It seems like Werner Herzog never sleeps. The 67-year-old Bavarian buccaneer of cinema astounded hungry-eyed cinephiles back in 2005 when he had four documentary features in theaters (“The White Diamond,” “Wheel of Time,” the decade best “Grizzly Man” and the sci-fi quasi doc “Wild Blue Yonder”). This fall, Herzog’s again kept our senses busy with back-to-back narratives: first up was “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” a hilariously addled live-action Nicolas Cage cartoon destined for the cult classics shelf.
Equally nervy is “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” which Herzog himself has called “a horror film without the blood, chainsaws and gore.” Loosely based on the real story of Mark Yavorsky — a University of San Diego grad student who killed his mother with an antique sword — this ominous if sensitive portrait of mental illness stars “Revolutionary Road” Oscar nominee Michael Shannon, here renamed Brad McCullum. Struck by a mystical feeling during a walkabout in Peru, McCullum returns to California and, as we learn after the fact, murders his mother (Grace Zabriskie). Recollected in testimonials and flashbacks during a hostage crisis, the film investigates this eccentric man’s descent into hell, the events pieced together by McCullum’s fiancée (Chloë Sevigny), his theater director (Udo Kier) and a hard-nosed detective (Willem Dafoe). Herzog called me to discuss animals, working with executive producer David Lynch, and the scariest thing he’s experienced since moving to Los Angeles.
How did you stumble onto the Yavorsky story, and what still attracts you to madness in your work after several decades?
Well, let me first address madness. I didn’t want to go too deep into the clinical side of it. It would have been boring and for medical journals. There’s something that fascinated me, and that’s the kind of fear that is creeping up at you, and you don’t know exactly where it comes from.
But for the first part of your question, a friend of mine, [co-writer] Herb Golder, who had been an assistant director for me in various projects, he’s actually a professor of classical studies at Boston University. Since he translated Sophocles into English, he was always interested in stagings of ancient Greek drama. He came across this bizarre case about the staging of “The Oresteia” in San Diego, where the leading actor behaved in a very erratic way, and finally ended up murdering his own mother instead of his stage mother.
You met Yavorsky once and said he was argumentative. Was there anything positive or helpful that came out of your conversation with him?
Not really. I had to stay away from him. He had spent eight and a half years in a maximum security institution for the criminally insane, and was released because he apparently didn’t pose a danger for the community. His crime was so specifically against his own mother and no one else. [He had] this obsession with her, like with the drama where the son has to murder his mother, the queen.
The man himself didn’t look right. He lived in a decrepit little trailer in a trailer park near Riverside. He had a poster of “Aguirre,” a little shrine in the corner and burning candles in front of it. I had a feeling the man was not really kosher yet, and he was totally upset that he was never able to stand trial. The prosecutor and the defense attorney stepped up to the judge and conferred. They decided he was unfit to stand trial, which infuriated him because he wanted to have a big show and be crucified on national television. He still had some of that in him, and I had the feeling it was not going to be good for him, nor the film, if we maintained contact.
You talk about writing with Golder, but I think of you as a filmmaking warrior who ventures into the battlefield, armed with a camera. It’s hard to picture you cozying up with a word processor and banging out a screenplay. What’s your writing environment like?
It can be anywhere. I don’t have a writing environment. [laughs] I don’t need seclusion in a cabin in the forest. I wrote the screenplay for “Aguirre” on a bus with my rowdy soccer team. We had two barrels of Bavarian beer for our hosts. One and a half hours into the trip, they started to taste the beer, and then drink one of the two barrels. They were all drunk and hollering and chanting obscene songs, and I wrote my screenplay on a typewriter on my knees. I can focus. Herb Golder had spent years investigating and saying he was going to write a screenplay, but he didn’t do it. I said, “Let’s sit together for a week, and we’ll do it.” In four and a half days, we had it.
This is definitely not a traditional horror film, and I know you’re not really a film buff, but are there any horror flicks you’ve enjoyed?
I haven’t seen many, but I’ve seen one that impressed me. The first “Halloween,” by [John] Carpenter, is a very fine movie. [I liked] the simplicity of it. I remember the scariest shot in the film: you saw down suburban streets, houses left and right, shady trees, and far in the distance, a man crosses the street and looks towards you. You have the feeling: “Is he wearing a white mask?” And he disappears. In context with everything, it was so scary that I still remember the moment.
Michael Shannon’s performances always have such a strange and intense energy. What is it about him that makes such a compelling image on screen?
That’s hard to explain, but I can see a great talent like him from miles away. I actually cast him well before he had the Academy Award nomination, and I said, “Mike, you have to shoulder the leading character of my new film,” and he said, “Yeah, okay, let’s do it.” In order to warm up to each other, I invited him to join me on the set of “Bad Lieutenant,” where he plays a small part. I said, “It would be nice if you could see how I’m functioning, how I work.” That was very good.