Given that Werner Herzog unveiled two documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival, Meeting Gorbachev (co-directed by Andre Singer, it released on May 3) and Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, you might naturally assume that Family Romance, LLC was a doc too. The film certainly has documentary elements.
Shot in Japanese and with a Japanese cast, the film focuses on a thriving Japanese company that hires actors to pose as friends and family members. The story follows a man (played by Yuichi Ishii, the company’s actual founder) who is hired to impersonate the missing father of a 12 year-old girl. When they meet in an idyllic park full of cherry blossoms, he apologises for leaving her as a child. It’s what everyone, including the mother who hired him, wants to hear. Likewise the company provides a fake loving father at a wedding and allows lottery winners to relive their win.
At the Cannes Film Festival world premiere, Herzog, 76, thanked his wife of 20 years, Russian-American artist and photographer, Lena Herzog, 49, who was stills photographer, and his son Simon Herzog, who is credited with production sound, and drone footage. Herzog resides in Los Angeles.
You seem to never stop. You’re making so many films.
WERNER HERZOG: Yes, I’ve had three recent features and I’ve also acted in some of The Mandalorian. I’ve also done a workshop with young filmmakers in the Peruvian jungle, but I’m not a workaholic. I’m working quietly. For example Family Romance, LLC was shot in six days in the spring during cherry blossom time. Then I returned to Japan and filmed for eight days in August, which was the hottest ever recorded in history. So that was hard to film. I shot some of the scenes only once and the grand total of my footage is a little more than 300 minutes.
How did you do that?
WERNER HERZOG: I know what I’m doing. When I shot Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage the team was mostly American and they got nervous because the shooting was over at 3.30pm. I’ve never had overtime, never in my life.
With Family Romance LLC you have a genuine affection that grows from a situation that is transactional and artificial.
WERNER HERZOG: It’s fascinating that although everything is a lie, everything is staged, everything is a fabrication, but the emotions are always true. That is the strangest of all. It’s coming big-time at us. MIT is working on companionship robots and my wife has seen and spoke to one of those robots that has artificial intelligence and can speak and read and has 800 different facial expressions–much more than us humans. She says this fluffy creature with big eyes was placed in front of her and looked at her with big eyes and put his face in a cocky way on her shoulder and asked sweetly, “Ah, you do not trust me?” And of course she didn’t trust him. But she says within five minutes of talking to this artificial creature she was fully in love.
So this artificial companionship is already here. We’ve had artificial family members for many, many years like babysitters who can replace family and watch over your babies. Facebook and social media are all about quasi-friendships. You have 2500 friends and emojis and thumbs up and smileys, but it’s quasi-friendship. They are not real and yet they are omnipresent now and family companionship is nothing completely new and foreign. Only in Japan it’s like the vanguard.
How was it shooting in Japan not knowing the language? Was it freeing?
WERNER HERZOG: I was not scared. I once staged the world premiere of a new opera there, as the composer wanted me to stage it. It was in the Japanese language so I know how to work with Japanese people and I have a knowledge of their culture. Of course the language is very deep and hard to understand and yet I can look into their hearts in a way. The men come in modern suits and yet something in them is ancient and you have to understand that.
You grew up in an isolated village in Bavaria. How did your background influence your thinking?
WERNER HERZOG: I had no idea that cinema existed until I was eleven. There was no running water and I made my first phone call when I was 17. But it didn’t matter because the curiosity was always in me and I knew I should make films and I should invent cinema. When you look at Family Romance it’s a world you have never seen, not a single scene you have seen and they look very natural.
Have you seen the films of Mark Cousins like The Eyes of Orson Welles? He has a manner of delivery in the voiceover of his films that sounds a bit like you.
WERNER HERZOG: No. I do not see many films. That’s strange I know. I see maybe four films per year, much less than an average moviegoer.
WERNER HERZOG: I don’t know, I’m just not that interested in what the others are doing. I invent cinema while I’m doing it and of course I’m also acting. I step behind the camera and listen to the advice from a different director who will guide me and direct me. That’s nothing foreign to me.
You read a lot.
WERNER HERZOG: Yes. There’s hardly a day when I do not read, but I mean, deep reading. Though sometimes I read really shitty books. Errol Morris said to me you have to read this book, it’s very badly written by a failed lion tamer and a lion bit his arm off. I read Greek antiquities and I read in Greek. I have nine years of (studying) Latin, six years of ancient Greek. I speak modern Greek faster than I speak English and I made a short film in the modern Greek language.
In Cannes John Carpenter was saying how he feels like an old man at 71, while Claude Lelouch who is 81, is like a big kid. Where do you fit into the pantheon?
WERNER HERZOG: Oh, I’m not part of any pantheon. (Chuckles) I’m just a soldier.
You will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the European Academy in Berlin in December.
WERNER HERZOG: Yes, but what meaning does it have? It doesn’t make my films better; it doesn’t make them worse that I have never had a nomination by them, that I was never invited. Which is ok, I do not mind at all.
But you’re more than a soldier.
WERNER HERZOG: No, I’m a foot soldier. I’m a good soldier.
Is it easier for you to make these smaller films?
WERNER HERZOG: No. I’ve made some much bigger films recently so I don’t worry about the size of a film. The question is the substance. But in many ways I’ve left many of the rituals behind with Family Romance. It’s very much a youthful film like I did in my 20s with Aguirre, the Wrath of God. You would not know what was coming after the next bend in the river, was it a waterfall or rapids or whatever. So it’s a film where I just rolled up my sleeves and did it. I was my own cinematographer and screenwriter and producer and director. Of course you have credits like legal council—it’s all invented. It’s a fictitious law firm, it was me. I didn’t want to write, “legal work by Werner Herzog”, but I’ve actually done my own legal work for 30 years. I do my own tax returns and accounting and I drive myself. I do the costumes like in this film and I put a name that doesn’t exist.
Are documentaries easier than fiction films?
WERNER HERZOG: The line is blurred for me but what I did here is purely a fiction film. It’s interesting that you ask because people showed me here in Cannes in Variety, the trade paper where the writers know about cinema, how they describe the film as if it is a documentary and ask why did I not in my voiceover commentary speak about he dangers of artificial family? So I’m proud that even the experts believe it’s a documentary (claps hands). It’s a compliment that it was so well done, that it looks and feels so natural.
You seem to be more drawn to humanist themes than when you started out.
WERNER HERZOG: In all my films there’s always a common worldview. The subjects are very different, but if you didn’t see any credits you would know it’s a Werner Herzog film.
What is that worldview?
WERNER HERZOG: Watch 70-plus films and you would have some vague idea. I can’t discuss 70 films.
You’re now a cult figure for young audiences like John Carpenter.
WERNER HERZOG: Actually it’s the 15 years olds who are responding to my films. They send me the emails because all of a sudden my films are available on the internet and this is wonderful. They are curious and want to work with me and see more.
That gives you hope?
WERNER HERZOG: No, I always had hope. I was all right with what I was doing.
Why did you want to do The Mandalorian series?
WERNER HERZOG: Because I was invited and I asked for the screenplays and they made a lot of sense, even though I’m not familiar with Star Wars. It looked good and I had the feeling I could do it and I have rejected many other offers. Many. I had the sense I could do it like Jack Reacher. I knew I could be frightening on the set although in private I’m different. My wife will testify to you that I’m a fluffy husband. I also financed Family Romance out of my own pocket, so bit by bit I’m earning the money back.