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Werner Herzog On Suits, Squirrels and Speed

M. Galas

In a world where films are made by shooting endless takes and editing is conducted over months or years, director Werner Herzog stands by his tried and true method of brevity.


“People boast of spending two years editing something that should not have taken them more than two weeks,” said Herzog.

The keynote speaker at this year’s Film Independent Forum, Herzog spoke at length about shooting documentaries as well as how he directs and edits all his work.   A filmmaker since the early 60s, Herzog indicated his method of approach remains the same today as it did when he began, with one exception: he works in even shorter periods of time.

“Digital removes so much time,” said Herzog.  “There is no mechanical cutting and gluing of film clips like there was years ago.  It is very efficient.”


When working on a documentary Herzog does not shoot B-roll.  On a feature he only shoots what is necessary for the scene.  Once the actors have performed correctly he moves on.  He watches the footage once before editing, making notes that includes a system of exclamation marks: one for good, two for really good, and three for “your movie is nothing without this.”


“I like to shake people from being safe.  My crew is sometimes concerned, for I have no understanding of coverage,” said Herzog.  “It is risky.  You do have to know what you are doing.”

The audience was treated to an extended clip of “Into the Abyss,” Herzog’s documentary studying inmates on Texas’ death row.  In the clip, a death row preacher tells Herzog about the mechanics of his job and briefly shares his love of spending his free time on the golf course, where squirrels often frolick.  Herzog, speaking off camera, asks the man if he “ever had an interesting encounter with a squirrel,” resulting in the preacher’s loss of composure and revealing his personal beliefs about life.

When asked how he is able to get such revealing testimony, Herzog admitted that it can be very challenging.  In the case of the preacher he had 35 minutes to set up and conduct the interview.  The preacher’s discussion was rather matter of fact through the course of the interview. When the preacher mentioned seeing squirrels on the golf course, Herzog knew that detail was the means of cracking the preacher’s stoic veneer.


“If you don’t know the heart of men,” explained Herzog.  “You are not a director.”

Herzog informed the crowd that for documentaries such as “Into the Abyss” he studies the cases of the individuals involved but not the men and women themselves, preferring to discover their personalities during the interview.  Before rolling the camera on the inmates featured in “Into the Abyss,” he clarified that his goal was neither to prove their innocence nor guilt and gave them the chance to decline the interview (they all agreed to remain involved.)  He always wears a suit and stands behind the camera to show respect for his subjects, and avoids sharing his personal feelings about the subject matter or their comments with them.

“The key to a good interview is not to let your personal feelings get in the way of your project,” said Herzog.  “Stay steady, disciplined, focused.”


Herzog stated he came up for the idea to shoot a documentary about capital punishment when he was a much younger man and was thankful he became involved in other projects first.  He felt his maturity and professional experience have provided a much better subject.  Asked if he had any regrets about his past work, or if he would ever go back and make changes to previously released films, Herzog revealed he saves no negatives so it is impossible to make changes.


“I accept all my errors and all my films are filled with them.  You can not go back,” said Herzog.  “Storage of negatives is very expensive.  A carpenter doesn’t sit on his shavings, either.”


When asked what his advice was to young filmmakers in the audience, Herzog warned against taking a corporate job where they would become comfortable and accustomed to the security provided by the routine of a nine to five schedule.


“Do something else,” said Herzog.  “Become a bouncer at a strip club.”


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