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German art-house sensation Werner Herzog has long been linked to the horror genre, and not just because of his brilliant, moving and eerie 1979 remake of the landmark vampire film NOSFERATU. Rather, like Roman Polanski and David Lynch, Herzog’s work almost always veers into the darker recesses of the human mind, detailing with natural, beautiful observational aesthetics the conflicts between people and themselves and, perhaps even more profoundly, with the apathy of nature itself.
Think of the grandiose descent into obsession in AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD or the equally glorious downward spiral of FITZCARRALDO, both starring the late Klaus Kinski, who over the span of five pictures graced Herzog’s films as the ultimate madman. Or even the recent Nicolas Cage melodrama BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, which sees the actor channeling Kinski as his title character flamboyantly loses a battle with substance addiction.
But back on the Lynch tip: Herzog’s latest release is the psychological horror film MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE, co-executive-produced by Lynch and out this week on DVD from First Look (see our review here). A typically weird, hypnotic and music-fueled mood piece (loosely based on a true story), it stars BUG’s Michael Shannon as a young man who’s addicted to his mother (Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie) and becoming increasingly unhinged. The cast is rounded out by such oddball thesps as Brad Dourif, Udo Kier, Willem Dafoe and Chloe Sevigny, but make no mistake…this is clearly the world of Werner Herzog, and it’s his unique rhythms that make the film so fascinating. Fango caught up with the iconic (and very funny) artist to discuss this strange and beautiful piece of dark work.
FANGORIA: The fact that two of the most influential contemporary surrealists have made a film together is truly cause for celebration. Can you tell us a bit about how this unholy union came to pass?
WERNER HERZOG: It’s not as much of a collaboration as fans might expect, as far as working on a screenplay or co-directing is concerned. David and I know and love and respect each other’s work, and have for a long time. We have always had loose discussions about working together. One day I was at his place and we were discussing these big Hollywood films with exploding budgets, and I said we should make films with great stories and the best of actors, but with contained budgets. That we should go back to our roots. Lynch asked if I had a project in mind and I said yes, a dormant one that I had written 12 years earlier. He was so enthusiastic about it, and we both had a feeling we should go ahead.
But he never showed up on the set, and only saw footage when he finally saw the finished film. He was some sort of—how should I say this?—a positive stumbling block for me. He brought the project to life by sheer enthusiasm.
FANG: So were you consciously tipping your hat to Lynch in the film?
HERZOG: Yes, absolutely, in a few ways. The presence of Grace is my homage to David, but let’s face it—she’s a great actress, and perfect for this part.
FANG: Speaking of great—and eccentric—actors, you put Udo Kier and Brad Dourif in the same film. Remarkable…
HERZOG: Udo was perfect for the role and he’s a wonderful actor, and Brad has been in several of my films. Michael Shannon was barely known when I hired him—there was no Academy Award nomination [for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD] yet—but even then it was obvious that this man was one of the greatest actors in the world working today. But putting larger-than-life actors such as Dafoe, Dourif and Shannon together…you have to embed them with the right chemistry.
FANG: The movie is filled with those trademark scenes of yours where characters stand still in frame while odd things happen around them. I’m thinking here of that oddly beautiful sequence involving Tomas Mendez’s gentle song “Cucurrucucu Paloma”—you always use music in such interesting ways.
HERZOG: Well, let’s face it, Pedro Almodóvar used the song very beautifully as well in his film TALK TO HER. I stumbled across it first when I saw that film, but it had been in several other movies before that. In mine, I employed it to exemplify a kind of surrealism…the stillness of the characters, as the tiniest midget in the world stands on tallest tree stump. The characters stare at the camera but do not move. That’s a motif in the film, that time and purpose come to a standstill.
FANG: You’re also known for your documentary work, and yet your narrative fictions always blur that line between reality and fantasy; ultimately, it’s hard to properly distinguish the two. Is there a defining difference between your docus and your features?
HERZOG: Well, when you say “documentary”…I define it differently. Most of my documentaries are feature films in disguise. Because I really direct the documentaries, I invent things for effect. I have to be cautious when I say that, because I never mean to mislead, but rather to intensify and crystallize a deeper truth that underlies the facts.
FANG: You’re being interviewed by FANGORIA for a reason, and that’s because MY SON, MY SON has been labeled by some as a horror film. Is this your take on the picture?
HERZOG: I always wanted to make a horror film, but not one where you’re coming at the audience with a bloody ax. MY SON is a kind of horror film in that it’s subversive, and you can never really figure out why it’s scary. When Shannon places a basketball in a tree, it’s scary because you don’t know why he’s doing this; his mind and motives are unclear to us. I believe this film is my most careful and disciplined narration, and my followers recognize it as one of my very best films.
FANG: There’s a slow burn to MY SON that makes it ideal for multiple viewings. Most of your work improves and gains strength the longer it ages, and I’m wondering if this longevity is something you have in mind when making your movies.
HERZOG: No, you’re not allowed to. You’re just involved in day-to-day work, the scramble of making a film; you’re not into thinking about posterity. Let me say that I do have the feeling that no matter what the trends are, MY SON is independent of trends; I believe it will outlast many other films released at the same time.
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