The Big Seedy

Werner Herzog talks about his eccentric tour de farce, 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans'

Werner Herzog on the set of <i>Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans</i>
Werner Herzog on the set of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog has always been a feral filmmaker. Confirmation of the director's wild-man streak can be seen in virtually every project he's ever been involved in, from the Les Blank-helmed Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe and the Herzog/Klaus Kinski double-team of Fitzcarraldo, as well as in his more recent documentary works Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World.

His new film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, is a different but no less beastly gutter's-eye view of the most dangerous game, replete with hallucinatory reptiles and dancing souls. Related in name only to the scummy, visceral sucker punch that was Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, Herzog has enlisted a mesmerizing Nicolas Cage as a thoroughly unhinged police detective encountering his own feral side in a city that's already been through the end of the world.

The Austin Chronicle spoke with Herzog by phone about Bad Lieutenant and his other new project, Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School, and learned that for Herzog, class is always in session.

Austin Chronicle: The lunatic tone of Cage's performance here put me in mind of his work in Robert Bierman's Vampire's Kiss. Was that a reference point for either his acting or your direction?

Werner Herzog: No, I haven't seen that one. But now I shall. I'm lagging behind in many ways; I'm sorry.

AC: Not to worry. Again, though, Cage's performance borders on a sort of barely controlled hysteria that might remind some of your longtime fans of your work with Klaus Kinski.

WH: I don't think it would do justice to Kinski nor do justice to Nicolas Cage if we tried to enforce comparisons between the two. However, we can say that both have an incredible presence and that intensity on screen.

AC: I'm wondering if all the tics, twitches, and hunchbacked, shambolic gait of Cage's battered protagonist were in the script or if he improvised some of that on set.

WH: Well, yes, I had the feeling that he had to have the liberty to design much of [the character] himself and bring his whole experience into it. He always felt very safe and knew that I would give him a platform from which he knew he could branch out.

AC: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans contains my single favorite line of dialogue of the year: "Shoot him again. His soul is still dancing." Was that in the original script? It's such a pure Werner Herzog moment in the film.

WH: Yes, right, that was my spontaneous invention on the set. And also I invented the breakdancer, and that was what Nicolas really loved. I just threw it at him very spontaneously, and he turned to me and he said, "Finally, somebody who gives me my best lines in my life!"

AC: The city of New Orleans serves as a secondary character in the film, neatly mirroring Cage's character. From a filmmaking standpoint, did you have any difficulties shooting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

WH: Not really because the city was not flooded anymore and people have begun to move back slowly. All the basic things are functioning in New Orleans, so, no, there were no specific difficulties. However, we needed the support of the police department, and they had the nerve and they had the sense of poetry to support us, which I really admired.

AC: Were they familiar with your work? I have an image of them watching Aguirre: The Wrath of God as the levees broke, but I doubt that was the case.

WH: Most of them didn't know who I was and what my work had been. They looked at the screenplay, and, of course, the police don't look that good in the screenplay. However, the [character of the] police chief is a very dignified and righteous good man, and I think the police in New Orleans understood that, yeah, this was movies.

AC: You recently started something you're calling Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School []. Is this your response to the seismic changes that have taken place in the art and craft of filmmaking in the past decade or so? I mean that in the sense that the professional-grade tools of filmmaking are now within financial reach of nearly anyone who wants to make a film.

WH: Yes, the role of the filmmaker has not changed but for one difference. How shall I say it? "They can't complain anymore." Just go and do it. I would not allow the culture of complaint. You just grab a camera and go do it.

The Rogue Film School is a way to ultimately encourage people to realize their own dreams. It's about a way of life, a way of being daring, a way of doing things that come from raw life itself. And not only raw life but also I'm including a reading list that starts out with Virgil from Roman antiquity, and I'm going to tell them, "Take it seriously: Read, read, read, read." It's not about the regular way of learning techniques to make films. For that you have to apply to your local film school.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens in Austin this Friday. See Film Listings for review.

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Werner Herzog, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Bad Lieutenant, Nicolas Cage, Klaus Kinski, Abel Ferrara

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