Between his credits as a director, writer, producer, and actor, Werner Herzog has had a hand in over 100 feature films, shorts, and TV shows over the course of his 50-plus-year career. He’s created modern masterpieces of horror and documented some of the most obscure and bizarre people on earth, breaking boundaries and stretching our conception of who and what can be put on film. He’s won awards at the venerated film festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Sundance, and is held up as one of modern-day cinema’s greatest auteurs.
He also considers himself incredibly lazy, as he told BuzzFeed in a phone conversation on Thursday about The Act of Killing, the gripping documentary he executive produced about the mass political genocide that took place in Indonesia during the 1960s and ’70s. Herzog — like just about every critic — raves about Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, a surreal account of his trip to the Southeast Asian country to meet with the leaders of the death squads.
The gangsters, as the Indonesian killers proudly call themselves, are still in power all these years later, and Oppenheimer asked them to recreate their brutal acts on film. Their meticulousness in producing re-enactments of their crimes was truly stunning, and one of several topics that Herzog discussed with BuzzFeed.
The Act of Killing opened in New York on Friday and rolls out nationwide over the next few weeks.
I read an interview where you said the human race would probably go extinct soon. How would you try to survive an apocalypse?
Werner Herzog: You wouldn’t survive. If we disappeared, no one survived. But it doesn’t make me nervous. But it’s not just my idea, speak to evolutionary biologists, speak to people who are competent. And of course, life on our planet has been a constant chain of cataclysms. We had troglodytes that disappeared, we had the dinosaurs that thrived and disappeared. We have the human race, which is much more vulnerable than humans, for instance. It’s a clear indication that we’re not going to last. It doesn’t make me nervous.
WH: I think a dinosaur wasn’t nervous that dinosaurs were going to be extinct at some point. It doesn’t make me nervous, but I think we shouldn’t overlook the fact that our existence is very fragile and this is not a new idea, it’s not my idea.
So is that why you make movies, to capture life?
WH: My question to you is, knowing that you’re mortal, does it make you into a journalist? Probably not.
Probably not. It’s really the only thing I could do. If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you do?
WH: I don’t know, but I could do all sorts of things. I might be into mathematics. I don’t know, I haven’t given much thought about that.
You’ve made an incredible number of movies in your career, so do you have any free time?
WH: I only have free time, nothing else. Eventually I make a film, but I’m as lazy as anyone else.
You’ve made over 50 movies, there have to be lazier people.
WH: But I don’t spend that much time on it, I’m not an workaholic. I work at a steady pace, I’ve never been nervous, I never work overtime. When I shoot a film — for example ,Bad Lieutenant, I was never one single overtime. My days shooting were normally over by 3 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m.
So what are your hobbies?
WH: I don’t have hobbies.
What do you do, then, when you’re not making movies?
WH: I only have free time. Once in a while I make movies, once in a while I support movies like Act of Killing, which is something extraordinary — you won’t come across a film like this in the next decade for sure.
I couldn’t believe that it was real, the way the gangsters were so boastful about murder.
WH: You find that your sense of reality has been seriously challenged. That’s one of the great achievements.
What did you think of the gangsters as filmmakers?
WH: I think that’s more for you to decide, but what’s fascinating is that the film is also a film about filmmaking. The role of actors, the role of directing a movie, the role of audiences. The gangsters debate. It’s very much about the nature of filmmaking itself, that’s one of the fascinating elements of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film.
The gangsters spoke a lot about their favorite movies; do you think violent movies affected them like they said, or was their enjoyment of violent movies incidental to terrible things they did?
WH: I don’t know, but the sheer fact about the way that they talk about cinema is very fascinating. I’ve heard the argument that American gangster movies may have triggered certain behaviors, but it’s kind of silly. Elvis cannot be made responsible for mass murders in Indonesia in the 1960s.
What inspires you to make a movie? When you see things in everyday life, do you think, That would make an interesting movie?
WH: I’m a storyteller, and I can immediately sense there is something big out there, and I make a film. I can recognize when there is something really strong out there, and when I saw the first elements, pieces of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, I immediately knew it was big.
How do you start out writing a movie? Do you outline it, or just start writing it?
WH: I write my films myself, and I write only when I see an entire film in front of my eyes, as if I were in a projection room. This is why I never spend that much time writing a screenplay. It’s like copying a screenplay almost. I wouldn’t spend more than a week writing a screenplay. It wouldn’t take you more time to copy a screenplay, it wouldn’t take you more than a week.
So when you are done making a movie, does the final result end up looking a different than what you envisioned when you first started out?
WH: Well, I always allow life to enter work so that I’m not in the mood of using a screenplay as a stale blueprint. I’m not using storyboards, for example. Windows and doors open for real life, real fascination, unexpected things to enter into the movie, within, of course, the parameters of the story. Films always take on, to some degree, take on their own life, and that’s what makes it so fascinating to be in this profession.
So do you find making a movie is more satisfying than what you end up with for the finished product?
WH: I can’t tell, I like everything about movies. Writing, directing, acting, editing, creating music for it. I like what I do.
Is there any movie of yours you think has had the most influence on society or filmmakers?
WH: I can’t make a judgment, but when I look at myself and my films, I like them all. I’m not a good judge.