Werner Herzog and the Art of Losing Money (in Film)
A stark reflection on withstanding resistance and the obstacles to our aspirations.
Werner Herzog is not a filmmaker for the faint of heart: his films, as he says, are not fictions but portions of life. Unlike many directors and producers, Herzog’s was not a traditional film education: he was so poor that he only learned of the existence of cinema at the age of 11. Still famous for being consummately self-taught, his first films were financed through odd jobs, (to pay for the short film, Herakles, he worked for more than two years in a foundry).
His films, and more recent documentaries, whether he worked as director or producer, often offer much for critics to discuss and they dwell in viewers’ minds. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Woyzeck or the recent The Act of Killing, for which he was an Executive Producer, make up a filmography that explores the darkest side of the human imagination and its relationship to power, madness and reality.
The book, Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed, by Paul Cronin, consists of a series of interviews with Herzog on a variety of topics, including the art of financing movies. While film directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola have become the stuff of legends for seducing movie studios into financing quixotic projects, the vision of Herzog is a bit more raw. As you’ll see, you don’t have to be a filmmaker to take advantage of his methods for giving life to a passion.
♦ The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.
♦ A natural component of filmmaking is the struggle to find money. It has been an uphill battle my entire working life… If you want to make a film, go make it. I can’t tell you the number of times I have started shooting a film knowing I didn’t have the money to finish it. I meet people everywhere who complain about money; it’s the ingrained nature of too many filmmakers. But it should be clear to everyone that money has always had certain explicit qualities: it’s stupid and cowardly, slow and unimaginative. The circumstances of funding never just appear; you have to create them yourself, then manipulate them for your own ends. This is the very nature and daily toil of filmmaking. If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs. There is a German proverb: “Der Teufel scheisst immer auf den grössten Haufen” [“The Devil always shits on the biggest heap”]. So start heaping and have faith. Every time you make a film you should be prepared to descend into Hell and wrestle it from the claws of the Devil himself. Prepare yourself: there is never a day without a sucker punch. At the same time, be pragmatic and learn how to develop an understanding of when to abandon an idea. Follow your dreams no matter what, but reconsider if they can’t be realized in certain situations. A project can become a cul-de-sac and your life might slip through your fingers in pursuit of something that can never be realized. Know when to walk away.
♦ Perseverance has kept me going over the years. Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.
♦ Although for many years I lived hand to mouth — sometimes in semi-poverty — I have lived like a rich man ever since I started making films. Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me. At a time when friends were establishing themselves by getting university degrees, going into business, building careers and buying houses, I was making films, investing everything back into my work. Money lost, film gained.
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