Grizzly spawn

A chat with Werner Herzog

First off, an embarrassing disclaimer: I'm not a Werner Herzog groupie — I just want him to be my grandpa. I'd like him to take me on long rambles over misty mountaintops, through the ice, snow, and sand; teach me about his ecstatic yet jeopardy-strewn path; and push me to jump into cacti, dance with chickens, and come out with poetry on the other side. And yet, as all good UFO films go, I suspect I'm not alone. Even if my cinematic family wish were fulfilled, I'd probably still be clamoring for my visionary gramps's attention alongside all the other wannabe spiritual offspring — considering the rapturous reception of his 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, and the many reverent audience members hanging on Herzog's every utterance last year at the San Francisco International Film Festival screening of his 52nd directorial effort, The Wild Blue Yonder. I spoke to the 64-year-old Bavarian filmmaker (né W.H. Stipetic), who has lived in the Bay Area but is now based in Los Angeles, the day after his April 26 onstage interview — he hasn't agreed to my little adoption fantasy yet, but green ants can dream, can't they? (Kimberly Chun)

SFBG The music in The Wild Blue Yonder is so amazing. What came first, the soundtrack or the beautiful underwater footage by Henry Kaiser?

WERNER HERZOG In this case the music was created first to establish a rhythm, to establish a climate, to establish a mood, and to establish, also strangely enough, a vision — because listening to this music in particular led to a very clear vision.

Of course, there was a complicated story on how I entered into the project. It started out with some sort of a documentary about the space probe Galileo and the scientists, and I followed up with the space probe the Mars Rover, and I got very curious, and I witnessed it at Mission Control at Pasadena, and that was very fascinating, but I always felt there was more in it. I started to dig deeper into it, and I discovered footage that astronauts shot in 1989 on 16mm celluloid, and these astronauts actually deployed Galileo, and all of a sudden the entire documentary about Galileo was discarded, and I went straight for the visions and for the science fiction movie, which emerged very clearly, very rapidly.

SFBG What was it about the footage that drew you?

WH Well, we've seen quite a bit of footage sometimes on evening news on television, sometimes in special programs by Discovery or National Geographic, and you see astronauts in space, but you never see anything like what they filmed back on that mission — with such vision and beauty and such a strange intensity. And of course, neither Discovery nor National Geographic has the patience in their films to look at a shot that goes uncut and uninterrupted for two minutes, 40 seconds, which is an endless time on air. They show snippets of 15 seconds maximum, and that's about it. The beauty only evolves when the take rolls on and on and you're moving from the cargo bay into the command module and drifting by the weirdest sort of things.

People ask me, "Is this a science fiction film?" And I say, "Yes, it is. But do not expect a science fiction film like Star Trek — this is a science fiction fantasy. It's more like a poem. Expect a poem or expect a space oratorio."

SFBG Where did you first hear music for the film?

WH I had not heard it. I created it. My idea was to put Sardinian singers together with a cello player from Holland [Ernst Reijseger] and add a singer from Senegal [Mola Sylla] who sings in his native language, Wolof. So no one has ever heard this music, and no one would have believed the combination of these three elements would work.

SFBG You talk about long shots being unheard of on TV.

Also from this author

  • Women with movie cameras

    Cheers to CAAMFest's crop of female Asian American film directors

  • Spiking the box office

    THE YEAR IN FILM: Looking back at a triumphant year for African American films

  • Not from around here

    French synth-pop giants Phoenix and Daft Punk tap into the alien within

  • Also in this section

  • Con and on

    Thrilling, stylish Highsmith adaptation 'The Two Faces of January'

  • Cel mates

    Mill Valley Film Festival screens vintage and innovative animated features

  • Bridgeworthy

    More Mill Valley Film Festival picks