Conveyer of ecstatic truths and filmmaker extraordinaire Werner Herzog’s latest is Rescue Dawn, an action-drama based on U.S. pilot Dieter Dengler’s harrowing survival struggle after being shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War. Herzog sat down to discuss the film.
When was the last time you saw Dengler? Shortly before he died [in 2001]. Suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, the first thing you lose is speech. I said, “Dieter, what a shame—the two greatest rappers I’ve ever seen in my life, Muhammad Ali and you, are speechless. What an injustice.” He was still lively and would tell me dirty jokes, speechless and gesturing. We were rolling on the carpet. I brought him very good Bavarian beer—even though he wasn’t supposed to have it.
You work with indigenous actors in Rescue Dawn, as you often have before. How do you deal with communication between cultures? I understand the hearts of men, and it doesn’t matter whether people are Burmese or hill tribes or someone like Mike Tyson, whom I met recently and had an instant rapport. I don’t have a general approach; I’m just fascinated with real people. I love them and can look deep inside of them. That’s why I’m a director.
How did NBA all-star Elton Brand become one of the film’s producers? For a while, no one wanted to finance the project. All of a sudden, there was a wild bunch of people [involved]—another one was in the trucking business and now runs nightclubs in Los Angeles. I believe Goldwyn of MGM was a glove salesman. The producer of a few of Barbra Streisand’s movies was her hairdresser. So I said, “Why not?”
You wear many hats yourself, including on-screen roles in two films this year, The Grand and Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely. I like acting, but I’m only good if it comes to debased, dysfunctional, and hostile characters. If I can be as vile as it gets, like in Harmony Korine’s other film, Julien Donkey Boy, that’s where I’m really convincing—so convincing that my wife’s friends called her from Paris [after seeing] the film and said, “You are married to this monster; we are only one flight away and can give you shelter if you need it.”
What’s your next adventure as a “soldier of cinema”? I shot a film in Antarctica. The tentative title is Encounters at the End of the World. It’s not about fluffy penguins—but it does have a sequence about insanity and a primitive form of prostitution among penguins. I’ve also written a screenplay for a new feature, published a book of prose called Conquest of the Useless, and some five or six other projects are already sitting on my back end. I don’t know how to cope with it quickly enough. That’s always been the problem—how to contain the invasion.