Rescue Dawn ‘s Christian Bale & Steve Zahn


Werner Herzog’s first dramatic feature in five years is Rescue Dawn, retelling the story of Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog’s 1999 documentary Little Dieter Must Fly. Christian Bale plays the navy pilot whose plane was shot down over Laos in a pre-Vietnam War mission. After trying to survive in the jungle, Dengler was captured, tortured and thrown into a POW camp for months of rigorous conditions before finally escaping. spoke with Bale and his co-star Steve Zahn, who played Duane, Dieter’s accomplice in their great escape from the POW camp. (Check back soon for video interviews!) Had either of you seen the documentary about Dieter before hearing about this movie?
Christian Bale: Not prior to meeting with Werner. That was the first time I’d heard of Dieter at that point, but I did research him, watching the documentary numerous times, and then I got in touch with his family as well. Actually, I bumped into his son at a supermarket out of nowhere, that was a weird coincidence. Then obviously I talked with Werner, because Werner and him were good friends. Werner was never interested in describing him too much to me. He wanted me to kind of invent it myself and said to just feel free and take license and do whatever I wish with it. I just felt that he was such an interesting character and he had some peculiar mannerisms, which in many ways were too strong for me to actually perform in the movie, because his voice for instance was something as he got older, he really had tried to reduce the audity of his voice, but he had a very strange tone to it when he was younger, this kind of uneasy dorkiness that I saw in him as well, this kind of prankster naivety and childlike nature, but not entirely comfortable in his own skin. Certainly not your typical tough-as-nails wartime hero. I just took bits and pieces from the various resources at my disposal and then just made up the rest of it.
Steve Zahn: I was very familiar with his work, I was actually a big fan of “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” it’s one of my favorite documentaries. That was brilliant, partially because he’s so cinematic with his work and he directs his documentaries, even Dieter he directed in that, you can tell. It’s fascinating and I had so many questions for him on that, and I was so moved and inspired by that story, so when I heard it was going to be a movie I just jumped on it. I had to be a part of it, and I was fully prepared to not get it. That’s the kiss of death, being into it, and there’s plenty of jobs that I’ve been that excited about and never got.

CS: Can you each talk about your first meeting with Herzog?
Bale: I met Werner first of all—I wasn’t really very familiar with his work. I’d seen in video stores like “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” and that sort of stuff. I met with Werner after reading the script which I liked a great deal, met with him and liked him. Some of his first questions were (puts on a German accent) “Would you like to swim in snake-infested waters and eat snake and have leeches all over you?” I thought that was kind of an unusual job interview, and then, it happened pretty quick. He seemed to think I was up for it. I was down in Tierra del Fuego with my wife backpackin’ around down there and I got an Email from Werner sayin’ “How about playing Dieter?” and that was probably back in late 2002 or something like that. I was working, he was working—because Werner never stops working on different things and documentaries. Werner’s also just perverse, like we got offered money by reputable production companies and things like that, and he just had no interest in working with them, so we waited until we’d get somebody that it was going to make the movie very tricky, and said that those were the people he wants to work with. It took until 2005 to get it off the ground.
Zahn: Werner called me and said, “What do you like to eat?” and I thought it meant something other than eating, and I’m like, “F*ck, what do I say? Peanuts?” He said that he just wants to know what I want to eat, so I said, “Steak” and he said, “Come over to my house and I’ll cook you a steak” and I stood in Werner Herzog’s kitchen as he cooked a steak for me in his skillet. And it was wonderful. We talked about a lot of stuff. I had two dinners with him, and then he said, “I want you to play Duane in the movie”, and I was thrilled. That was before they got financing, and I was just waiting for it to get greenlit and get financing and when they did, I was more into this truly than anything I’ve been involved in as far as artistic reasons.

CS: What’s it like to work with Werner on the set?
Bale: He’s somebody that I like a great deal because he provokes reactions. I enjoyed it because it was very memorable. We had our disagreements, but if I think about any proper friends that I have, they’re all people that I’ve been through arguments and had disagreements with. When you see a different side of somebody and suddenly when you become adversaries instead for a short time. I saw that in Werner and his incredibly soft, gentle side as well which most people have no idea that he has there. I just liked that with somebody that I might want to strangle him in the morning and then by the afternoon, I was like giving him a hug. It was kind of ridiculous the gamut of emotions that you go through with the man.
Zahn: I’ve worked with some tyrants, but I expected more of that from him. I think he’s just a fascinating guy. He loves there being conflict and this weird dissension on set and people fighting. He likes that, he wants that to happen. There’s something kind of interesting and good. It creates a different atmosphere, as opposed to like everybody visiting from the studio, that to me is mind-numbing when you have this guy coming in with this striped shirt on that says Rage Against the Machine and he has dyed hair, and he’s a producer that’s talking too loud and a little too fast. THAT is a distraction. To not have chairs and food on set and not to have that kind of high school grab-ass going on and to have really good people there because they want to work with Werner. Some people were frustrated because he doesn’t use people in a way conventional movies do. He doesn’t want extra people around, so sometimes he’d use people, even script supervisors, and sometimes he wouldn’t, which was frustrating at times for everybody, but in the end, it’s his movie, and he knows what he’s doing. You trust that and you just go with it.

CS: I was surprised by your weight loss in this after you did it for “The Machinist” because you seemed to be back in shape for “The Prestige.” Have these drastic changes in weight caused any health problems?
Bale: Well, I’ve got no idea, I feel good. “Rescue Dawn” we made at the end of 2005, I made it before “The Prestige.”
Zahn: I didn’t follow his route [for weight loss]. That was crazy, even he admits that. The hard thing about losing weight on this one was that we had to run and be physical all the time, so I knew when I started losing the weight that I gotta be in shape, too. Otherwise, I’m not going to be able to do what I’m supposed to do. I did it really healthily. I ate all day and nothing processed and drank water and ran five to ten miles a day and it came off, it was amazing.

CS: How important is it for you both to do things yourself while making movies like this?
Zahn: If you’re doing something that’s important and challenging, you want to do it. You don’t want to fake it but when the cameras aren’t rolling, you shoot the sh*t and have fun, and it was a blast. What would have made this job really horrible wasn’t the leeches and the river and the barefoot for two months and the jungle and dealing with all that. It would have been working with people that weren’t fun and weren’t good, that would have been hard. Because everybody was cool and very talented and devoted, all the other stuff was par for the course.
Bale: I just have fun doing it. I kind of feel these are experiences I’m not going to have possibly ever again in my life, and so I want to do it. I’m not scared of doing ’em. I’ll take professionals’ advice if they’re telling me “this one is going to kill you.” I’ll say, “Okay, maybe not this time.” There’s numerous times where I turned to stunt guys and said, “Sorry, mate, there’s no way I’m steppin’ up for this one. I’ve gotta do it myself.’ We have these fantastic army helicopter pilots who were crazy bastards. I just hung on the railing on the side and they would take off, and they were taking off tree branches. The back rotor blade was just whippin’ around and hittin’ trees, we were flying so low over it, and I’m hanging out of it. I’ve got an incredible little sightseein’ tour of the Thai jungle and the waterfalls and the exhilaration of hanging out of a helicopter and chasin’ the snake and grabbin’ it and all that, it’s what I like. It’s probably my favorite thing about doing what I do is that I do get to have these very unique experiences.

CS: What was the hardest thing to do while making the movie? Eating bugs?
Bale: Visually, people go ewwwww, but there’s not a whole lot to it. It’s more a texture than anything else. It was something I was doing off-camera, not live ones, but in the Thai markets, they fry pretty much everything, like all these insects and add salt and pepper to them and stick ’em in a bag and I’d be munching them around the place anyways.
Zahn: The hardest thing was being in that prisoner hut, just because it was so damn hot and it was uncomfortable and it hurt. I remember just standing outside and they’d say “we need you inside” and just standing at the door going, “I’m going to be the last one in.” Going down the river and eating maggots or whatever, that stuff was a field trip, like going to the planetarium in elementary.

CS: Was there anything in particular you remembered while shooting the movie?
Zahn: We were rehearsing and Peter had the camera and sometimes Peter rolls while we’re rehearsing, and as we were coming up on this ridge, and it was all jungle and it had been raining all day. Christian turns around and says something and we keep going. We were rehearsing it, and as Christian turns around, we heard this huge loud noise and we turned, and this… I dunno. In Kentucky, it would be a 300-year-old sycamore [does big crashing sounds] just down this hill…BOOM! Like 50 yards in front of us, not even that, and we all just stopped, and Christian and I kept going, and we kept walking and Werner was like, “Were you filming?” Unbelievable, this thing growing for 300 years and we just happened to be there with Werner Herzog and he doesn’t get it on tape. You can tell he was like, “I can’t believe we didn’t get that on film” which would have been truly brilliant.

Rescue Dawn opened in New York and Los Angeles on the 4th of July and expands into other cities on Friday, July 13.