Werner Herzog is easily one of the most prolific filmmakers of his generation and continues to make films that are both compelling and mysterious examinations of the human soul. With thematic threads that connect together his massive body of work, Herzog has been searching for the elusive ecstatic truth of humanity. For the near 70-year old filmmaker, opportunity presents itself in the most odd and unusual places. Just earlier this year, he took on us a voyage into the depths of a pre-historic cave that became a metaphor for the inherent artistic spirit in the recess of our mind, a universal truth that resounded further thanks to Herzog’s signature personal musings.
With Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, the director stays back and lets the camera and his subject do the rest. It’s a haunting work from one of cinema’s masters and his restraint makes the senselessness of a triple homicide seer into your brain. As always, Herzog is not interested in the politics of capital punishment but rather the motivation of what makes us who we are. It was a huge honor and privilege to sit down with the director and participate in a roundtable conversation about his unique methods of filmmaking, why he’s never conducted an interview in his life and how Into the Abyss could have been the title of more than a few of his films.
You were working on Cave of Forgotten Dreams around the same time you started working on Into the Abyss. When did you start shooting this project before or after?
Werner Herzog: Cave of Forgotten Dreams was filmed in March and April of last year and I was in the middle of editing it. Then in June I started filming [Into the Abyss] because I knew that one man who interested me in particular in this crime that interested me in particular was going to be executed 8 days later so I just left things behind in editing and went straight out for shooting. It just was overlapping but most of the time you see, the cave film, (to himself) did I do it last year? Yes last year. It’s going so fast here. It was released then and I had it somehow behind me, it was shown in Toronto at the festival and I kept on working on Into the Abyss and some other films on death row inmates. But there’s a separate television mini series as I call it, which is not finished yet but it will be finished end of November, December I have to go into acting and January I do my rogue film school. So it’s just going on and on.
What made you want to make a film about the death penalty?
WH: It’s not about the death penalty, it’s about a senseless crime and as a secondary title of the film tells you its a tale of death, a tale of life. All of a sudden it’s about the urgency of life as well. So it’s not an issue film, a debate of death penalty or so. Coincidentally, one of the leading characters, one of the perpetrators was on death row and was executed whereas his co-defendant found guilty of the same crimes got away with life in prison. So I would be cautious to say ‘yes, this is a film on the death penalty,’ because it’s equally much about families of victims of violent crime for example. I try to avoid to narrow it down or you will have people who read it or listen in and then they think ‘ah yeah this is about the death penalty, do I want to be part of a movie which is arguing the death penalty?’
But isn’t it an undeniable central issue of the film?
WH: In a way yes, but what makes this crime so interesting to me as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, is the staggering amount of senselessness. And let’s assume both perpetrator had gotten away with life in prison I would have been equally fascinated by it and I would have made the same film.
How did you get involved with the Investigation Discovery Channel? When I saw your film I thought this is the type of programming the channel should be.
WH: It’s in a way the self definition of the channel. Let’s face it here. What it is interesting is that television because of the Internet is slightly in decline. Investigation Discovery has grown by 95% within the last year and you better add some real quality to what they are doing. It’s just a very fine target to work with them and, by the way, they were almost instantly on board. They instantly liked the idea and they liked my films and it was fairly easy to get in touch with them and it was not me who contacted them, it was Erik Nelson the producer of the film. Actually I’m also equally a producer with my company. I wanted to control the foreign rights of the film because I do believe I understand fairly well how foreign markets function and neither Discovery people nor Creative Differences had so much experience with markets outside of North America. Thats the reason I wanted to be co-producer of the film.
In the end their is a dedication to the families who are the victims of violent crime. One of the major justification for the death penalty in the United States is the need for closure for the victim families. It almost seems like you were swayed in the process of the movie?
WH: Yeah, but closure would be for example life in prison without the possibility of parole and even Sandra Stotler, who lost her mother and her brother in the murder, even admits ‘yes it would be an alternative’ so yes that’s very interesting.
I think it’s more archaic. It’s more a question of a criminal justice system where there is still the concept of retribution. For example, it doesn’t deter anyone we know it statistically. It’s not a real argument, statistics tell us. It doesn’t play any role in prevention of crime. It’s retribution and it’s a very ancient concept anchored in the history of thousands of years of almost every single civilization on this planet. America doesn’t have an exception to this status.
Although we are exceptional today in terms of the application of the death penalty.
WH: No. What do you mean exceptional? It’s only 300 million Americans but you have 1,400 million Chinese people and they practice capital punishment. And you have almost the same amount of population in Pakistan which is practicing capitol punishment, Japan practices it. India I don’t even know at the moment. Russia just gave it up recently. But very very populous nations have it so America really is not the exception. And I’m not in the business of America bashing and I’m not in the business of Texas bashing either, because I like Texas.
Rick Perry bashing?
WH: No, he’s the elected governor and in a way representing the basic moods of his electorate and there is a vast majority pro-capital punishment, same thing in Florida so it’s something that cannot go away easily and quickly.
Are you familiar Steve Earle the actor, songwriter?
WH: No, what does he do or why do you bring him up?
He’s spent a lot of time with someone on death row and said it was the most affecting thing that had ever happened to him, he cried when he saw him executed. You only spent a limited amount of time with the person who was about be executed.
WH: With everyone in the film, less than an hour or maybe an hour.
What was the impact for you to spend time with someone on death row?
WH: Well, not really spending time. You had to scramble setting up your cameras and conducting a conversation. I’m suspicious about these public emotions, a singer who is telling everybody that he was crying. Number one, he shouldn’t be there at the execution, it’s not his business. It makes him suspicious to me, just stay out of it and don’t publicize how much you cried.
But let’s face it, you have to perform very quickly. You have to deliver, you have to get your conversation on camera. Later in editing, yes then it hits you, you have time. You are facing the footage, not the man, but the footage. To give you just a mild indication, I did not cry but both the editor and I started smoking again. We had to rush out, it was so intense. And both of us are regular 8 hours guys. We work 8 hours focused, we work fast. In this case, the only film we ever made, 5 hours and you were spent. Just spent like you were run over by a truck. You better quit, you better go home and let things rest as they are. So two small indications that it doesn’t leave anyone unaffected and it doesn’t leave audiences unaffected either.
When you conduct interviews how do you get the people to be so comfortable on camera?
WH: I don’t do interviews. I never do interviews. I do conversations because I have no catalog of questions like you have. It’s not a question of memory because I have no idea of what is coming at me. Knowing the heart of men somehow, you have to find the right tone instantly and the conversation can go any direction. But of course, I’m trying to find out about certain things that bother me, that trouble me, that fascinate me.
I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if I couldn’t deal with it. In a way, it’s a public profession. You cannot hide anywhere but all of sudden you have to take charge of things. If I didn’t have it in me, I would never have made a decent film. And for example, you can never learn in film school to ask a question like, ‘tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.’ I’m asking the death row chaplain, who will assist a man who is going to be executed 40 minutes later. And I ask him because he was very much on the level of a television preacher in talking about the beauty of creation, that on the golf course he would see a squirrel or a cow or a deer looking at him in the green grass. And that God was merciful and forgiving and paradise and all these things. I had the feeling I have to open his chest and look into his heart and this is why I ask him ‘tell me about an encounter with a squirrel’ 15 seconds after that he is unraveling and you see his heart. But why do I ask it, I don’t even know myself. You have to have the right instincts to know how to open the chest of man and look in his heart. You cannot learn it in school of journalism or film school or anywhere.
You talk about this being a senseless crime and because the murder was over a car, it seemed glaringly absent from your interviews that you didn’t ask about why they did it.
WH: I have read 800 pages of the case file with every single witness transcript of accounts or copies of their hand written statements. Every single crime scene photo, every single crime scene video, every single statement of a homicide detective. And I have read hundreds and hundreds of pages of every single statement in court. It’s public record and it’s accessible for the general public. If you want to know all about the crime please go into reading the court transcripts.
As crazy and senseless as it sounds, yes it was a red Camaro. And it’s hinted in the film both perpetrators had the plan to ask for spending the night at this house because they knew the son. They were acquaintances. There was a vague plan that they would steal the keys and then drive off and have this car and maybe a year later make it to California. That was the plan. They approach the house, they notice the woman is home alone, baking cookies. Her son is not at home and they spontaneously decide it would be so much easier just to kill her, kill her off and then take the car, which they actually did. And then they dump the body in a pond and when they return they find the gate closed of this gated community and they don’t have a clicker. So they wait until the son returns unfortunately he had yet another friend in the car, they kill both teenagers just to have access to the gate. It’s overwhelmingly clear in all the evidence given by witnesses and forensic findings and by evidence that’s in the case file and I can assure you that’s what we know from the case file, from witnesses. And of course two confessions with [death row inmate Michael] Perry, one which one is very detailed. You get an idea of what the whole background of the story was and as mind-boggling as it may sound, yes they wanted to have a car. They actually got it and they were in possession of this car for less than 72 hours.
How do you find such diverse subjects that populate your films and what maintains your passion to keep making films that connect to one another thematically?
WH: I don’t know, I don’t really have an answer. Some of my films have in common that I am trying to look deep into the human condition. What is ‘human-ness’ and Into the Abyss could have been the title of quite a few of my films. It dawned on me when I finally came up with the title, there were suggestions ‘let’s call it The Red Camaro’ and I said no, you don’t connect with the story, that shouldn’t be the title. Into the Abyss all of a sudden it was there and I felt it should be a tale of death, a tale of life but the main title, Into the Abyss is somehow common to looking deeper. Even the cave film, don’t take it literally because it’s a cave but it’s looking deep into the recess of human pre-history that’s where modern human man started 32 thousand years ago. And all of a sudden in this cave we manifest ourselves as modern human beings. It’s not that I’m really searching for these projects but they come at me like uninvited guests. Strange but it’s like that.
With this, I had no idea what was going to come at me, I was prepared for all sorts of scenarios. What I found was something very, very essential, and essential not only about the perpetrators but ultimately us as well. Looking into our human condition and looking into for example, what the father who saved his son from execution what he tells about bringing up children. How you have to care and all of a sudden I look at it with new eyes. You see I thought ‘oh yeah, this small family values that belong to Hollywood movies and small family values always prevail.’ Now, I look at it much more seriously, one death row inmate being transported to the death house 43 miles to Huntsville, he sees the world all of a sudden from his van, from the cage of this van. He was 23 minutes away from execution and got a stay. It was as if he saw the world for the last time or the first time in 17 years and he tells me ‘it all looked like Israel to me, like the holy land.’ I instantly made the trip with my camera and looked out and it was this forlorn, really gray sort of average Americana out there. And yet an empty gas station or a ramshackle little hut next to the road where it says ‘happy worm bait shop,’ all these things all of a sudden become magnificent. It changes perspective. All of a sudden you appreciate all this is like holy land.
A sharpened perspective, a new perspective but not that I cry over having watched an execution, I’m in more serious business than the singer.
Into the Abyss is now in limited release.