Werner Herzog during the filming of Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog is the kind of guy who probably ought to have a documentary made just about him. I’d have preferred to have done a one-on-one sit down with him, but at the same time he’s a little bit intimidating so perhaps this roundtable was the safer way to go. He’s kind of an abstract thinker and it’s difficult to pin him down on a thought or idea.

He’s said repeatedly in promoting the film (and several times during this roundtable) that Into the Abyss is not an issue film and that he’s not taking a stand on capital punishment, though he has strong beliefs of his own against it. After seeing the film, I really wanted to know what it is about a subject that makes him want to tell a story. In this case I asked him what he learned in making the film and I got the dreaded one word answer. He finally elaborated though and gave exactly the kind of Herzogian answer I was hoping for.

Q: Can you tell us about your decision to make this film and the two angles of the story?

Werner Herzog: Well the choice for the subject was quickly established because I was so baffled by the senselessness of this crime. The two sides that you apparently mean, capital punishment pro or con, it’s not a big issue. It’s not an issue film. If you try to let your audiences believe that it’s an issue film, it would be disappointing for them. There’s very little debate about capital punishment in the film. I’m not a proponent of it and I respectfully disagree with the practice, but of course as a German I wouldn’t like to tell the American people how to handle their criminal justice.

Q: Was it a challenge to steer away from taking a stand?

WH: No, I never steered into it. It’s not an issue film. It’s not a political film. It’s not a propaganda film. It’s not an activist’s film. It’s just about the senseless crime and all its ramifications including the death of one of the perpetrators and a triple homicide, the death of three human beings and all of the repercussions and all the emptiness and all the wounds that this crime left in other people.

Q: Most of your documentaries seem to be about people you admire. What about this film?

WH. I must say I liked them all with the exception of the perpetrators. I do not have to be chummy with them and I do not have to commiserate with them. Sometimes you see people on death row or in prison are made some sort of heroes, the outcasts against the rules of society. It’s none of that. I tell Perry who was executed eight days later that in spite of his early years it doesn’t exonerate him and it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to like him. I tell him “I respect you as a human being.”  I actually wore this suit here and I normally don’t wear a suit, but it’s just a sign, “Yes I respect you as a human being.” People always tell you “Ah they are monsters, just shoot them.” They don’t see the value of proper due process. Yes the crimes are monstrous, but the perpetrators are still human. That’s how I see it. At least I respect them as human beings.

Q: What did you learn in the process of making this documentary that you didn’t already know?

WH: Nothing.

Q: Nothing at all?

WH: Well, in a way, yes. A few things. For example I’m looking closer at the passage of time because, for people on death row, time sometimes comes to a standstill.  Sometimes it accelerates. There is one case, Hank Skinner who was due for execution tomorrow afternoon, he got another stay. Death row is in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, but Polunsky Unit doesn’t have a death house, they don’t have a death chamber so the inmates for execution are transported 43 miles to Huntsville, the “Walls” Unit where they are being executed. For 17 years this inmate hadn’t seen much of the world at all and all of the sudden he’s in this van in a cage and heavily shackled with heavily armed guards around him and he sees a little bit of the world out there and he says it’s magnificent, it’s all glorious. All of the sudden an abandoned gas station or a cow in the field looks like something glorious, like all the glory of the world is there. It’s a forlorn area of Texas but he said it felt like the Holy Land. All of a sudden I look at this bleak, forlorn Americana with the eyes of somebody who really sees the Holy Land. Somehow my perspectives have shifted and that is big.

Q: How difficult was it to get the cooperation from the families and from the prison?

WH: Well, I wrote to them and then I met them and whatever you see on film is pretty much what I experienced with them. None of the persons in the film I met more than 60 minutes in my entire life. Never before, never after. One exception would be Melissa Burkett, the pregnant wife of one of the perpetrators. She really wanted to know what she was getting into and she was hesitant to be in the film and wanted to meet me before. I had a dinner with her in a restaurant and she took a good look at what I was all about and she agreed to be in the film. All the others, the inmates, you have to pass a certain protocol. You have to write to them and only if they write back inviting you, then you take the next step and that would be the warden has to agree. In one case a warden without giving an explanation refused.

And you better also look into what the attorneys are telling you. The attorney of the inmates in one case sent me an email just a day before I set out for Texas and he said to me, “We have an ongoing appeal. My client may say something which might incriminate him or he may say something stupid and if that is publicized it could happen that his chances for an appeal are diminished” so I immediately said “This is canceled. I’m not going to do it.” I don’t care whether the person is guilty or not guilty. It’s not my business to establish guilt or innocence. That’s a court of law and a jury that does that, but not me. So I would immediately abstain from doing a conversation on camera.

Q: Talk about the difference between getting a sentence of death and a sentence of life imprisonment.

WH: I asked this question to one of the family members of the victims, in this case her mother and her brother were murdered, and she felt a great relief when she witnessed the execution. I asked her cautiously, “Would life in prison without possibility of parole [for the perpetrators] satisfy you?” and she said “yes.” And I asked her “Would Jesus have been an advocate of capital punishment?” “Probably not,” she says. But then after a moment of hesitation, “but some people do not deserve to live.” So she’s vacillating and I opened the doors of the film for her to be herself and express her opinion. It’s remarkable that a person who had lost mother and brother contemplates seriously life in prison without parole. I rather tend towards that because I think a state should not be in the capacity to kill off anyone for any reason. In Germany you would be hanged if you cracked a joke on Hitler and you would be killed by the state if you were insane. You would be killed for example for being Jewish or a gypsy or gay. So, 6 million… Well, this whole culture of death hasn’t done good to the German people. It hasn’t done good to anyone.

Q: Was the release of the film changed because of current events? Wasn’t it originally supposed to come out in March?

WH: In March? No. In April I told the distributor we are going to be done with the film in June/July. They saw it in June. I immediately said we’ll probably be in Toronto at the festival, let’s release it right afterwards so that we don’t get into the traffic of Christmas movies. You see, it’s a film that you’re not going to watch in the last 10 days before Christmas. So, that’s why the distributors decided to release it in November which is a little bit late in my opinion, but as the Christmas mood is coming they will widen the release at the end of January, I think, or February/March something like that, but there was never a solid plan to show it later. I wished to show it maybe even in August or early September, but I’m not a distributor. You shouldn’t overlook that it takes a lot of effort to find the right free theater in the right city.

Q: So recent events had nothing to do with the release strategy?

WH: No. The recent events are events that nobody could foresee. For example, the execution of Troy Davis came at a time I was long finished with my film, so it was a statistical coincidence. Several other events like the Republican nomination for presidential candidate and of course one of them, Perry the Governor of Texas, is very much into capital punishment. He represents the mood of his state, it’s obvious. All of a sudden, because of all of these things, there’s a rekindled debate, but it’s a complete coincidence. I think in June or so Perry was not even near announcing plans to run for the candidacy. Sometimes it happens that things come together as if planned, but they were not planned.

Q: How do you choose your subjects?

I’ve never planned my career. I always follow what’s most urgently coming at me. It’s like burglars that invade your home, uninvited guests, and the one who is coming most ferociously at you, you have to deal with that intruder first. So, it’s all intruders who have come after me… and I mean big time (laughs). There are at least five, six, seven other intruders that have already lined up, and I run my own film school which I have to address and I do some acting and all sorts of stuff. Film projects, they just keep coming.

Q: Why did you choose to avoid showing the death or even the lead up to the actual capital punishment in the film?

WH: You’re not allowed. Nobody films on death row. Even if I had been allowed and even if you had paid me a huge amount of money, only over my dead body would I have done it.

Q: You said you don’t necessarily set out to learn something when you’re making a documentary, so what is it that drives you or inspires you?

WH: I think curiosity, trying to look deep inside of human nature, look deep into the heart of men and women. Sometimes it’s a story itself that just jumps at you. For example when Grizzly Man the story somehow stumbled into me, I knew immediately, “This is big. This is very very big and I have to do it right away.” So, I’m a storyteller and I work for an audience. I don’t want to just give them superficial things. I want to give some moments, some short flickering moments where you have the feeling you have illuminated a person deep from inside and it gives you some sort of understanding of who we are. Those moments are happening rarely, but they do happen.

Q: How do you go about creating an interview environment that is conducive to getting people to open up?

WH: It’s finding the right tone. For example the woman who lost her mother and her brother, I think she immediately felt safe. She felt safe with me and she felt safe to speak. How I do that, how I can establish it I don’t know. Part of me is not a filmmaker anymore but just a human being opposite of her or of you. In a way I manage to get the deepest things, the best things out of people. That’s why I’m a filmmaker. If you don’t have it in you, you should do something else.

Q: I wanted to ask about your time in Texas. Texas gets a bad rap because of all the death penalty cases there. I lived there for many years….

WH: May I interrupt? I’m not in the business of Texas bashing. I really like Texas, but please go ahead.

Q: I worked with the ACLU and The Innocence Project there and we worked on getting people off of death row and I always thought it was really strange you can find little unexpected pockets of people that are fighting against this overwhelming system. What is your take on that?

WH: But you were trying to find cases where you were convinced that an innocent person was on death row, is that correct?

Q: Yes.

WH: Yeah, but when you look at Perry/Burkett, a court of law found them guilty and if you’re looking through the entire court transcripts and all the physical evidence and two confessions of one of the perpetrators and testimony of a person who was present during the murder of the two young men who is never mentioned in the film, it’s a long separate story of a young woman who was in the woods while the two young teenage boys were murdered, and she testified in court and she got immunity for it. But since the film is not in the business of establishing guilt or innocence, it’s all left out. When you look at the entire case, summing up everything, you get the feeling the jury found the right verdict. There was nothing where you could say, “this exonerates him or this points at their innocence.” Just simply nothing. Although I allow both perpetrators at least briefly maintain their innocence. Unlike other films which are trying to prove the innocence of an inmate like Errol Morris’s film… The Thin… is it The Thin Red Line or Thin Blue Line? The Thin Blue Line. Thin Red Line is Malick. I’m getting confused here (laughs). That’s a fine way to make movies but that was not the issue of my film.

Q: Into the Abyss started out as a miniseries…

WH: No. It was immediately clear Into the Abyss is a film for theatrical release and it’s feature length and it has to do with a big crime and only part of it is about death row. Of course there is a death row project that is purely television and I’m still working on it. I call it a miniseries in quotes. It’s four films which are here in the States. They’re 44 minutes long each, but it’s a full hour on television.

Q: What was it about Into the Abyss that made it compelling for a feature rather than including it as part of the series?

WH: In the small series of films, it’s more about individuals on death row and all the focus or most of the focus is on them. They’re not finished yet, I mean I shot them all and I’ve edited three of the four films and I’m in the middle of editing but there’s no mixing yet, no final form, no color correction so it will take a little until these films are finished. They’re purely meant for television. You see a lot of crime TV and stupid reenactments and a lot of cheap television, but I tried to put it on a different level.

Q: Do you make storytelling films rather than issue-oriented films because they’re more powerful?

WH: No, it’s just the kind of films I do best. I know what I should not do for example. I wouldn’t be good for example doing a Terminator. They’re good films. Really good colleagues of mine do it much much better than I would ever be able to do it. I know what I do right and what I’m good at and I better stick to it.

Q: Lately you seem more interested in documentaries than fiction films…

WH: No, it’s just part of my chain of coincidences and quite often I have four or five feature films that I’d like to do, but they’re not financed yet. If I have the finances I start tomorrow the next one and the next one the day after tomorrow and so on. It’s just comes as it comes.

Q: Are you working on anything else?

WH: I wrote a screenplay for a film and I’m planning to do a screenplay probably in the next fortnight or so although I’m editing during the day. There’s quite a few other things out there. I never catch up in time.

Q: You gave a great comic performance in the Woody Harrelson poker movie The Grand. Can we expect to see you in front of the camera again soon?

WH: Yes, I’m filming the new Tom Cruise movie called One Shot. I’ll be playing the villain.

Werner Herzog’s death row documentary Into the Abyss opens in theaters today.

17 Responses to “LiC goes ‘Into the Abyss’ with Werner Herzog”

  1. Very cool. I skimmed the parts that were mostly about the film I haven’t seen. I liked your question and the response to it a lot.

  2. Very interesting. Herzog is compelling even when he’s not bothering to actually engage the interview.

  3. I can’t read anything he says without hearing that distinctive voice speaking in his German accented English.

  4. Ordinarily I’d clean up the syntax a little bit in the transcription, but how he expresses himself is part of Herzog’s appeal so I left it alone. He’s not an easy interview, as you can see he’s reluctant to be categorized or to be put in a corner. He responded to almost every question in the negative and then would either clarify or would launch into a topic that better suited him.

    It was great though. I can now check off one more thing I needed to do before the end of the world.

  5. Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply the interview didn’t go well, but he didn’t make it easy on all of you. Very interesting all the same.

  6. Yes, even when he didn’t answer a question, he dodged it interestingly. You can pretty much tell from watching his documentaries that he’s got a thought process that tracks a little differently than your average human being. I hope I get a chance to chat with him again someday soon.

  7. You’re getting more and more interviews with the greats these days. Which means I’m two degrees removed from them, right? Well, two degrees and 1,500 miles, give or take.

  8. Brilliant questions, fascinating answers, and an unforgettable interview with a cinema titan.

    I congratulate you for what surely must be considered on of this site’s greatest hours!

    I would really like to see the film and may do so today, as the capital punishment underpinning has always riveted me. I’m a major opponent.

  9. It was indeed a pleasure. It doesn’t rank as high as the 1:1 I did with the Coens for Awards Daily, but it was an opportunity I surely wasn’t going to miss, even if it was a roundtable.

  10. I saw this film last night. I found all of Herzog’s choices intriguing and the doc itself was devastating for me personally, but it didn’t really change or alter my opinion on the death penalty. It is amazing to me that Herzog has this innate ability to convey respect and admiration for otherwise cartoonish or foolish people. And you can see that his subjects feel respected and appreciated, which allows him to be incredibly personal and intimate with them in his questioning.

    I would say that one thing I would fault with the doc is that Herzog makes it very clear what his stance on the death penalty is, which he also does in this interview. By directly stating it repeatedly, I think he gives the entire doc a political bent that it would fare a bit better without. Other than him saying it, the doc itself is evenly balanced otherwise.

  11. Yeah, that’s funny because he’s clearly trying to avoid having such a bent, though at the same time it seems like he doesn’t care what you bring or don’t bring to the doc, he’s just curious about these people and this subject.

    I love how he finds these unexpected little details in his stories and milks them. In this case the opening with the guy at the cemetary and at first it seems like he’s going to be gung ho about the death penalty, but the more he talks the more you can see it’s destroying him. Same later on with the other prison guy.

  12. I’ve only seen Herzog interview everyday sort of folks, but he seems incredibly gifted in the art of interviewing. I don’t think any of the conversations he has during the course of the doc end up where I might expect them to, and all of them reveal subtle moments that are illuminating and in many cases, heartbreaking.

    (Minor spoilers follow)
    I have to really commend him for taking an otherwise repellant couple of convicts, who are in no way sympathetic, apologetic, or redeemable, and using them as his hypothesis that the death penalty is never justified. He didn’t make things easy for himself, that’s for certain, but I think he’s successful in showing that the death penalty only “benefits” an otherwise detached and disinterested public that craves some sense of biblical justice. Clearly in this case no one directly involved seems to take any comfort or solace from it, and one of the two murderers escapes the death penalty simply out of pity from the easily swayed jury. It’s hard to argue that the justice served here is equal, fair, or beneficial.

  13. Yes Herzog’s appeal is largely in that captivating syntax! Ha!

    I saw this film last night at the IFC with Lucille and Sammy as the second part of a double feature with another documentary.

    While not as cinematically interesting as CAVE, it still wielded considerable emotional power with one of the most vital of all issues.

  14. Joel, that was one of the frustrating things about hte movie for me. I wanted one of these guys to at least admit feeling bad about what they’d done, but they were both still in denial mode. But again, Herzog’s goal was not to prove guilt or innocence or to find contrition. He’s interesting that way in that he doesn’t take the most obvious path.

    Sam, Herzog needs to narrate everything. I’m not sure how I’d rate this one with Cave, but similarly. I’m a bigger fan of the Antarctica doc, though I have to admit Abyss has stuck with me.

  15. @Craig: Frustrating yes, but it ultimately is required to absolutely prove his point. If either showed contrition or remorse, it would make them more sympathetic to the audience and defeat his purpose. But I love the part where he tells Perry flat out, right at the beginning (paraphrasing here): “I don’t have to like you, but I still want to understand your side of the story.”

  16. Craig: Herzog has always been far more interested in behavioral aberation than with any kind of moral stance, though he is against capital punishment. These boys were certainly in denial, but this would be expected in view of their age and immaturity. But this was as ghastly a murder spree as one could ever fathom.

    Yes, all his films are greatly enhanced by that German tinted delivery, with in all of its Schwartzenneger-glory (am I allowed to mention that man’s name in these parts? Ha!) gives his interviews a singular level of color and sophistication. Listening to him is a real joy.

  17. Joel, I have to admit, if any of them had shown remorse I probably would’ve dismissed it as a calculation on their part. Even as it was, it was difficult to tell how much they were just performing for the camera. The most interesting people ultimately were those impacted by the murders.

    Sam, yes, that’s what makes this doc and all his others so fascinating. A message or a point can be agreed or disagreed with and then dismissed. Something like this gets you to think about the ramifications of crime and of capital punishment. It’s a human story.

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