Werner Herzog on Filmmaking and 24 Pieces of Advice

In 1971, Werner Herzog was scouting locations in Peru for a film he was working on. Due to a last minute change in his itinerary, he cancelled his reservation aboard the LANSA Flight 508 departing Christmas eve. Almost an hour after Flight 508 took off, it was bathed in thunderstorms. Lighting struck the flight, leading to its disintegration.  91 lives were lost and only one human survived. Still attached to her seat, the sole survivor darted through two miles of turbulent skies before plunging into the dense Amazon forest below. A combination of a spiraling fall, wind uplift, and landing between trees with intertwined branches and vines that acted as a cushioning device, are all attributed to her survival.

Peeling herself off the muddy ground, she dazedly embarked on a trek through the unforgiving landscape that was home to crocodiles, snakes, and a plethora of insects. On the tenth day, she collapsed in a village she discovered. They treated her maggot infested wound and boated her back to the nearest civilization.

Herzog was long haunted by knowing his life would have ended if it weren’t for the last minute cancellation. Many years later, he decided to track down the sole survivor and create a fascinating documentary (Wings of Hope) that entailed visiting the crash site choked by Amazonian vegetation.

Survivor via the crash site
Survivor via the crash site

This is but one of the many reasons Werner Herzog is a bad motherfucker in my book. Herzog has not only made documentaries that I admire such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man, but publishes rich, inspirational wisdom found in his latest book, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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In the back of the book, Herzog dispenses 24 pieces of filmmaking advice that implicitly seem to double as life advice:

  1. Always take the initiative.
  2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.
  3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
  4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
  5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
  6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
  7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.
  8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.
  9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
  10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
  11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
  12. Take your fate into your own hands.
  13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.
  14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.
  15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
  16. Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver.
  17. Don’t be fearful of rejection.
  18. Develop your own voice.
  19. Day one is the point of no return.
  20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
  21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.
  22. Guerrilla tactics are best.
  23. Take revenge if need be.
  24. Get used to the bear behind you.

Herzog, who was raised in poverty and survived a WWII bombing as a child, is a self-taught filmmaker.  At one point, he noted that academic film school is the “…death of cinema.” He says that one doesn’t need to be schooled as to what the antagonist should do on page 6 and what the protagonist needs to do on page 14, and so forth. What Herzog is getting at is that film school can destroy the creative process of the aspiring filmmaker by instilling “shoulds” and “should nots.” Instead, he states that if you hold the story in your head, grab a camera and start filming. This suggests a learn by doing approach.

“I am a product of my failures.” – Herzog

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I understand Herzog in that aspect. I’m currently taking some documentary filmmaking courses where the professors assign the same books, but yet some do not seem to have actually read them. Some give advice that goes against the book; some don’t know what you’re talking about when you argue a topic from the book(s). You need to do this that way and you need to do that this way. You have to write this, give it to that person, work with this person, and…well, you get the picture. All of this can create a level of distortion and/or confusion in the creative mind.  I have interacted with other students who also noticed this, but they quietly go through all the bullshit (as they call it) in order to obtain their degree/certificate which will give them “credibility” when attempting to seek a job and/or enter the film industry.

Herzog serves cut and dry simplistic approaches to filmmaking. Want to make a film? Grab your camera and start filming. Need money to make a film? Work odd jobs and save for 6 months. Herzog:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

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“Facts do not convey truth. That’s a mistake. Facts create norms, but truth creates illumination.” -Herzog

Heck, Werner Herzog hosts a rare, randomly announced course at his Rogue Film School that states:

The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as a bouncer in a sex club or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense for poetry. For those who can tell a story to four year old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within.

For those who have a dream.

In the book, Herzog also states the following regarding his Rogue Film School:

You would be allowed to submit an application only after having travelled, alone and on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of nearly two thousand miles. While walking, write about your experiences, then give me your notebooks. I would immediately be able to tell who had really walked and who had not. You would learn more about filmmaking during your journey than if you spent five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. Somebody who has been a boxer in Africa would be better trained as a filmmaker than if he had graduated from one of the “best” film schools in the world. All that counts is real life.

My film school would allow you to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind, and would produce people with spirit, a furious inner excitement, a burning flame within. This is what ultimately creates films. Technical knowledge inevitably becomes dated; the ability to adapt to change will always be more important. At my utopian film academy there would be a vast loft with a boxing ring in one corner. Participants, working every day with a trainer, would learn to somersault, juggle and perform magic tricks. Whether you would be a filmmaker by the end I couldn’t say, but at least you would emerge as a confident and fearless athlete. After this vigorous physical work, sit quietly and master as many languages as possible. The end result would be like the knights of old who knew how to ride a horse, wield a sword and play the lute.

Truth among plastic.

This book is not just for filmmakers; it is for anyone who desires to add logs to the creative process fireplace. It is for those who are fascinated by biographical adventures. It is for storytellers. It is for anyone who love to collect philosophies and wisdom.