Herzog talks directing, ‘Into the Abyss’ at UMass on Tuesday
German filmmaker Werner Herzog, the legendary auteur behind documentaries such as “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World,” rose from his director’s seat and into Isenberg’s Flavin Auditorium to talk about his masterpieces Tuesday afternoon.
“You have to know the heart of men. If not, you should not do this work,” said the Oscar-nominated director and actor. “I think that’s much of what I’ve done.”
The event was organized by the University of Massachusetts’ Interdepartmental Program of Film Studies as part of the 19th Annual Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival.
In his speech, Herzog described his experiences with prison inmates he interviewed for his film “Into the Abyss.” His documentary, which premiered in September 2011 at Toronto International Film Festival, tells the story of Michael Perry, a Texas man convicted of murder who was executed in July 2010.
“In this film, every single person in the screen, I have not met for more than an hour,” Herzog said.
Herzog said that he was allowed to have only limited time with his subjects. He was able to talk to Perry and other inmates acquainted with Perry for only 50 minutes, eight days before he was executed.
It took one and a half years for Herzog and his team to edit almost 400 hours of raw footage for “Into the Abyss.”
Herzog also talked about “Grizzly Man,” his 2005 documentary about activist and bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers mingling with bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska until he was killed by one in 2003.
Despite the common interpretation that Treadwell is represented as a “madman,” as Herzog put it, in the film, Herzog said that he does not entirely reject Treadwell’s attitudes.
“I saw him as someone brotherly, full of lethal mistakes and a necessary amount of sympathy,” he said.
Herzog said that by telling Treadwell’s story through the narrative of “Grizzly Man,” he unintentionally misrepresented him. Still, Herzog said that he told the truth and tried to be as respectful as possible.
“Even though I had to turn against him, it’s not ugly like I’m kicking him in the butt,” he said.
According to Herzog, “Grizzly Man” was edited within two weeks after shooting, and final touches, including music and sound mixing, took an additional six weeks.
Herzog also detailed his creative process. Before editing, he writes notes while watching all his footage in the order it was shot and only once. He marks scenes he particularly likes with exclamation points. These marked scenes, he said, always end up in the final edit of the film.
Herzog said that there is no definite way of figuring out the subject of his next documentary.
“The films are just stumbling into me, and I just try my best to cope with them as quickly as I can,” he said.
Herzog advised aspiring filmmakers to edit their footage as fast as they can, because otherwise, “you’ll leave out the things that are really important [in your life].”
In addition, filmmakers should look at their footage as if it were somebody else’s, Herzog said.
“Look at footage as if it’s not your own, and see what’s merely in it,” he said.
More importantly, he suggested, students studying film must dig deep into literature. He repeatedly and emphatically implored his audience to read.
“If you want to understand the real spirit of filmmaking, you have to read,” Herzog said.
Present in his “mandatory reading requirements” are Virgil’s “Georgics,” which, he said, “names the glory and horror of the end of the world” and inspired him in “Encounters at the End of the World.” Herzog also recommended Bernal Diaz’s “The Conquest of New Spain,” which he called “incredible, vivid [and] beautiful.” He lauded Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” calling it a “phenomenal piece of writing.”
But the best filmmakers, Herzog said, are those who know how and are not afraid to break rules.
“You have to be ready to forge documents, for example, shooting permits. Otherwise, you won’t get very far,” he said.
Herzog also tackled his hesitance about the Internet and social media. He said he has never understood why “instant things” such as Facebook and Twitter are very prominent in today’s society, and called the sites “vile and debased.”
“My social network is still my kitchen with my friends, where I and my wife will cook for them,” he said.
Furthermore, Herzog said that although digital filmmaking made the business more convenient, it has corrupted the attitudes of filmmakers.
“Digital filmmaking has brought in a different attitude especially with those without a clear vision,” he said. “They keep shooting and still end up mediocre.”
Nonetheless, Herzog admitted that the Internet will result in new forms of distribution in the film industry. He praised Blu-rays and DVDs for being able to save and preserve old movies shot in fragile film. He also liked the idea of cloud storage because it allows people to pull out a movie anytime.
On the other hand, Herzog, despite his long and acclaimed career in filmmaking, refuses to be referred to as an artist. He said the commercialization of not only films but art in general has become excessive.
“I’m not an artist. I’m a soldier,” he said.
And despite the profound themes displayed in his documentaries, he also refuses to be called a philosopher.
“Probably, I’m good at thinking, but it’s not the same with the kind of philosophy you encounter in academia,” he said.
Ultimately, Herzog said that mistakes are ubiquitous in filmmaking, and students should not be afraid of making them.
“There’s not a single film that I made that does not have a mistake here and there,” he said. “But with my few mistakes, I can live easily.”
Herzog is currently working on the film adaptation of the Lee Child novel “One Shot,” in which he is set to play the villainous The Zec opposite Tom Cruise. “One Shot” will be released in theaters just before Christmas this year, Herzog said.
Ardee Napolitano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.