Werner Herzog at the 2011 Film Independent Filmmaker Forum

David and I attended the 2011 Film Independent Filmmaker Forum (10/21 through 10/23) at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, CA.  Listening to panels of film people tell their stories is a weekend we always anticipate.  This was our third time.

In this post, I will focus Werner Herzog’s keynote address.  However, I will leave you with a couple quick things.  One interesting quote heard that weekend came from the Breaking In: What’s Next panel, saying  “You are in this business a lot longer than the actual making of the movie.  You have to love the process.  It will fall apart.  Is the process of being in that creative endeavor enough?  You have to be able to surrender.”  Another great line was “Human nature still guides this business.”

Stephen Galloway (Executive Editor of Features at The Hollywood Reporter) moderated the keynote address by Werner Herzog.  Galloway mentioned it was a career high point for him to speak one-on-one with Herzog.  In the intro, Galloway briefly touched on Herzog always seeking to have impact and forge his own path.   Herzog’s career has never been dull.  Adding in passing that Herzog had gunshots fired at him during a prior BBC interview (accidentally while near his home in Los Angeles).  While this incident occurred, Herzog continued with the interview, stating that it was not a significant injury.   Safe and with no worries of gunfire, it was 10 a.m. on Saturday, opening the Forum to an LA audience, hungry for knowledge from Herzog.  Sitting in comfort at the DGA (after months of a busy stretch for David and I) with panelists sharing wisdom on some of their career high/low points is always a treat.  Being present for an artist like Werner Herzog is a true gift.

 

 


Into The Abyss  “Conversations with death row inmate Michael Perry and those affected by his crime serve as an examination of
why people – and the state – kill.”  IMDB Page
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INTO THE ABYSS was not a platform for the inmates to prove their innocence.  He found it a delicate situation to film these death row inmates for on-camera interviews, as what was said might damage the appeal process.

For instance, the chaplain interviewed in his film, had to be at the execution shortly after Herzog’s on-camera interview.  Herzog felt that this one subject had taken on the persona of a TV preacher (confident and hopeful) in order to relieve the burden of having to perform an execution only moments after the taping.  Herzog intuitively prompted the chaplain on recalling his own experience with two squirrels while on the golf course (Herzog knew the chaplain was a golfer).  As the chaplain further explained his belief that those two squirrels be spared a hit from his golf cart, the man’s vulnerability beneath his confident exterior begin to break through.  In this moment, Herzog obtained the feelings beneath his subject’s public mask, showing how reading someone’s last rites left an everlasting impression.

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Herzog stressed that discipline, attention to financial details, steady focus, and time management are crucial for any attempt to make (or recoup) money with filmmaking.  He puts in a full eight-hour day at what he does, just as if he were going to a job with an employer monitoring his hours.

Herzog explained to the audience “If you don’t know the
heart of men, you won’t be a good director.”
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He cited examples of editing a feature film in two weeks (not two years) from ten hours of footage.  Another film he delivered 2.5 million under budget and two days early.  Herzog stressed that this is how one makes money in filmmaking.  You have to treat it as a business and take it seriously.  A film becomes profitable much quicker if it costs less to produce. He is accustomed to working very fast and deliberate in short periods of time, shooting and editing, getting the most value from time and money. Herzog further explained being meticulous with expenditures in filming.  For instance in one film he noticed that the extras had duplicate outfits in case one change of clothes was dirty.  He felt this was wasteful.  He approved of principals needing a few duplicate wardrobe changes, however, background talent only needs one.  Most likely, the audience will not see this bit player’s dirty costume.  Therefore, careful consideration does not need to go into wardrobe in this instance.
In the editing process, Herzog looks at the footage once, writes the time codes in a log book and uses exclamation points as a rating system for him to go back and clarify which footage is o.k. One exclamation point = useful. Two exclamation = great. Three exclamation points = excellent and will most likely be in the film. He stressed that footage with great substance always connects the viewer to the story.

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“I have a reputation of being insane.  My proof that I am not.  In 60 films, not a single actor has been hurt.  You have to embed your films with life.  This is where you start to understand life.”

 

Herzog claims to accept all his errors and feels that his work is full of them.  He accepts his films as they are, similar to a parent who accepts a child with imperfections.

He doesn’t dwell on the negative aspects of his films, just as ‘a carpenter does not sit on his shavings.’  He keeps his expectations tempered, not expecting too much money from a film like this (referring to a documentary on the death penalty), which may not have mainstream appeal.

Herzog spoke of his own disagreement for capital punishment.  As a guest in the United States, he respectfully disagrees with the death penalty.

He feels there is no such thing as true independent cinema except for home movies.  All the rest remain dependent on money, SAG, etc.  He joked of starting his own distribution company and a version of an actors’ union.  Herzog recalled getting in trouble with SAG for reading a few lines for free.  Herzog had hoped to do a voiceover for free for a friend. However, once discovered by SAG, a nasty letter was sent which stated that as a member, he was not allowed to do it without being paid.  Herzog stressed that one look for self-reliance in making films, even if you have to become your own production or distribution company.  He briefly touched on using a stolen camera to make his first eight films.


“I have always been a quiet, steady, focused worker, possibly having harder situations to overcome than others.”

 

If your film should ever garner larger attention, Herzog warns to fix foreseeable problems beforehand in a contract – if you don’t, they will mushroom out of control later.  He also recommends speaking to other filmmakers who have had bad distribution experiences and learning from their mistakes.

Just roll up your sleeves and work.  If a 9-5 job is not for you, “work as a bouncer in a sex club, work as a guard, save your money and do it yourself.”

Werner held many odd jobs himself, working two and a half years as a night shift welder.  Also as a parking lot attendant at Octoberfest, dealing with 3,000 drunk people.

.French filmmaker François Truffaut once called Herzog
“The most important film director alive.”

 

As Werner left the interview and joined the crowd in the lobby at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles, a flock of interested filmmakers tagged behind him, ready with questions.  Wishing I had been one of them but too shy to intrude on his space, I watched Youtube interviews of him instead.

 

 


Outside The Directors Guild of America

BIO: Karen Worden is co-founder/co-host of FilmCourage.com.  With co-host/co-founder David Branin, they’ve interviewed over 1,000 industry guests including, Peter Shankman, Joe Dante, Ti West, Ted Hope, Mark and Jay Duplass, Eva Mendes, Kevin Kline, Meg and Lawrence Kasdan, John Sayles, Andie MacDowell, Rainey Qualley, Chazz Palminteri, Morgan Spurlock, Richard Grieco, Stan Lee, Tommy Davidson, Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Lea Thompson, Ryan Gosling and many more.  Collectively, David Branin, Karen Worden and others crowdfunded over 16k for GOODBYE PROMISE, released in mid-2012.  You can follow her @KarenWorden.