've done quite a few dangerous things. I've been seriously shot at, and I've been shot, actually, while on camera. I was shot at and missed, which is always a pleasant feeling. I've ended up in jail and I lost my front teeth, being knocked in with a rifle butt, and all sorts of stuff. But it's OK and I've never been frivolous with dangers. [Shooting on top of a live volcano, a cinematographer] asked me, "Werner, what's going to happen if the mountain explodes?" The only sure answer, I said, was, "Edward, we will be airborne." His glasses were fogged over. So he cleaned his glasses for a long time.
Now, when you all hear this, do you think, "Yes!" Or do you think, "This is crazy and I will never work with Werner Herzog"?
Leo: I'd have no trouble.
Keener: Sounds good to me.
Herzog: And I've tested the dangers myself, before anyone else would do it. Christian Bale in "Rescue Dawn" had to eat live maggots. Nobody ever does that unless I've demonstrated, yes, it's OK to eat maggots.
Rockwell: Jesus! Christian is a dedicated man.