Prolific filmmaker, writer and director, Werner Herzog, gave an inspired and insightful keynote address at Film Independent’s Filmmaker Forum on Saturday morning, Oct. 22, moderated by Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter. Kicking off a weekend of panels and discussions of hot topics in independent film today, Herzog’s message couldn’t be more clear — “Roll up your sleeves and work where there’s real intensity of life . Don’t work in an office. Work in a sex club. Work as a guard in a maximum security prison. Earn the money and then make your film, no matter what.”
Herzog has a long history of telling stories and pushing the medium across both documentary and narrative genres, and has always been extremely poignant when it comes to exploring the human condition. Much of the conversation was focused on his most recent documentary, Into The Abyss, a look at a death row inmate, the crime committed, the victim’s families and the Texas judicial system in order to make an argument against capital punishment. “The film has to do with death, but it also life.” A clip is shown, where a chaplain talks about his job standing by the side of a death row inmate until his last breath, when he suddenly breaks into tears about the importance of life and not understanding why ‘God would allow this.’ Herzog continues, “There is an entire chapter about the urgency of life, which resonates in the clip.” When asked how he is able to capture such a telling moment with the chaplain, Herzog responds, “If you don’t know the heart of man, you can not be a director.”
Herzog takes pride in the fact that he shot under 10 hours of footage for his recent film, and strongly believes in short periods of time shooting, and short periods of time editing. He is a man who knows exactly what he wants, and with great brevity moves through the filmmaking process seemingly confident and determined. Surprisingly, he throws away all of his outtakes, keeping nothing extra for posterity, saying, “A carpenter doesn’t sit on his shavings.” He explains how he looks at his footage only once with his editor, writes notes and will record one, two or three exclamation points in the margins based on his feelings about the footage. I am fascinated by his deft approach to the editorial process. ”There were 9 days of editing with Grizzly Man. I delivered the cut for Bad Lieutenant 2 weeks after shooting. My Son, I delivered 5 days after shooting. Footage with great substance always connects.”
When asked how a filmmaker, like himself, can survive such a long time being independent, Herzog says, “It’s important to understand the value of money and the value of time,” pointing to the fact that he would check the daily cash flow at the end of each shoot day on many of his films. “I delivered “Bad Lieutenant” 2.6 million under budget and 2 days shorter of our shooting schedule… This shows how you can be taken seriously, and you have to take it seriously with what’s going on with money. A film becomes profitable a lot quicker if it’s produced with less money.”
Herzog was then asked to comment on the ‘idea of independent film as a myth’ in today’s economy. “It’s a legit question. In the studio system, you can not change the screenplay unless a decision comes out of a boardroom. With independents, it’s more self-reliance. When I started making films the apparatus was very expensive and hard to get. The first camera I used was actually stolen. When you have your own production and distribution, you have your own self-reliance. Today, you have access to very high caliber cameras, you can edit on your laptop, and you can make a film for $10,000.”
Herzog continues to keep busy, mentioning he’s starting to get back into producing films, and will actually star in an action film shooting this December. He’s in the process of delivering the miniseries Death Row, for Investigation Discovery, a documentary that highlights interviews with death row inmates, while his feature documentary, Into the Abyss opens in select theaters on November 11th.