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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.

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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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GIFs via Giphy

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.

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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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