Werner Herzog is not taking the pandemic lying down. During our conversation, he repeatedly suggests we tackle the coronavirus by being aggressive against it and staying at home. Herzog’s mantra, said twice, is clear: “Starve the fucker.”
Herzog, of course, is one of film’s great survivors. A true soldier of cinema, the veteran German director came to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, collaborating memorably with actor Klaus Kinksi in films such as Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). While making the former, Herzog pulled a gun on Kinski and threatened to kill them both. During production of the latter, Herzog forced his crew to pull a 320-ton steamship up a hill in the Peruvian jungle, injuring three. Working with famously intense stars such as Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn (2006) or Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) must have posed little challenge in comparison.
In recent years, Herzog has put his famously wry vocal talents to good use in episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy. His arch-villain The Zec in Jack Reacher (2012) is that film’s highlight, while he also crops up in Star Wars spin-off TV show The Mandalorian.
In many of his 20 fiction features and 31 full-length docs, Herzog investigates mankind’s follies when interacting with an indifferent natural world. In his latest film, Family Romance, LLC, he instead investigates an unusual way people interact. At the eponymous company in Japan, lonely or worried people can hire fake family members and colleagues. Real-life Family Romance boss Yuichi Ishii plays a version of himself and, in a series of bizarre scenes, is hired to pretend to be a 12-year-old girl’s father, a train company employee who makes a mistake and evades the blame, and a woman’s alcoholic father at a wedding.
Talking on the phone from his Los Angeles home, Herzog discussed the making of Family Romance, how his nimble crew caused a negligible carbon footprint and how he thinks COVID-19 will affect cinema.
How are you coping with the current situation?
I’m fine, thank you. Disciplined and aggressive against the virus. That’s the only way to deal with it because we’ll starve it out that way.
In the absence of anything else to do, have you been watching much?
No, not really. I’ve always been more reading than watching films. I sometimes read books that are bad on purpose. My friend, Errol Morris, has the same attitude. He advised me very strongly to read a book that he loves about a failed lion tamer. It’s really badly written, but it’s a wonderful book, anyway. Sometimes it makes sense to read the unaccomplished.
What sort of impact do you think COVID-19 will have on cinema?
I hope that it will have a positive one, like in Boccaccio’s The Decameron: the plague is spreading in Florence, young people flee to the countryside into an abandoned estate, and storytelling starts. Each of the 10 young people has to tell one story per night. It makes 100 stories in 10 days. It helps push culture toward storytelling again in a big way. I’m not a prophet, but it’s a new experience that we haven’t had before, and I hope it will get the best out of us.
We have to learn something – how to behave in a situation that is outside of our experience with the real world. When you walk down the street, we are in a linear world: you’ll meet one person and then you’ll meet a second. And then a third, and a fourth. But what happens here is a geometrical progression. It’s not one, two, three, but when you reach, let’s say, 32 people coming at you, the next number in a geometrical line would not be 33, but 64. The next number after that would not be 65, but 128. That’s outside of our daily experience with reality. Once you understand this principle, you understand how to aggressively move to kill it off, and to kill it off the most aggressive way is to stay uncontacted. Starve it out. Starve out the fucker. It’s a logical and responsive way to do it.
On to your film. Formally, Family Romance, LLC has the look and feel of a documentary, but it’s not one. Why did you decide to make the film like that?
I think the form came naturally. Each subject, each substance finds its own form, but, of course, everything is directed, scripted and rehearsed and acted, and only a fool would believe it’s a documentary. Some people, some fools, believe it’s a documentary, but it’s a compliment because it tells me that I am authentic in how the actors are in the film. It’s so authentic that you think it must be a documentary.
Would you ever employ Family Romance to do anything, and how would you use them?
As babysitters, yes. We do that all the time. It’s not foreign to modern societies to have stand-ins. So there’s nothing wrong about it, but what we see evolving in Japan is so big because we know it’s coming at us as well. It points at a deep existential solitude that is coming at us.
What makes you say that?
When you look around in our societies, with the ageing population, and when you look around with all the contacts that we have through the internet and social media, we have to ask ourselves, how many of our 2,200 friends are real friends? And we have to ask ourselves, do we not live in some sort of performative way, as well? Part of our existence and our family life, certainly, is role playing. Part of it is role playing. It is performative.
We put on different personas for, say, our work colleagues, our families, our best friend.
Yes, it has to be. It’s nothing foreign to us, to live a life that is partially performative. The only moment you are not performative is when you are a woman in labour giving birth to a child; there’s no role playing anymore.
Why go to Japan and film there? Why not take the idea and try to do a version locally?
Because we do not have it in such an explicit form as we encounter it in Japan. But, it’s not an exotic film. It has to do with the very innermost existence that we live.
Do you ever think about the carbon footprint of your filmmaking? Do you think we should think about that, as an industry as a whole?
It doesn’t really apply as a criterion to my filmmaking because my film was made with literally no team. My transportation department was the subway in Tokyo, and my costume department was not big trucks and trailers. My costume department was the ladies’ room in a restaurant, where my actress, a 12-year-old with her mother, would go to change her dress for the next scene. The carbon footprint does not really exist in this film.
Is that something you think the industry as a whole could maybe work towards doing? Making more films on a scale like you did this one?
Well, of course we should question everything that we are doing. Are we switching off the light when we leave a room? Is our air conditioning on all the time or not? The same thing should be asked by the film industry. Are we wasting too much energy or not? I’m sure that the film industry, like any other industries, can save a lot of energy.
What’s it like being a part of the whole Star Wars machine?
I do not know what the machine is all about. I see only the set from which I’m working, and I found it very interesting because there’s a new way for acting and filmmaking that is actually the old-fashioned way. The actors see the spaces in which they are moving and the camera does likewise. So it’s cinema back where it should be, where it’s at its best. Otherwise, I love everything that has to do with cinema: directing, screenwriting, editing, acting, you just name it. It’s a deep joy.
Like you say, you’ve done it all, but what’s your favourite thing to do in cinema?
I have done quite a few things. I’ve done [acting] very early on, in the early 70s. Way back. I do like things like playing a guest role in The Simpsons, which, of course, is a cartoon, but my voice, my stage voice, can be pretty wild. I do what is doable for me. Jack Reacher, I only accepted for two reasons. Number one, the screenplay looked interesting, and number two, I knew I had to frighten the audience. Just me, half-blind with no fingers left on my hands. Only me, arguing, with my voice. And I knew I would deliver.
You’ve tackled so many different varied themes and ideas and subject matters within your work. Is there anything that you always look for within a story that you’re trying to tell?
No. I only know that the story is so big I have to do it. But, of course, there is a common denominator, although the stories are very different and the characters are different. It’s a worldview. Let’s say when you turned on your TV and you are switching into the middle of a movie, and within a minute and a half, you would know this must be a Herzog film. Not because you immediately feel familiar in the story, like you would feel familiar in a story by Ingmar Bergman, but you would recognise it.