“I used to think of myself as a pilgrim, though now I am trying to be a good soldier of cinema.”
That’s Werner Herzog, taking part in a Q&A session with students and professors at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV), a film school housed in a former military base in Western Cuba.
“Some of the participants on the workshop I am leading here have tried to refer to me as professor, though I do not allow this. If they refer to me using a title, I tell them it must be mi colonel!”
I am one of the participants in the workshop that Colonel Herzog is referring to and, in the days to come, I will be making a short film under his mentorship, as will 54 others. We have been selected from more than 500 applicants and have forked up €4,250 to be here… though a day ago, ahead of our first session together, we still weren’t exactly sure what we’d signed up for.
Herzog is quick to clarify the task at hand: “Each one of you will deliver a film by the end of these 10 days. No excuses. I am serious.”
When I submitted to join this workshop, I wrote about my first encounter with Herzog’s work: watching Fitzcaraldo at the London’s BFI Southbank at age 17. There was Klaus Kinski as the eponymous lead character, frenetic and obsessed, dreaming of building an opera house in the jungle and willing to go to any length to make it happen.
It stuck with me for some time afterwards. What had I just seen? I have since revisited that film many times and have reveled in many others from Herzog’s repertoire of fiction and documentary features. The people in his movies seem to be made of different stuff. They dream big, and they dream weird. To get an insight into his process as well as receive his feedback on my own work was too good an opportunity to pass up (I was eager to hear his stories about working with Nic Cage, too).
Following early morning chats with my fellow curious filmmakers over coffee and omelette sandwiches (or “sandwich con todos,” in my awfully basic Spanish), we stroll across the idyllic EICTV film school grounds to the lecture theater for our first session. Herzog, dressed functionally with sturdy black shoes, as if he’s about to begin a day’s work at a welding factory, lays down our objective, and begins sharing some of his own stories about filmmaking. He tells us about the quick turnaround for his death-row focused documentary Into The Abyss, which he only shot six and a half hours of footage for: “And I didn’t speak to a single one of the interview subjects until I met them for the filmed interviews.”
Somebody points out that he made the film with 40 years of experience already under his belt, and perhaps it would be more challenging for us to achieve the same level of brevity and focus with our projects. Could he share a story of a failure from earlier in his career, perhaps? “No,” is the response, “I have always made films this way.”
We don’t waste any time getting to work. That afternoon, a bus takes us to visit our locations, where permissions have been pre-arranged to allow for us to shoot. Havana is off the menu; instead, we are to keep things local. We visit a small beach community, a dilapidated old textile factory, and various parts of San Antonio de Los Banos, a small town with a population in the region of 45,000. I am from London, so it’s not in my nature to start chatting to strangers in the street, though things are clearly different here. I make a conscious effort to drop my inhibitions and start passing out “good afternoons” to the locals (“buenas tardes, buenas tardes”). The response I receive is warm and welcoming.
San Antonio carries that air of Groundhog Day that Cuba is well known for: Not much changes from one day to the next. People pass a lot of their time hanging out on door stoops and park benches.The weathered buildings, classic cars and well-maintained plant life provide the backdrop for this. In addition, the internet is only available in the central square, where one hour’s access costs the equivalent of $1.50 (not exactly cheap in Cuban wage terms).
In the coming days, many of the locals become the stars of our films. Sometimes they act for us, improvising dialogue scenes about depressed pigs refusing to eat, or romantic rivals that have placed secret curses over each other. Other times, they share intimate stories in documentary form. One man breaks down in tears during an interview about his time in jail, while another, 92 years young, sings a love song to a lady he had long been enamored with.
Herzog’s advice about how to approach our new neighbors pays dividends: “You are looking for fellow conspirators,” he tells us. “These are people out there who have been waiting for you and your camera to arrive. These are the ones you are looking for, and need to cast.”
As we go about our filmmaking missions, Herzog shares his time between us. We pitch our ideas in group sessions and then book in for one-on-ones to discuss things in more depth. After we shoot, he sits down with us to look through our footage and deliver his verdict. He’s not shy about telling us the direction he feels our stories should go in, often suggesting scenes. For example: “And then he must look at the window and shout ‘Where are you Maria, my love!’ Do this, trust me. Then you will be in business!”
Some members of the group feel we have missed out by not seeing Herzog in filmmaking action. We don’t experience how he might command a set or communicate with actors. Instead, we get an abundance of feedback and advice, always delivered succinctly and poetically. Things like: “It should be the audience who cry, not your protagonist,” and, “If you are looking for a second set of twins for your movie, you should start by asking the first set of twins. Twins usually know where there are more twins to be found.”
Occasionally, we also feel his wrath. This happens to me when I ask whether another filmmaker is intending to use an image in her film as a metaphor. “No!” he intervenes, “metaphors are for literature, they do not belong in cinema. This is a common misconception amongst young filmmakers.”
Combined, all of this advice has the effect of taking the shackles off of filmmaking. Common industry practices go out the window. There will be no meticulous preparation for our films, nor should we aim to shoot from the hip and build our stories afterwards in the editing room. The mission is clear: Forget everything you might have learned in film school. Go out there, follow your poetic instincts, and bring back signs of life. What’s more, play an active part in it. Create moments: “Don’t be a fly on the wall, be the wasp that stings!” And don’t try to be too clever. Film theorists and critics will always read their own meaning into things, as will every audience. Leave them to that.
And sidestep all bureaucracy! On the final day of the workshop, the production company who organized it, Black Factory Cinema, asks us to sign distribution agreements for our films. When I tell them that I don’t have my passport number to hand, Herzog seizes my form and makes one up for me.
“Werner, no!” the organizer pleads.
He brushes it off: “Believe me, this does not matter.”
We all complete our mission: Each one of us has a film to hand in at the end of the 10 days (some even hand in more than one). My film, a documentary about three children who are obsessed with Harry Potter, is made in a way that I would not have attempted before. No script, no internet-led research, and no preparatory discussions with the film’s subjects. I had notes on my phone with the key themes, some ideas for scenes, and the rest was devised on the day, even axing our main location early on on a gut feeling. It is liberating. It feels like filmmaking in the method that an artist might paint, or a jazz musician might improvise.
At the EICTV school there is a tradition for famous directors to write departing words of wisdom on the walls. While many have used paint to do this, Herzog settles for a pen, finds a corner and, in Spanish, writes his departing epitaph, as small as possible: “Every man for himself, and God against everyone.” He then addresses us with our next mission: Go forth, keep making films, and under no circumstances should you ever do another workshop or film class, or even attend a talk by another filmmaker, ever again.
For 10 days we lived in a bubble. Now it’s time to head back to reality, and confront the tide of an unstable, ever-changing world. MM
Ben is a writer-director based in London, UK. You can find a selection of his documentary and fiction films to view on his website. All images courtesy of Black Factory Cinema.