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Apart from directing at least a dozen classic art house films (including iconoclastic dramas and fearless documentaries), Werner Herzog is a master raconteur, striking a perfect balance between common-sense musings, wry humor and cosmic omphaloskepsis.
So while Herzog’s sit-down conversation with Todd L. Burns on Tuesday at New York City’s Metropolitan Art Museum as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival was billed as “A Conversation With Werner Herzog on Music and Film,” knowledge of his filmography was hardly a prerequisite for enjoying the event. Whether you can speak at length about New German Cinema or just know Herzog from his Parks and Recreation appearance, it doesn’t matter — listening to the world’s most affable, unpretentious intellectual share stories from his colorful past, as well as thoughts on everything from New Age music to La La Land, is a treat for anyone.
Here are 10 things we learned from Herzog’s talk:
He’s Scared of Museums
“This is the first time I dared to step across the threshold into this museum,” Herzog said of the Met, explaining that part of him was scared to stare into the “quasi-eternity” contained within the museum’s ancient relics.
Into the Inferno & Giving In to God
His latest documentary, Netflix’s Into the Inferno, would have had a different opening musical track if not for the objections of a few literal-minded monastics. “I’m rumored to be this man who doesn’t take no for an answer,” Herzog said. “That’s silly. Of course I take no for an answer.” The example he gave was the opening of Into the Inferno, which he originally wanted paired with a haunting choral track from an Orthodox church men’s choir. Unfortunately, the choir felt it was sacrilegious to pair their angelic voices over images of Hell on earth — i.e., lava from a volcano — forcing him to swap their “ethereal voices” with something “more prosaic.”
Friendship With Florian Fricke
The pioneering ambient/krautrock band Popol Vuh — spearheaded by the late Florian Fricke — provided the soundtrack for several of Herzog’s films, including the all-time masterpiece Aguirre, Wrath of God. While Herzog’s relationship with Fricke wasn’t as volatile as his connection to actor Klaus Kinski, it wasn’t always smooth. Herzog says he would chide Fricke whenever his music got too close to New Age (“which I didn’t like”), and that Fricke would pay him back by whacking him with the ball during soccer games. “Man, would he foul me,” Herzog recalls with a laugh, admitting he got a few swollen knees from insulting Fricke’s music.
He’s a Lion King Fan
While Herzog faulted the “pedantic” tendency to think a film’s soundtrack has to reflect the country it’s set in (for example, he didn’t feel beholden to use Vietnamese music in Little Dieter Needs to Fly), he admitted sometimes that approach works. For example? Hans Zimmer’s African-influenced score for The Lion King. “It’s Hollywood at its finest, The Lion King,” Herzog said without irony.
La La Land
La La Land has weathered its fair share of criticisms since coming out last year, but Herzog isn’t piling on: “I’ve seen La La Land and I like the opening shot, it’s very well done. I don’t want to dismiss it.”
Stay Away From Drugs, Kids
His only advice for musicians: “People who are drunk do not play music well. People who are on drugs do not play music well. Stay away from it.”
The Rolling Stones
Herzog recalls seeing The Rolling Stones early on in their career, prior to the death of Brian Jones, and realizing they would last after noticing that many of the girls at the Stones’ concert peed themselves during the set. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is gonna be big,'” he recalls.
Speaking of the music of language, Herzog cited his 1978 documentary about American livestock auctioneers, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. His unfinished dream? To get the fastest-talking auctioneers to perform a lightning-fast version of Hamlet. “I think we could get it under 14 minutes,” he mused.
Elon Musk and Mars
When asked by an audience member about Elon Musk, who was featured in his 2016 documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog shut down the inventor’s vision of humanity colonizing Mars. “He will never put a colony on Mars,” Herzog said definitively. “We need to look after the habitability of our own planet. We don’t belong there — we belong here, so we better look after our own planet.”
Ernst Reijseger and Socklessness
Of Ernst Reijseger, who has scored several recent Herzog films, he has the highest praise. “He’s one of the finest composers we’ve got,” Herzog said, adding that the cellist plays much better after being forced to take his shoes and socks off.
A version of this story originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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