Interview: Werner Herzog on “Encounters at the End of the World”

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06102008_encountersattheendoftheworld1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Fearless filmmaking legend Werner Herzog (“Rescue Dawn,” “Grizzly Man”) has survived everything from active volcanoes to angry natives, stray bullets during interviews and Klaus Kinski himself, but what about global devastation? Shot entirely in Antarctica on the National Science Foundation’s dime, “Encounters at the End of the World” has an ominous double meaning in our age of climate crisis, but that theme would be too simplistic by half for a resilient cinematic visionary like Herr Herzog. A mirthful and meditative quest for beauty, profundity and magic amongst those rare human beings — many scientists or other esoteric specialists — who choose to live and work in this isolated locale, Herzog’s latest finds new vital questions to ask the world (prostitution and homosexuality among penguins?) through a filter of vibrant personalities, lyrical juxtapositions between man and nature, and the auteur’s distinctive deadpan wit. Though my chat with Herzog was far too brief this time around, even a sliver of his time produces — much like his films — wonderful, peculiar and unexpected findings.

One of my favorite moments in the film is the lone penguin who inexplicably ventures off alone towards the mountain, perhaps to its death. What do you believe was going through its head?

Well, we do not know because we do not read the mind of penguins. Of course, I do have some sort of question to the penguin scientist whether there’s such a thing like derangement or insanity among penguins — and I mean in general, if there’s such a thing in animals. That’s a different question than, let’s say, “March of the Penguins” would pose.

That reminds me of the DVD commentary you recorded for your debut feature, “Signs of Life,” on which you criticize chickens for their stupidity. Do you have something against “fluffy penguins” and other flightless birds?

No, but I’m not into the business of [anthropomorphizing] penguins and I’m not into vanilla ice cream sentimentality about wild nature. That’s okay; I have no problem with the other films out there that have another view. In fact, my film only has one penguin in it, and “March of the Penguins” is something different. They have been documented enough, I think. I didn’t need to make another one. I have no grudge against penguins nor against chickens. [laughs]

A couple times in the film, when a scientist starts to ramble, you lower the volume and summarize what they’re saying. Did you find any of your potential subjects too dull or awkward to be cinematic?

No, not at all. I think every single one that is on camera in “Encounters at the End of the World” is someone whom you would really like to have as a friend. They are wonderful human beings. Of course, there is a lot of humor in it, and a lot of people with whom you would immediately like to spend much more time with than what you see in the film.

Were there any new friends or storylines that didn’t make the final cut?

There were a couple of very, very fine stories left, but the film would have become too long. That’s the worst you can do to an audience: “Is it going to be over soon?” They start shifting around in their seat and looking at their wristwatch. So the film is 99 minutes long, and I think it’s a good time. You should leave the theater with a feeling you would like to see more. Of course, there’s more very, very good footage. Those things that had to be seen are in the film, and as a filmmaker, you have to exercise a certain discipline. I don’t like films that are four-and-a-half hours long, or eight hours long. It just makes me nervous. I think there’s a natural length to a film, and “Encounters at the End of the World” was about 100 minutes — the right and natural length of it, period. I have no regrets that I had to leave out a couple of fine things. So what?

06102008_encountersattheendoftheworld2.jpgYou’ve filmed in some of the world’s most remote locations, and with Antarctica, you’re the first person to shoot on every single continent. So where does a guy like you go when you take a vacation?

Well, I work in these countries and it’s like vacation for me. How can I say… we are on dangerous territory now because, you see, I’m not out for ending up in the Guinness Book of Records for having shot in so many countries. I’m just very curious. In the film, there’s a wonderful moment when a caterpillar driver speaks about how he was interested in the world and ventured out because he had fallen in love with the world. That’s somehow what happened to me, and I’ve been curious and in quite a few countries to make films. But you see, we should not speak about how far out locations can get. My next film is going to take place in New Orleans, and I’m very excited. It’s not comparable with Antarctica or the jungle in Peru, but it’s a very vibrant and fascinating place.

That’s “Bad Lieutenant,” right?

Yes, it’s a completely new version that people think is a remake, but it’s a completely different story. I’ve never seen the “Bad Lieutenant” that was made sometime in the ’90s, I guess.

You told Defamer you hadn’t even heard of Abel Ferrara.

I don’t know who he is, but I heard he has a good, gruff face and maybe he would be good as a gangster in the movie. The last James Bond is not a remake of the previous one. They’re completely different stories, but the leading character is somewhat similar.

But the Bond movies are a series. So basically, the only thing your film has in common is its title?

Well, there is a bad lieutenant in the previous film and in this one. We may even drop the title. I don’t know yet. [It’s] not to avoid it, even if people think it might be a remake. You see, once this kind of rumor is out, you can never stop it. It’s like slashing open a pillow on the roof of your house and the wind blows in it and spills all the feathers out into the landscape. Now go out and find those feathers again and put them back in the bag. It’s impossible. We have to enjoy it as it is. I think we have to allow the rumors to live on. We cannot stop them, so let them live on.

Analogies like that remind me how funny you can be, especially when acting in other people’s films.

It’s not only on camera. When I do a film like “Encounters at the End of the World,” people are laughing so much. It’s very hilarious in many moments. People are always surprised that my films are funny, and I have a lot of humor and self-irony when I’m working as an actor. Of course, I’m always good when it gets into characters that are hostile, dysfunctional, violent and debased.

Given that you didn’t see your first film until 11, what influenced your early comic sensibilities?

I think it’s always the mothers that hand it on to their boys, the sense of humor. Each mother is different; they are always unique. It’s very hard to analyze it. I don’t want to look at myself too hard, but I have a suspicion that it’s handed down from mothers to sons.

06102008_encountersattheendoftheworld3.jpgYou’ve been living in L.A. for quite a while now. Have you picked up any distinctly American habits or behaviors in your daily life?

I married in the United States, and I happen to live in Los Angeles, which I like a lot. It has done good to me because I never trot the same spot. I’m out for new horizons, new projects, new subjects. You see, here in the Antarctic film, I got an invitation from the National Science Foundation; what a wonderful thing that was. I worked with [the production company] Creative Differences and Discovery Channel. And now the film is out through ThinkFilm, which I didn’t even know existed a year ago. So you see, it’s all new alliances, new ways to do films and I really enjoy it.

Do you have any vices?

I do drink coffee, sometimes really fiendish espresso. And I do eat a steak once in a while. But you might find it strange, I’ve never been into any drugs because I don’t like the culture related to drugs. When a joint is passing from person to person, I pass it on. I’m not a moralist, but I don’t use it simply because I don’t like the culture.

Do you ever have time to watch films?

I always have the chance, but I’m not really that much into it. I see maybe eight or ten films per year, sometimes less. I’m not a wild film buff who knows everything, who sees everything. I read, I listen to music, I do some cooking, I work with music — like, doing an opera — I travel on foot, I raise children. So there are other things out there [besides] filmmaking.

Cooking? Do you have a specialty dish?

Yeah, I’m quite good with meat — steaks, venison, seafood. With other things, I’m lousy. I’m not good with soups and I’m not good with sweets. My wife is much better. My program as a cook is limited, but I’m good at a few things. A man should cook a decent meal at least twice a week.

[Photos: “Encounters at the End of the World,” THINKFilm, 2008]

“Encounters at the End of the World” opens in limited release on June 11th.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.