Insignificant Bullets, Evil Poachers, and L.A. Culture

Werner Herzog in conversation with Paul Cronin

Most of what we’ve heard about Werner Herzog is untrue. The sheer number of false rumors and downright lies disseminated about the man and his films is truly astonishing. Yet Herzog’s body of work is one of the most important in postwar European cinema.

This conversation is excerpted from Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, Paul Cronin’s volume of dialogues that provides a forum for Herzog’s fascinating views on the things, ideas, and people that have preoccupied him for so many years. This revised edition of Herzog on Herzog features new interviews discussing Herzog’s films, as well as additional text from Herzog, his collaborator Herbert Golder, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and filmmaker Harmony Korine.

Barnes and Noble

Paul Cronin: During an interview a few years ago someone shot you. You told the world: “It was not a significant bullet.”

Werner Herzog: Winston Churchill said that being shot at unsuccessfully is an exhilarating moment in a man’s life. I was at the top of the Hollywood Hills near my home, recording an interview, when I heard a loud bang. I assumed the camera had exploded because it felt as if I had been hit in the stomach by a chunk of glowing metal, but it was intact. Then, some distance away, I saw a man with a gun, ducking out of sight on a veranda. We had already heard him shouting obscenities about the fact that yet another film star was being interviewed in public. In that respect, it was something on a par with road rage. Although the bullet—small calibre, probably 22mm, or a high-powered airgun—went through my leather jacket and a folded-up catalogue, it didn’t perforate my abdomen, which would have been unpleasant. For this reason, the entire incident is nothing to speak of. I would have continued with the interview, but the cameraman had already hit the dirt. The miserable, cowardly BBC crew were terrified and wanted to call the cops, but I had no interest in spending the next five hours filling out police reports. When you dial 911 because of a burglary, the police take hours to check in on you, but when you report someone shooting, the helicopters start circling within five minutes, and soon after that a SWAT team moves in. The entire incident was more a piece of American folklore than anything else, though I’m glad it was caught on tape. No one would have believed me otherwise.

PC: You live in Los Angeles, home of sun, surf and vitamins.

WH: I leave such things—including gyms, exercising in public and tanning salons, all the idiocies of modern urban life—to Californians. I have been down to Venice Beach, where the musclemen congregate, only a couple of times, and that was to show it to some curious friends. What I like about Los Angeles is that it allows everyone to live his or her own lifestyle. Drive around the hills and you find a Moorish castle next to a Swiss chalet sitting beside a house shaped like a UFO. There is a lot of creative energy in Los Angeles not channelled into the film business. Florence and Venice have great surface beauty, but as cities they feel like museums, whereas for me Los Angeles is the city in America with the most substance, even if it’s raw, uncouth and sometimes quite bizarre. Wherever you look is an immense depth, a tumult that resonates with me. New York is more concerned with finance than anything else. It doesn’t create culture, only consumes it; most of what you find in New York comes from elsewhere. Things actually get done in Los Angeles. Look beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and a wild excitement of intense dreams opens up; it has more horizons than any other place. There is a great deal of industry in the city and a real working class; I also appreciate the vibrant presence of the Mexicans. In the last half century every significant cultural and technical trend has emerged from California, including the Free Speech Movement and the acceptance of gays and lesbians as an integral part of a dignified society, computers and the Internet, and—thanks to Hollywood—the collective dreams of the entire world. A fascinating density of things exists there like nowhere else in the world. Muslim fundamentalism is probably the only contemporary mass movement that wasn’t born there. One reason I’m so comfortable in Los Angeles is that Hollywood doesn’t need me and I don’t need Hollywood. I rarely involve myself with industry rituals and am rarely on the red carpet.

Of course, California is also where some of humanity’s most astonishing stupidities started, like the hippie movement, New Age babble, stretch limos, pyramid energy, plastic surgery, yoga classes for children, vitamins and marijuana smoking. Whenever someone wants to pass on “good vibes” to me, I look for the nearest empty elevator shaft. There are a lot of well-educated people doing very silly things in Los Angeles, like a man in my neighbourhood who one day casually mentioned his cat was in some sort of a frenzy, so he called the cat psychic. He put the receiver to his pet’s ear and for $200 the animal’s problems were solved. I would rather jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than visit a psychiatrist. Self-scrutiny is a strong taboo for me, and if I had to stop and analyse myself, there’s no doubt I would end up wrapped around the next tree. Psychoanalysis is no more scientific than the cranial surgery practiced under the middle-period pharaohs, and by jerking the deepest secrets out into the open, it denies and destroys the great mysteries of our souls. Human beings illuminated to the last corner of their darkest soul are unbearable, the same way an apartment is uninhabitable if every corner is flooded with light. The Spanish Inquisition was a similar mistake in human history, forcing people to disclose the innermost nature of their religious faith. It did no good to anyone.

But ranting about cultural decay isn’t very useful. The poet must not avert his eyes. When you look at the cultural shifts that have taken place over the centuries in the representation of female beauty, for example, someone as uncouth as Anna Nicole Smith becomes fascinating. The earliest representations of females are small statues from forty thousand years ago, like the Venus of Willendorf, with no face but a massive belly and breasts; this is apparently an idealized version of fertility and fecundity. Greek antiquity has its own well-known Venuses, and in late-mediaeval paintings we see fragile Madonnas, with porcelain-like skin and small breasts. Rubens’s Three Graces, by comparison, are real porkers. With Anna Nicole Smith, the ideal of femininity was transformed into comic-book proportions. When combined in one person, breast enhancement, Botox and lip augmentation make for a walking art installation. However vulgar she was, there was something of great enormity and momentousness about Anna Nicole. I wish I had made a film with her.

PC: Grizzly Man is about bear-lover Timothy Treadwell, who was eaten by his furry friends.

WH: Treadwell was a celebrity because he spent thirteen summers living with bears in the Alaskan wilderness. He was killed and eaten in 2003, but not before he had filmed his final years among bears with a video camera. Grizzly Man is cut together from material he shot of himself with the animals amidst the extraordinary landscapes of Alaska, alongside the footage I filmed a few months after his death.

Treadwell’s story is a dark and complex one, and his cause—though noble—was ill conceived. He saw a mission he wanted to fulfil and, by doing so, somehow wrestle meaning from a life he had already lost. As he says himself, “I had no life. Now I have a life.” Although he tried to protect bears from poachers and other imagined dangers, it’s fair to say he needed the animals more than they needed him; they were some kind of salvation for him. Treadwell was a haunted man, perhaps even with a death wish, who was forever trying to overcome his demons, which included a serious drug and alcohol problem. Out in the wilderness he was able to experience moments of both dazzling elation and utter dejection. In his footage one minute he’s full of joy, exuberance and pride; the next he’s weeping, feeling dejected and utterly downhearted, overwhelmed by paranoia. But whether you sympathise with Treadwell or not is irrelevant. Grizzly Man is a unique document about humanity’s relationship with the wild and a glimpse into the deep abyss of the human soul. For me this is a story about the human condition, the misery and exhilarations that haunt us, the contradictions within. This was definitely a personal project for me, even if so much of the film is comprised of Treadwell’s own footage. We owe him our admiration because of his courage and single-mindedness; it doesn’t matter how wrong his basic assumptions were and how much he romanticised nature. No one holds out for thirteen summers living amongst grizzly bears without having a deep conviction within. Whether that conviction is right or wrong doesn’t matter. There is something much bigger in his story.

It would be easy to denounce Treadwell because of the games he played with danger and his sporadic moments of paranoia, as well as the posture he had of an eco-warrior, but we have to separate his occasionally delusional acts as an individual from what he filmed, which is powerful indeed. I think everybody who has an instinct about cinema would acknowledge there is something out of the ordinary and of great depth in Treadwell’s footage. Probably unbeknownst to him, he created unique images of extraordinary beauty and significance that Hollywood would never be able to reproduce, even with all the money in the world.

PC: How did you discover that material existed?

WH: I went to pay a visit to a producer friend of mine, who took me on a tour of his office. We sat down at his desk—which was covered with paper, drawings, DVDs and empty FedEx boxes—and when I got up to leave realised I had misplaced my car keys. I glanced at the table and knew they were there somewhere, but my friend thought I had noticed something that interested me. He handed over an article, one of the first published about Treadwell. “Read this,” he said. “We’re making a film about it.” I went out to my car, but ten minutes later, after having stood reading these few pages without taking my eyes off them, I walked back into his office and said, “How far along is this project? Who is directing it?” He answered, “Well, I’m kind of directing.” When I heard his casual “kind of,” I looked him in the eye and said, “No. I will direct this film!” I knew this was big, even before I had any notion of Treadwell’s footage. I never look for these characters. I just stumble into them, or they into me.

Treadwell left behind almost a hundred hours of footage, though much of it was of kitsch landscapes and fluffy bear cubs. In his unedited footage we see how he staged and directed things, how he did one take after another and erased the ones he disliked. We know he did at least fifteen takes of certain shots because what survives in his footage are takes two, seven and fifteen. He was extremely selective and methodical, keeping only those images that made him look like Prince Valiant in the wilderness, protecting the bears against evil poachers. I give him great credit as a filmmaker; he was no amateur, and seemed to be preparing some big production with himself as the star. Treadwell was a failed actor who claimed he almost got the role of the bartender in Cheers. With Grizzly Man I wanted to give him the chance to be a real hero, and even gave him the most glorious soundtrack possible, written and performed by Richard Thompson.

Production took twenty-nine days from the first day of shooting – in Alaska, Florida and Los Angeles – to the delivery of the final film. Although I was aware of Treadwell’s hundred hours of material, I went to Alaska before I had looked at a single frame. After shooting, I was able to create the essential structure of the film and record the voiceover in only nine days. Everything fell into place with such clarity and blind certainty that all I had to do was follow a single direction, as if a star were guiding me. As I watched the footage it became instantly clear what was needed for the film and what should be left out. Just viewing all of Treadwell’s material would have taken me at least ten days, but I had four assistants who went through everything, melting it down to about twelve hours of footage. I gave them precise instructions about what I was looking for, but sometimes scrutinised what they had put aside and found extraordinary moments they had dismissed. The shots of the fox paws on the tent had been discarded because they were too shaky, but I thought it was very beautiful imagery. I think even Treadwell himself would have overlooked it. At certain moments, when he was in his Starsky and Hutch mode, sporting his bandanna, Treadwell would jump down in front of the camera and start talking. Then he would disappear for twelve seconds and jump down again; he would do take after take. But that “dead” footage of reed grass flowing and bending in the wind, in between takes, demanded to be seen. Even without Treadwell in shot, this empty and apparently useless material was extraordinarily powerful. To this day I have watched perhaps only 15 per cent of what Treadwell shot.

PC: A key moment in Grizzly Man is when we watch you listening to the audio recording of Treadwell’s death.

WH: When the bear attacked Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, his girlfriend, their video camera was switched on. The lens cap was still attached, but the microphone continued to record for six and a half minutes. As I understand it, no one has heard the tape except for the coroner and a few park rangers, who discovered the camera. I stupidly told Jewel Palovak – a close friend and collaborator of Treadwell, and heir to his archives – that she should destroy the tape, but she was wise to lock it away in a safety-deposit box instead. To this day she has never listened to it.

Everyone knew of the tape’s existence, so there was some pressure on me to address the issue. There is always a boundary that mustn’t be crossed, and playing that tape in public would have been a gross intrusion into two people’s right to a dignified death. Once again I found myself facing the question of limits, something I have carefully navigated from the start of my professional life. There is a difference between voyeurism and filmmaking. Voyeurs have a psychological sickness and would have jumped to include the tape in the film, but not me. This was no snuff movie. I explained that if anyone on the production insisted the recording be included in the film, I would quit. Grizzly Man’s producer and distributor asked me to film myself listening to it, but I thought it would be more effective to film Jewel as she watches me, trying to read the echoes from my face. She was worried that the screams would leak out of the earphones I was wearing and be picked up by the microphone, but I promised her that if I detected even the slightest sound, I would erase it. The camera is behind me, and what the audience is focused on at that moment is her anguish as she imagines what I’m hearing, which was horrible beyond description. The advancement of a medium is often driven by certain transgressions. Values change from one generation to the next, and perhaps my grandchildren will find it ridiculous I chose not to include the tape in Grizzly Man. But I doubt it.

Paul Cronin is a writer and filmmaker. He edited Roman Polanski: Interviews, and writes for publications including Sight and Sound.
Werner Herzog was born in Munich on September  5, 1942. He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and studied History and German Literature in Munich and Pittsburgh. He made his first film in 1961 at the age of 19. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than sixty feature and documentary films. He has published more than a dozen books of prose, and directed as many operas. He lives in Munich and Los Angeles.