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Werner Herzog on “Rescue Dawn”

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By Anthony Kaufman

IFC News

[Photo: Left, Steve Zahn and Christian Bale in “Rescue Dawn”; below, Werner Herzog, MGM 2007]

Werner Herzog: True American patriot? Fans of the New German Cinema maverick may not associate the man behind “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Nosferatu” with tales of U.S. military heroism overseas, but “Rescue Dawn,” Herzog’s latest film, is a fitting (and undoubtedly strategically scheduled) release for this Fourth of July weekend.

Based on Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” which told the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot who was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War and held captive in a prison camp, “Rescue Dawn” reimagines Dengler’s tale as a strange, survivalist adventure, replete with wondrous shots of nature and weird, mystical diversions that are best described as “Herzogian.” But it’s also, perhaps above all, a tribute to American perseverance and ingenuity. As memorably played by Christian (“Batman”) Bale, Dengler is a wide-eyed, smiling optimist who’s undeterred by torture, maggots, shackles and the unforgiving Southeast Asian jungle, and a loyal friend to the end to another captive soldier named Duane (the equally excellent Steve Zahn).

Beset by production problems, as chronicled by The New Yorker‘s Daniel Zalweski (“The Ecstatic Truth,” April 24, 2006) and delayed from release several times due to disputes with financiers, “Rescue Dawn” finally comes to U.S. theaters either as Herzog’s most accessible movie or his most confused. However it’s interpreted, the film offers yet another fascinating glimpse into the German director’s many obsessions, from man’s easy slide into madness to the forbidding turmoil that underlies our world.

Why go back and tell little Dieter’s story through a fictional film?

When we finished “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” Dieter came to me and said, “This is unfinished business,” and I knew exactly what he meant. Sometimes, in the documentary, he bypasses major things. In a very casual manner he says that there were conflicts among the prisoners about whether we should escape or not. The truth is they threatened each other almost with murder. So, of course, I knew much more than I could show in the documentary. It’s one of those stories that needs the approach of fiction, even though all the major events in “Rescue Dawn” are based on real events that happened to Dieter Dengler. But I like to have the approach of fiction, of myth.

What does fiction give you that documentary doesn’t?

What it does, as defined in literature by Hemingway or the short stories of Joseph Conrad, is the test and trial of men, something that goes beyond the sheer factual elements.

Some of your documentaries, of course, reach this level, too.

From a different angle, yes. Many of them are not real documentaries — I would be careful to call them that. Let’s put “documentary” in quotes.

This return to nature makes me think of “Grizzly Man.” Nature is a powerful force in both films, but man is victorious in “Rescue Dawn” where in “Grizzly Man,” he is not.

For obvious reasons. Yes, I’m fascinated with that, because we constitute part of nature and we overlook it. And it doesn’t do good for us to be confined to huge cities and never see a real forest or know what an animal looks like or how it behaves. Simple things.

Is there anything going on in the world today on a political level that you think may resonate with Dieter’s story?

We should be cautious, because there are an abundance of films that are anti-American or at least question American’s attitude in the world. Strangely enough, this is a film that praises the real qualities of America. In Dieter Dengler, you had the best you can find in America: courage, frontier spirit, loyalty, the joy of life. He’s the quintessential immigrant. He wanted to fly and America gave him wings. As you may know, I live in America, and it’s not for no reason. I like America, even though I see there’s trouble at the moment and turmoil. But in my opinion, America always has a kind of resilience and youthfulness to overcome all these things. Everyone is desperate about the situation right now and I keep saying, “Look back 50 years ago, how America overcame the McCarthy witchhunts.” There is something I like about America, it’s dear to my heart and I’m a guest in your country. It’s not that I don’t have some ambivalent feelings, but strangely enough, the film is against the trend.

One of the main things I came away from Rescue Dawn with is Dieter’s unflagging good-spiritness. It’s almost naive.

It is. When you see Christian Bale at the beginning of the film, you have the feeling that there are these very naive American boys and they are very enthusiastic about something that may come along like this little war in Vietnam. And they’re only interested in the go-go girls in Saigon (laughs). And 40 minutes into the first mission, he’s shot down and finds himself in a situation that’s completely unexpected.

This was a difficult shoot, in terms of time, budget, money?

Yes, it was. I have to point out that every single film you will find that there was struggle here, there was struggle there, there was struggle with a star, there was struggle with money, there was struggle with torrential rains, and on and on. It is the very nature of filmmaking. I am not in the culture of content. And we have to look at what do we have here? I managed to keep the integrity of the film intact. That’s an achievement that I need to point out, even though it sounds self-flattering. But it is a fact. There’s a natural concomitant of trouble in films’ geneses, but we have a film completely intact. I am proud of the film. I wish it will find its audience.

Is there anything that you would have changed?

My only regret is that in a few moments, it should have been three seconds longer. For example, I could bite my hand when I saw it: a very strange, pivotal scene where things all of a sudden move from action, action, action, event, event, event to a more interior film. 20 or 25 minutes into the film, Dieter having been tortured and hung upside down and had an ant’s nest hung over his head, sits on a strange rock and there’s fish, which looks like specters, and the camera pans up to his face, and he says, “The quick have their sleepwalkers and so do the dead.” Two seconds, and a quick fade. But I need five seconds! But since it’s a fade out, I think you accept it as something that is lingering on. But I have never made a film that was perfect.

This line of dialogue; where did this come from? Is it a quote?

It is one of those peculiar lines that you have sometimes. Like in “Aguirre: Wrath of God,” the Spanish expedition are shot at with little blowpipe tarts. And then all of a sudden, one of the soldiers gets shot by an arrow as huge as a javelin through the chest. And he grabs the javelin, and says, “The long arrows are coming into fashion,” and drops dead on the floor. And this is a pivotal moment, where it’s very, very strange, but from this moment on, which is kind of odd, as an audience, you accept virtually everything: the Spanish ship in the treetop 120 feet high; an arrow that hits a man in his thigh and he doesn’t even flinch, and says, “We only think these are arrows because we are afraid of them.” Everything is acceptable from that moment on. And this is a similar moment: “The quick have their sleepwalkers and so the dead.” From this moment on, the story turns into something more interior. And it shifts, and you, as an audience, are prepared for the shift. It’s very mysterious how it functions. But as a storyteller, you have to understand moments like that. And audiences understand it, not in a logical, analytical, intellectual level… It’s a beautiful, mysterious thing to tell a story right.

And visually, too?

Of course, it looks almost like a medieval painting with the sleeping guards under the cross of the crucifixion.

When we first see the prisoners, they’re also posed very gracefully in tableau. It also looks like a painting.

It comes naturally to me. When you’re in the environment and you’re physically working in there, the sitting arrangements, the poses, the distribution in space comes very naturally to me. And it takes me 20 seconds to place them right. And it is right. But it only comes because of my own physical engagement in these scenes. It struck the team as something very odd that I spent nine hours in the water up to my armpits on one day. That I would not ask Christian Bale to eat maggots unless I would do it myself. So I’m always physically in there and standing in for them, because I start to understand the scenes from the inside. And then I step behind the camera and the arrangements come absolutely without aesthetic deliberations, and come very organically. And this is very odd for technical crews that have not worked with me before — how much, physically, I’m into this. I do the slate, for example. I would never allow anyone else to do the slate. I want to be the last one between the actors on one side and the camera and technical on the other side. I’m the last one to pull out…

What is it about these physical environments — like shooting in the jungle — that you enjoy?

I think I’m better at that than filming in an artificial environment like a studio. When it cuts to the jungle, it’s almost some sort of inner landscape, as well, like a human quality. You don’t get it in the studio, and you don’t get it from films that are normally shot in the jungle. The jungle is often just a scenic backdrop, and in my case, it is something that eventually turns into some fever dream, with some human qualities, and towards the end, you get the sense that fever dreams are almost a normal occurrence.

[Spoilers follow] So the ending of the film I find somewhat confounding. Can you talk about the patriotic finale with the announcer, and the huge crowds?

What would normally happen in a mainstream studio film is you would have this shallow pathos of the hero returning, and here, of course, you have a grand event, a couple of thousand people are greeting him and are hidden in the cargo bay, all of which happened to Dieter Dengler. And he has this unbelievable reception. In the documentary, he talks about it. But what I wanted to avoid was this kind of heroic pathos, of a triumphant return like “Rocky.”

But that’s what it seems like.

That’s what’s on the surface. But he’s being asked, “What carried you through? Was it your belief in God or country?” And he can’t answer. And the disc jockey asks him, “Well, you must believe in something?” And he says, “I believe I need a steak.” And then the last lines of dialogue, the disc jockey asks him, “Can you say something to the boys to carry them through, no matter how bad it gets? Do you have a message for them?” And he says, “Yes, I do. Empty what is full; fill what is empty; scratch where it itches.” It’s much more uplifting than hollow pathos. It plays against the pathos for a heroic, triumphant return. And it has its humor. The whole story has a lot of humor. And that a man who has been through an ordeal like that has that amount of humor left — that’s what interests me.

“Rescue Dawn” opens in New York and L.A. on July 4th (official site).

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

via GIPHY

IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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