4 Tips From Werner Herzog on Conducting a Successful Interview for Your Doc
“I understood this was big,” said the usually unfazed Werner Herzog about speaking with the infamous former president of the USSR in his new documentary, 'Meeting Gorbachev.'
In a conversation with Thom Powers at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Werner Herzog explained not only why his latest film was important, but also how he handled the difficulties that Mikhail Gorbachev threw his way. As longtime NFS readers remember, Herzog told us he is not a filmmaker who sits down with a prepared list of questions to systematically check off (he likes to have a conversation that can and usually will go anywhere he likes).
With Gorbachev, Herzog explained that he "had to follow the flow" in order to make a film about the man who triggered the biggest arms reduction in world history and so adequately captured "the Russian soul." How did Herzog work his way through? Check out the full conversation, ripe with iconic Wernerisms, as well as our takeaways below.
Herzog navigated his work toward his subject, Mikhail Gorbachev, with much success despite not having it easy. While it's reassuring to hear that even a heavyweight filmmaker can get stymied by a difficult interview subject, it's refreshing to know how he managed! Here are a few scintillating strategies.
1. Start with a deep respect (or even love) for your subject
When asked why he decided to take on a film about Gorbachev when he usually remains outside the realm of politics in his films, Herzog explained that day-to-day politics, to him, is not fertile ground for filmmaking. However, he applied the same rule of thumb to this subject as to any he would deem worthy of a film: does he have deep respect for them?
"I immediately thought yes I can do this, and it would be a joy to do it," said Herzog. "Because I couldn't do a film on anyone, a ski flying world champion or a politician or a villain...without somehow having either deep respect or even love for this character."
2. Be a poet, not a journalist
According to Herzog, Mikhail Gorbachev already knew he was not a journalist type of filmmaker. Gorbachev had actually prepared many pages and began explaining himself to Herzog when they first met. "Please, please, please don't do that now!" described Herzog of his reactions. "Let's turn on the camera," he said, "and let's go right into business," said in a way as a joke but it was meant seriously, "I am going to talk to a poet."
"And I [Herzog] said, 'You are right, Mr. President, you're right.' I had no paper with me, no catalog of questions...it was conversations and I followed the flow, and I tried to stretch out my feelers, and I I tried to have an understanding of the very basics of the man."
3. As a poet, be prepared for your stanzas to be derailed by the reality of human beings
Herzog wanted to talk to Gorbachev about the intrinsic nature of weapons and why it is that they are so difficult to abolish despite the fact that we don't want them around. But for Gorbachev, according to Herzog, he didn't care to speak to the bigger human picture but rather to stick to a mantra of abolition that he had long ago commited himself to.
In the end, Herzog had to accept that without letting it bother him or throw a wrench in the whole project. "Some things I wanted to discuss with him
that were completely unusual, new thoughts. But of course, he's 87 years and not flexible anymore."
4. Trust that your crew can also roll with the surprises
"Yes, I had my surprises," explained Herzog. One of the poignant moments in the film is when Gorbachev recites a Russia poem. That poem wouldn't have been captured if it hadn't been for the independent problem solving of one of his camera operators.
"He was sometimes very stubborn," described Herzog of Gorbachev. "At our last meeting, we had our cameras and our sound, our lights on wonderfully arranged for three cameras and he said, 'I'm not gonna sit in this chair.' And I said, 'But we can't have the cameras moved ahead.' He said, 'Oh it doesn't matter, we shall do it without cameras.' And our cameraman just grabbed quickly a small, small digital camera and started to handheld shoot the entire last session…he understood this was important.”
Werner Herzog's new documentary Meeting Gorbachev plays at TIFF through the week and will be released later by A+E Networks, so keep an eye out for it!