Werner Herzog: ‘Contrary to the Wild Rumors About Me, No Actor Ever Got Hurt’

Provocative director talks about going too far, why he still doesn't like 3D, and how only boring documentaries are created in the editing

Director, screenwriter and provocateur Werner Herzog has had a wide-ranging and occasionally confounding career, with his 60 films ranging from the arthouse classics "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo" to acclaimed documentaries like "Grizzly Man" and "Encounters at the End of the World" to the overamped pulp of "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans."

Werner HerzogHis "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which opens Friday, is a 3D exploration of the cave paintings in the Chauvet caves in Southern France — but since it's Herzog, the film is less an archaelogical exploration than a fanciful meditation on the human soul. Filmed during a week of short stints in the heavily restricted space, the doc includes typically Herzogian detours, including a coda that involves albino crocodiles living down the river from Chauvet.    

We met with Herzog this week. Last week's death of photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington prompted a conversational detour into a topic on which the famous risk-taker naturally had something to say.

Also read: Docu-Mania at TIFF: On Cave Paintings, Dog-Cloning and Sex & Chains

Can a filmmaker or photojournalist go too far? Is there a line where you should stop and say, "Wait a minute, this is too dangerous?"
Of course. I don’t care that much about danger for myself, but you have to think about it particularly if you take other people along with you. And these moments have happened to me. For instance, a film I shot in the Caribbean about an exploding volcano ["La Soufriere"].

There was a seismic crisis, and the mountain ripped open with toxic gasses, and it was predicted that it would explode. And one of the two cinematographers asked me, "Werner, what would happen if we're on this volcano filming, and it explodes?" And I said, "Edward, we shall be airborne." What else can you say?

So yes, there is a border line of risk, and you'd better be very cautious. And by the way, in 60 films, contrary to the wild rumors about me, not a single actor ever got hurt. So I have statistics on my side that I'm circumspect, that I'm prudent.

With "Grizzly Man," you made a film about Timothy Treadwell, who was convinced that he could live safely among wild bears. He and his girlfriend ended up being killed by a bear while his camera was running …
Well, there are other border lines, ethical border lines. In the film "Grizzly Man," there is a surviving tape, which contains only the audio portion of his last six minutes. It was switched on by the girlfriend of Timothy Treadwell when a bear attacked and ended up eating both Treadwell and her. And in the drama of events unfolding, she didn’t have time to take the lens cap off the cameras, so we only have the audio portion.

And on this tape, you hear things that you should never hear in an anonymous audience. The coroner heard it to establish a certain sequence of events. And I heard it because a producer and distributor and TV network urged me to address it. The moment I heard it I said, "This is not going to be in the film." There's a border line, and there's such a thing as privacy and the dignity of an individual's death. Just leave it untouched.

So yes, there are border lines for each one of us in filmmaking. But they are self-made border lines.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams poster"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is different, because it's very much about the sense of wonder you feel when you walk into the Chauvet cave and see those ancient paintings.
Yeah. But how do you do that as a filmmaker? How do you pass this on to an audience? (Laughs) I think I was the right one to do it. Someone else would have been much more technical, but I think it's essential that as a filmmaker I really pass on this sense of awe to an audience.

But as a filmmaker, was it hard to focus on that sense of wonder when you're dealing with the enormous technical constraints of shooting in a tight and restricted space?
Yes, yes. You have to deal with the situation, and all the restrictions were not a caprice by the French government. We know that in other caves there were too many people for too long a time, and their breath created a mold on the wall, and now they have problems containing it. This is why some of the finest of the caves had to be shut down for good.

So yes, you have to live with it, and you have to get away with a good film anyway, despite the restrictions. You are in this cave, you have four hours each day for a week, and you have to perform your duty and you come away with a movie after 6 days in the cave only a few hours each day. No fiddling around, no detours, complete focus.

A lot of documentary filmmakers say you find the film in the editing room.
No. I think whoever tells me that a documentary is made in the editing room is either fundamentally wrong or had such boring material that they try to pep it up somehow in the editing. Not so. You'd better get away with fascinating footage, and then it falls in place somehow, almost automatically, in the editing room. 

Did you know the approach you wanted to take even before you went into the cave?
Well, of course I knew I would have input from scientists and other people who were somehow related to the cave, including a perfumer. Because there is a plan to build a three-dimensional replica of the cave, and I like the idea of recreating the scent of the prehistoric cave. It's a project of fantasy, of course, but very nice to hear about it.

I had two things which you normally would not consider. Number one, how do you create that sense of wonder and a sense of awe for an audience? And number two, how do images emerge sometimes out of silence, and then out of music? In this film, images emerge out of the darkness, and out of the deepest recesses of time.

Werner HerzogSo a lot of the creative side in this film is music. How does music create the sense of dark space? How does music come out of absolute nothing and out of nowhere, from silence? That was much more important than getting some science across.

Plus, you’ve got to leave room for radioactive albino crocodiles.
(laughs) Yeah. Well, of course that is separated as a postscript, and it has to do with the notion of perception. How did people hundreds and hundreds of generations back perceive these images? We just don’t know. And in a science fiction fantasy, do we ever know how an albino crocodile, spreading now back into Chauvet cave, would perceive these paintings?

So I leave it with wild speculation, wild poetry. And audiences love it. They love to be taken seriously as somebody who is not just a recipient of information, but also of a great fantasy, great imagination.

Has the experience changed your views about using 3D?
Doing "Cave Of Forgotten Dreams," it was evident it had to be in 3D. There was no doubt the moment I was in the cave, because that's when you see the wild drama of these rock formations, which was understood and utilized by the artists 32,000 years ago.

But otherwise I'm not a great fan of 3D. It's legitimate for films like "Avatar." Audiences love it, it's big fireworks and legitimate effects and only possible on a movie screen. Fine, but that's not my kind of movie. And when I look back at my movies, it's good that I didn’t do any of them in 3D. And what I am doing right now is not in 3D either. I do not see a project out for me where I should really contemplate 3D.

So what have you been doing since you first showed this film in Toronto?
I'm working fast. I'm doing a film, "Death Row," that may be a couple of films. I wrote a screenplay for an epic feature film. And I've also finished a film on creating music. We haven’t even released the cave film, and I'm already two, three films beyond it.