For Werner Herzog, filmmaking has always been a life or death pursuit. The 69 year old director nearly died at least five different times making his 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo” — and that was just one movie in an almost forty year career! When you ask Herzog “How’s it going?” at the start of an interview and he replies “Well, I’m still alive,” it’s not just a cute line; it’s a personal accomplishment.
The struggle for survival in a mad world is a prominent theme in a lot of Herzog’s work and it’s crucial to the director’s latest film, the documentary “Into the Abyss.” Herzog travels to Texas where he interviews the survivors of a horrific triple homicide. He speaks with the victims’ families, reverends, and even convicted killers, one of whom, Michael Perry, was scheduled to be executed just eight days after Herzog’s visit. The subject matter — an unthinkable and pointless crime and the grim business of seeking justice through an execution — is dark, but Herzog sprinkles the story with what he describes as glimpses of hope: a woman who has found love with one of the convicted murderers, a former death row guard rejecting his old job because it made him unhappy. No wonder Herzog subtitled the film “A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life.”
Our conversation about “Into the Abyss” covered both topics: we discussed Herzog’s interest in Perry’s case and in the death penalty in general (he is currently working on a four-part television miniseries on the subject), as well as the mysterious nature of love and the pleasures of shooting a film in Texas. We wrapped things up with just a couple minutes on his upcoming acting work as the villain in Tom Cruise’s “One Shot.”
Were you looking to make a film about the death penalty for a while or was it this particular story that appealed to you?
Well I have been in contact with many men and one woman on death row. I avoided the average murder cases, where somebody robs a bank and there’s a shootout and a guard at the bank is killed and then they end up on death row, because there seems to be an aim or purpose to robbing a bank: getting the cash. In the Perry/Burkett case, what was so staggering was the amount of senselessness. And that really frightened me and drew my attention.
In making “Into the Abyss” you seem to have upended two of the biggest conventions of documentaries about the death penalty. First, they’re almost always about people who are very clearly innocent, and they detail how there’s been a miscarriage of justice–
Yeah, I’m not interested in this business. In our case in “Into the Abyss” you cannot really much argue innocence or guilt. A court of law has decided and a jury has decided and the evidence is overwhelming beyond the two confessions which were very detailed with knowledge only the real perpetrator could have. The film doesn’t really go deep into that, it’s not the business of this movie.
Exactly my point. It’s not about proving someone’s innocence, and it’s not about the other big death penalty documentary convention: trying to get someone’s wrongful conviction overturned. You interviewed Michael Perry eight days before his execution: there was no way you could have saved his life even if you wanted to.
I told the inmates right away: “This films is not going to serve as a platform for proving your innocence. Do you still want to talk to me?” I’m straightforward with Perry, who I knew would die within eight days. I tell him within the first 120 seconds of talking to him, “Destiny hasn’t handed out a good deck of cards to you. It doesn’t exonerate you and besides, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to like you.” After less than two minutes, it could have been the end of the conversation.
Were you worried it might be?
No, because if he had stopped the conversation, okay. But he should know my position, and they know if you’re a phony from miles away. They all like me for being so straightforward with them. Every single one wanted me back, not a single exception.
My favorite character in the film is Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, who fell in love with and married one of the convicted killers while working on his case. In the film she describes how she was convinced that her love for her husband was real when she saw a rainbow and took it as a sign.
Yes, a sign that he was innocent and that she belongs to him. Well, she had fallen in love. That was one thing. And all of a sudden a sign like full rainbow from the prison toward her. Some portents still carry significance to a man or a woman in the 21st century.
Have you ever done something in your life based on something you witnessed and interpreted as a sign?
[laughs] No. But I find it a fascinating concept. Unfortunately we have lost it from our everyday lives since the late Middle Ages or so. But of course in antiquity, beautiful signs could decide the course of a whole military campaign and change the course of history.
When you’re talking to Melyssa you also bring up the subject of death row groupies — women who are strangely drawn to these convicted murderers. That is such a fascinating concept.
Yes, but in a way, Melyssa doesn’t count herself among them. She’s too intelligent and articulate. And a groupie would not practically work for the legal papers of an inmate for more than two years before she even sees him. If you’re a groupie, you’re just out for fornication, period.
She’s certainly not in this category. But it’s all so mysterious. Something about love is mysterious. How does it work? How does it all of a sudden have you in its grip? How is it that a man and a woman recognize they belong to each other no matter what? So there’s lots of mysterious things about destiny, love, things that we can never understand fully.
When you’re looking for a topic for a film, are you looking for those elements, or are those sorts of mysteries happy accidents?
I’m a filmmaker and I’m a storyteller. I have my focus and I pursue things. I want to look deep into human beings, otherwise I would end up with 300 hours of mediocre footage, all small talk. I’m not into that. I’m not a surveillance camera in Wal-Mart, absent and unobtrusive, less than the fly on the wall. No, I’m a filmmaker. And I accept my duties as a filmmaker. And in a way, I’m good at what I’m doing.
What do you think about Texas? Did you enjoy being there and shooting the movie there?
Yes, I like Texas. I’m not in the business of Texas bashing. You hear this ugly term “the flyovers.” “Oh, this is all mid-America, they are the flyovers.” It is very, very ugly. I do not accept it and I speak up against it. Whenever I hear this term, I voice my outrage because you find some of the best of the best in middle America. Like Fred Allen, the former captain of the tie-down team [and interview subject in the film]: it can’t get any better. That’s what I like to see in America, men like him. Phenomenal integrity and such a big heart.
In “Into the Abyss” we hear your voice but we never see you onscreen. In other documentaries, like “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” you appear as a character in the film. What determines the decision whether appear on camera?
When I am on camera, it is because it is inevitable. In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” we had to line up on a 2 foot wide metal walkway and you could never step off it because on the ground you had fairly fresh tracks of cave bears who, as a species, became extinct 25,000 years ago. You just don’t trample with your boots on that. So it became inevitable that the crew working became visible once in a while because you can’t step behind the camera and hide. This is the only reason you see me.
You would prefer it if you were never seen in your documentaries?
Yes, but of course I do commentaries, written by me and spoken by me. In “Into the Abyss” it didn’t feel right to have a commentary at all. So I do the discourses; you hear my voice, you never see me. In a way, the substance of a film dictates the form. So it’s very natural that there’s no commentary in “Into the Abyss.”
Is there something you hope audiences take from this movie?
You never know exactly, but it’s good for the movie and good for the audiences that there’s no commentary and you hear only the voices of the people involved as victims, families, tie-down man, you name it.
And now you’re working on a television series on the death penalty?
Yes, four hourlong films.
As you speak to these convicts on death row, is there something they all have in common?
I haven’t spoken to too many, but they are very different individuals. People tell me all the time, “They are monsters. They shouldn’t even have a trial, just shoot them,” or something like this. No, I respectfully disagree. Firstly, due process is a phenomenal achievement of civilization and we should not let it go down the drain. And secondly, I do understand the crimes are monstrous. But the perpetrators are always human beings. And I treat them like human beings.
Before we’ve got to wrap things up, I want to talk to you about your upcoming role as the villain in Tom Cruise‘s “One-Shot.” I’ve always enjoyed you as an actor.
Yes, thank you.
Do you get offered a lot of acting roles or is it a rare thing? I’m always hoping you’ll do more.
I have done quite a bit, but a lot of it is with my voice, like as a character for “The Simpsons” or a plastic bag in a film by Ramin Bahrani. And I’m good at that. For example, I did a reading of a children’s book for grown ups called “Go the Fuck to Sleep” which I never planned to do but my friend who runs the programs at the New York Public Library kept telling me “Please, please, just for this!” So I finally said yes. In the editing room we have a microphone; I did it in six minutes. Now people like it much better than the official version by Samuel L. Jackson.
Having heard both, I agree. I think you trumped him.
Well, what you have heard is only a very, very bad recording from a cell phone sitting with an audience and you hear their laughter. The sound quality is abysmal. But now apparently the publisher as a footnote to Sam Jackson’s rendering of it, wants to have mine as well.
So tell me about working on the Tom Cruise film.
I haven’t started; production started, but my shooting will start in December.
You haven’t played many villains onscreen before.
Well, I’ve played dangerous looking guys, let’s say. Dysfunctional, violent, debased. I’m quite good at that, like in Harmony Korine’s films.
I can only speculate, but probably the director [Christopher McQuarrie] and the studio and Tom Cruise have seen some of my acting. Otherwise you don’t run the risk just to cast a guy with a funny accent. You can’t afford something like that in a big studio film.
Absolutely. What’s your favorite Tom Cruise movie?
I think “Mission: Impossible” is impressive.