Filmmaker Werner Herzog returns to the Cannes Film Festival after 25 years with Family Romance, LLC, a Japanese-language film about a man hired to impersonate the missing father of a girl. Herzog, who doesn’t speak Japanese himself, says the film came about with ‘great ease’. He talks about making three films in the span of 12 months, having a production team comprised of his family and being a filmmaker since the age of 19:
Anupama Chopra (AC): Werner, Family Romance, LLC is such a fascinating blend of reality and fiction. You said that doing this film gave you the sort of freedom that you experienced in the seventies, when you were doing Aguirre, Wrath of God. What about this film gave you that freedom?
Werner Herzog (WH): Well, I did not wait for big production company to step in or a so-called ‘completion bond’ or some insurance companies. They make sure that there’s way too much money and what sort of team you should have. I wanted to be all free of this and return to the earlier days. When I did Aguirre, living on a raft, and floating behind the next bend of the river, you would not know whether there would be a waterfall or a rapid. So, (it’s about) doing the unexpected and waiting for life to enter your film. And because life enters into film with such intensity, some people even think it looks like a documentary.
AC: It does!
WH: It is completely scripted and acted. Everyone is an actor and the story is invented by me. If it feels like a documentary, it’s a compliment.
AC: It is. But you don’t speak Japanese and you’re directing actors through an interpreter. How challenging is that?
WH: It came with great ease. It sounds strange but I would explain the content of a scene very precisely and then certain elements had to be absolutely precise. For example, the 12-year-old girl shows her father, who is actually a rented father – which she does not know – Instagram photos. There’s one where she does a yoga pose on a beach. He says to her, ‘Ah, this is a beautiful beach and sunset. Where was it done?’ He’s lying to her, being her father, but she also starts to lie to him.
AC: She says it’s Bali.
WH: She’s says Bali and in the next scene, the mother says, ‘Bali? We’ve never been in Bali.’ The photo was done in a local beach near Tokyo. So, everything is a lie but the emotions are always genuine.
The grand total of footage that I shot for this feature film is 300 (and a little more) minutes. Not 300 hours, 300 minutes
AC: And you were able to explain this to the actors?
WH: Sure, and since I did my own camerawork, I was the closest (to them). I would hear them very closely and just by the sound of how they spoke and how naturally they spoke, I knew they were right. He would look at the Instagram photos and she would say, ‘Bali, Bali, yes.’ And the way she said it, I knew it was good.
AC: It felt right.
WH: And it was right, not only a feeling. You see, if you’re a director who is only following his or her feelings, you would make huge mistakes because feelings can mislead you.
AC: You’ve made three films in the last 12 months. How do you keep finding both the passion and the inspiration?
WH: Well, I do what comes towards me with the greatest vehemence. But it’s not only three films. I acted in three films, The Mandalorian – the Star Wars sequels – I did a workshop for young filmmakers in the Peruvian jungle and I had a retrospective in China and I had a big literary event in Santiago, Chile.
I have to release two more films, there are at least 12 films lined up and they’re like invaders in your home, like burglars
AC: Werner, do you ever sleep?
WH: I do. I sound like a workaholic but I’m working quietly and (I’m) focused. So, even though there were very few shooting days, I organized it with great ease and – what nobody in the profession believes but is true – the grand total of footage that I shot for this feature film is 300 (and a little more) minutes. Not 300 hours, 300 minutes.
AC: So you know exactly what you want?
WH: No but in (terms of) content, I know. And I know, yes, I captured it right: You were in focus and speaking in a way that I knew was right. And then I would go to the next scene or certain scenes that I could shoot only once. For example, the bullet train platform is a high, high, high security area because they tried to fire bomb-one of these high-speed trains. So, there are security cameras everywhere, twenty around us. You never get a shooting permit, it’s impossible and I knew I could do it only once. I rehearsed with the actors somewhere else on the train station, among 10,000 people. Then we went to the platform and I saw the train coming in and I picked up the camera and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I knew I could do it only once because 30 seconds into filming, I saw with my other eye, security rushing in. And they were all frantically on their cell phones to call backup. There were four of them and I knew if I did it again, I would be arrested. So…in 60 or 70 seconds, I did the entire scene and then I smiled at the Japanese security men, very friendly, and we all filtered away and I didn’t know what to do. They knew we didn’t harm anyone, we didn’t disrupt traffic.
AC: You’re funding all these films yourself?
WH: No, not all these films, this one.
AC: But you’ve said you’ve done everything except rob a bank.
WH: Yes, in a way. No there was (journalist) Roc Morin, who got me in touch with the subject. He’s the producer, he also speaks Japanese. My younger son did the drone footage and the production sounds. So, he would be the one to tuck a microphone on me and hide it. And my wife did production stills. So there were a few team members. But in the credits, for example, we have a ‘Legal Department’- legal counsel. But, of course, I was my own legal department so it’s an invented legal law firm.
It’s a very youthful film. It’s like returning to when I was 22, 23, 24. It’s exactly the mood in which I made films at that time
AC: So you’ve been making films since you were 19 and it feels like nothing has changed.
WH: I’m not treading the same spot all the time. I have moved, I have developed different fascinations. But it’s a very youthful film. It’s like returning to when I was 22, 23, 24. It’s exactly the mood in which I made films at that time.
AC: Do you ever, Werner, feel like, “I’m going to run out of subjects”. Because you’re so prolific.
WH: Oh, while we are sitting here, I have to release two more films, there are at least 12 films lined up and they’re like invaders in your home, like burglars. And whoever comes at me with the greatest vehemence –
AC: You do that?
WH: Yes. So if a burglar is coming at me swinging an axe, I’d better deal with that one first.
AC: That’s the first time I’ve heard film described like that. It’s brilliant. You’ve come back to Cannes after, what, 20-25 years?
WH: But I have had quite a few films in competition and five in the Director’s Fortnight. Yes, of course, Cannes is changing quite a lot but the basics are the same. It’s still a circus you have to like, otherwise you shouldn’t come. Secondly, there’s a market, which makes it a serious thing. People try to deny it, but there’s a serious exchange of films in markets and goods that you offer, others buy it. It may sound strange to hear it from me but it’s a fact.
AC: It is a fact, absolutely. Well, thank you and we need you to come back to India soon.
WH: Yes, there’s a limited series of 10 films that I have to do in Brazil so that may be first. But India, if I can come, anytime, anytime, anytime…such a wonderful country.
AC: Thank you and we would love to have you back.