Ask Him Again, His Soul is Still Dancing. 15 minutes with Werner Herzog.

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Ask Him Again, His Soul is Still Dancing.  15 minutes with Werner Herzog.
One of the pleasures of going to film festivals are the Q&A sessions afterwards.  If you read humour pieces regarding this aspect of the festival experience, they are often snarky little pieces about the awful questions fielded by audience members, or folks trying to pass the director along a screenplay or simply blubbering "I love all your movies" in the starstruck awe.  Yes, those things happen (often), but with good moderation from the programmer/host and an exceptional speaker, you could end up with something like this quarter hour with German director Werner Herzog.   The second of two public screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival went down like gangbusters at the Elgin Theatre and most of the satisfied, quite entertained, audience stuck around to talk shop.  Moderated by programmer Colin Geddes and with Herzog in high form - while most would say that Roger Ebert is 'fighting cancer,' Herzog states that the famous critic is "afflicted by disease and death is creeping up to him."  (with friends like that, Herzog needs people around him like Kinski!) - it is one of the best Q&As of the festival in recent years.

In light of Bad Lieutenant:  Port of Call New Orleans about to drop into Canadian cinemas and on VOD in the United States, here is the transcript of that time spent post-screening at the Elgin in September.  Having browsed around the web, i am convinced that it trumps a lot of the recent print and professional interviews on the same subject. 

***SPOILER WARNING*** Particularly near the end, the talk gets into some story and plot nitty-grittiness.

Colin Geddes:  This film is very different when you look at your previous body of work, what attracted you want to do a crime drama (or a crime comedy)?

Werner Herzog:  It's not really a crime drama it is something much wider than that.  Of course the obvious answer is Nicholas Cage and I had the chance to work together.  In fact we realized almost on the same moment on the same day, having observed each other work for three decades, that it was an outrage that we had never connected and worked together.  So we were in business within 60 seconds of a phone call.  And that was a really wonderful challenge.  And the second was of course was going to New Orleans and doing a film there and for me new horizons new subjects new production collaborations new forms of stories.  However what you see here is a film or a leading character in line with other characters, it is almost like a family series and Nicholas cage is a new part of the family.


CG:  And how did you work with Nicholas as an actor, there was actually a phrase you told him to help him.

WH:  It is a strange thing because on the first or second day of shooting he asked me (we were never into discussing the screenplay or discussing motivations) but he timidly came and said, 'well I don't really want to bother you but why is he so bad; is it is his childhood or his parents or the drugs or New Orleans or the corruption in the police force.'  And I said, 'No.  C'mon we are not going to discuss this kind of bullshit about motivations and things like this' and I said to him, 'there is a proverbial sayings in Bavarian dialects, 'there will be many moments when you turn the hog loose, turn the pig loose, release the wild boar.  And we were waiting for these moments and sometimes he released the wild boar.  And those were the real wonderful moments.  But of course turning the hog loose always meant with in the strictures of a situation.  It is not completely wild improvisation without anyone knowing where we were going.  And he had a very keen sense for the fluidity, for the flow of jazz music, where an instrument all of a sudden takes off and improvises, but very much within the melodious and rhythmic doctrine.

Audience Question: What can you say about the Script.  How much did he deviate from the original script.  How much was improved?

WH:  I did deviate quite a bit.  First of all, I knew there was a lot of things I should throw out.  And Billy Finkelstein, the writer, had no problem with he because he also felt there were a few things too many, too many times where Terence McDonagh, the Bad Lieutenant, would snort cocaine or heroin or god knows what else.  So I cut quite a few scenes out, this being repetitive.  And I'm not a moralist, but I do not like the culture of drugs.  I said throw it all out, as much as we can.  And then of course I changed the entire beginning.  The screenplay started out (very harmless in a way) with the Bad Lieutenant, he rescues a man in a suicide attempt throws himself onto the track of an incoming subway train and rescues him. So what, here.  I thought we should really start it as evil and debased and as vile as it could get.  [And] The whole relationship between him and the young woman was only based on sex and drugs and I said, No, it is a real love story, so we invented the thing with the pirate treasure and the spoon, the sterling silver spoon that he cannot find anymore.  And of course the iguanas.  And the dancing soul. You just name it.  I love these moments. Do fish have dreams.  I said it and sometimes I would look around the camera and he would know that I didn't call cut.  and the camera on someone and the lights and everyone staring he knows he had to deliver some sort of an after thought or a chuckle or something and nothing came and after a long 60 seconds of torture of him not knowing what to do now.  I said, 'Cut' and he turns to me and said, 'Werner, what else could I have added or said?' and I said, 'Do fish have dreams?' And it came as quickly as is spontaneous, without missing a beat.  Where this line came from I have no idea.  But it looked very good when we did the next take, and I had the feeling we had to verify it.  Do fish have dreams?  I knew there was a big aquarium so we went to the aquarium and filmed the real ending.  I must say that it is a real wonderful end for me because it is so mysterious it has such great beauty and has such a mysterious chuckle at the end that you do not know where does it comes from.  It always reminds me, when you look at the last self-portraits of both Rembrandt and Goya, these old toothless men, they look out of the picture and laugh, as if they were laughing at their mirror image.  Laughing.  Very mysterious and strange.

AQ:  Shooting the scene with the old lady and the oxygen pipe.  Was there a lot of improvising in that?

WH:  In a way it is a defining scene.  It is not completely written like that.  Of course he is kinking the oxygen line and he tries to force some knowledge, where did the young man go.  In an early take, I said to Nicholas, this is a scene where you have to turn the pig loose.  And go for it.  And of course it was very clearly settled.  But when he pulls the gun again and accuses her of sucking up the inheritance of her children and grandchildren and this is the reason why the country went down the drain. So it all came to him on his own and I just stood there in total amazement. In a way, now you can tell that I'm making mistakes myself, I had the feeling that drawing the gun the second time was a little bit overdone and maybe too much.  So i said lets do one more but don't draw the gun.  And he was kind of unhappy about it.  Normally I do not work for safety or so. But I had some feeling that it maybe be over the top.  Give me an alternative where you do not draw the gun. So he did it and it was a very good scene as well.  And he turned to me and said, 'Werner, I know exactly what is going to happen, these scenes when they are melting down or neutralized.' and I said, 'Not neutralized, Castrated!'  When they ["neutralized scenes"] are shot they always end up in the film.  And I said, 'No, I'm not one of those, I'll take a very good look at it and make my decision.'  Of course, it was instantly obvious that the scene as it is the right version of it.  It was the only time I had two versions of a scene.  And I knew it had to be like that no matter what.  And I didn't know what the producers would think, and I said to Nicholas, 'we have to defend this no matter what happens.'  For example if they try to cut out the iguanas and they find it too crazy or whatever, if that really would happen, I would not like to make films anymore.  So I said I'll be on your side and whatever comes up about the scenes that you did so magnificently we'll defend it together. We never had to defend it by the way.


AQ: How much did the film change during editing?

WH:  Not much because we really did not have much footage anyway.  It seemed like my crew tried to talk me out of the madness to shoot the whole sequence and weave in and out, but I never covered myself, I only shot the real necessities, and that is why shooting days were over at 2pm or 3pm and to days under schedule and 2.6 Million dollars under budget.  But a pleasant or funny result of this is that Avi Lerner, the main financier, the producer (who did the last Rambo), wants to marry me now.  

CG:  This originally thought of as a potential franchise - with a cop in a different city...

WH:  That is a misunderstanding about the title. One of the producers, Edward Pressman, owned the rights for the title and I immediately said this will haunt the film it will lead to misunderstandings.  And I immediately started to battle for a different title, at that came up:  Port of Call New Orleans, so if you want to do a franchise, do Port of Call Detroit, Port of Call Oakland, Port of Call Huston, Port of Call Singapore. So go for that. And now we have to celebrate. I can live with that.  But it lead to the misunderstanding with Abel Ferrara, that it was going to be a remake.  I've never seen that film, or any of his other films, I don't even know who he is.  But it is fine.  I heard he is a fine filmmaker, very bold.  And kind of vociferous which I like.  That is what moviemaking is all about. And lets face it, if dust is kicked up, fine, yes.  If you have a baseball game and the coach doesn't storm out from the dugout and kick dust at the umpire, what sort of baseball game is it?  If you have a hockey game and there is no big brawl on the ice, it is not worth the money.

AQ:  In all of your films there seems to be some kind of animal...

WH:  I do not know where it comes from but I love to cast animals in important parts.  With the iguanas and the alligator, I insisted it had to be different.  Something completely and utterly demented.  And I told the cinematographer, you are not going to be allowed to touch this one, I have to shoot this myself.  So I had a tiny little lens connected to a fiber optic cable.  And I brought it only millimeters away from the eyes of the iguana.  And I knew the creature would look utterly perplexed and stupid.  And I had a reflector installed so that I would always catch some sort of light intruding into the image as if there was some sort of a
mistake in it or so.  And I was always searching over the eyes, I was searching for Nicholas Cage and I was searching for the reflector which the main camera wouldn't see.  And I had this idea about the iguanas only maybe two days before we shot them.  I said I want to have iguanas and I want to film them myself.  And the crew asked me why do you do that and what is the meaning of it?  I said, 'Damn it! I have no idea what the meaning is, I only know it is going to be big.'

AQ:  Whose idea was it to wrap things up so quickly in the end? There were five problems and then boom, boom, boom, everything was done (I love it by the way, it was absolutely brilliant!)

WH: That is the brilliance of the screenplay, but of course I staged it in a way that nonstop somebody is moving out and somebody is moving into the same frame without cut.  As if it was a deus ex machina, everything is suddenly fine, everything falls in place, and he gets money, he gets the case solved, and he gets promoted and the pregnant girlfriend.  All of a sudden everything explodes and things settle and being well.  I tried to get the audience into a mood where everything is good now and it gets even worse.

AQ: I saw Val Kilmer in an extremely small role, I am wondering if are you able to get actors that to do roles like that simply because of your prestige as a director?

WH: I believe so.  Yes.


WH:  I don't get the joke...  No, Val Kilmer really wanted to work with me, and he said, c'mon anything you do I'll be on board, and I said, fine, yes, come on board, but I don't have a big role for you.  But actors have noticed two things. Number one, I'm good at storytelling. Number two, I always make them appear at their best:  Kinski, Christian Bale, including also Nicholas Cage, he is really magnificent in the film, and we knew it from day one, we could all tell on the set, everybody knew it right away, and it has been a totally pleasant experience.  Quite often when directors speak about the experience they make it up and make it sound harmonious and good, but it has actually has been a very, very fine experience to work with these actors, in particular Nicholas cage who is a very , very courageous man.  A comrade in arms.  A soldier of cinema and I love these good soldiers of Cinema.  They include not only an actors, but Roger Ebert for example - what a good soldier of cinema.  He is not able to speak anymore, he is afflicted by disease and death is creeping up to him, he watches films and writes about them.  Nicholas Cage comes utterly prepared every day and the moment we need him to go completely wild and bold, he delivers. I really like this attitude and ultimately I have always said that the only thing I want to be is a good soldier of cinema and I love to work with other soldiers.  And in this case it was the actors.  And the iguanas.

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Werner HerzogWilliam M. FinkelsteinNicolas CageEva MendesVal KilmerXzibitCrimeDrama

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An Abridged video version of the same Q&A can be found on Youtube: Part 1 and Part 2

More about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

GorypuppyNovember 20, 2009 12:07 PM

Hahaha... "death is creeping up on him"... amazing.

I'm seeing the film this afternoon and I hope I like it at least as much as the Abel Ferrara's film. I know they're not related but comparing will probably be inevitable.

GorypuppyNovember 20, 2009 8:37 PM

Oh yeah. I just came back from seeing it. It's definitely some of the most fun I've had in a theater in a long long time. It have the also hilarious You Might As Well Live bet as my favorite comedy of the year.

Rodney PerkinsNovember 21, 2009 10:42 AM

This might be my favorite film of 2009.