Werner Herzog shows no signs of slowing down. A few months ago we were treated to his blackly comic version of Abel Ferrara's 'Bad Lieutenant'. Now comes the David Lynch-produced 'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done', a strange thriller based on the true story of a San Diego student, played with dark intensity by Michael Shannon, who in 1979 murdered his mother with a sword. Here Herzog, director of such towering films as Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcaralldo, talks about his shooting methods, his acclaimed producer, being shot at, and why he feared for his life meeting the film's real-life inspiration.
Dazed Digital: How do you work so quickly?
Werner Herzog: I know exactly what I want to see on the screen. This was shot and final cut done in five weeks. During the day the editor was working on the set, and at night I would edit with him, and on weekends I would edit.
DD: Are you a workaholic?
Werner Herzog: Please don’t believe that I am one or that I am working at a hectic pace! I work quietly and I'm very focused. It’s like open-heart surgery: you don’t go for the appendix, you go straight for the heart.
DD: Do you use storyboards?
Werner Herzog: No, that’s an instrument of the cowards.
DD: Where does your inspiration come from?
Werner Herzog: The films come at me like burglars in the night, like home invasion. I never make a choice about what I should do next, I just do what is most urgent right now. We are sitting here together and I have five burglars in my kitchen already.
DD: How did this end up being a David Lynch presentation?
Werner Herzog: We like each other very much and we respect each other’s films on a very deep level. I was sitting with him and I said, ‘We have to do something like a manifesto.’ Today, in the financial crisis, production costs are still exploding. Hollywood films cost $100-180 million. I said we should be able to make films for maybe $2 million dollars only, with the best of actors. Of course not Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, who cost $20 million alone, but with the best in the world: Michael Shannon, Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe. So David said, ‘Yes, we have to do that’.
DD: I read you met the real man who killed his mother...
Werner Herzog: Yes, he lived on social security in Riverside, California, and he had his little trailer stuffed full with memorabilia, and in one corner, with a crucifix and a burning candle, was a poster of Aguirre, Wrath of God. When I saw this I had a feeling of, 'Oh my God, I have to stay away from this one.' I had the feeling I was going to be the next target!
DD: Like when you were shot with an air gun while being interviewed for the BBC?
Werner Herzog: Yes, somehow I happen to be the target of people who open fire at me. It has happened a few times already.
DD: The violence in 'My Son...' happens off camera. Why?
Werner Herzog: I do not like physical violence. Particularly violence against the defenceless. I do not want to show a matricide in gory detail. I do not want to see violence against children in a film. I do not want to see a woman raped on screen. There’s something in me as an audience that rejects that.
DD: People often talk about the connection between violence in film and in society, but here it's a classical Greek tragedy that seems to be connected to the crime.
Werner Herzog: In a way, yeah.
DD: So what responsibility does an artist have with regard to the social aspect of what they're doing?
Werner Herzog: I'd need 48 hours to answer that. We should not lose sight that the story's based on a real event, which was, in fact, around an actor who was staging Sophoceles' 'Electra'. What I know from the documentation is that his fellow actors were afraid he was going to murder his stage mother, who happened to be his girlfriend. He behaved in such a strange, mysterious and dangerous way that he was eliminated from the production. He apparently decided to kill his real mother, not his stage mother. So the stage play and the real murder are somehow interwoven. But I wouldn't like to go much deeper into what sort of interconnections. We would lose each other [laughs].
DD: You live in LA but you've said you still feel Bavarian. How come?
Werner Herzog: I have left my country and I have made a film in Antarctica, and I have made films in South America, I have made films in the Sahara, I have made films in the United States, but I have never left my culture.
DD: So what is Bavarian in you?
Werner Herzog: I can give you a primitive answer: the only other man who could have done a film like Fitzcoralldo would have been King Ludwig II, the Mad King of Bavaria, who built the dream castle. So I feel very close to him and I bow my head in reverence...
'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done' is released in the cinemas this Friday