Interview by Johnny Messias
Werner Herzog has some of the best anecdotes and apocryphal tales you will ever hear in film land. He threatened to shoot hall-of-fame-lunatic, Klaus Kinski if he left the movie location on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). He hurled himself into a cactus patch to placate a cast of stressed-out dwarves on Even Dwarves Started Small (1970). Plus, he was even shot by a sniper while conducting an interview with a BBC journalist. All true, but these tales, perhaps trivialise a film maker with rare skill and a true commitment to his craft. His film work criss-crosses documentary and fiction, often dealing with exceptional and driven characters and recently taking him to all parts of the globe with his interest in the natural world (in films like Grizzly Manand Encounters at the End of the World).
Rescue Dawn is based on material that had a previous life as a documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, in 1997. Herzog himself met (and became friendly with) this extraordinary man, German-born, US Air force pilot Dieter Dengler who survived the prison camps of Laos and incredible hardships in the scorching jungle, in the late 60s. His documentary captured aspects of the story but Herzog always felt he had “unfinished business” with this particular tale. He talked about a feature film version with Dengler (who died in 2001) but this only came to fruition recently for the production of Rescue Dawn, (his first entirely English screenplay) with Christian Bale in the lead role; an actor Herzog calls, “the best of this generation.”
The German Director was in London recently to talk about Dengler, Rescue Dawn and why he identified with this man with “all the qualities I admire in Americans; frontier spirit, optimism and loyalty.”
Close-Up Film: Was Christian Bale the obvious choice to play Dieter Dengler, after his weight loss antics in the Machinist?
Werner Herzog: Christian always said “Let’s not make a big fuss about this,” he didn’t want to end up [in] the Guinness Book of World Records because of starving himself. Of course in The Machinist he lost much more but what we did was significant and it’s visible for an audience that by the end of the film he has really lost quite some weight. It only shows the dedication and professionalism of everyone involved.
CU: What other qualities did you see in Christian Bale for the role?
WH: I have a simple answer: he is the best of his generation. I worked with the best of their generation including Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. I was blessed. And with Steve Zahn, nobody expected anything like this from him because he has been mostly the funny sidekick in Eddie Murphy movies!
CU: Where did you find those extraordinarily characters who played the prison guards?
WH: Most of them are people from hill tribes that you would find in Laos and also in Burma. Most of the guards were stunt men; the little one “Crazy horse” was doing all those flips, and he did them so well that I said you have to do it in the movie! Otherwise we used people in the village that were carefully selected and cast. We liked them all there, including the dog. I don’t know how many times I shot before he walked into shot on his hind legs. Those are the joys of daily work.