How Werner Herzog Guided This Filmmaker Through the Jungle and into 'Filmmaking Joy'
No Film School contributor Micah Van Hove spent 11 days in the jungle with Werner Herzog. What happened?
Earlier this year, we talked about a contest where Werner Herzog selected 50 people to make movies with him in the jungle. Well, our very own Micah Van Hove actually went on the trip a few years ago and gave us the inside scoop of how it helped his career and what he loved about the journey.
It's an incredible story about a man, a camera, the jungle, and one of his filmmaking idols.
Check out the full interview below.
NFS: I'm excited to jump in, but maybe before that, you could give us just some background on how you got involved in the contest.
Micah Van Hove: Going back to the beginning, it started because I just got an email. Being part of No Film School, I think, probably was part of it because you get on these email lists, and people are blasting you for all kinds of things all the time. I got sent the contest through some email blast, and I thought, "Oh, this is a cool contest." I remember I had applied to Herzog's Rogue Film School in 2011 when I was starting, and I got rejected. I remember my application letter back in 2011 being super strident and just ridiculous. I had no money; there's no way I could pay for it or anything.
So, I had always wanted to work with Herzog or be part of one of his programs. I love his work and love his spirit and attitude toward making a film. So when this came around, I was like, "Alright, I'll apply to this thing. This sounds cool as hell." I applied and I got rejected. And I was like, "Fuck, alright. Well, there you go." You know, it's not meant to be.
Then, about three weeks before the workshop was supposed to happen, I guess somebody dropped out, and I was next in line or something. So they said, "Hey, do you want this spot? If you do, you have to pay the tuition within the week." I think the tuition was like $5000 or something.
Van Hove: It's not easy to just come up with $5000 out of nowhere as a broke-ass filmmaker. But, I ran a fucking GoFundMe. I was like, fuck, this is a once in a lifetime thing, let me try this. So, I just ran a GoFundMe for the tuition money, and I was able to raise it in time. It was like this process of rejection, acceptance, rejection, acceptance.
NFS: What was your strategy with the GoFundMe campaign? Did you have a pitch for what you would shoot down there? Or, was it more I don't know what I will come with, but I have to be there.
Van Hove: I have this opportunity, and I don't want to miss it, and I need $5000 in a week.
NFS: Did you include links to your previous work? Just to be like, "Hey random people, if any of you want to support me, this is what I've done before." Or was it just like a plea?
Van Hove: It was just a plea, and it was really simple. I didn't spend more than 15 minutes putting the campaign together. It was really just hoping that my friends and my network would catch me here. And they did. There was one person who had actually put some money into my previous film, which came in for over half of it.
NFS: Oh, wow, incredible.
Van Hove: So, it was nice. It was a really simple ask. I just really go nuts on it. I'd run a bunch of Kickstarter campaigns and stuff in the past. This was only $5000. So, it's a little different, but I just decided just to go super simple and keep it simple.
NFS: That's awesome. So you get the money, then next you pay for the tuition. What's running through your head as you're sitting in the airport waiting to fly?
Van Hove: Well, the cool thing was there were a few people from L.A. that were actually going out as well. So, a few of us met at the airport before going, and that was cool because we were all so excited. This whole mysterious workshop we're about to all take part in. That was great. It's like going into the unknown. I'd never been to South America before, never been to any workshop of any kind. It was never really on my radar to be applying to things like this. It was definitely a new experience and exciting. There are so many other filmmakers that were part of it too, so it was a school vibe, like a high school camping trip or something. It definitely had those feelings to it...I was just super excited.
NFS: So you get there, how do you organize your thoughts? And also, could you talk a little bit about how the experience was structured?
Van Hove: We all flew into Lima, Peru, which is a big city. Then from there, you take a small plane to Puerto Maldonado where we did the workshop. So, the journey itself was a whole day or more of just going from airport to airport to bus and then to boat into the jungle. It was just kind of wild. On each leg of the trip, more people started showing up at the airport. Your group starts getting bigger and bigger as you're traveling towards the destination. We were staying in this eco-lodge, Inkaterra, about a 40-minute boat ride from any civilization.
Van Hove: It is a beautiful spot that was actually started by this close friend of Herzog, who was actually the reason he had initially come to Peru to make Fitzcarraldo. So it was all kind of tied into the Herzog mythology. I even remember as we were flying into Lima and Herzog was on the plane, they announced over the loudspeaker, "Herzog has returned to Peru." We got there, had an initial orientation of here's kind of schedule a structure or whatever. And then day two, Werner came in and gave us the theme. There was to be a theme for the films we're going to make. The idea was not to have preconceived notions of what you were going to make. Of course, I'm sure everyone did have an idea, some idea of like something they wanted to make before they got there, but he insisted that we remove all those things from our mind and we just go off of the theme.
We could film in the city, we could film deep into the native community that was downriver, or we could film at this lake, Lago Sandoval, a really large alligator-infested lake.
NFS: How many people were with you?
Van Hove: 48 filmmakers. It was a big group, plus the producers of the program and the guides. There was a big group of us all staying there in the jungle together. Herzog announced the theme, which was 'fever dreams in the jungle'. The producers of the workshop had gone there prior to us arriving to develop a few relationships with people in the nearby areas, some of the native communities, and some in the city. So we had two or three options of where to film. We could film in the city, we could film deep into the native community that was downriver, or we could film at this lake, Lago Sandoval, a really large alligator-infested lake.
NFS: Oh, God.
Van Hove: As you can imagine, very few people opted to do the lake because that was a 45-minute hike in to the lake and... alligators. They put this little book together that showed us the locations. The other option was the school in town. They had gone to the school that was called the Fermin Fitzcarrald school. And they had spoken to a lot of the students; we're having this workshop next month, blah, blah blah. So they had a little like a book of talent actually of like potential actors from kids to random people in the city, to some native people that had kind of opted in.
They put together this little cheat book of resources for us that we could draw from for that for our films.
NFS: You've got your theme. How did you choose where you wanted to shoot and what you wanted to do?
Van Hove: The first step of the process was to visit all the locations together as a group with no cameras. That was the Herzog rule. As he says, "you don't want to launch- you don't want to land with the weapons of war."
We all went to the locations with no cameras and just explored them and looked around and kind of just started thinking about it. That was a key part of the process because some people want to jump right in and just start pointing the camera everywhere, and spraying it down with footage. But, he was very adamant that you keep the weapons of war away until the time comes.
So that was a big lesson. And also just a philosophy that I shared already, but it's always cool when those things are confirmed by the people you respect.
Then we came back to camp and began a process of pitching our ideas. That was the next part of the process. We all had to pitch our idea in front of the whole group and in front of Herzog, and he would give his gut reaction to the idea of the film in front of everyone. Some ideas are eviscerated immediately by him, and others were encouraged. That was an interesting process, having to do the quick pitch in front of all your peers and be criticized for your idea in front of you...
NFS: How did your pitch go?
Van Hove: My pitch went alright. I pitched two ideas because I had two, one was sort of a remnant of a preexisting idea and, and the other was a fresh idea. So I pitched these two ideas, and he told me to make two films. So I did. There were a few of us that made two short films while we were down there. I think there were like six of us. So I ended up making two films... but I didn't end up making the two films that I pitched at all.
NFS: Can you describe the films you did make?
Van Hove: I spent a lot of time in the city. I opted to shoot in the city, which is this town, Puerto Maldonado. It's a deep Amazon jungle town, a population I think of 100,000 or 200,000 people. It's a relatively small city, right there on the coast of this giant stretch of the Amazon River, the Madre de Dios stretch, with a glorious bridge overlooking the Amazon river.
I elected to spend my time in the school. I initially went to the school, and this little girl came up to me at some point. Actually, before that, I just went to the school, and I started playing basketball with the kids and just hanging out and trying to just melt with the place a little bit. And then there was this girl that came up to me like in tears and started talking to me about her horrible family life, and she was maybe ten years old. I brought a translator over to help me communicate with her.
She really wanted to be a part of whatever was going on. There's a bunch of filmmakers there at the school kind of scouting, doing some casting, so there was something happening, and I think she, she noticed that and wanting to be part of it. And so she just kind of unloaded this story on me.
Van Hove: And I was like, shit, like this is not, this is not even remotely close to the story I was thinking I would tell. But, she seems so emotionally available for whatever was going on with her right now. It just seems like she was asking to be part of a film. It was kind of strange; I got strong-armed by a 10-year-old girl crying into making a film about her. But I kept coming back to the school day after day just to kind of to talk with her and see what we could do. And then we started shooting some stuff.
It was kind of strange; I got strong-armed by a 10-year-old girl crying into making a film about her.
So one of the films I made was just kind of walking around the school grounds with this 10-year-old girl as she's describing her stories of trauma in her family life. And that was pretty wild, a wild experience. I made that film, but I didn't feel like that was all I could do. I felt like there something else I needed to make.
I kept going back to the town and just sitting there, honestly, pretty blank, just waiting for something to come in. I ended up coming up with this little story of... Well, so football, or soccer, is a really big deal in South America, and in Peru. So many people are talking about it or engaging with it. So I came up with this idea; what if there was a man who was narrating his own life as if he was a soccer announcer. I went after him.
NFS: Can you tell me what you're shooting on, like the equipment they provided for you if you brought any of your own equipment?
Van Hove: The rule was, we were only supposed to bring 40 pounds of luggage. That's everything. Including what we need for clothing, for camera equipment, to make our film. We all had to bring our own equipment. There was no provided equipment. Many people broke that rule. But I stayed within the limit. I had everything in a small backpack. And they said that it was that way because of the boat weight capacity. When we got on the boat initially, and there were all these people with huge suitcases and stuff, I was like, "Uh... are we going to capsize here?"
NFS: That's great.
Van Hove: Those were the parameters for equipment. But I'd seen this guy in the Look-book that they created for us who was apparently a fan of soccer. One morning on the boat ride into town to meet this actor, I wrote this little story, this little narration story about a man going through his day, talking about his life as if he was a radio announcer for a soccer game. I got there, I met this actor, we made a plan to shoot, but we had run out of translators. There were only eight or ten translators for 48 of us.
NFS: That's not a lot.
Van Hove: Once I got to town, I had to hire a freelance translator. They showed me a list of people who could be translators, and I just picked a random name off the list. And that translator met us in the park. Now it's me, the translator, and the actor and I began explaining my idea for the film to the actor with the translator. We made a plan to shoot the next day. The next day we all show up again in town to shoot, and I'm shooting with the actor and the translator, and we start getting into it. And about 30 minutes go by... and I realized my actor sucks.
Van Hove: My translator is the one who actually gets what I'm trying to do here and embodies the spirit of what I was looking for. So I said, "This isn't really working so well. Let's pause here." And then I took the translator, this amazing guy Guillermo, to a coffee shop, and I said, "Hey man, you're the guy. Do you want to do the film with me? I just think you get it." And he was a little reluctant because it's like, "Oh, am I taking this guy's job?" You know?
And I was like, "Yeah. Yeah, you are." But he was like, "Okay, let's do it."
It was the most joyful filmmaking experience I've ever had. And we worked really well together.
And the following day we shot and it was just magical, man. It was the most joyful filmmaking experience I've ever had. And we worked really well together. He memorized all the words overnight, and he even added his own stuff. We spent the night together, just talking. He took me around town, and we talked about soccer and life. And he spoke English, so it was great because I could actually get it, get into it with him.
We were just jamming. We shot the whole thing in a few hours in town. Then we took a boat ride to the jungle, and we shot for a few hours in the jungle, and we were done. It was a musical experience. It was like jamming with a band. I just had so much fun, and his charisma just came out and in exactly this wonderful way, and I was really happy with that short film. And so that was the one that I presented to the group and to Herzog, and it ended up finishing first place.
NFS: Incredible. How do you then take what you did there and then use it to your advantage back in the States when you get home?
Micah Van Hove: Well, it's a great question because it's what I've been doing for the past year and a half... since I got back from that experience. Firstly, we had finished.
Out of the 48 films that were selected, 15 of them to go into a package that they would submit to film festivals and stuff. But what happened was the company that was doing all this went under as they were submitting our package. They dropped the ball on all of that stuff.
And so that was a setback because it felt like we had this wonderful block of films and there were going to be submitting it to all of these festivals. The previous workshop they had done had gone to Locarno and all these big festivals, and we didn't get that part of it because the company just dropped the ball on us, and they are now dissolved.
But despite that, I submitted the films to a lot of South American festivals. I went back to Peru a few months after I did the workshop to show the film at the Lima film festival. The president of Peru was there. It was crazy. And it played at a few other South American festivals. Then, we did a special screening in Munich, Germany, with Herzog at a Werner Herzog Foundation screening. That was wonderful because I got to see the film on this beautiful Munich Cinematheque screen with an engaged German audience and then did a Q&A with Herzog on stage. I met his whole family , his lawyer, and everyone, so that was really cool.
Then it was really just about this actor that I had found there. I thought he was just this translator. I thought he was a special performer, and we worked so well together and so seamlessly that I had been dreaming of a bigger canvas for us to work on ever since we did the short film. So it's gone through a lot of stages since then. I don't know how granular we want to get on the development process of that film, but it's gone from being this short film and Peru with this actor to this feature film in Columbia that I'm making in June.
NFS: Do you have any advice for the people applying for the fellowship at No Film School and any advice for the people who get accepted and when they go down there, just maybe one or two things?
Micah Van Hove: I mean, I don't really know how much my advice would help for applying because I got rejected initially. And then I got lucky and got in because somebody dropped out. But I do know that they said the reason they rejected me initially was that on paper, it seemed like I had a lot of experience and I had made a lot of films already. And it's supposed to be for various skill levels, but it's students. Since my trajectory as a filmmaker has been making features... I haven't made short films.
I only made feature films. Since 2012, 2013, I've made three features, and I have made no shorts except for this one. So, on paper, this is a problem I come across everywhere. I can't apply to certain grants or Sundance things because I've already made a bunch of features, and they just assume that if you've made features, then you're kicking ass, and you're in the game, and you're super experienced.
But that was just a unique dilemma of my trajectory. So I don't know. Advice for applying would be just to show your passion and talk about what's important to you right now in the world. What is your mission right now? What's the most pressing thing in your heart that you want to explore through cinema? Really just lean into that because I think that's what speaks loudest.
NFS: That's great. Thank you so much for your time, and we really loved hearing about this experience and where it took you now. And obviously, as a No Film School contributor and a reader, we're always rooting for you, and I hope you keep us up with the feature, and we'd love to see where it goes from here.
Micah Van Hove: Also I'd just mention really quickly, we just launched this big campaign. We've been turning the short film into a feature. It's a little bit different because it's not actually the short film turned into a feature, but it's the same actor and some of the same parameters. It's been way different from doing a Kickstarter or anything because it's all equity. So, I've really spent the last five months just doing all the legal stuff to get that ready because it's a relatively new process of financing.