Grizzly spawn

Pub date January 31, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

First off, an embarrassing disclaimer: I’m not a Werner Herzog groupie — I just want him to be my grandpa. I’d like him to take me on long rambles over misty mountaintops, through the ice, snow, and sand; teach me about his ecstatic yet jeopardy-strewn path; and push me to jump into cacti, dance with chickens, and come out with poetry on the other side. And yet, as all good UFO films go, I suspect I’m not alone. Even if my cinematic family wish were fulfilled, I’d probably still be clamoring for my visionary gramps’s attention alongside all the other wannabe spiritual offspring — considering the rapturous reception of his 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, and the many reverent audience members hanging on Herzog’s every utterance last year at the San Francisco International Film Festival screening of his 52nd directorial effort, The Wild Blue Yonder. I spoke to the 64-year-old Bavarian filmmaker (né W.H. Stipetic), who has lived in the Bay Area but is now based in Los Angeles, the day after his April 26 onstage interview — he hasn’t agreed to my little adoption fantasy yet, but green ants can dream, can’t they? (Kimberly Chun)

SFBG The music in The Wild Blue Yonder is so amazing. What came first, the soundtrack or the beautiful underwater footage by Henry Kaiser?

WERNER HERZOG In this case the music was created first to establish a rhythm, to establish a climate, to establish a mood, and to establish, also strangely enough, a vision — because listening to this music in particular led to a very clear vision.

Of course, there was a complicated story on how I entered into the project. It started out with some sort of a documentary about the space probe Galileo and the scientists, and I followed up with the space probe the Mars Rover, and I got very curious, and I witnessed it at Mission Control at Pasadena, and that was very fascinating, but I always felt there was more in it. I started to dig deeper into it, and I discovered footage that astronauts shot in 1989 on 16mm celluloid, and these astronauts actually deployed Galileo, and all of a sudden the entire documentary about Galileo was discarded, and I went straight for the visions and for the science fiction movie, which emerged very clearly, very rapidly.

SFBG What was it about the footage that drew you?

WH Well, we’ve seen quite a bit of footage sometimes on evening news on television, sometimes in special programs by Discovery or National Geographic, and you see astronauts in space, but you never see anything like what they filmed back on that mission — with such vision and beauty and such a strange intensity. And of course, neither Discovery nor National Geographic has the patience in their films to look at a shot that goes uncut and uninterrupted for two minutes, 40 seconds, which is an endless time on air. They show snippets of 15 seconds maximum, and that’s about it. The beauty only evolves when the take rolls on and on and you’re moving from the cargo bay into the command module and drifting by the weirdest sort of things.

People ask me, "Is this a science fiction film?" And I say, "Yes, it is. But do not expect a science fiction film like Star Trek — this is a science fiction fantasy. It’s more like a poem. Expect a poem or expect a space oratorio."

SFBG Where did you first hear music for the film?

WH I had not heard it. I created it. My idea was to put Sardinian singers together with a cello player from Holland [Ernst Reijseger] and add a singer from Senegal [Mola Sylla] who sings in his native language, Wolof. So no one has ever heard this music, and no one would have believed the combination of these three elements would work.

SFBG You talk about long shots being unheard of on TV. But in a lot of ways you’ve created a music video, though MTV might be considered the polar opposite of what you do. Or do you have an affinity for MTV?

WH I think MTV would love the film. Truly, they would love it. [Pauses] Er, I may be wrong. But I could imagine that the people who watch MTV would love the film.

SFBG At the [2006 SFIFF event] you mentioned liking a film about people in Mexico on spring break. Is that the Real World feature, The Real Cancun?

WH Yes, and I liked the film because it was so focused. There was no pretentiousness at all. The only question was who would get laid first. You see so many pretentious films and phony films, and I don’t like that.

SFBG Do you like reality TV?

WH No, but I do watch it. The poet must not avert his eyes. You have to see what is moving the hearts of people around you. You have to understand what’s going on. You have to understand the real world around you — and also the imaginary world around you. The collective dreams. The collective paranoia.

SFBG All of which is involved in getting laid, I suppose.

WH Oh no, when I spoke of collective paranoia I had in mind the fact that three million Americans claim that they had encountered aliens and 400,000 women have allegedly claimed to have been abducted and gang-raped by aliens. My question is, why are 90 percent of them over 300 pounds? The real question is more interesting, though: Why have we never heard of any report of an alien abduction and gang rape in Ethiopia? Why is that? And so now I’m opening the doors wide to your answers. [Chuckles]

SFBG One might believe, watching The Wild Blue Yonder, that you’re willing to entertain the idea that aliens exist.

WH No, I’m fascinated by it because it points to some very strange paranoia that is only possible in our kind of civilization. This is why it never happens in Ethiopia and Bangladesh. To understand our civilization, we have to understand collective paranoia, collective dreams, a world out there that’s completely artificial in both reality and in our collective perception of reality.

SFBG At the event many people brought up a recent New Yorker story on the shoot for Rescue Dawn [which will be released this spring]. Did you agree with that piece’s perspective on the contentiousness of your own film crew and how they fought you?

WH No, no, it always happens that you sometimes have to deal with adversity here and there. In this case, strangely, much of the crew had never worked with me, and there were more the kind of film school types, and of course, there was some sort of opposition. But it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I’ve always done the kind of film that I really wanted to do and that I’m capable of doing.

What was really bad, for example, was the set of Stroszek, because that was a team that had worked with me for more than a decade. They all hated the film! And they thought it was ridiculous and that I should stop doing this. It happens.

SFBG Perhaps it’s that collective paranoia …

WH No, you just have to ignore it and do your work and deliver. And [Stroszek] is one of my finest films. They all, at the end, understood it was right what I did. And when Rescue Dawn is completed — it has such a physical life in it and such intensity — they will all understand. *

For more of Herzog’s interview, go to