What’s it Like to Work with Herzog? We Heard it Straight from His 20-Year Editor
Editor Joe Bini, 20-year Werner Herzog collaborator, dropped a bomb at TIFF 2016: Into the Inferno is their final project together.
“It has been the greatest joy of my life to work with Werner Herzog, and also a cross to bear,” editor and filmmaker Joe Bini admitted to the eager crowd at TIFF 2016’s Doc Conference. These conflicting feelings likely sum up why their 27th film together—TIFF 2016 premiere Into the Inferno—will be their last, an announcement which prompted audible gasps from his audience of documentary makers and aficionados.
Bini was joined on stage by his wife, Maya Hawke, who has editorial credits on several of the films as well. In fact, the team edits in Bini and Hawke’s home, and they all eat lunch together every day. (The couple shared a funny tale of Nicole Kidman coming by during the editing of From One Second to the Next and getting locked in their bathroom. “She was very nice about it,” Bini recalled.)
Naturally, over the course of their partnership, Bini and Herzog developed a system. He explained, “The most important part is to look at rushes and be clear about how we feel about it. Writing narration is a big part of the process. It’s organic.” Hawke added, “It’s more of a language process that you guys do.” The pair has a microphone right on the editing desk and record at least the first round of Herzog’s narration spontaneously based on their reactions to the images.
In tribute to the fact that Into the Inferno was premiering that night, the Bini and Hawke took the doc conference as an opportunity to create a slideshow tribute to the 27 films and give brief anecdotes about each one. As with any long-term relationship, the tales ranged from humorous (“I have absolutely no recollection of editing this film”) to volatile, but there was an underlying tone of deep respect and affection. Here are a few of the most insightful moments.
"When Werner and I edit together, we edit together."
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
Bini started out his presentation with a warning: Be careful what you don’t wish for. He recalled, “I wanted to be a filmmaker, not an editor, and I didn’t want to do documentaries.” Long story short, he was introduced to Herzog and their first collaboration, Little Dieter Needs to Fly—one of the most widely acclaimed films they worked on together—changed his whole feeling about documentaries.
Herzog’s approach was a revelation for Bini. "He included a dream sequence in a documentary," Bini said. "That was an amazing breakthrough for me."
The pair went on to create several more films in the subsequent years, but their relationship as true collaborative partners took a while to cement. After all, Herzog had already been making films for 30 years. Of their early projects together, Bini said, “They are his films without my influence. The White Diamond, the fifth or sixth one, was almost my last film with Werner. The films weren’t getting seen, and I didn’t feel like I was having input.”
Hawke remembered the period similarly. "It was a difficult time for you," she said to Bini, "but then things turned around with Grizzly Man."
Christ and Demons in New Spain (1999)
Another early collaboration was a German TV show about Pagan Christianity rituals in South America called Lord and the Laden. Herzog shot the film himself, and they had to edit quickly in what Bini called, “a low point, career-wise.”
However, there’s a humorous twist to the story. In this version, the German broadcaster replaced Herzog’s trademark, esoteric voiceover with another narration track. Bini said, “It’s completely bizarre. The narrator is saying this Discovery Channel stuff but you’re looking at weird, Herzogian visuals.”
Fortunately, they were able to do their own version of the film later, which they called Christ and Demons in New Spain. When Bini reviewed parts of the film in preparation for the TIFF talk, he was “very moved by it.”
Grizzly Man (2005)
Bini concurred with Hawke’s assessment of Grizzly Man being a turning point. “My influence on Werner kicked in on Grizzly Man. For the first few years, I was intimated. I was terrified of having lunch with him. (“I still am,” Hawke joked.)
“Editors get steamrolled quite a lot,” Bini said. But once he found his voice with Herzog, their creative relationship—and their films—flourished. At this point, “I’m pushy about if you work with me, we’re co-filmmakers. I think all editing needs to be done with more than one person. When Werner and I edit together, we edit together."
"You remember the process as much as you remember the film."
This transformation may be why Bini mentioned that Grizzly Man is “up there as one of my favorite documentaries, period. I don’t like to watch our movies again. But I can watch this one.” He admitted that he doesn’t enjoy re-watching films because of the volatile nature of the editing process. When you watch, "you remember the process as much as you remember the film," he said.
Other films in Bini’s “top three favorites” of his projects with Herzog: Bad Lieutenant and Into the Abyss.
Wheel of Time (2003)
True to the nature of their film Wheel of Time, about Tibetan Buddhism, Bini was exceedingly humble. In this film, and in others, he opined, "It’s 100 percent purely about the cinematography."
Herzog has been working with the same DP, Peter Zeitlinger, since 1995’s Death For Five Voices—just a bit longer than he’s been working with Bini. Even Bini was surprised when he realized the extent to which "when you think of Herzog films, you are thinking of Peter’s cinematography."
On Death Row (2012)
For this miniseries of four hour-long episodes, shot inside a maximum security prison in Texas, Bini thought Herzog was in top form as an interviewer. Because he was speaking to death row inmates in a stark and highly regulated setting, "they’re raw," he said. "There’s no bullshit. No B-roll. Everything is there for a reason."
In rare cases like this, Bini said appreciatively, "You just jump cut and it works."
On the upcoming screening of their final collaboration, Bini was wistful, telling the audience, “It’s gonna be emotional, but it’s all good.”
As for his next move, Bini has been editing other people’s work (notably Andrea Arnold’s narrative American Honey, which premiered at Cannes and also played at this year's TIFF), and is wrapping a second editorial collaboration with Scottish director Lynne Ramsay.
After that, he is ready to focus on his own films. In fact, he said, "I always considered myself to be a filmmaker first."