“I Tried Not to Be Didactic”: Werner Herzog on His MasterClass
A frequent and vocal opponent of film schools, the director Werner Herzog founded his own, the Rogue Film School, in 2009. He teaches students in weekend seminars held at varying locations around the world in what it feels like an oppositional practice to the standard four-year university programs. Now, Herzog has taken the Rogue Film School concept one step further by devising his own online program through MasterClass. The course is available online for $90 and offers 26 video lessons with accompanying exercises and course materials. I spoke to Herzog about the production of the class, his expectations for the course, and the current generation’s relationship to the Internet.
Filmmaker: What did the timeline of the production of the course look like from the initial approach to the completion of the videos and the materials?
Werner Herzog: There was a very systematic approach by the producers who started this whole MasterClass program. For example, I saw some of the previous work by actors, Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey, and I somehow understood the format much better. We worked together on certain limits of the scope of subjects, of items that should be in the MasterClass. Of course, we prepared quite a few background films. I’m referring to films that we are quoting, some excerpts. Also literature, books. I’m reading from some literature. There was much more preparatory work in this than anyone might expect.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that it was a very systematic approach. How much did you personally spend thinking about the actual structure rather than the content?
Herzog: You see, the structure is fairly loose, although it is very well thought through. Kind of systematic, but I didn’t spend any sleepless nights over how to structure it. I knew the most important thing was to put real life into it. When we were done after certain subjects, and after an hour nonstop, I would stop, or they would stop, the cameras. My only question was: “Was it alive? Was is lively? Did something come across?” They would say: “Yes!” Then I knew we could move onto the next subject.
Filmmaker: Some of the assignments in the course are very rigorous. They gave me early access, and I remember that one assignment asks students to walk exactly 100 miles away from their home and document everything that they noticed. How do you envision the participation of the students in these assignments?
Herzog: I cannot really predict it because I do not have them in front of me. I keep it open in a way that, if there are fervent and interesting questions coming up in the future, I would continue it. It’s open-ended in a way, maybe unfinished business. I want to keep it alive. It’s different when I do, for example, my Rogue Film School, which is much wilder, much more guerrilla-style exchange and discourse with students. I have them in front of me, and I have viewed their film that they had to send to me. I read their written applications. It’s quite a different way to do it. The MasterClass, of course, is just speaking to some cameras. You have to be imaginative and try to see faces, and to hear voices of numerous young people out there who are aspiring filmmakers. That’s the only thing that counts. You have to hear them, although they do not speak to you.
Filmmaker: The price point of the MasterClass is pretty low, certainly lower than regular film school and also your Rogue Film School. In what way do you consider this to be a democratization of film school? Making materials available to people in many different parts of the world and also different socioeconomic classes?
Herzog: I would be careful about “democratization of film school.” It’s the same thing that everybody tells me — now we have three-and-a-half billion people with their cell phones, taking photos, so it’s a democratization of taking photos. Yes and no. It’s a little bit too lofty. I try to move away from that. For me, what counts is how fervently young people, trying to learn from my example and expertise and defeats and troubles — how can they avoid to go through all this? I tried not to be didactic. You can not somehow enforce democracy on fervor and on longing and things like that. I don’t know whether that was a good answer, but maybe. I hear “the democratization of tools of filmmaking” too often. Let me make it short: I just respond to a huge avalanche of demand. Young people approaching me every time, everywhere, who want to learn from me, who would like to be my assistant or my intern.
Filmmaker: Do you think that’s the primary inspiration you had for wanting to pass down your knowledge? Or was there something else? You say that your goal is to inspire one or two people to become good soldiers. Is that the only reason?
Herzog: I have moved more into not only making films or acting in films. I know that I have reached an age where I should pass on certain things that I have learned — sometimes with ease, sometimes very painfully. I have a sense of responsibility to share experience.
Filmmaker: One of the main points in the class is that reading, especially poetry, is a very big part. You also mention music to psych yourself up before writing. I’m very curious, how much has your writing process changed over the years?
Herzog: Of course you read different things than the books or poetry that you have read when you were 15 or 18. There is a common denominator and it has to do with truly great literature. When you read Joseph Conrad, the short stories, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 17 years old. It always has the same beauty and power and mastery of language, which is beyond belief. There are stable things out there. Great poetry will always remain great poetry and great films and great music. You have to shovel through all the garbage to find the real gems.
Filmmaker: Now that you have done the main part of the course, what have you learned from the reflection that comes with designing a course such as this?
Herzog: I haven’t learned anything. I’m always asked: “What did you learn in your last documentary, about this or that?” No, I just make the film and I know I have been curious, and I have come up with a certain insight. I can not say that I learned this or that, or that from the MasterClass I learned this or that. I haven’t gotten any response yet; while we are talking this is the very first day. You can’t even access it. You are a privileged person who probably had it a week before it was published. Let’s wait. I have to wait until the first echo is coming in, until the first questions are coming in, until people ask for certain clarifications or they come up with completely unexpected new stuff and ask me. Of course I’m going to continue. Of course I do not consider it somehow finished business.
Filmmaker: Do you consider the MasterClass to be a substitute of film school? Or something else entirely?
Herzog: No, no. Film schools are film schools. I find them not very convincing. I’ve never been in a film school, but I’ve seen too many young people spending too many years senselessly wasting their lives away. What you can learn for filmmaking is very little, in fact. You probably need a week and you could learn all the essentials about filmmaking. You do not need four years, wasting your life.
Filmmaker: This generation of filmmakers, they grew up in this digital age, online. Do you think that developing a class that is purely online is somehow impacted by that?
Herzog: The class being purely online is of no big consequence. Whether you have it at home in form of a DVD, that doesn’t really matter. I’m pointing out over and over in my MasterClass: read. Something that people that are always online do not do anymore. They read tweets, and they read Facebook entries. I say read poetry, read Tolstoy. Do some deep reading, not really connected to filmmaking. Read great literature, great poetry. I speak about music. I speak about watching films. In a way it deals with a generation that is into the Internet. I’m talking very much about things that are outside of the Internet. Travel on foot. It has nothing to do with the Internet. If you want to be a real, deep filmmaker, you better read and you better travel on foot.