Werner Herzog doesn’t buy into the concept of independent film. The 74-year-old filmmaker explained to a packed audience in Brooklyn on Wednesday night that the only films he considers to be independent are home videos that people shoot at holidays, reunions, and other family functions.
“I don’t believe that independent cinema exists. It’s a myth,” Herzog said. “Cinema is always dependent on distribution systems, money, and technology. I try to be self-reliant, and there’s a big difference.”
Herzog sat for a two-hour talk moderated by film and media curator Sally Berger at the Pratt Institute’s School of Art, where he will spend the entire day Thursday watching student films and participating in filmmaking workshops.
The conversation took place two days before his latest film, “Queen of the Desert,” hits theaters and VOD. The epic biographical film on the life of British journalist and adventurer Gertrude Bell stars Nicole Kidman in the lead role alongside Robert Pattinson, James Franco, and Damian Lewis.
“Queen of the Desert” first premiered at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival to decidedly negative reviews, but Herzog said he stopped caring about reviews a long time ago. The talk touched on film school, Donald Trump, and survival in the film industry. Here are some of the highlights.
On being a self-reliant filmmaker:
“Self-reliance means, among other things, that as a filmmaker I work on my own budgets … I have a clause in my contracts which allows me to look into the cashflow. Every single day I spend [time] with an accountant and the line producer just looking at the cash flow, because that’s where you’ll notice that something is going wrong.”
On survival in the movie business:
“Statistically, in the film industry, you have normally a life for 14, 15 or maybe 16 years, and then the strongest of the strong are brought to their knees, including for example, Orson Welles … I really admire the man because he was such an unbelievable force of nature, strong like a bison, and the industry brought him to his knees after 12 or 15 years … I know many of you are film students. You have to look beyond the first films that you’re making. You should look into long-term survival. What do you have to do? How do you articulate a clear vision and how do you stay on course? How do you articulate your own identity? How do you find your own voice? That’s something you should always do long term.”
On whether he considers himself a “weird” filmmaker:
“No. The rest of the world is weird.”
On getting his films financed:
“Every single film I have made was always an uphill battle for finances. Normally it’s a motley sort of arrangement of pre-sales, or TV participation, or an advance guarantee by a distribution company. Sometimes there is hardly any money at all, and I would start it anyway, because when you really have a strong project of great, intense substance, ultimately money will follow you.”
On bad reviews:
“’Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ got really bad reviews in Germany. It was something like the worst film of the year…I knew I would survive the reviews and I would physically survive all of the reviewers, which I actually did. None of them are alive. It doesn’t give me pleasure to say that, but there is something satisfying about it. There’s a vision that cannot be deleted by a really bad review. Quite often the climate is very inclement … And reviews of [“Queen of the Desert”] have been quite bad, so I will survive. It happens and you have to have enough substance, enough stamina to outlive this and to move and plow on anyway.”
On Donald Trump:
“America is still a democracy and no matter whether you like or dislike the current government or president, America has an amazing ability to rejuvenate itself and to learn and move on. It’s a young country and I don’t see what you call fascism. I think it’s too far fetched … I have been in countries with real police states in Africa and some dictatorships in South America …When you are a filmmaker — if you are a filmmaker — you stand your ground and make the appropriate films … You are young. You can change it. You just better dig in your heels, but don’t get carried away as if the ship was sinking already. America is not the Titanic.”