Children of the Storm: A Storyhacker’s Guide to Werner Herzog’s Universe
There's no doubt that filmmaking is changing, but instead of sitting back and taking note of its metamorphosis, maybe we should get busy deliberately changing it. Jump inside the universe of legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog and learn the many inspiring lessons he shared with his students at his Rogue Film School, including how to be a cinematic hacker, why you should become your own producer, and how to do the wild stuff.
This is a guest post by María Laura Ruggiero.
I knew getting to Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School from South America was going to be quite a challenge. That's why I applied.
I knew, once accepted, that I would need to crowdfund my way there and come up with an exceptional and quick way to make magic happen. Indie Filmmaking 101: share the news in social media, ask film festivals and programs that had supported me in the past to join the crusade, promise everyone that I would share every step of my trip there and come up with an original goal: Give Werner Herzog a hug.
I mean what else can you do when you are planning a trip to meet one of your heroes? Autographs? Selfies? Give him even more praise? In Werner's own words: “When there's no other choice, you just have to do the wild stuff.” That, in my mind, included giving the greatest film director alive, a hug (and maybe challenge typical German displays of affection).
So, I traveled to a secret location in California with a few things in mind that I kept repeating as a mantra made of precise instructions: No cellphones for a week, note-taking is for cowards (as storyboards and viewfinders), no pictures allowed, no talk of shamans, yoga, discovering your boundaries or inner growth. Herzog is all about finding illuminating truth -- with his own methods, of course.
I went to Herzog's seminar with one thing in mind: Film needs to be hacked, Film needs to be re-invented, Film is dead.
The required reading material was great preparation for the experience and included a great book about the peregrine falcon, the Warren commission report and Virgil's Georgics, among others. In my case, I think I spent more time trying to find hidden connections between all these masterpieces than actually reading them.
So, I get there to our first night with the fellow Rogues (which I haven't met before) with a deep background in Transmedia Storytelling: the use of technology to create immersive experiences and a fascination for video games as the evolution of film.
To be honest with you, I went to Herzog's seminar with one thing in mind: Film needs to be hacked, Film needs to be re-invented, Film is dead. As dead as the great magicians and illusionists who used to capture our souls with a simple gaze. Hitchcock or Houdini. Those who made a kind of art that suspended all disbelief, creating a sensory experience with the viewer. With traditional audiences being dead as well, and the industry madly trying to find an antidote to uncertainty in a unsustainable system, I decided to travel. I went there to meet one of the last speakers of a dead language: Film.
Five minutes later I spot Herzog among the group giving each applicant feedback on their work (with actual notes on a clipboard) and in no time he approaches me and we're talking.
“Oh María Laura, you want to push the boundaries,” he says with his hypnotic German accent and immediately encourages me to go for it. “Have the courage to undermine the system, but you must never get caught.”
So yes, in a minute I can confirm: Werner Herzog is a filmhacker. Werner Herzog is Houdini. Werner Herzog is a child of the storm.
During the first days, all of us are just caught in this parallel universe where we hear Herzog's accent at night in our dreams, where we understand all the secret connections in our backgrounds and personalities (never seen a more determined, well-traveled group of filmmakers) and half the time we feel we're inside a YouTube video and Werner can't be really there pronouncing our names. It's just surreal and since internet is not allowed, you are forced to be there, 100%. You can't check out. You can't get validation from the virtual world and you realize, little by little, that you are now part of Herzog's universe, which includes the same sense of wonder you can experience in his work. And you grow to love it immediately.
As the first days go by, after 10 hours of daily conversation with Werner and sharing stories with incredible storytellers from all over the world, a variety of topics are covered and my pre-internet brain is slowly coming back to me. We realize that the first pages of yet another Herzog Codex are being written silently. In our minds.
- Facts don't constitute truth.
- Find where raw life is.
- Learn magic tricks.
- Become your own producer.
- Look for the wild stuff.
- Beware of the Disneyzation of nature.
- Learn to pick locks.
- Do not get caught.
Herzog calls you out to push the boundaries, to stop being a tourist and to find a place where you can actually see the world revealing itself. Either by walking long distances on foot, by reading poetry or by acquiring physical courage that will soon translate into courage of the mind.
He walks around the room and his words keep looping in my mind. “Rogues! Create your own production company. Create your own Film Festival. Create your own law.”
Wouldn't you give him a hug, too?
If you spend two years negotiating a deal or editing a film, you're doomed. Work as if you're on death row and they are going to strap you to the gurney.
Herzog helps validate what we all somehow intuitively believe: Independent film is becoming a myth; some sort of unicorn we love to Instagram about, but it's really a mask. Being self-reliant is not the same as being independent. Film festivals are, most of the time, promoting themselves, not out work. Attorneys should never negotiate and film directors should know their numbers. If you don't know the cost of a camel driver, your movie could be a financial disaster.
Producing and creating a movie is about moving people and it's about the courage to create the ecstasy of truth. It's not about academia (“character development is bullshit”). It's not about continuity (“if it's powerful material, it will fit together”) and it's not about your own problems (“the film set is a no-cry zone”). Werner himself proclaims to be “inventing cinema” in every shot and you can't do anything but believe him.
At this point of the seminar, the magnetism yet sobriety of Herzog is almost overwhelming and the experience is remarkable. Spending time there, looking at his computer on the big screen and the way he carefully organizes his folders and software and how he takes time to showcase our work and give us real feedback is incredibly valuable and does what it's meant to do: pass the sense of awe.
There are moments for practical advice that always advocate for courage and integrity. Like being absolutely ruthless and quick with your own material. If you spend two years negotiating a deal or editing a film, you're doomed. Work as if you're on death row and they are going to strap you to the gurney.
During the last hours of our Rogue Week, Werner reveals more and more aspects of his vision. He encourages us to find new answers, since we're living in new worlds with new invented realities. “Cinéma vérité is from the sixties. We need a new cinema and -- that's up to you”, he says and I immediately understand how Herzog has evolved from storyteller to storyhacker. He's already part of this nomadic tribe of experience designers, awe developers and filmhackers. He understands the long lost art of magicians and poets and while he might be the last speaker of an era, he does so with such integrity towards storytelling that is contagious and vibrant. Life changing. Truth among plastic.
It's time to go. I give Werner the long promised hug. I leave California feeling a newfound sense of direction in my storyhacking crusade. More than ever, I want to keep on writing, teaching, making movies and creating video games. I look forward to designing a virtual reality experience about the end of an era with Werner's voice illuminating us with his words: “Read, read, read, if you don't read, you're doomed.”
I have always seen filmmakers as part of a DIY tribe creating the collective cultural memory of the word. But now I have no problems saying that, like Herzog, I feel proud to be practicing a dead art: the art of fabricating truth; the art of Cinema.
Follow your vision. Form secretive Rogue Cells everywhere. At the same time, be not afraid of solitude.
María Laura is a Transmedia Storyteller from Buenos Aires, Argentina. With a diverse background that includes CGI animation, screenwriting and documentaries, her work is based on the search for innovation and new paradigms for the future of narrative. She’s a speaker and teacher in the areas of transmedia and immersive narrative, creating a unique nomadic experience called #Storyhackers. She directs SeirenFilms StoryHacking Lab, and is now developing her next project: Kintsugi.