There are few filmmakers alive today with the mystique and rebelliousness of Werner Herzog. Over the past five decades, he’s made over sixty feature and documentary films, including Grizzly Man and Encounters of the End of the World. He does not like chickens. One time he got shot during an interview and brushed it off like a mosquito bite. What we’re saying is, the man is as wise as he is weird. And through all of his experiences, he’s been offering poetic, idealistic, and practical advice to aspiring filmmakers.
Here are several of the our favorite filmmaking tips he’s shared over the years:
On his general approach to filmmaking
Paul Cronin has a book of incredible conversations with filmmaker Werner Herzog called Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed. On the back cover of the book, Herzog offers a list of concise list of advice for filmmakers (which frankly, are all good pieces of life advice, too!):
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. Manoeuvre 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.
Still need some more Herzog goodness? Here are 5 more of our favorite pieces of advice from Werner Herzog from over the years:
Werner Herzog On Film School: Go for a Walk Instead
Ah, the eternal question: to go to film school, or not to go to film school? Herzog has a unique, and hilarious, perspective (as told to Cronin):
“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.”
Werner Herzog On Starting Out in Filmmaking: Be Your Own Producer
Starting out in filmmaking can be rough for any filmmaker. In an interview with High Plains Public Radio Herzog describes his own experiences as he starting out. Why are we not surprised he worked the night shift as a factory welder?:
“At the time when I started to develop movie projects, nobody would take my films so I knew I had to be my own producer, and I worked the night shift in a steel factory as a welder. And I had a sense fairly early on it was not going to be easy what I was doing. My life would be difficult and I said to myself, yes, I’m going to shoulder it no matter what.”
In the Cronin book, he adds:
“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.”
Werner Herzog On Documenting What’s Current: The Stakes are High
During an interview from back in 2005, Werner talks about the importance of staying up-to-date in the media we create and consume with the late Roger Ebert:
“I keep saying that we do have to develop an adequate language for our state of civilization, and we do have to create adequate pictures—images for our civilization. If we do not do that, we die out like dinosaurs, so it’s of a different magnitude, trying to do something against the wasteland of images that surround us, on television, magazines, postcards, posters in travel agencies…”
Werner Herzog On the Writing Process: Inspiration Can Strike Anywhere
Inspiration can strike anywhere–which explains why Herzog claims he can write a screenplay from where ever he is. In a conversation with Radio Motherboard, Herzog talks about his writing process, and why he’s no longer using a typewriter:
“Wherever I am I can write a screenplay … in a busy airport hall, a departure area of a an airport or on a crowded bus. Or at home, doing my tax returns in between, and answering the phone. So I don’t need a very specific place… I used to write on a typewriter because those days are over. In a way yes, I don’t like the idea that there’s too many trees being wasted. And that’s the charm of the internet, that you have publications on the internet… [but] I remember more if I write down something in longhand.”
Werner Herzog On Success: It Takes Time
Herzog’s self-reliance and refusal to let the fear of failure hold him back are evident in his work. In conversation with Cronin, Herzog gives some of his most valuable advice: understand that success in filmmaking may take time, and be prepared to stick to it.
“Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.”
If you are interested in exploring more of Herzog’s boundless wisdom, we recommend Paul Cronin’s book Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed. Herzog also teaches courses through his Rogue Film School and, though no workshops are currently available, the reading and viewing list is public (see #10 and #11).
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