Werner Herzog on Brave Filmmaking, His Love of Cat Videos and Thoughts on Online Dating

Werner Herzog 1 H 2016
Courtesy of Subject

"You just sit down and you stop breathing they are so crazy sometimes," says the prolific filmmaker, who is teaching his first online filmmaking course through MasterClass, of cat videos.

German filmmaker Werner Herzog has made more than 70 films in his career, including documentaries and feature films ranging from Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, to the more recent Queen of the Desert, and the upcoming Salt and Fire. And there are just as many legendary stories tied to the director from his decades of filmmaking, from the time he boiled and ate a shoe to the time his was shot on live TV.

Now, Herzog will share his unique view on filmmaking through MasterClass, an online course made up of 20 video lessons (over five hours) that cover various parts of the movie-making process including storytelling, cinematography, locations, self-financing and more. Pus, students are able to submit questions that Herzog will answer in future lessons.

"There has been an avalanche of very young people coming at me in the last years who wanted to learn from me or who wanted to be an intern or assistant of mine and it has grown to such numbers that I felt I had to give a systematic answer, an organized answer," Herzog tells The Hollywood Reporter of his decision to teach the course, his first online class.

THR spoke to Herzog about filmmaking, his interests and many of the legendary stories about his adventures on July 12, the day the series became available on MasterClass.

You also have your Rogue Film School. What interested you about MasterClass?

Well the Rogue Film School is the wild side of it, the guerilla style film school: how do you pick a lock, or how do you forge a document allowing you a shooting permit, for example. MasterClass is much more systematic, and of course, going back into all my experience for a long long time of filmmaking and I have decided to do it. There has been an avalanche of very young people coming at me in the last years who wanted to learn from me or who wanted to be an intern or assistant of mine and it has grown to such numbers that I felt I had to give a systematic answer, an organized answer, and here you have the MasterClass which really goes in all sorts of details. You cannot really binge-watch it because I’m referring to literature and to other films, and you better immerse yourself in a different way.

Over your career you've made more than 70 films, both features and documentaries. What is your favorite genre to make vs. your favorite genre to watch?

That’s a question I cannot really answer easily because I love to make feature films, I love to do documentaries, I love to act, for example as a villain in Jack Reacher — I’m good at that. Recently I must say I have almost exclusively seen feature films and feature films of the 1950s. But it shifts, fascinations are shifting and I keep myself open.

Do you see a lot of current films in theaters?

Hardly any of them but I try to see what young people nowadays are really watching. For example, I’ve watched certain things on YouTube, I’ve done a film about texting and driving on YouTube and it was a phenomenal success and of course I’m fascinated to watch a crazy cat video. It’s something where you just sit down and you stop breathing they are so crazy sometimes.

You’ve said that reading is important to your filmmaking.

Yes, in MasterClass there are certain required books, and none of them have to do with filmmaking. They’re about poetry, they’re about watching peregrine falcons, they’re about all sorts of literature —  that’s what is missing. People who do not read enough and it’s remarkable. All the real, real significant filmmakers nowadays all read voraciously. [Francis Ford] Coppola, Errol Morris, Joshua Oppenheimer, you just name them, Terrence Malick, everyone.

What are you reading these days?

Well I would say The Peregrine is something I go back to daily, and I’m reading some obscure historiographers of Greek antiquity. I just advise don’t worry what I am reading, just be curious and read — not just tweets.

Do you prefer shooting digital or do you miss film?

I’m not nostalgic. I still think that celluloid had its certain beauty that will not be completely matched by digital cinema, but digital of course has made my work much faster, much easier in many ways. I do not need to have very elaborate lighting normally, the normal light of a set is enough. I can edit as fast as I am thinking on most, so it has had its great advantages.

What’s your take on superhero films?

It’s not really my thing because you have to grow up with it as a child, and I grew up in a very remote mountain valley in Bavaria, where there were literally no books, no radio, no television, no phone. I made my first phone call when I was 17.

Do you have a favorite philosopher?

I’ve never been into philosophy… it’s too abstract. When it comes to the famous ones like Kant or Heidegger or Sartre or so, or Hegel, I just cannot crack their code of language. For me, philosophy has always come out of experiences in the real world, challenges, dangers, work that I have done, encounters that I have had, all this has taught me to think deeper about what has happened to me, so I would say I do have a certain amount of philosophy, but it’s not out of books.

Speaking of dangers, you’ve been shot at on television…

Yes, in the middle of an interview. [Shrugs.] Fine, okay, so what?

You've also been shot at, jailed and had many other larger-than-life things happen when you're making films. Has there been anything that’s happened to you in your career that’s shocked you?

No, I think nothing really shocks me and I’m not afraid, it’s not in my dictionary. Fear is somehow foreign to me, it’s not in my dictionary and as a filmmaker you have to learn how to be fearless and not stupidly fearless. You have to be prudent but you have to have courage.

Is it true that you ate live maggots before Christian Bale had to on Rescue Dawn?

Well, it’s a real story because, as a director, I would never demand anything from an actor that I would not be willing to do myself. Christian was almost starved to death in the film — he had lost 65 pounds. I said to him, "Christian, you know, in solidarity, I’m losing half the amount." I lost over 35 pounds. So he had to eat a bowl of wriggling live maggots and I said to him, "Give me the spoon, I'll eat them first" and he said, "No, no, no, you don’t have to do it, just let’s get over with it, turn on the camera," and he started to eat. But I would have done it, of course.

Your latest documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, focuses on the Internet and its effect on our lives. What do you think about the rise in online dating?

I have not ever done online dating because I am a very happily married man, but of course social events, communications, all the way to straightforward fornication, is organized in a different way nowadays, and very hard for me to make a judgment. I see with astonishment how fast things are changing, I think there is something like Tinder out there — you even know where a potential partner is, maybe outside the door here. I find it very very astonishing how things have evolved, and I keep an eye on it, I don’t say, "Oh this is stupid," or "This is bad." I’m curious. I try to come to terms with what is going on and wonder if my way to woo a woman is still valid or not.