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6 More Filmmaking Tips from Werner Herzog

By  · Published on July 13th, 2016

If there’s anyone who deserves a second Filmmaking Tips column, it’s Werner Herzog. It’s been almost four years since we posted the first list of his advice to fellow soldiers of cinema, and there’s just so much more to learn from the legend. He actually has his own Rogue Film School, where he directly imparts his wisdom to students during weekend seminars. He also leads a new online course at MasterClass, which began this week, where he talks about all facets of fiction and nonfiction filmmaking in a six-hour video course. He does many interviews (this week he participated in a Reddit AMA) and shares his philosophies and strategies often. Not even two of these columns properly sums it all up.

So, as is often the case, this is just an introduction to some essential tips from a unique artist and craftsman. Herzog has made more than 60 films of all sorts over the course of more than half a century. And he has a rare background. You can’t replicate the knowledge, experience, or even worldview of someone like him. But you can follow or at least take note of his approach and the basic suggestions he offers firsthand.

Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read

Wait, does he want you to read? It appears so. But what do you read? Not books on screenwriting or film production. Here is his reading list, via his Rogue Film School site:

Required reading: Virgil’s “Georgics”, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, and Baker’s “The Peregrine” (New York Review Books Edition published by HarperCollins). Suggested reading: The Warren Commission Report, “The Poetic Edda”, translated by Lee M. Hollander (in particular The Prophecy of the Seeress), Bernal Diaz del Castillo “True History of the Conquest of New Spain

The significance of each work is likely discussed specifically to paying students, but here’s one example he gives in a DGA Quarterly interview from 2010 when clarifying that these aren’t aids or inspiration for storytelling.

I went to Antarctica to make Encounters at the End of the World. You cannot go there and explore and scout. There are many times where you have only one shot. You are sent down and six weeks later you have to come back with a movie. I had no idea what I was going to see or whom I was going to encounter. My cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, asked, ‘What are we going to do there? How do we get into this?’ I had just read Virgil’s Georgics again, and I said, ‘We do it like Virgil.’ Virgil, who was a farm boy growing up in Northern Italy, never explains; he just names the glory. I said to Zeitlinger, ‘We do the same thing. We go down and name the glory of Antarctica. We do not need to explain. We find people there who are marvelous and we do not go into psychology. We just present them in all their wondrous attitudes and free spirit.’

Write Quickly

“It takes me five days to write a screenplay,” Werner Herzog told his Rogue Film School attendees when Marie-Françoise Theodore took the seminar in 2014. “If you’re spending more than two weeks on it something’s wrong.”

After the event, Theodore shared via Indiewire 12 things she learned while there. Among them are the importance of reading, getting paid, and not breaking down on the “no cry zone” of a film set. Here is her further address of the matter of speedy screenwriting he’s quoted on above:

So that screenplay I’ve been working on for…uh, YEARS… that’s not normal? I was curious about his writing habits and yeah, I was the one asking all those questions about Werner’s ability to write so quickly, a skill that I hoped to emulate. He was bluntly honest in saying, sorry, he couldn’t help me and that I would have to figure it out for myself. He said that he doesn’t sit down to write until the story comes full blown into his mind and is bursting to come out. He essentially dictates what is in his head. But he realized that what worked for him wouldn’t necessarily work for anybody else. Plus he didn’t want little Werner’s running around. Really? Then he took pity on what I am assuming was my dejected face, relented and gave me a secret that I now share with you (shhh…come closer): four or five days before he begins writing, to warm up, he only reads poetry.

Storyboards Are For Cowards

Because it’s in the trailer for his MasterClass videos (see above), his statement about storyboards being “an instrument of cowards” has led to discussions in forums around the web, mostly from people who seem not to have taken the course. Well, sure, storyboarding is an essential for many filmmakers out there. Just not him. “I cannot speak of that in absolute terms,” he says of the same coward comment in the DGA Quarterly interview after stating that they’re “for those who lack imagination, for those who are bureaucratic and nothing else on the set.”

For it’s inclusion in the MasterClass lessons, you can find discussion of storyboarding, as well as a general lack of preparedness and distaste for coverage, in part 10 (of 27), “Camera: Shooting Strategy.” Here’s a transcribed excerpt:

You need it when you do a film with digital effects and part of the screen has to be live-action and the other part of the screen has to be Ancient Rome, for example. Yes, you have to know exactly about positioning and moving. Then it’s fine. If I had had storyboards for most of my films, it would have been lifeless days of shooting. Allowing real, intense life ‐ “pura vida” is a Mexican saying, not “purity of life” but the full scope of life, the exuberance of life ‐ into the day of shooting, into also the day of editing…[otherwise] your films may become stale very quickly.

Don’t Separate Fiction and Nonfiction

Herzog is known for being one of the greatest filmmakers in both dramatic cinema and documentary, and there is a definite distinction between one type and the other. But even though he doesn’t blur the lines as much as some people (especially back in his homeland), he does like to make a point that cinema is cinema. In the book “Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed,” an interview collection by Paul Cronin (formerly titled “Herzog on Herzog”), he says:

I do not sit and ponder whether I should articulate the story in one
way or another. The next few films I will make are all features.
Why? I do not know, this is just how it is. I do know the media
have never picked up on the ‘documentaries’ as much as the other
films, but I could not care less, i just do the things that are urgent
to me. So for me, the boundary between fiction and ‘documentary’
simply does not exist; they are all just films. Both take ‘facts’,
characters, stories and play with them in the same kind of way. I
actually consider Fitzcarraldo my best ‘documentary’.

On the other side of the coin, in the DGA Quarterly interview, he’s asked about how he’s referred to his docs as “feature films in disguise.” His answer:

I stylize. I invent. Script sometimes, yes, sure. But not in order to cheat you. It is in order to give you moments of illumination, moments of a much deeper truth than just the factual existence there. And that’s the stupidity of cinéma vérité, to trust too much in the facts…. In Death for Five Voices, a film I made about the 17th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo, almost everything is a poetic rendering and fantasy. Although it is very inventive, the film as a whole is the deepest insight into the composer that you’ll find anywhere, the most truthful thing you will ever find on that man. It is only possible because almost everything is poetically invented.

If there’s seemingly any place to find a contradiction it’d be in the fact that he‘s told the story of Dieter Dengler two different ways, first with the doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly and later the Hollywood drama Rescue Dawn. Well, he addresses that in an episode of Alan Yentob’s BBC series Imagine titled “Werner Herzog: Beyond Reason,” seen in the clip below.

Make Mistakes

Last year, a list of 24 pieces of filmmaking and general life advice from Herzog circulated the web. Printed on the back of “Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed,” this list includes the tip “learn to live with your mistakes.” Actually a number of the tips are related to making mistakes and moving on from them. Going to jail, letting some dogs come back from a hunt without prey, never wallowing in troubles, not fearing rejection ‐ these all involve error of some kind.

Other pieces of advice Herzog gives can be signs of confidence, a lack of fear, and always facing forward, regardless of what happened behind you. “I’ve never had a reshoot in my life,” he says, topically (and technically, and fairly, ignoring his restart of Fitzcarraldo), in the DGA Quarterly interview. “It’s not even in my dictionary. The word itself sounds odd to me.” He doesn’t say so, but surely he sees a need for reshooting as a means of doing over a mistake.

It’s slightly akin to his comments on coverage in his MasterClass videos, though there he does kind of accept the idea of a do-over if the mistake is realized in the moment. “I shoot a scene three, four, five times, and that’s it,” he says. “If it doesn’t function after five times, there’s something wrong with the dialogue or with the scene and you better quickly rewrite something.”

“I am a product of my failures,” he told Theodore and other students in 2014.

Let’s not forget that this is the guy who famously followed through on the idiomatic promise he’d eat his shoe if Errol Morris made his debut feature, Gates of Heaven. His disbelief was a mistake he had to own up to. He also tells a crowd in Les Blank’s short doc Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe that he wants it to be encouragement for other filmmakers to have the guts to do it.

Don’t Copy Him

The world will not be the same when Herzog is gone, and so hopefully he can be cloned before he dies and then can continue to make films forever. But on the matter of clones, he does not want his students to become copies of him. He says as much in the Theodore excerpt up above and also in a 2011 Indiewire interview, quoted here:

I’m not teaching anything practical, apart from forging documents and lock-picking. It’s the only thing I get over with in the first half hour. But otherwise, it’s a way of life, and it’s very, very intense in giving them some sort of guidance. And I do not want to create clones of myself; I would not want people to have the feeling they are trying to imitate me. Let them have their own vision, let them find their own path ‐ those are the more interesting ones.

And here he elaborates further in a video interview for Fourth & Main magazine that students of his and filmmakers in general need not be afraid to do their own thing. They need to have their own vision.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, whose films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence were presented by Herzog and Errol Morris, can also assure us that Herzog doesn’t always have the best tips. From a 2014 Reddit AMA with all three directors, Oppenheimer says:

Werner told me my next project should be an Eddie Murphy comedy. Instead, I made a film about survivors of the 1965 genocide confronting the men who killed their son ‐ coming soon. Errol told me that this IS an Eddie Murphy comedy. So I guess my approach is to do the opposite of what Werner advises, and dismiss Errol’s advice as bonkers.

What We Have Learned

Herzog may claim there’s nothing technical that he can teach filmmakers, probably because he never went to that sort of hands-on film school, but he definitely has a lot of experience to impart. His new MasterClass isn’t just him talking about poetry and theory, for instance, he also discusses such things as sound, music, editing, cinematography, negotiating deals, and many practices specific to documentaries.

Still, much of what can be learned from Herzog, especially through videos and interviews, is how to find things out for yourself. He can give us a reading list but not tell us how to glean inspiration from those books. He can tell us to write fast but not tell us what to write about. He can tell us preparation and storyboarding is cowardly but not make us brave enough not to be more organized. Most importantly anyway, he can urge people to have that courage to put forward their vision and hopefully it’s enough. It should be. Especially when it’s Herzog giving the order and the inspiration.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.