Werner Herzog is crazy and brilliant and German. He’s had a random and illustrious career which has taken him to South America, Bear Country, The End of the World and now lands him squarely in New Orleans. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – a remake that’s not a remake with a title that looks like it should either involve Martin Lawrence and John Cusack as buddy cops or be stamped on the front of a DVD in the dollar bin – already has buzz surrounding it because 1) Herzog has never seen the film his title borrows from and 2) there is some crazy shit in the trailer.
I was lucky enough to see the flick last week (to the break of dawn), and while a review is forthcoming, I thought I’d share some things that the esteemed director had to say on some of the more questionable elements.
Feel free to smoke from your lucky crack pipe either before, during, or after.
Or all three.
DIRECTOR WERNER HERZOG’S STATEMENT:
ON THE FILM’S TITLE AND SHOOTING IN NEW ORLEANS:
It does not bespeak great wisdom to call the film The Bad Lieutenant, and I only agreed to make the film after William (Billy) Finkelstein, the screenwriter, who had seen a film of the same name from the early nineties, had given me a solemn oath that this was not a remake at all. But the film industry has its own rationale, which in this case was the speculation of starting some sort of a franchise. I have no problem with this. Nevertheless, the pedantic branch of academia, the so called “film-studies,” in its attempt to do damage to cinema, will be ecstatic to find a small reference to that earlier film here and there, though it will fail to do the same damage that academia – in the name of literary theory – has done to poetry, which it has pushed to the brink of extinction. Cinema, so far, is more robust. I call upon the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one. Go for it, losers.
What the producers accepted was my suggestion to make the title more specific – Port of Call: New Orleans, and now the film’s title combines both elements. Originally, the screenplay was written with New York as a backdrop, and again the rationale of the producers set in by moving it to New Orleans, since shooting there would mean a substantial tax benefit. It was a move I immediately welcomed. In New Orleans it was not only the levees that breeched, but it was civility itself: there was a highly visible breakdown of good citizenship and order. Looting was rampant, and quite a number of policemen did not report for duty; some of them took brand new Cadillacs from their abandoned dealerships and vanished onto dry ground in neighboring states. Less fancy cars disappeared only a few days later. This collapse of morality was matched by the neglect of the government in Washington, and it is hard to figure out whether this was just a form of stupidity or outright cynicism. I am deeply grateful that the police department in New Orleans had the magnanimity and calibre to support the shooting of the film without any reservation. They know – as we all do – that the overwhelming majority of their force performed in a way that deserves nothing but admiration.
ON FILM NOIR AND NICOLAS CAGE:
New Orleans. This was fertile ground to stage a film noir, or rather a new form of film noir where evil was not just the most natural occurrence. It was the bliss of evil which pervades everything in this film. Nicolas Cage followed me in this regard with blind faith. We had met only once at Francis Ford Coppola’s, his uncle’s, winery in Napa Valley almost three decades ago when Nicolas was an adolescent, and I was about to set out for the Peruvian jungle in order to move a ship over a mountain. Now, we wondered why and how we had eluded each other ever since, why we had never worked together, and it became instantly clear that we would do this film together, or neither one of us would do it. There was an urge in both of us to join forces.
Film noir always is a consequence of the Climate of Time; it needs a growing sense of insecurity, of depression. The literature of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett is a child of the Great Depression, with film noir as its sibling. I sensed something coming in the months leading up to the making of the film: a breakdown which was so obvious in New Orleans, and half a year before finances and the economy collapsed, the signs were written on the wall. Even films like Batman turned out to be much darker than anyone expected. What finally woke me up was a banality: when attempting to lease a car I was confronted by the dealership with the unpleasant news that my credit score was abysmal, and hence I had to pay a much higher monthly rate. Why is that, I asked – I had always paid my bills, I had never owed money to anyone. That was exactly my problem: I had never borrowed money, had hardly ever used a credit card, and my bank account was not in the red. But the system punished you for not owing money, and rewarded those who did. I realized that the entire system was sick, that this could not go well, and I instantly withdrew money I had invested in stock of Lehman Brothers while a bank manager, ecstatic, with shuddering urgency, was trying to persuade me to buy even more of it.
ON THE SCREENPLAY:
As to the screenplay: it is William Finkelstein’s text, but as usual during my work as a director it kept shifting, demanding its own life, and I invented new scenes such as a new beginning and a new end, the iguanas, the “dancing” soul (actually this is Finkelstein’s, who plays a very convincing gangster in the film), the childhood story of pirate’s treasure, and a spoon of sterling silver. I also deleted quite a number of scenes where the protagonist takes drugs, simply because I personally dislike the culture of drugs. Sometimes changes entered to everyone’s surprise. To give one example: Nicolas knew that sometimes after a scene was shot I would not shut down the camera if I sensed there was more to it, a gesture, an odd laughter, or an “afterthought” from a man left alone with all the weight of a rolling camera, the lights, the sound recording, the expectant eyes of a crew upon him. I simply would not call “cut” and leave him exposed and suspended under the pressure of the moment. He, the Bad Lieutenant, after restless deeds of evil, takes refuge in a cheap hotel room, and has an unexpected encounter with the former prisoner whom he had rescued from drowning in a flooded prison tract at the beginning of the film. The young man, now a waiter delivering room service, notices there is something wrong with the Lieutenant, and offers to get him out of there. I kept the camera rolling, but nothing more came from Nicolas. “What, for Heaven’s sake, could I have added,” he asked. And without thinking for a second I said, “Do fish have dreams?” We shot the scene once more with this line, and it looked good and strange and dark. But it required being anchored in yet an additional scene at the very end of the film, with both men, distant in dreams leaning against the glass of a huge aquarium where sharks and rays and large fish move slowly as if they indeed were caught in the dreams of a distant and incomprehensible world.
I love cinema for moments like this.
Editor’s Note: I do, too.
What do you think?