Werner Herzog, Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans
Forty-plus years into a still-vital, ever-proliferating filmmaking career, Werner Herzog has aged gracefully into the role of the sage adventurer, still fearlessly exploring the terrain between documentary and fiction as well as the vanishing point between charismatic eccentricity and full-blown psychosis. Born in Munich, raised in the Bavarian Alps, and lumped early on with other avatars of the New German Cinema, Herzog has ceaselessly chronicled the obsessions of dreamers and renegades both real (God’s Angry Man) and imagined (Stroszek, The Wild Blue Yonder), as well as social outcasts whose quest for ecstatic truth leads to madness, self-destruction, or sometimes, in the case of Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell, both. There are those who find Herzog’s documentaries to be the apotheosis of that singular vision, and those who are partial to the fevered collaborations with Klaus Kinski, when Herzog seemed to be placing his own life at risk in order to realize impossible ambitions, just like the protagonists of his twin monuments to crazed hubris, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God. In recent years, he has journeyed to a science colony in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), ringed the jungle canopy with a high-flying inventor (The White Diamond), and revisited the story of downed airman Dieter Dengler (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), this time in fiction (Rescue Dawn). Regardless of whether it makes sense to divide such effulgently individualistic output into separate genres (in this director’s cinema of extremes, we are forever on the brink of both catastrophe and revelation), one thing is certain: only Herzog is ever Herzogian.
His latest film is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a rogue-cop drama loosely based on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 crime thriller about a drug-deranged, out-of-control New York detective investigating the murder of a nun. (Herzog claims never to have seen Ferrara’s film.) In the new reimagining, Nicholas Cage plays Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, a decorated Crescent City officer who injures his back rescuing an inmate from a flooded cell in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and then spirals downward into pill-popping addiction, boisterous self-abuse, and all manner of depravity (extortion, bad gambling debts, forced fellatio). Under Herzog’s resolutely go-for-broke direction, Cage’s wild-card badge careens between feats of grotesque gutsiness and coarse-tongued slapstick. When his inner demons finally materialize as a pair of iguanas, all he can do is snicker, knowing how screwed he is. It’s a full-bodied, often hoot-worthy performance by the actor, enacted with all the ardently strange facial tics and bizarre vocal mannerisms Cage can muster, as he riffs off Val Kilmer’s blithely amoral cop and Eva Mendes’s easygoing, coke-snorting hooker. Part garish psychodrama, part cable-TV-grade policier gone horribly foul, Bad Lieutenant is one of Herzog’s cheekiest, most offbeat features in years.
Filmmaker spoke to Herzog about the appeal of shooting a modern noir in New Orleans, the viciousness of certain desert lizards, and why aspiring filmmakers should consider working in a sex club.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
Filmmaker: What was the challenge for you in taking on the renegade-cop genre?
Herzog: It wasn’t a big deal to take on this story, and of course there’s a sense of being in times of crisis where film noir always has fertile ground to sprout. But it’s so simple: just imagine you were a director and an opportunity arises to work with Nic Cage and to do a film in New Orleans and have Eva Mendes on board, would you say no? [Laughs] You just can’t. It’s a no-brainer.
Filmmaker: Was the idea also to be playful with this as well?
Herzog: It was inherent in the screenplay, in a way. But we emphasized it. Immediately I said to Nicholas, there has to be such a thing as “the bliss of evil.” Enjoy yourself, as vile and as debased as you get. And of course, he’s getting hilarious, but it was not as strongly there. It was some sort of color that the film gained during shooting, and many things were invented en route, like the iguanas and the dancing soul. Hilarious moments.
Filmmaker: Cage’s Terence McDonagh has the manic ferocity of some of the charismatics we’ve seen in your other films. He’s even got some of Kinski’s wild intensity, except Cage is pushing his performance into broad humor at times. What was the guiding principle for his character, or was it sui generis?
Herzog: I would say sui generis. But we should let Kinski rest in peace [laughs] and not burden him with Nic Cage or vice versa. It wouldn’t do justice to either one. They’re both phenomenal actors. You wouldn’t compare Marlon Brando with Humphrey Bogart. It doesn’t get us anywhere. What they have in common is that kind of presence and intensity on the screen. That’s about it.
Filmmaker: I was thinking about something you said to the BFI Southbank audience not long ago when you presented Encounters at the End of the World. You had just finished filming Bad Lieutenant and you said you’d taken Nicholas Cage to places he’d not been before. What did you mean by that?
Herzog: Well, I think he has a platform from where he can depart into the unknown. Nicholas has a very nice phrase for it: he says it was a “designed” role and you cannot [measure] it with a ruler, so you have to give him the liberty and the security to just go for it. I gave him the security for doing that.
Filmmaker: Your touch is definitely in evidence here, and you mentioned the iguanas, so let me ask you about those sequences. Were they a holdover from your South American adventures?
Herzog: Not at all. I saw an iguana in a tree, next to where our camera truck was parked, and it was just sitting there. I thought, man, I need an iguana for one of the next day’s scenes. Actually, [in the film] it wasn’t two iguanas—one was one of these vicious desert lizards that bite like hell! [Laughs] It jumped forward and got my thumb and gripped it like a vise of steel, and I couldn’t shake it off. But these are the pleasures of making a movie.
Filmmaker: You seem to magnetize those experiences in a way.
Herzog: No, that’s just a little arabesque in making a film. I was filming it myself. I was shooting only millimeters away from the skin of the lizard, and getting very close to the eyes only, an inch away or less, and of course, one of them didn’t feel very happy about it. It just bit like hell.
Filmmaker: I understand they have a third eye, a parietal eye.
Herzog: I don’t know, it just went after me! It was a funny moment and everybody in the crew enjoyed it.
Filmmaker: Bad Lieutenant is a little unusual in that you didn’t write the entire screenplay yourself.
Herzog: It was Billy Finkelstein’s screenplay and it still is. However, we had to modify certain elements. The film was originally written for New York City, and it starts in a subway station. New Orleans doesn’t have a subway, so I said let’s start it in a flooded prison cell right after Katrina. And things like that I invented, but I would do that with my own screenplay as well.
Filmmaker: Why was it important for you to contextualize the film in the aftermath of Katrina?
Herzog: I think that’s why it really fits extremely well: it’s a city that was destroyed by a natural disaster which was neglected by the government and where civility had collapsed. That’s the right place for doing something like the Bad Lieutenant.
Filmmaker: You’ve said many times that you’re not a big filmgoer.
Herzog: No, it’s true.
Filmmaker: Do you have any particular fascination with film noir apart from this story?
Herzog: I haven’t seen too many, maybe two or three. I remember there was one with Edward G. Robinson, but I forgot the story and the title. I’m not, for example, like Marty Scorsese, who loves to watch movies, day in and day out. It’s joyous, this kind of life. But I’ve been different in that respect.
Filmmaker: At this point in your working career, having done so many different films, all of which really bear your personal stamp, do you find yourself drawn more toward documentary or drama?
Herzog: It comes as it comes, you see. It’s like burglars in the night. I have to get them out of my home or off my shoulders. No, the next four or five projects that are pushing me already are features, however there’s one or two docs as well. I don’t worry about which form it takes. And many of my docs are feature films in disguise anyway.
Filmmaker: There’s one wacky scene in Bad Lieutenant that I really loved, which is when you cut to the assisted living facility where the nursing assistant is tending to the elderly lady. The door closes, and Cage pops out from behind it, grooming his face with an electric razor.
Herzog: Yes, that was his idea. It’s just wonderful to work with an actor like that. And the scene was scripted only halfway through it. He intimidates them until he has the information about where this young kid is, the 15-year-old boy who was a witness to the crime. But then I said to him, “I think there’s more to it. You should turn the hawk loose.” [Laughs] And man does he do it! And it’s all his own design. Today, for the first time, I heard Nic talking in a roundtable interview about designing [his role], and this is a very well-coined word to describe what he’s doing. It’s not just acting, he’s designing.
Filmmaker: And you respond to that as well.
Herzog: Yes, and I know how to embed him in a texture of supporting cast. Without Eva Mendes or the other very strong members in the cast, it would be a no man’s land.
Filmmaker: There’s certainly plenty of acting talent in this film, like Brad Dourif, who was in the The Wild Blue Yonder, and Michael Shannon, who I really admired in Shotgun Stories, and who also stars in your other new film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.
Herzog: You see with Mikey Shannon, before I started this film, I told him I would love to put the leading character of my new film on his shoulders. And in order to warm up with each other, I said “I have a small role and I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything bigger. But would you like to come for two or three days, to see how I’m working?” And he accepted the invitation. It was healthy and good to learn about each other a little bit, and then more than half a year later, we filmed My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. At that time, when we did Bad Lieutenant, he hadn’t gotten an Academy Award nomination [for Revolutionary Road]. And I was so proud when he did. A phenomenal talent.
Filmmaker: When you make a film like Rescue Dawn or Bad Lieutenant, do you ever feel like you’re beating Hollywood at its own game?
Herzog: No. I don’t have to beat anyone. I make the films that I love to do. I have nothing against Hollywood. For example, The Dark Knight, which I saw because I wanted to see how Christian Bale was doing. How dark and how intense this film was—a total, wonderful surprise, and it can’t be more mainstream. Yet it’s the film with the most substance, probably, of last year.
Filmmaker: Would you ever consider making a film specifically for an online platform, like David Lynch has decided to do recently?
Herzog: No, I think the mother of all battles will be decided in theaters, with a large audience seeing a film and giving you a ripple of laughter coming from the front row and passing through the whole house. My goal is the movie theaters. Everything beyond that is secondary.
Filmmaker: Science seems to be a prevalent theme in many of your films, like Lessons of Darkness and The White Diamond, and your expedition to Antarctica for Encounters yielded what for me is one of your most amazing legacies. Is there any technology that you fear? Is it a source of anxiety at times?
Herzog: It doesn’t really frighten me, but when you look at the explosive evolution of means of communication — cell phones and television and radio and talk shows and blogs and virtual reality and the Internet — I think it does not isolate people, but it does creates a deep existential solitude. It’s very strange because it seems like a contradiction, a paradox. I’m one who, for example, does not have a cell phone. And people find me anyway. I like real conversation among grown-up men, face to face. And I think there’s a value to it, which we cannot ever underestimate.
Filmmaker: And here we are on a phone, talking.
Herzog: Yes, but you see sometimes these instruments and tools are a technical necessity, fine. But I don’t spend my life on the Internet.
Filmmaker: I understand you’re starting a film school. Can you tell me about it?
Herzog: Oh, you have to look at it on the Internet! It’s kind of provocative and it gives everyone who actually will be admitted courage to realize their own dreams — beating bureaucracy, for example. It’s more about a very basic attitude than technical things you can learn. For that, you’d better sign up at your local film school. And of course, I give a reading list, starting with a poet of Roman antiquity, Virgil. We take it seriously. Read read read read, or travel on foot or work as a bouncer in a sex club. [Laughs] I’m doing the first weekend seminar early in January, but applications are coming in great numbers, so I have to reduce those. I study them very carefully. I have to reduce the number to a very small group.
Filmmaker: What’s your greatest unrealized dream, Werner?
Herzog: Well, the funny thing is that in a way I have realized my dreams. I wouldn’t know. Of course, there’s quite a few projects that are pushing me, but it’s not that I have somehow bypassed a great dream and then am longing to fulfill it. I’m not into this kind of life. I’ve been blessed in a way.
Filmmaker: And in terms of cinema?
Herzog: Well, I’m still plowing on, let’s face it. And I’ve done every film I’ve really wanted to do. There’s one or two exceptions, but I’ve always had a nonchalant attitude. There was one project so huge that I knew I could do it eventually if my last film made $300 million domestic box office. Then I would have enough money. But it doesn’t really matter whether out of fifty or sixty films I’ve done, one somehow is still dormant, so what.
Filmmaker: Do you see the direction cinema is headed in, at least in the U.S., as productive for the kind of communal theater experience you were talking about before?
Herzog: Well, it’s a huge question. Let’s make it very short. I’m not worried about cinema. It’s so robust and so vibrant in our culture worldwide that we shouldn’t be worried. And cinema always finds its outlets, its paths. But the theaters, as I said before, are the mother of all battles.