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