For over five decades and 70-plus movies, German director Werner Herzog has given us some of the most powerful stories ever put on-screen. At 74 years old, he has no plans to slow down.
Known for his on-the-fringes tales ranging from the fictional (“Fitzcarraldo”) to the documentary (“Grizzly Man”), Herzog’s latest is no different. In “Into the Inferno” (available on Netflix October 28), teaming with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, Herzog travels the globe to look at the majesty of active volcanoes. His journey leads him even to North Korea, where he’s able to capture visuals of the country that have never been shown to the Western world before.
Business Insider talked to Herzog about getting into North Korea, his attempt to interview Kim Jong-un, his desire to be a Bond villain, and why he believes he’s the only director in the industry who is “clinically sane.”
Jason Guerrasio: With the backdrop of the US election and conflicts among countries and religions, it’s fascinating that something like a movie on volcanoes can be so powerful. Did you get that sense?
Werner Herzog: No. [Laughs] I wouldn’t make a connection between the daily news and volcanoes. It was a subject that was dormant in me for a long time and it popped up 40 years ago when I made a [short] film on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe about a volcano that was about to explode and a single farmer refused to leave [“La Soufrière”]. Ten years ago in Antarctica shooting “Encounters at the End of the World,” I met a very fine volcanologist from Cambridge University [Clive Oppenheimer] and we kept talking about doing a film and all of a sudden it became serious when he hinted at the possibility to film in North Korea. That was actually our very first shoot and it’s almost impossible to enter North Korea with a camera as a professional. It was an extraordinary coincidence and an extraordinary chance that I wouldn’t like to let pass.
We actually started filming in North Korea when no financing was secured at all. We just went out and did it.
Everything you see in North Korea, it’s all propaganda, but it’s all connected to the volcano.
Guerrasio: In some ways, was being able to shoot in North Korea more interesting than the volcanoes angle?
Herzog: Well, it had to be about the stories and the people who live under the volcano, what kind of new gods do they create? What sort of demons? And of course North Korea falls clearly into this category since the socialist revolution at the end of the Second World War. Somehow they adopted the myth of the power and dynamics of their volcano [Mt. Paektu] at the boarder with China and somehow transferred it to the leadership and the dynamics of their revolution. So everything you see in North Korea, it’s all propaganda, but it’s all connected to the volcano. Public life is constantly aware of the volcano.
Guerrasio: Did you try to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?
Herzog: Yes. There are photos of Kim Jong-un right up atop the volcano. I actually wrote a letter to him asking if I could speak on camera. I never got an answer. But what was interesting was the people who were responsible for us, our “guards,” it took them two days to figure out how I should address him. “President? No, you can’t because there’s a president for eternity.” And it was a time when his status was still in flux. Only a few months later there was this party congress which assigned an official title to him, but that was after we did our film.
Guerrasio: So what did you end up addressing him as in the letter?
Herzog: I do not recall, but it was complex. “Dear young leader of the people and chairman of the joint military commission” or something like that.
Guerrasio: What would have been the major question you would have wanted to ask him?
Herzog: I don’t know, but it would have been fascinating. And nobody has been able to do it so if he invites me to do some appendix for the film I will fly to North Korea and of course speak to him on camera. But it’s an illusion, it’s not going to happen.
Guerrasio: What was the biggest highlight of your time in North Korea?
Herzog: I was able to persuade them to let me shoot in areas that were beyond the volcano itself. Beyond the joint scientific program between Cambridge University and North Korean scientists. I was able to film in a kindergarten, subway, other things you would not normally be allowed to do.
Guerrasio: Did they need to see your footage before you left the country?
Herzog: Yes. The deal was we had to have people accompanying us and they would ask us not to film something. For example, we wanted to film at a certain place and there happened to be a building under construction and it didn’t look as fancy as the other buildings, so they wanted us to shoot where everything looked finished and made a good impression of the cityscape. It wasn’t that important so I agreed. And I couldn’t roam wildly and speak secretly with villagers. No way you could do that. And honestly, I didn’t even try. I was realistic of what I could do and yet persuaded them into accepting numerous things that I shouldn’t have filmed.
Guerrasio: You have said that looking inside a volcano gives you a sense of awe. Did it become hypnotic? Were you interested in getting closer to the lava?
Herzog: Not for me because I think I’m a prudent filmmaker and Clive and I figured out that I’m the only one probably in the film industry who is clinically sane. I say that as a joke, but there’s a grain of truth to it. I’m not a stupid daredevil who jumps into the crater of the volcano to get the closest close-up, I’m not one of those. And you have to be aware that you have a crew with you and you are responsible.
Guerrasio: Do you feel you’ve always been like that as a filmmaker?
Guerrasio: Even making “Fitzcarraldo”? “Burden of Dreams,” the documentary that shows the making of the movie, shows you as a maverick filmmaker who took chances — some would call them careless.
Herzog: The daredevil aspect to what I did there is moving a monstrously big ship over a mountain in the jungle of Peru with 800 or 900 or so native people from the area. So that idea was wild but the way it was executed was prudent. Nobody was ever hurt and when it became clear that we had to be more secure with the posts that would hold the ship, I spent 12 days having a post built that would have withstood the force of 10 times the weight of my ship.
Guerrasio: Do you regret doing the rapids scene on the boat in which your cameraman was injured?
Herzog: My crew actually said, “We have filmed it from outside on the rocks of the shore. We should be on board [the ship],” and I said it’s dangerous, I only do it if you cinematographer Thomas Mauch and you actor [Klaus] Kinski decide on your own. If you really want to do it, I’m going to do it. And of course in this case the cinematographer injured his hand, it was badly cut, but you have to see my work as a whole. I have made 70 or so films. In all my films not a single actor, a single extra, was hurt. Not one. So statistics are on my side when I say I’m clinically sane.
Guerrasio: How was it working with Netflix. Did they give notes?
Herzog: No, I had complete freedom. They knew roughly what I was doing. They knew I was going to North Korea and Ethiopia and Iceland. They saw the film and liked it and that was that. They trusted me in a way that was very, very pleasant. The beauty of Netflix is on the 28th of October they push a button and the film will be in 190 countries at the same moment in 17 languages.
Guerrasio: I know you still dabble in acting —
Herzog: I don’t dabble, I’m good at acting.
Guerrasio: Oh. My apologies.
Herzog: As long as I have to play a villain. No, I’m joking.
I think I would be a good villain in a James Bond movie.
Guerrasio: But have you been interested in doing a studio role since “Jack Reacher,” in which you played the villain Zec?
Herzog: If the part is really good of course I would like to do it. I love everything that has to do with cinema: writing a screenplay, directing, editing, acting, you just name it. I think I would be a good villain in a James Bond movie. They were fairly weak, the last half-dozen of villains in James Bond movies were not that convincing. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: Did you get any big offers for roles after “Jack Reacher”?
Herzog: Yes, but the parts I didn’t like, most of it was silly.
Guerrasio: Can you reveal any?
Herzog: No, they were silly stuff. But “Jack Reacher” was easy because the function of the villain was just to spread fear and horror.
Guerrasio: You were very good at it.
Herzog: Yes, on-screen. In private I’m not. You will have to ask my wife. She maintains I’m a fluffy husband.
Guerrasio: You live in LA. I don’t know if you watched any of the last debate, but has our election interested you at all?
Herzog: [Laughs] I’m not a citizen of America, I cannot vote. But it is fascinating because there’s a new kind of protagonist out there that we didn’t expect. By the way, I’m not in any panic at all.
Guerrasio: Would you ever want to make a documentary about this election?
Herzog: No. The elections have a different platform, the town hall is the platform for it. But the other question behind all this is should I run for president? [Laughs]
Guerrasio: Are you announcing something right now?
Herzog: No, I’m just joking. I wanted to end this on a funny note.
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