June 22, 2018

I Made a Short With Werner Herzog at Age 17—Here’s What He Taught Me

Herzog
The youngest participant of Werner Herzog’s filmmaking workshop in Cuba shares his time working with a master.

Last year, I was selected as one of 55 participants from around the world to Black Factory Cinema’s workshop with Werner Herzog in Cuba at the Escuela International de Cine. I had applied with very low expectations of being accepted as I was only 17 and there was a very limited amount of space. Once the trip was approaching, I could not believe that I was about to spend ten days with the man whose films have changed the way I see the world. 

Cuba with Herzog

Before the trip, I was extremely nervous and not quite sure what to expect but it ended up being one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not only did I gain a tremendous amount of knowledge from Werner Herzog but I also learned a lot from the other 54 filmmakers. Each of them was extremely talented and accomplished, with diverse backgrounds, but we all had one goal during the workshop: to deliver a film in ten days using the people of San Antonio de Los Baños and to show the magic of the small town. 

The first day we all went to explore location possibilities and to cast people from the local community to be our potential actors. Nine days later, there were 55 finished short films awaiting Herzog’s critique. Even though the workshop only lasted ten days, his words and teachings have been ingrained in my head. The lessons below apply not only to myself, but to any aspiring filmmaker. 

Herzog Lecturing class
Herzog lecturing our class.Credit: Courtesy of Black Factory Cinema

You don’t need a budget to be creative

I used to think that filmmaking required a lot of planning and money but I learned that this is not the only way to make good films. In Cuba, all I had was a camera and my friend Bernardo recording sound. I had no idea what my film was going to be about but I discovered these two identical ten-year-old twins named Boris and Brando. They were extremely fascinating and interesting kids and I knew I wanted them to be the subjects of my film. I asked their parents for permission to use them as actors, and both of their grandmothers followed during the shoot. 

The idea for the film came from my fears of attending the workshop and being the youngest with the least experience. The short film followed the twins as they walked around town looking for somebody to play with. 

Herzog showed us that you can make a new film every week as long as you have an interesting perspective and good subjects. By making films this way, you discover things in a much more raw and honest manner. You are also forced to make decisions alone which can lead to very interesting outcomes. 

Werner says that storyboarding is “an instrument for the cowards” because he believes it is a tool for those who lack imagination. 

Be prepared to adapt to your environment and situations 

Werner says that storyboarding is “an instrument for the cowards” is because he believes it is for those who lack imagination. Making the film in Cuba with barely any resources taught me that even though I had a plan, I had to be prepared to adapt to my changing situations and to the environment I was in. If everything in cinema was planned then it would lose its magic. 

I had planned to use these four schoolgirls on rollerblades for the final scene of my short film, but the day of shooting only one girl showed up crying saying that she was not able to act in it as she had to help her mother cook dinner. We were left with no characters for the final scene and time was running out so we had to think of a solution very quickly. We ended up filming with group of kids who were following us around the whole time and everything turned out great.

Herzog talking to kids in Pueblo Textil Credit: Horatio Baltz

Be patient with your ideas

The night after my shoot, Herzog sat me down at the table where he was eating dinner. We discussed my shoot and he gave me some very valuable advice, including his beliefs that there was “no such thing as a child actor” and that “not all great art comes from life but most of it does.” 

Before coming to the workshop, there were so many questions I wanted to ask him and when the opportunity arose I did. I asked him if he ever thinks about his audience when he makes his films and he replied, “Of course, I never make a movie for myself.” I was curious about this as there has always been a big discussion when it comes to arthouse films and being self-indulgent when creating work. 

Following that question, I also asked him how he knew when an idea was good and he said “I know an idea is good when it comes to my head and I say, ‘This is BIG! This is BIG!’” He continued to explain that many of his ideas are dormant in him and that it could take 20 years for him to use an idea that he has. 

He said that if I went to film school, he would “hunt me down.” 

Do not go to film school! 

Herzog shared so much incredible insight but probably the most important advice he gave me was to not go to film school. He said that if I went to film school, he would “hunt me down.” 

I knew of his philosophy, but hearing it from him personally really worried me as I had only applied to film schools as my choice of universities and there was no way of changing my applications at that point. He explained to me that it is crucial to expand my horizons and to look beyond film school, adding, “Don’t only hang around creative people but be friends with someone like a butcher.” 

I took his advice and transferred to a liberal arts program where I can now explore a wide array of topics and ideas that will inspire the stories of my films.

After the workshop

When I came back from Cuba, I began pre-production on The Final Act of Joey Jumbler (Watch it above).  Wanting to make it as professionally as possible, I decided to e-mail Stéphanie Weber Biron, an award-winning cinematographer whose work I really admired. Her previous titles include Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, and Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room. I had sent her the script and after reading it, she agreed to do it with me. 

The Final Act of Joey Jumbler had its world premiere at the Academy Award Qualifying Bermuda International Film Festival where we won a People’s Choice Award and it was also an official selection at the Newport Beach Film Festival. No matter where my career as a filmmaker takes me, I will always have Werner Herzog in the back of my mind and I will be looking over my shoulder to make sure he is not “hunting me down.”      

Featured image courtesy of Black Factory Cinema’s workshop with Werner Herzog.

Your Comment

10 Comments

This is a great article and I enjoyed reading it.

It would be wonderful if Harley could expand on this section - "Wanting to make it as professionally as possible, I decided to e-mail Stéphanie Weber Biron, an award-winning cinematographer whose work I really admired."

I find with this kind of story this part typically gets glossed over. As in, "I had no money and no contacts but I decided to reach out to someone I admire and everything worked out from there." Was it really that easy? Did attending this workshop get you the contact information? Did Werner Herzog make the introduction? I'd love to hear more about the specifics of this part. The workshop was inspiring, now you have the confidence, what about the rest of the practical concerns of making the film? How were these tackled?

This post isn't mean to be snippy or nasty. So many articles online are inspirational - "You can do it!" but practical information would be appreciated also.

Thanks!

June 22, 2018 at 11:48AM

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John Ryan Sullivan
Writer, Editor, Director
99

Werner Herzog's workshops cost thousands of dollars, so I assume he also paid the cinematographer for her help. It annoys me when people that are well-off hide it and make it seem as if all of it was due to their will or hard work.

June 22, 2018 at 12:21PM

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I agree with this, you might not need a budget to be creative, but you sure as hell need a budget to make a movie.

If you truly can make good movies with no money, with no storyboard, with no formal training and with crew and actors that doesn't show up, why wouldn't you put it here as an example? Where is the movie from cuba you made with all these wonderfull advises and situations that you had to adapt? Are you as proud of that movie as you are of "The final act of Joey Jumbler"?

And yeah, award winning cinematographers don't just jump on a inexperienced short film out of nowhere, I liked the movie, but it is not one of those "oh my god this idea is a once in a lifetime i better work for free on this" movie.
Obviously someone fixed both locations, someone fixed the expensive wardrobe, someone has planned out the shots, actors has been paid, and someone has done everything "by the book".
You haven't randomly gone out and found a career clown with a daughter with cancer and just started filming and adapting with no storyboard so what does does this have to do with the things Herzog taught you?
Show us the cuba movie and let us see what happens when you run out and shoot a movie a week with a 2 man crew and no storyboard and if this is actual advice and not just promotion for a workshop.

June 22, 2018 at 1:34PM, Edited June 22, 1:34PM

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You can make good movies with no money. That isn't to say you cant make something better and more-polished with money. No one said, "You can make a better movie with no money than you can with a bucket of cash." For a lot of young filmmakers (and filmmakers in general), its a lack of funds that keep them from making something. That shouldn't stop anyone at this point in the digital era. Chill the fuck out.

June 22, 2018 at 11:10PM

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Hi John,

Good point. I just e-mailed her, not expecting a response, and she wrote back that if she felt an affinity with the script she would do it. I paid her the rate I could afford even though we were on a tight budget, many of the actors worked for free with exception of the leads and the locations were all favors. The budget went mostly to the equipment and crew.

Hope that answers your question, thanks for reading!

Harley

June 22, 2018 at 4:57PM

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Harley Chamandy
Writer/Director
81

What sort of 17 year old can “afford” to pay anyone anything? Why not just say your parents are bankrolling your films and be honest? We aren’t stupid, and your coyness comes off as arrogance.

July 23, 2018 at 12:44AM

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BD
560

I wish you can film Avatar or Ready Player One without storyboarding

June 22, 2018 at 8:28PM

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Rh Oudom
Director / DoP / VFX
227

Gotta love Herzog's smile in that selfie!

June 23, 2018 at 2:20AM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1563

Yes, great article. But...cars need fuel, people need food...making a movie with no money and passion only. Very difficult!

July 23, 2018 at 3:31AM

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Werner says that story-boarding is “an instrument for the cowards” because he believes it is a tool for those who lack imagination? Wow there a lot of cowards in the industry. Story boarding is the best way to show everyone in a production what the writer had in his minds eye when he wrote the story. Werner is wrong.

July 23, 2018 at 5:38AM, Edited July 23, 5:38AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
764