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)?
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.
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?
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?
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
AQ: How much did the film change during editing?
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
CG: This originally thought of as a potential franchise - with a cop in a different city...
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...
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!)
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?
I believe so. Yes.
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