Just yesterday, I began reading Herzog on Herzog (published in 2002 by Faber and Faber, inc)., a series of interviews in which Paul Cronin (who also edited the book) discusses a variety of topics with the renowned director, covering all of his films up to and including 2001’s Invincible. I came across the following this morning, and thought the rest of the Row Three community might find it interesting. In it, Herzog offers his views on filmmaking, and what he feels it takes to become a director.
Paul Cronin: What are your views on film schools? I gather you’d prefer people just went out and made films than spending years at school.
Werner Herzog: I personally do not believe in the kind of film schools you find all over the world today. I never worked as another filmmaker’s assistant and I never had any formal training. My early films come from my very deepest commitment to what I was doing, what I felt I had no choice but to do, and as such they were totally unconnected to what was going on at the film schools – and cinemas – of the time. It is my strong autodidactic streak and my faith in my own work that have kept me going for more than forty years.
A pianist is made in childhood; a filmmaker at any age. I say this only because physically, in order to play the piano well, the body needs to be conditioned from a very early age. Real musicians have an innate feel for all music and all instruments, something that can be instilled only at an early age. Of course, it is possible to learn to play the piano as an adult, but the intuitive qualities needed will not be there. As a young filmmaker, I read in an encyclopedia the fifteen or so pages on filmmaking. Everything I needed to get myself started came from this book. It has always seemed to me that almost everything you are forced to learn at school you forget in a couple of years. But the things you set out to learn yourself in order to quench a thirst, these are the things you never forget. It was a vital early lesson for me, realizing that the knowledge gleaned from a book would suffice for my first week on a set, which is all the time needed to learn everything you need to know as a filmmaker. To this day the technical knowledge I have is relatively rudimentary. If there are things that seem too complicated, I experiment; if I am still not able to master it I hire a technician.
PC: You’ve talked in the past about how collaborative film is, and how many different and varied skills it requires.
WH: Filmmaking is a more vulnerable journey than most other creative ventures. When you are a sculptor you have only one obstacle – a lump of rock – on which you chisel away. But filmmaking involves organization and money and technology, things like that. You might get the best shot of your life but if the lab mixes the developing solution wrongly then your shot is gone forever. You can build a ship, cast 5,000 extras and plan a scene with your leading actors, and in the morning one of them has a stomach ache and cannot go on set. These things happen; everything is interwoven and interlinked, and if one element does not function properly then the whole venture is prone to collapse. Filmmakers should be taught about how things will go wrong, about how to deal with these problems, how to handle a crew that is getting out of hand, how to handle a producing partner who will not pay up or a distributor who won’t advertise properly, things like this. People who keep moaning about these kinds of problems are not really suited to this kind of business.
And, vitally, aspiring filmmakers have to be taught that sometimes the only way to overcome problems involves real physicality. Many great filmmakers have been astonishingly physical, athletic people. A much higher percentage than writers or musicians. Actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you have traveled alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about 5,000 kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion.
PC: Tell me about your ideal film school.
WH:This is something we can talk about later when we discuss Film Lessons, the programmes I made for Austrian television, but let me say here that there are some very basic skills that any filmmaker must have. First of all, learn languages. One also needs to be able to type and drive a car. It is like the knights of old who had to be able to ride, wield a sword and play the lute. At my utopian film academy I would have students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them to be unafraid. I would have a loft with a lot of space where in one corner there would be a boxing ring. Students would train every evening from 8 to 10 with a boxing instructor: sparring, somersaults (backwards and forwards), juggling, magic card tricks. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete. My film school would allow young people who want to make films to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind. This is what ultimately creates films and nothing else. It is not technicians that film schools should be producing, but people with a real agitation of mind. People with spirit, with a burning flame within them.