To Future Idiot Filmmakers Everywhere, Werner Herzog Has Some Advice For You

Herzog's five-hour MasterClass in filmmaking basically amounts to: Don't be mediocre and don't be stupid

Filmmaker, cult hero, and proclaimer of nature’s obscenity Werner Herzog has partnered with the group MasterClass to offer a five-hour course on filmmaking, using his own career as an example to aspiring filmmakers. In the hours he spends in front of the camera, Herzog walks young filmmakers through everything from contract negotiations to set rules to working with documentary subjects to lessons in filming albino crocodiles, all in hopes of guiding the next generation of filmmakers away from mediocrity and stupidity.

Herzog’s MasterClass isn’t his first attempt to guide young filmmakers away from stupidity. He has produced movies brought to him by young filmmakers — most recently The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence by Joshua Oppenheimer. He runs a film seminar called the Rogue Film School — “for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lock picking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects” — which had its sixth annual session in March of this year. He first released a book of interviews in 2003, but he has since updated it as recently as 2014, under the title Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed.

Werner Herzog was born in Munich during World War II, but his family fled to the Bavarian mountains when the city was bombed two weeks into Herzog’s life. He didn’t know what movies were until he was 11. He can still identify when a stranger has milked a cow — “I can tell from miles away, yes. Woody Allen is not ever going to milk a cow,” is maybe the quintessential Herzog burn.

He made his first phone call at the age of 17 — “you should know this because it’s so bizarre,” he says — and it was only to contact potential producers about financing his first feature film. The call worked out, but the eventual meeting was a failure. No one wanted to throw money at a teenager. So instead Herzog earned money working in a steel factory for two years and he began producing his own movies.

In his life as a filmmaker, Herzog has explored ice caves in Antarctica, wrangled Nicholas Cage, and, maybe most memorably, he pulled a boat over a manmade mountain in Fitzcarraldo. He tells stories about men cutting off their feet with a chainsaw on his sets to save themselves from deadly snake bites. He has eaten shoes and maggots. He has drunk alcohol fermented with human saliva. He walked over a field of unidentified landmines, with his crew following behind him. He once walked from Munich to Paris as an act of faith to save his mentor’s life.

Beyond illuminating his own path as a filmmaker, Herzog is blunt about what he doesn’t like. Studios relying on algorithms and market research to make movies is stupid. Shooting lots of coverage is brainless. Storyboards are the instruments of cowards. Most film schools can’t teach you what you need to know. Filmmakers who make movies to test their own boundaries are embarrassing. Never taking no for an answer is New Age nonsense.

At one point in Herzog’s MasterClass, he talks about young filmmakers in America, saying he rarely sees Americans make their own film production companies, that it’s foreign to them to build a path for themselves. Though he has described facing men at death row, negotiating border wars, and calming the madman Klaus Kinski, it’s maybe the first time in the five-hour class that Herzog appears confused.

With economic recovery being slow to affect the fortune of the recent American college graduates who might want to take their first steps into filmmaking, it’s easy to fall into the trap of waiting to make enough money, waiting to be noticed, waiting for any external sign of validation to suggest that this is the moment you should stop working to making your dream workable and just start working on your dream directly. Dreaming is important to Herzog, too — he describes what gets produced in filmmaking as the dreams we share. But if there’s any one lesson to be taken from Herzog’s MasterClass, it’s to just create, just write, just commit your dreams to more than your own mental image. If you build it, money will come; or, as Herzog puts it, “If you have an extraordinary project with a strong story, money will follow you like the common curr in the streets with its tail between its legs.”

Herzog has become kind of a cult figure in the U.S. over the last decade, probably since his documentary Grizzly Man became such an unexpected success after its release in 2005. At 73, he has lived life like a character in one of his movies, a man possessed by his dreams who has traveled to the end of the world to realize them. It’s easy to follow Herzog as a fan, to let him capture the limits of your dreams in his images of dancing chickens and waterfalls running backward. To follow Herzog as a guide is harder. Contrary to his mythic reputation, in Herzog’s worldview, he is only a human being, no different from most human beings. No one starts from a place of equality, no one is immune to fear, no one is spared from rejection, but the challenge of the artist is to look straight into your fear and create anyway.