Werner Herzog on Masterclass, Filmmaking, and Why He Abhors Storyboards

     July 20, 2016


When I graduated from High School back in the Stone Age, the internet was just taking off and the idea of studying filmmaking online was something out of a fantasy novel. So I did the only thing I could do at the time as someone who wanted to study movies: I went to college. While I think my education allowed me to learn so much about a century of filmmaking and also myself as a person, nowadays you have so many new options if you want to learn about making films. Not only do DVD/Blu-ray commentaries and special features lift the veil of how movies are made, but thanks to the recently launched online education platform MasterClass, you can study under world-class instructors in a wide-variety of fields for just $90 each.

Launched by David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen, MasterClass makes it possible for anyone to learn with an internet connection under teachers such as Christina Aguilera (singing), Kevin Spacey (acting), Usher (performance), Serena Williams (tennis), James Patterson (writing), and Dustin Hoffman (acting). Each class offers a unique learning experience which includes video lessons, peer interaction, interactive exercises, course materials, and more. It’s a great opportunity for a minimal price.

werner herzog interview image masterclassOn top of who I just mentioned, Werner Herzog has been added to Masterclass and his program will focus on the art of both feature and documentary filmmaking. Lessons include storytelling, financing, leading a crew, cinematography, working with actors, locations, editing, and documentary interview techniques.

While I know most of you know his resume…here is a bit of background:

“In 1961, Herzog made his first film at the age of 19 with a stolen camera. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than 70 feature and documentary films, such as Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Lessons of Darkness (1992), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), My Best Fiend (1999), Invincible (2000), Grizzly Man (2005), Rescue Dawn (2006), Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), and Queen of the Desert (2015). The Academy Award-nominated director has produced, written, and directed over 70 feature and documentary films and in 2009 was named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time Magazine.”

To help promote his Masterclass, last week last week I sat down with the busy producer-director-actor-writer-editor to talk about his program. We also talked about how he selected what he wanted to teach, the digital revolution, his thoughts on storyboards, financing, VR, future projects, and so much more. Check out what he had to say below.


Image via Masterclass

Collider: How are you doing today, sir?

WERNER HERZOG: Well, good. I had half a working day in the editing room, and now this afternoon is dedicated to the release of the Masterclass.

I think that what Masterclass is doing with all these people is pretty amazing, because you can literally go to film school with masters, from wherever you live, anywhere.

HERZOG: Yes, but you also can understand how to play tennis from Serena Williams, and she is awesome. I haven’t seen her Masterclass but just watching her on the court –I saw some of Wimbledon on TV and there’s such an awesome force in her and focus and determination and technique, you just look at her and it’s awesome. If I would like to learn tennis I would immediately turn to her.

I’m very curious, it’s seems like this was a lot of effort and energy on your part to create your Masterclass. Can you sort of talk about what you did to prepare for teaching?

HERZOG: Well, it’s on different layers. I looked, for example, to certain types of literature to which I would like to refer, like The Peregrine by J. A. Baker, and I mention a book, “read this, read it, read it if you are serious of being in any type of art or into filmmaking,” or films that I should quote as examples. For example, how you would introduce a leading character into your film, and as an absolute ingenious example, [Elia] Kazan in his film Viva Zapata!, how he introduces his leading character Marlon Brando into the film. No film ever did it as wonderful as he did it. And so of course, a whole field that I would like to plow in literature, in filmmaking, in examples in life, in whatever. So that was one side, music for example. And the other side was just trying to make it not just random and rambling on, but more systematic and you can see how it’s subdivided in some essential chapters. But sometimes I’m cross-referencing within chapters and I jump ahead into a future chapter and come back quite quickly, so it’s not pedantic.

What I was noticing looking over the itinerary or the subject matter that you cover is that you seem to go in depth in a lot of different areas of the business, and I would imagine that it took you long a long time to figure out how you wanted to present this material.

HERZOG: Right, no. That comes easily to me, and you may know I run my own film school, the Rogue Film School, and I do it over three and a half days, eight hours non-stop everyday; alone, single-handedly. But the difference is in the Rogue Film School I do have real human beings in front of me from all over the world, and of course there’s this course as well, they can ask, talk about their problems and obstacles, finances, anything, you just name it. Whereas in the Masterclass, you are speaking to cameras. But I must say, the people who started this whole Masterclass series have been very helpful and very intelligent to point out certain things and also give me some guidance, “isn’t there something missing, shouldn’t we address this or that?” so it’s not completely alone out of the blue. It’s very well thought through.


Image via Masterclass

The digital revolution has completely transformed every facet of the film industry, to put myself in this for a second, I went to film school and studied on analog equipment, shooting on a Bolex, doing things that are out the window now…

HERZOG: Which doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether you shoot on celluloid or on digital, you better make a good film.

Absolutely. My thing is that as a filmmaker, as a writer, a producer, can you talk about how the digital revolution has shifted your work and how you’ve parleyed that knowledge into the Masterclass?

HERZOG: It only has allowed me to work faster, editing digitally, which I’m doing right now, a film on volcanoes. I can edit almost as fast as I’m thinking, editing with celluloid means always searching for this little reel of film, and number it, and scribble on it with some sort of pens, and gluing it together, and working on a flatbed. It’s much, much slower. But otherwise it hasn’t changed my way of filmmaking, I’m not nostalgic in postulating we should still make films on celluloid. I love celluloid but I don’t need to continue on celluloid.

I have to say that one of the quotes I really enjoy of yours is: “Storyboards are the instruments of the cowards.” I love this quote because some filmmakers absolutely revere storyboards and obviously you are not one of them.

HERZOG: Yes, because you’re delegated to a cook book recipe and you slavishly and pedantically rely on it while you’re shooting and you’re not relying on your creative instincts and you’re not relying on something which brings life into movies and excitement into it. We are not accountants, We are not accountants who do number after number after number of storyboard images, a robot could do it ultimately, but what I’m doing a robot cannot do.

Have you ever in your resume ever used storyboards?


Never, not in…

HERZOG: With one exception, but for a film I shot on the most difficult mountain on God’s wide earth in Patagonia for a sequence where there was high probability some digital effects were needed, somebody made storyboards and I quickly ignored them, after half an hour I ignored them and I never used any digital effect. But of course there’s a value in a storyboard if you do a big — let’s say an action movie and actors have to move and act in front of a green screen because entire backgrounds exploding and cars flying through there have to be created separately, and in this case you better make sure the actors are precisely placed and the background action is moving in a certain moment, for this type of film you would need a storyboard.


Image via Masterclass

I’ve seen a lot of previs on big movies like that that require a lot of CGI or additions. I wanted to jump into financing, obviously the entire thing has shifted nowadays with international and cable. Is there any advice you could share with financing so I can sort of talk a little bit about that?

HERZOG: I’m talking a lot on financing in the Masterclass and I know what it means to because I had to finance my first films, all of them, and I earned my money as a welder in a steel factory doing night shifts while I was still in high school during the day. So I know what I’m talking about and I’ve never been over budget, in 70 films. So you better make yourself acquainted to what the requirements are, what the value of money is all about and how you create a long-term survival, and in many cases it has to do with how you handle finances. Orson Welles, one of the best of the best. One of the strongest. As strong as an animal. He somehow was pushed out of the business because he would spend the entire budget of the film before he had even done half the pre-production. If you do not understand how finances are functioning, you are in a very precarious situation, at least concerning long-term survival. And by the way, today with digital cameras and editing on your laptop, and things like that, you can make a feature film, a narrative feature film easily for $10,000.

This is a complete changes from the analog days where you needed to develop film and everything else.

HERZOG: Sure. However, there’s one example of a well-described young filmmaker, Rodriguez, some 20 years ago, I forgot his first name. He made a film, El Mariachi

Oh, Robert Rodriguez.

HERZOG: Robert Rodriguez! Ok, Robert Rodriguez, makes a feature film in 35mm celluloid one and a half hours long, and nobody believed him, I think he wrote a book about it and gave all the details of how he spent the money, even making a 35mm celluloid feature film was possible, at least for Rodriguez.

I think he did it MOS, and that was his secret, he was never doing sound and that was all on post.

HERZOG: Yes, because otherwise you have to repeat a lot when you’re filming. And I’ve seen the film and it’s in a border town in Mexico close to the border with the United States, so of course you have a lot of traffic and noise and dogs barking right nearby, and for that you have to repeat a lot and he didn’t do that. Smart, smart, smart, you better have smarts also.


Image via Masterclass

I am so impressed with your resume and your work over the decades you’ve been working in the industry, how much has your process changed as a filmmaker throughout your career, or do you have a similar way of working on all your projects?

HERZOG: I think it’s a similar way; the same fervor, the same focus, the same dedication, the same courage, it’s never really changed. Of course subjects are changing, and since I started so early in filmmaking, I did my first film at age 19, of course you grow up with your films and you are not trotting the same path all the time. However, when you look at any of my films you will immediately be able to tell this is a Herzog film. Even if you didn’t have any credits, in two minutes flat you would know.

I wanna talk a little bit about camera work and what cameras you used to love and what cameras you love now.

HERZOG: Well I always loved celluloid cameras in the early days that were sturdy and reliable. Even under tropical conditions and downpour of rain, it would still work. Similar thing until today, with digital cameras you look after something like that as robust as they can be. I can tell you what I do not like, the kind of high-resolution cameras, 4K, 6K, for shooting dialogue, for having faces and close-ups of actors, and you see every single pore in the skin. When I see a face, your face for example, it’s not a blurred face but I see a face in general and I see you are curious, I see the curiosity but I don’t not look after a dermatological report of your cheeks, and that’s what you see when you’re too high-resolution. And now desperately in post-production, in color grading, they are trying to wipe out the precision of the dermatological report.

Sure. It’s actually distracting.

HERZOG: It’s not a distraction, it’s a way I do not see human faces and I do not want to see human faces. So there’s a downside and you have to find a way how to get some sort of stylization into human faces that you had, for example, in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Sure. What I’m saying is when I see a close-up, as an audience member, and I see all those imperfections it can sometimes pull me out.

HERZOG: No, it doesn’t mean imperfections all the time. You see, for example, the face of Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert and she is the most beautiful goddess on screen that you can find anywhere around in the world. There’s no imperfections, and yet I don’t need to know every single pore in her face.

I completely agree. When people meet you are there certain things that as fans of yours they always want to talk about, has it been like Jack Reacher the last few years?

HERZOG: No, it just comes up once in awhile. They know I’m not a one-trick horse.


Image via Paramount Pictures

I’m always curious, with your resume that’s so wide, with fans is there one things that tends to bubble up when you meet people, or is it everything?

HERZOG: No. It can go in any direction and people are not looking for one single track, and what is happening right now is that since I made the film on the internet, Lo and Behold, which is gonna be released fairly soon, all of a sudden it’s twelve-year-olds who are contacting me, fifteen-year-olds, and they have very, very fascinating questions. However, they speak in a language of their age group which I have to learn first.

It’s very interesting because I’ve learned that a lot of the people who watch YouTube, it’s a much younger audience.

HERZOG: Yeah. And I have worked for YouTube like texting and driving because I was curious to test what’s out there and how does it function, can I release something like about texting and driving to very young audiences, at the age where they do their drivers test? And the response was phenomenal, millions of people saw it.

The internet is an amazing place and also very scary sometimes.

HERZOG: Of course it is. But it is amazing as much as human beings can be amazing, and it’s debased and depraved and vile as human beings can be. So the internet doesn’t have any qualities, technical qualities. It’s just fast, reaching out everywhere and so, it can process that and that volume of data flows and so, but it doesn’t have any qualities like “good” or “bad” or “ethical” or “non-ethical”. It’s humans, it’s us, not the internet.

Recently, I’ve been speaking to a lot of filmmakers about VR, and I really believe that VR is an incredible thing right on the horizon. Is it something that you have been looking into?

HERZOG: Yes, sure. I’m always very far at the forefront, and I’ve been in very close touch with very young filmmakers who are into VR, and I’ve also had close contact at least one with Oculus, and I’ve written a memo for them which has circulated a lot. Yes but we have a problem with it, and that is there’s a tool, an instrument, and we don’t know how to fill it with content. That’s the problem, content.


Image via IFC Films

The issue I think with VR is –Well not the issue, the amazing thing, is that the language has not been written yet.

HERZOG: No, it is there, the language is there, and we know, for example, you cannot edit 360 degrees around virtual reality like a movie, because how do you edit everything under you and above you and behind you and all this? So there are certain ways, narrative forms, that do not function as a continuation, for example, of 3D movies. You see, what is obvious to me is virtual reality or immersive 360 degrees virtual reality is not somehow a part of 3D movies, and it is not a new form of video games, it’s neither, it is something completely new, something different, and nobody has come up yet with real convincing content.

I agree. I think the next five years are gonna be a revolution when it comes to the VR,.

HERZOG: Technically yes, instruments will improve. What do you propose as content, what kind of stories, if a story at all?

I’m very excited about being able to visit museums I’ve never been able to see via the VR headset. So walking around a museum in Stockholm that I’ve always wanted to go to, or the Louvre and being able to spend more time there.

HERZOG: I doubt that VR will really replace the quality of books. If you want to go into let’s say the Prado in Madrid and you want to go into Hieronymus Bosch or whatever, you’d rather go into books and you take your time and it’s sitting there all day long and you go back and revisit it and it becomes part of your physical life.

Absolutely. I’m just excited to hopefully go to places I’ve never been able to go to. But before I run out of time I just want to ask one last question, I believe your next two projects are about volcanoes, Salt and Fire and Into the Inferno.

HERZOG: No, Salt and Fire is a feature film, it’s already finished and we’ll show it probably in Toronto. And it’s more about salt flats, about a very strange landscape in Bolivia and it’s about hostage-taking and the deliberate stranding of a woman with two blind boys in the middle of the salt flat. There’s happens to be a volcano in the vicinity and there’s some talk about a volcano as well, so that’s the title Salt and Fire.

But I’m doing a film on volcanoes right now, this morning I was still editing [Laughs] and it’s gonna be finished fairly soon. I finished all shooting and I was filming in North Korea and in Ethiopia and Iceland and Indonesia and in Vanuatu archipelago. So I’m done shooting and I have extraordinary footage. It’s gonna be a big, big, big thing.

I’m gonna stop there and say thank you very much for your time.

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