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Werner Herzog on Death, Los Angeles and Avoiding Introspection

Werner Herzog on Death, Los Angeles and Avoiding Introspection (photo)

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Presumably, Werner Herzog needs no introduction. Like an atmospheric phenomenon or a law of physics, the German filmmaker has been some kind of constant for over more than four decades of world cinema. That he continues to be a major presence in the world of film — churning out both documentaries and narrative features with supernatural regularity – certainly speaks to his uncompromising nature. But it also speaks to his adaptability – the same guy who made deranged German jungle adventures with Klaus Kinski is now making deranged American cop flicks with Nicolas Cage.

With the upcoming DVD release of his striking, impossibly strange thriller “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” in which Michael Shannon plays an actor whose experiences with the far edge of civilization cause him to go mad and kill his mother with a sword, Herzog continues his exploration of the ways that myth and banality cruelly intersect in the world. True to form, the relentlessly busy director also is about to premiere his latest docs “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” at Telluride and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” at the Toronto Film Festival. He spoke to us recently about his recent journeys in American cinema, his new documentaries, his love of Los Angeles, and about old friends.

First of all, I was sorry to read about the recent death of Bruno S., who starred in “Stroszek” and “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.” Had you been in touch with him before he died?

In February, I spent a whole evening with him. He was already ailing. I remember that he had a handful of pills and complained about his heart condition. His name [Bruno Schleinstein] is known by now. At the time we made the films together, he didn’t want his name to be revealed; he wanted to remain the unknown soldier of cinema. It saddens me deeply that he passed away.

What was he like?

We’d need 48 hours to get into that. He was a very complicated person. He was tragically destroyed in his childhood. A man with an aura of tragedy around him that is unprecedented on any film screen in the world. We’ve never had anyone like him. In a way he was the best actor with whom I worked.

09022010_WernerHerzogHappyPeople.jpgYou seem to be constantly working, and always on a broad range of subjects. Do you just stumble into these subjects, or do you have some idea beforehand of what you want to do next?

Normally, the films stumble into me. It’s not that I’m sitting there and trying to figure out from the bestseller list which book could I convert into a film. The film I just finished — “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” — was a complete stumbling of a film into me, almost literally. I went to the house of a friend, and I only stopped by because there was a huge parking spot near him. I stopped and I knocked on his door. And I see on his plasma screen there’s something playing. He wanted to turn it off, and I said, “No, no, this looks interesting.” And I ended up watching four hours of this Russian film about hunters in Siberia [originally directed by Dmitry Vasyukov]. And I thought one should make an international version of it.

The film was way too long, the commentary was not right, the music was bad. And we said, why not? And within a few weeks, I was working on this. I wrote a new commentary and spoke it myself, and got Klaus Badelt to compose music for it. There’s such wonderful material in it — it was such a joy to work on it. That’s the wonderful thing about Los Angeles. Things get done here. It’s not just people talking.

A lot of directors I talk to have a lot of terrible things to say about Los Angeles. But you’re something of a cheerleader for the city.

I moved to Los Angeles because my wife and I decided we had to live in the city with the most substance in the United States. And I do not regret it for a second. Don’t be misled by the superficial glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It’s the city with the most cultural substance. If you want to go into finance, go to New York. If you’re in the oil business, go to Houston. If you want substance, go to Los Angeles. I’m just proclaiming the banalities of tomorrow. [laughs]

09022010_caveofforgottendreams1.jpgYou’ve also got a documentary premiering in Toronto soon.

Yes. It is my film about Paleolithic caves, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” This film, I must say, has been a longtime fascination of mine. It was the first independent fascination I had, when I was 12 — independent of school and family.

So it was a long time lingering, and then I heard about the Chauvet Cave, which [has] the oldest cave paintings ever found, more than twice as old as anything else ever found. Dating back 32,000 years, a time when Neanderthal man was roaming around. And it’s fantastic, completely accomplished art. Phenomenal.

The film is going to be in 3D?

Yes. In principle, I am a skeptic of 3D, but in this case, it was the best decision. Some subjects are made for 3D, literally. You will see when you see the film.

“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” feels like something of a departure for you. It seems to take place in a very ordered world — very suburban and placid, and has a very precise, ordered style to go along with it.

I think your observation about the very well-ordered American suburbia is interesting, because it makes it scarier that this ordered world is invaded by fear and horror. And when you speak about this orderly world, it points to the film itself, because the film is so very disciplined in its narrative and structure. In that sense, you’re right, it’s like no other film I have made.

09022010_WernerHerzogMySonMySon.jpgThere’s the slow invasion of fear into such an orderly world, which makes the film in a strange way very scary for me — existentially scary. It’s not like the axe coming at you; there’s a certain anonymous, ominous fear creeping up on you in this world. That made the story more fascinating for me.

Michael Shannon’s character is like someone out of myth adrift in a very orderly, American environment.

Yes. Or someone who has an almost quasi-religious mission, who listens to his inner voices. But I think we should put “orderly” in quotes, because it goes completely wild from these spaces. I mean, we have the largest tree stump in the world and a midget on top of it. The tiniest horse in the world mounted by a tiny rider. We are going into the wildest possible corners of the imagination. But you have to have a solid basis from where you depart.

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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.

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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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