Werner Herzog Interview – RESCUE DAWN

     June 29, 2007

Opening on July 4th is the new film from Werner Herzog and it’s called “Rescue Dawn.” The movie is a powerful look at the true story of Dieter Dengler – a POW who escaped from a Laos prison camp during the Vietnam War.

And while a film like this sometimes gets overlooked due to the harsh subject matter, with stars like Christian Bale and Steve Zahn as the leads I’m sure more people will be checking it out.

To help promote the movie, both the stars and Werner did a press day about a month ago. The reason for the early press day was Christian was getting ready to start filming the new “Batman” movie and it was the only time he had.

In the next few hours I’ll also be posting interviews with Christian and Steve so check for those a bit later.

But until then, here is the roundtable interview with Werner. And before getting to the transcript, here is the synopsis:

Dieter Dengler (CHRISTIAN BALE) dreamed of flying since his childhood in wartime Germany, which is why he volunteered to become a Navy pilot after his family moved to America. The only place he ever wanted to be was in the sky, but now, on his very first top-secret mission over Laos, his plane is shot down to earth. Trapped in an impassable jungle far from U.S. control, Dengler is soon captured by notoriously dangerous Pathet Lao soldiers. Though he quickly realizes he is in the most terrifying and vulnerable of circumstances, he refuses to give an inch.

After a shocking initial ordeal, he is taken to a small Laotian prison camp, where he meets two American soldiers already held captive for a stultifying two years – both nearly broken in spirit. Duane (STEVE ZAHN) can only recommend keeping quiet to stay alive, while the barely sane “Gene from Eugene” (JEREMY DAVIES) insists they are all about to be released any minute now. But Dengler has no intention of sticking around the nightmarish camp, so he begins to dream up an escape plan that takes his fellow prisoners by surprise with its savvy and audacity. Dengler doesn’t even know where he is – but he knows with unwavering certainty that he must not stop fighting for his life. As he makes his way into the jungle, his journey will never let up, as it takes him from the bonds of fraternity to the brink of despair, to one of the most remarkable rescues in modern history.

RESCUE DAWN is written and directed by Werner Herzog, who knew the real Dieter Dengler. Ten years ago, while Dengler was still alive (he died in 2001 of Lou Gehrig’s disease), Herzog made the acclaimed documentary, “Little Dieter Needs To Fly,” about Dengler but wanted to bring his still largely unknown story of escape to the screen in a purely visceral action-adventure.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the interview as an MP3 by clicking here.

“Rescue Dawn” opens on July 4th.

Question: After doing the documentary, why did you feel you also needed to tell the story dramatically in this format?

Werner Herzog: I have to contradict right away because it was always clear there would be a feature film. And since it took some time to get the money together and organize everything, we decided to do a documentary, but in fact it should have been the other way around. In my feeling and the way I see it, Rescue Dawn is a big film that always needed to be told on a big screen with a character much larger than life.

What was it about Christian Bale? Did you see him in something? Does he look like Dieter?

Oh, it was so clear that he should be the one simply and we shouldn’t only speak of Christian Bale. It’s also Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies because you need a very strong context for your leading character. Obviously these three are the best of their generation. It’s a strange coincidence Dieter Dengler as a young man was very handsome, even looked a little bit like Christian. This was not the criterion but it was strange that on location in Thailand, Dieter Dengler’s two sons visited us, two very fine young men, and they were so surprised by Christian and how he acted as Dieter Dengler that by mistake at the dinner table, one said Dad to him and Christian said and I immediately said, ‘We are doing a movie. This is not your Dad. Your Dad was Dieter’ who had died unfortunately. For them, it felt very much like their own father.

What captivated you about this particular story? Obviously there’ve been numerous prisoners of war and people who have undergone this type of crisis. What was it about this particular story that drew you to it in the first place?

You see I’m a storyteller. What struck me immediately when I stumble into a big story or a big story stumbles into me, I can tell right away this is big and I mean really big and the character is so large and that’s something for the big screen. I can make the distinction very clearly. Of course, his story was unique and within the context of the Vietnam War. Actually it’s not a war movie but the test and trial of men. The war doesn’t really affect them, but he was the only American POW in the Vietnam War who managed to escape and that’s a real remarkable feat. What I also find remarkable about him is his loyalty to America which made him able to fulfill his dream to fly. [He] came with a big dream. America gave him the possibility and he stayed loyal. For example, he was one of the very, very few POWs who did not sign this kind of propaganda letter that the North Vietnamese and Laotians would force out, wrestle out of their prisoners by torturing them. I think even Senator McCain signed this kind of letter. Dieter Dengler did not.

But it was also presented to him before he had gone through some severe torture. Did they come back to him several months later and try to force him to sign something?

In his real story, and it was partially filmed, there was real torture, very nasty torture. I never felt comfortable with number one filming it and keeping it in the film because I always when I make a film see it like a spectator. As a spectator, I do not want and do not like to see physical violence against the defenseless. I do not want to see the rape of a woman. I do not want to see torture of a man in handcuffs. A couple of these scenes were filmed because they happened to be in the screenplay. When you read it on paper, it looks different than when you really do it in physical life and you do it for the camera. Most of these scenes are deleted. I always had a feeling they should be deleted and I had a big confrontation with a producer one of these days and I predicted they would be out and they are out now. I’m very confident with the way it is.

Which was easier: making the movie or making the documentary? Or did making the documentary make it easier for you to create the movie?

You’re asking a very profound question. Probably making the documentary first as it happened to be, but it’s not because of making that film but through the film knowing Dieter Dengler so closely and traveling with him back to the jungle in Southeast Asia, in seeing him and hanging out with him, that made it easier. It didn’t need a documentary to make, but in my opinion, both films were fairly easy to make. I’ve made much more complicated, much more difficult films.

From a technical standpoint, were they difficult?

In all respects. From a technical point of view, yes, of course we were shooting for the big screen and we actually shot Super 35mm celluloid, whereas the documentary was shot in Super 16 which does not hint to a very, very big theatrical release.

A lot of the filmmakers have a very signature style. With you going between documentaries and narrative films, what would you say is the Werner Herzog style?

I don’t know because I don’t care about style. It comes in as a natural concomitant of my work but you probably recognize a film of mine if you just switch on the TV at late night and you see two minutes of a film, you could tell this must have been him. You can tell somehow. How I do it, I don’t know. But you should also be careful about speaking too clearly as a distinguishing mark between documentaries and feature films. My documentaries are partly staged, partly scripted. They have a lot of fantasy in it. They are not like cinema verite which I call the accountant’s truth, all about facts. I’m not so much interested in facts. I’m interested in something deeper, some illumination for the audience. My feature films are not that far away from quote unquote “documentaries” and the other way around. I keep saying to make my point, I keep saying Fitzcarraldo, a feature film where I’m pulling a huge ship over a mountain in the jungle is my best documentary even though every single scene was scripted and staged and acted.

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What happened to the DVD revolution? A couple years ago it seemed like every documentary and indie film was going to be shot on HD or in 24P or on DV in general, but lately no one talks about it. Why is that do you think?

I do not know but I’ve always been a man of celluloid. I started out very early, worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory to make money, and what did I do? I bought a couple rolls of 35mm celluloid raw stock and I started right away for the big screen on celluloid and I’ve stayed that way. In my belief, celluloid is still better. It’s more complicated to work with it but it has a different life. Sometimes the chemistry is going a little bit wild and you’ll have the most incredible discoveries all of a sudden, whereas shooting on digital video, you create a file. In the file there’s somehow an absence of life in it even though it creates an image. You have a series of ones and zeroes. Of course, filming on celluloid forces you into a much, much more intense way to get into the scenes that you are shooting. You know your role is only for a minute long in celluloid. With digital cameras, people are shooting two hours, three hours non-stop, and I think yeah, they will gather the material but everything that they do is mediocre and out of two hours of mediocre footage, you cannot make one single extraordinary screen which lasts only two minutes. You can’t. So the approach and I don’t like this kind of false security. I can see immediately what you have shot. It gives you a false confidence. Very often I have experienced what you sense in your gut. This scene was very strong. Stop it now. Move onto the next. Normally you see rushes, dailies two days later. In Rescue Dawn, we never saw dailies with the exception of the first day of shooting. We never saw any dailies, but not because I didn’t want to see dailies. There were problems with the lab that wasn’t paid and wouldn’t give us any dailies. [Laughs] But that’s okay. It was not a problem for me. I was confident enough and professional enough to know yes, I would do it right and it turned out to be like that.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced making this film?

Well doing a film like this was obviously full of a lot of challenges including for example a great amount of physicality, plowing into the jungle where nobody would ever manage to plow into vines and thorns and underbrush and the camera following right into it. So sure, a real challenge, and of course a challenge to really get an audience very, very close and intimate with very complex characters. The film is not complicated. It’s told straight forward and it’s really mainstream. It’s very accessible and yet it doesn’t have comic strip characters of one dimension.

Did you go on a diet to be simpatico with your actors?

[Laughs] They must have squealed. Yes, I did because I would always offer to. I would not let them do anything that I would not be willing to do myself. So eating maggots, I was ready to do that for Christian before he would do it to show him that it was not a hazard. In this case, he said, ‘No, c’mon, forget about it. Let’s get over with it and turn on the cameras.’ When Christian lost weight, I said to him, ‘Christian, out of solidarity I’m losing half the amount of pounds that you are losing’ and I actually did. I’m back (meaning he’s gained back the weight). I should do that more often.

Did you use his methods?

I don’t even know what his method was, but of course, yes, there was no… He did it under good supervision I’m sure and I know that, but there is no real miracle diet. It’s discipline. People asked him all the time ‘how do you do it?’ or they asked me ‘how do you do it?’ The simple answer is ‘eat much, much less that you would normally eat.’ That’s the answer to it.

He seemed generally pretty fearless not just as far as losing weight and so forth. Were there ever times when maybe you had to pull him back a little bit because he would do anything, like pick up snakes?

No, that was scripted. It was scripted and it was always clear. The first thing I ever said to him, ‘Chris, are you ready to catch a snake and bite it in half?’ But I mean a real snake. Without missing a beat, he said, ‘Yes,’ and we were over with this question. No, I was not really afraid. We were very professional in handling situations that might have been risky, and in some of the situations we had a stunt man for example when you see the impact of the fuselage in the rice field. It was massive pieces at great momentum hitting into the rice paddy, huge explosions, and the pilot was not done with any digital trick. The pilot is propelled with the explosion, with this fireball into the scene. That was done by a stuntman. But I’m sure Christian would have done it had we shot it on the last day of shooting. [Laughs]

Thank you very much.

Bye bye, thank you.

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