Werner Herzog: The Movieline Interview


You might expect a legendary director like Werner Herzog to have an intimidating presence; after all, Herzog often seems to be drawn to incredibly outsized lead characters, and his films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are volatile feats in themselves. When I met with Herzog this month, however, he was friendly and charming, quick to smile and even eager to tease. His newest film is the Nicolas Cage starrer Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and if that title recalls the 1992 Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant that inspired it, rest assured that Herzog has made a loopy crime drama that stands on its own.

During our conversation, Herzog had plenty to say about drugs, film school, casting, Cage, and women, and he said all of it in his own delightful, inimitable way. For as much fun as Lieutenant is to watch, it's even more fun to talk to its maker.

It struck me while watching this film -- and while recalling your others -- that you often have a lead performance that asks a lot of its actor, and at the same time, Hollywood doesn't often ask much from its actresses. I wondered, have you considered making a Werner Herzog film where the demanding central role is female?

I have two feature films pushing me at the moment -- they always come like uninvited guests in a home invasion -- and it's strange that you're asking this question because in both films, a woman would be the central character.

Can you tell me anything about them?

No. [Laughs] Too early. Tomorrow, I'm actually leaving to scout the possibilities of one of the films. It may turn out very quickly that it's undoable, so if I start to talk about it, then everybody's waiting for it and the film doesn't come. This happens enough that I'm cautious at the moment. I've done some films with women as the leading character, like Wings of Hope or Land of Silence and Darkness, but not a narrative feature film. Why it's like that, I don't know.

When Bad Lieutenant was announced, a lot of people had no idea what to expect, especially because of the original film--

No. Wrong. Why do you say "original film"?

I should say, "the first film to have that title."

Yes, but when you look at the Jesus film from Scorsese, you do not say that Mel Gibson's is a remake and Scorsese's is the original. I caution to use this term.

I know how frustrating it's been for you--

No, it's not frustrating at all. It's wonderful! Now that the film is out and it's been seen, it's obvious to everyone that the films have nothing to do with each other. It's good that there's a discovery to make!

I was always surprised that you were stuck with that title, because I never thought the first film had the sort of mainstream awareness that would launch a franchise. The producers weren't willing to drop that element in the title once it was clear you'd gone in a different direction?

That was my battle from day one, but I did not prevail. I wanted to have it simply be Port of Call New Orleans. Now we have sort of a hybrid title.

As it started to be seen at festivals, it developed a reputation as an outlandish comedy. Is that a read of the film you actively encourage?

We were working hard at that! I think that's what's most surprising for audiences, that it's so hilarious. As it gets more and more vile and debased, Nicolas Cage enjoys himself even more. I said to him, "There's such a thing as a bliss of evil. Go for it and enjoy it, and that will be the joy of the audience."

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