Werner Herzog's films tend to thrust man up against nature, and nature is not a particularly forgiving adversary. In the jungles of South America (Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo) or the wilderness of Alaska (the documentary Grizzly Man) Herzog's characters - real or imagined - attempt to hold on to their sanity and lives.
His latest film, Rescue Dawn, which opened July 20, revisits these themes as it follows the ordeal of the German-American pilot Dieter Dengler in the jungles of Laos after he is shot down by the Viet Cong in 1966 during a secret bombing raid. Rescue Dawn, the first screenplay Herzog has written in English, is in many ways a mash note to America. Christian Bale plays Dengler, who for Herzog represents the quintessential American, filled with optimism, courage and loyalty.
Though the Rescue Dawn shoot in Thailand was mishap-filled, the tumult didn't apply to the director's relationship with Bale, a far cry from Herzog's storied battles with German actor Klaus Kinski. On Cobra Verde, for example, Kinski attacked Herzog before quitting the unfinished movie, while on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog declined one native chief's offer to murder Kinski.
Herzog, 64, spoke recently with Mekado Murphy about the sometimes chaotic process of putting this story on the screen a second time, the differences between Bale and Kinski, and the search for the "ecstasy of truth" during more than 35 years of filmmaking.
Audio excerpts from this interview and additional images from the film can be found at nytimes.com/movies.
You made the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about this subject. Why did you also want to explore the material through a feature?
In a way, Rescue Dawn, the feature film idea, was always first. When I met Dieter, I had the feeling this was a very big epic story with a character larger than life. But since it took quite a while to get the money together for the feature, we did the documentary first.
Why did you decide to write the screenplay for Rescue Dawn in English?
I did not want to do the detour via my native tongue and then go through translation. Some of my work, like Invincible for example, always sounded a little bit like translated English. There was something culturally not right about it, and audiences had their difficulties with it.
Nature and the natural world are recurring themes in so many of your films. Why does nature intrigue you in relation to the cinema?
For me landscapes and nature always have been an inequality of us. For example, the jungle in Fitzcarraldo is the locale of the fever dreams of imagination, of the mysterious, of the incredible. It's as if the jungle were a human quality. With Rescue Dawn, I would say the film is very physical. You see the prisoners who escape plow into the thickest vines and underbrush. It's almost impassable jungle.
If you look at it, you wonder how a human being can get 3 feet into it, and they are plowing into it and the camera right after them. And it appears almost as if we as an audience were yet another fugitive with them. So it's a very physical directness, which I liked a lot.
You've been known for improvising parts of your movies in the past. Was this done with Rescue Dawn?
We need a definition of improvisation. It is not like in free jazz where some musicians meet and they start improvising in a jam session. Improvisations and modifications are possible, but always within a very clear framework of perspective regarding the content of a sequence. For example, there's a scene with Jeremy Davies who plays the POW Eugene DeBruin and Christian Bale where I tell him, "You need to silence Christian down," but I don't give him a dialogue line of how to do it. He's so lively because he doesn't have the strictures of written dialogue.
Easy does it
How would you compare your working relationship with Christian Bale to the one with Klaus Kinski?
It's hard to even try to compare. With Kinski it was always: How can I domesticate the wild beast, and how do I survive his next tantrum where he destroys the whole set? How do I make his utter madness and irresponsibility productive onscreen? This was not so with Christian. He was the most disciplined, wonderful man. And he has great emotion of depth. Christian was so dedicated to this film. He did things that an actor of his caliber normally would not do, like eating maggots or catching a live snake. You just name it. It's unbelievable.
There were reports from the shoot about controversies on the set, according to an article in the New Yorker last year, which referred to clashes with the crew who complained that they didn't understand your directing style and thought it was "strange and impulsive." What is your reaction to these claims?
Well, in general this very well-observing journalist from the New Yorker was there during the very first days of shooting. So that was a time when an American crew, a European crew and a Thai crew had to become coordinated. Of course, in the first couple of days, you have the frictions of adapting to each other. And with the exception of the cinematographer, no one had ever worked with me before.
I ignore quite often the so-called rules of how a film has to be made. The Hollywood school or the normal professional would go and do a master shot and then some details and a reverse shot and this and that. And I would always know I do not need a reverse shot. It's a waste of time. It's a waste of raw stock. It's a waste of money. So I just don't do it.
They were kind of puzzled that I do not follow the book of rules. But they got adapted very quickly. So the moment after our witness was gone, things were quite different.
Some slight trouble on the film set is the most natural thing in the world. Nobody should have a sleepless night over it. I do not know of any movie project that went as smoothly as a boat ride in Hawaii.
There have been some accusations that you've taken liberties with facts in some of your documentaries and in Rescue Dawn, particularly from the family of Eugene DeBruin. What is your reaction to those accusations?
If we are paying attention about facts, we end up as accountants. If you find out that yes, here or there, a fact has been modified or has been imagined, it will be a triumph of the accountants to tell me so. But we are into illumination for the sake of a deeper truth, for an ecstasy of truth, for something we can experience once in a while in great literature and great cinema. I'm imagining and staging and using my fantasies. Only that will illuminate us. Otherwise, if you're purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has 4-million times correct facts. But it doesn't illuminate.