As we get to some of the hottest days of summer, it’s the perfect time to watch two of the most original and eclectic filmmakers exploring two of the coldest places on earth: Werner Herzog returns with his documentary Encounters at the End of the World, an original look at the landscapes and inhabitants of Antarctica’s McMurdo Base, and eccentric Canadian auteur Guy Maddin takes a biographical look at his home city in My Winnipeg. The two films have many things in common, though they take contrasting approaches to painting a picture of their geographical subject matter. Watching both films, you get a really good idea how two singularly unique filmmakers can create a documentary (of sorts) that’s entertaining and funny that look nothing like the drier programming found on the Travel Channel.
Last week, ComingSoon.net spoke with both filmmakers, on the same day in fact, about what was involved with creating these portraits of places moviegoers rarely get to see. The interview with Herzog follows, and you can read our interview with Guy Maddin right here.
Veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog has effortlessly alternated between documentaries and dramatic films over his forty-plus year career, but in recent years, he’s become known for his prolific ability to crank out two to three non-fiction films a year. His 2005 documentary Grizzly Man was thought by many to be the best doc that year even though it was ignored by the Academy. His latest effort Encounters at the End of the World is just as riveting, a unique look at Antarctica and the inhabitants of the McMurdo Base, a place that few people get to see and fewer ever get to visit. Herzog spent seven weeks down on the continent filming the gorgeous landscapes and capturing unbelievable underwater shots the likes that haven’t been seen except in the movies of James Cameron, combining them with his trademark narrative and a beautiful soundtrack of Russian chorale music. As hard as the famous German filmmaker tried avoiding the penguins who’ve made the continent famous, he did manage to sneak one wildly lost penguin into the movie, which seemed appropriate.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Herzog at the THINKFilm offices for a brief interview, although it took some time to get onto the same page, since he seemed to want to answer his own questions rather than the ones we asked. Hey, when you make as many great movies as Herzog, you can answer whichever questions you want, right?
ComingSoon.net: When I interviewed Zak Penn last year for his movie “The Grand,” we were talking about your role in his movie. He mentioned getting a call from you and you telling him matter-of-factly that you were in Antarctica. Was it that easy a decision to just go down there and make a movie? Werner Herzog: (ignores my question and answering his own) Sometimes it’s good to show a good amount of self-irony. It does good to me, and besides, I’ve been in the last two films of Harmony Korine, “Julian Donkey Boy” and “Mister Lonely.” It’s simply that I love everything that has to do with cinema: writing, directing, producing, editing, and including acting, but I’m good in acting only in a limited scope. I’m only good when it comes to characters that are violent, debased people, dysfunctional, then I’m good and quite convincing then.
CS: Having seen you in so many of your own documentaries, whenever you show up in a movie like that, one expects you to start narrating or commenting on what is happening. As far as “Encounters” though, you saw some underwater pictures that got you interested in Antarctica? Herzog: Of course, the film shows it and I’m making a clear statement. I was absolutely fascinated by footage that I saw under the water, complete and utter science fiction environment that doesn’t look like (it’s from) this planet. Of course, it is under the ice of the Roth Sea shelf. The divers have to drill a hole through 10, 15, 20 feet of ice and they have to be absolutely expert divers because sometimes there are unexpected currents underwater. If you get disoriented, you cannot surface anymore. If you do not find the exit hole anymore, then you’re dead. It was quite clear very early on I would never have a chance to dive. I’m not a scuba diver, and even if I had gone into training for a full year, they wouldn’t have allowed me, because it was simply too dangerous. The community in Antarctica, which is very hard to maintain, cannot afford to put all the resources into a rescue operation. They’d better use a helicopter and manpower in supporting a nutrino detection project or climate change project or a whatever project.
CS: Knowing that you wouldn’t be able dive yourself, did you just want to have one of the divers take a camera down to film new footage? Herzog: Exactly. He’s the musician Henry Kaiser, with whom I did the music in “Grizzly Man,” together with Richard Thompson, he produced the music. He actually in “Encounters at the End of the World” plays guitar, but mostly, it’s David Lindley, a wonderful great musician, and the other part of the music is actually prerecorded Russian Orthodox church choirs, and it gives this kind of great space to the landscapes. How it functions is very strange, and of course, it gives something almost sacred to certain things that you see. The Russian church choirs of course already existed, but all the rest of the music was done together with the images, and it was recorded for the movie itself.
CS: When you decided to make a movie down there, did you have to get some sort of financing together and have a solid gameplan or did you just go down with a small crew and start shooting? Herzog: Well, it was a minimum crew. There was a cinematographer and me, the director who did the sound, and Henry Kaiser who did the diving and worked on the music and the organization, because he was down there seven times maybe, so he knew shortcuts in the bureaucracy down there which is immense strangely, big big amount of bureaucracy, but it’s okay. No complaints about that. It was just an incredible fascination about the footage I had seen from underwater and of course, those stories that I heard. I said, “Oh, I’ll never have a chance to go down to Antarctica” and Henry Kaiser said to me, “Yes, there might be a chance. There is an artists and writers’ program by the National Science Foundation. Why don’t you apply?” I applied and they invited me! It came out and I didn’t expect it, and then the consolation in producing the film was the same like in “Grizzly Man” which means Creative Differences, a man who runs it Erik Nelson, he by the way has his own film “Dreams with Sharp Teeth” and I’m very proud that we’re handing over the cinema from his film to mine. (Note: It’s true. Nelson’s Harlan Ellison doc played at New York’s Film Forum until Tuesday and then Herzog’s film starts on Wednesday.) He’s really a wonderful filmmaker and producer, and he since he had worked a lot with Discovery, they came on board and it was in this case, fairly easy, because we had a similar set-up like in “Grizzly Man.”
CS: As far as the community down there, it must be very secular and they must keep to themselves, especially the scientists, so how did you approach them about talking in front of your camera? Herzog: The majority of the population are not scientists. They are people for maintenance and organization, mechanics, people who work in the kitchen. The dishwasher in the galley is a retired judge from a high court, things like this, so you find amazing people, but very dedicated. Out of roughly a population of thousands of men and women down in McMurdo during the astral summer, which is our winter, there are roughly one thousand and about 200 or 250 are working on scientific projects, all the others are plumbers, like the journeyman plumber you see in the film who is a wonderful man. In the organization and housing and maintenance and transport and security, you just name it.
CS: In general, you wanted to talk to whomever you could, so what did you tell them when you asked them to be in your film? Herzog: That’s the strange thing. I flew down and I had no idea whom I was going to meet, with the exception of one or two, Henry Kaiser I knew I would meet and Sam Viser, who runs this diving camp. I knew that, but I flew into the unknown and I had no idea whom I was going to meet and how I was going to do the film and what I would do. I only knew I had to come back seven weeks later with a film in the can which frightened me. I know I’m a good storyteller and I always connect very quickly to real good people.
CS: But you’ve done other films in less than seven weeks. Herzog: Yeah, well you lose about more than a week, once you’re down there, once you arrive there, you’re not allowed to leave McMurdo. You have to do a course in survival, a course in radio communications, a course in snowmobile riding. Three days into being down there, I had an accident on a steep slope. The instructor asked me to do a turn on a very steep slope and being a good skier, I thought, “well, this looks a little bit twisty for making a U-Turn” and indeed, the snowmobile, 800 pounds, turns over and I tried to get away from it and it tumbles after me, this 800 pound monster rolls all over my body, so for the next six weeks, I was hurting everywhere you can hurt, and I could barely bend down to tie my shoestrings, because my rib cage was hurting so badly, swollen hands five times as thick as a hand should normally be.
CS: Someone was telling me onceI think it was Zakthat they wanted to do a graphic novel about you, your life and your adventures, and I think that story would have to be in there. Herzog: Yes. (chuckles)
CS: It seems that a lot of people want to go down there to disappear or get lost, they literally drop out of normal society . Herzog: No, I don’t think anybody goes down there to disappear from society. You don’t do that, because you could not if you tried that, you could not sustain yourself for more than a week, because you cannot carry more food with you.
CS: But McMurdo has its own society. I’m talking about getting away from normal society. Herzog: Society (down there) is not much different from what we have here. You’ve got an ATM machine in McMurdo and an aerobics studio, and you have yoga classes and Alcoholics Anonymous and you have three bars and you have a film club, and you just name it.
CS: That’s a lot of stuff we didn’t see in the movie. I see a sequel here. Herzog: In condensed form. (chuckles)
CS: Was a lot of the motivation for making the film just to show people things they hadn’t seen before? Herzog: Well, I didn’t know exactly what was going on there. I only knew there was a lot of cutting edge science, and not only what everyone thinks, that science in Antarctica has to do with the climate change and so on. Yes, there’s a good amount of cutting edge science and knowledge coming from there, but it’s other things like origins of life. The divers actually dive for very tiny mono-cellular creatures, which gives us insight into very, very early forms of biological life on this planet. There are people who are trying to detect nutrinos for very obvious reasons. It is much easier to detect in there because from a balloon for example that flies 40 kilometers high into the stratosphere, you can cover hundreds and hundreds of miles under you and detect the tiniest signals without any disturbances. Even a light switch that you turn off and on would be registered as a signal up there at 40 km distance, and of course, you don’t have all these disturbances, and then they have a field of observation that is very favorable.
CS: Your documentaries are very well known for your trademark narratives. Do you tend to write that stuff while you’re down there or experiencing it or is it all done after the fact once you’ve edited the movie together? Herzog: It was done during editing, because I knew while I was filming, I knew I would easily get enough fascinating footage to make a film out of it, but in which order I would narrate it, I did not know clearly. A few things I saw immediately, yes, I had to show why did I go to Antarctica as the first images I have to show, underwater stuff, so a few elements in the whole structure were clear in its position. Otherwise, I fill it with this kind of great curiosity and also, there’s a lot of humor in it, and you see it when you watch it in a theater with audiences, so much laughter. I’m very enthusiastic about the fact that people laugh so much and they see the humor in it.
CS: Between “Grizzly Man” and “Rescue Dawn,” you’ve had somewhat of a resurgence, so have you discovered that you have a new younger audience that never saw any of your older films? Herzog: Yeah, in a way. You know that I live in the United States. I got married and I live in the United States and it’s done very good to me. I’m out for new horizons and not only that horizon into Antarctica was opened to me, significantly by the American National Science Foundation, they’ve been very good to me. It’s also distribution, for example, here we are at THINKFilm, it’s a first time I’m collaborating with THINKFilm and I’m finding that it’s very significant that all of a sudden, the Discovery Channel or Creative Differences or that “Rescue Dawn” was not a studio film but it was released by MGM, so all of a sudden, completely new horizons. I don’t want to tread the same spot all over throughout my filmmaking life. I’m always exploring, I’m always out for new horizons. It has done good to my films, it has done good to me. When you look at the films I’ve made recently, “Grizzly Man,” “Rescue Dawn,” “Encounters at the End of the World”, “The Wild Blue Yonder,” it’s just a very significant new step for me.