Attempted to be billed as an “ecological thriller” by programmers when it made the festival rounds last year, Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire defies any of the strict genre labels that can be thrown its way. Likely to go down as an oddity even within an already eclectic filmography, the film can be considered alongside Stroszek and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as one of the director’s funniest films, at least depending on your taste. Many critics found their patience tested by its numerous non-sequiturs, while others fell for the deft comic timing of lead Michael Shannon as the world’s unlikeliest CEO. Regardless, the film came as a nice reminder from a man who was threatening to be remembered more as a meme than great filmmaker. We were lucky enough to have a brief chat with Herzog, which also included mention of his period epic Queen of the Desert, opening the same day as Salt and Fire.
The Film Stage: With your films, do you often start with an interest in locations? Were Bolivian Salt Flats the impetus for Salt and Fire?
Werner Herzog: No, that was not the original intention. As you may know, it’s based on the original short story “Aral” by Thomas Bissel, and it’s about this gigantic lake in Central Asia which has dried out. But it turned out that the location didn’t look that interesting, and I decided that I had to look into other options — and very soon I came across the salt flats in Bolivia, and I was immediately fascinated because the salt flats looked not from our planet, like something extraterrestrial about it, and it’s the perfect location for this kind of film.
Do you think you could even make a documentary about the Bolivian Salt Flats?
No, I could make poetry or a film poem about it with some of the footage you see in Salt and Fire, but it is like a poem towards the end of the film.
Can you talk about your decision behind shooting the first half of film with the camera constantly moving?
You’re right, but the camera is not really moving widely. It is not like in an action film; it’s more floating around with the characters. I think it was an appropriate style for doing the film. Each film requires its own kind of camera work.
Does Michael Shannon, as an actor, compare to Klaus Kinski? Do you see yourself making more films with him?
No, certainly not. I was the first one who gave him a leading part in a film in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. I didn’t discover him; he was already out there in a couple of very, very fine films, but in smaller parts. I always had feelings he was the best of his generation, and to put him together with real good other actors like Veronica Ferris, the German movie star, and Lawrence Krauss, who’s a cosmologist, that it would make a very good chemistry.
Would you make another film in Germany?
No. In that case it should be a story that takes place in Germany, but I don’t have a story that should be in Germany so I’m not contemplating anything at the moment. I do have three or four feature films in preparation, but none of them takes place in Germany so I’m not contemplating anything in the German language.
How interested are you in America right now as subject for your next films, specifically with things like the burgeoning “Alt-Right” movement?
Not as a filmmaker, but of course I do read and I’m politically aware. But it’s not anything for me that would trigger a feature film or documentary.
You have another film, Queen of the Desert, coming out. Was the subject matter and scope of that something you’d always been wanting to make a film out of, or was that only a recent interest of yours?
It was a long chain of coincidences that brought me to Queen of the Desert. And it’s a little bit odd: the film will only be released a week after Salt and Fire, but sometimes it happens like that. [Editor’s note: Since this interview, QOTD moved up to the same week.] Queen of the Desert should’ve been released a year-and-a-half ago, but it happens like that.
Are you still running your Rogue Film School?
Yes, I do, but very sporadically. It depends on how much I’m working, and I have done too many films to allow me to dig into the Rogue Film School very much. I did some workshop in Cuba just very recently with young filmmakers.
I know that part of the requirements for being able to do it is essentially having life experience, like having been through and seen difficult things. Are your students genuinely people like that or not?
It’s not necessarily difficult things — just very profound experiences of the world and of life, which is probably more important than having experience in academia.
Salt and Fire is now in limited release and available on VOD.