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Q&A – Werner Herzog on the Madness of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

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Werner Herzog‘s latest movie — on the heels of last month’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — takes on the motivations behind a life-imitating-art homicide. Michael Shannon stars as an actor who, following a staging of the Greek myth of Orestes, goes mad and kills his mother. Produced by David Lynch, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done isn’t the first Herzog film to feature an obsessed character, and it certainly won’t be his last, as the director explains.

Q: Would you say there’s a good cop/bad cop theme to your movies this year? Willem Dafoe as the good cop who seeks to understand in My Son, My Son, and Nic Cage as the bad cop who takes advantage of the system in Bad Lieutenant?

A: They’re such different stories and yet they are somewhat related, like all my films are strangely and mysteriously related. How, I can’t tell you. Some things never leave you, like a curiosity for looking deep into our human condition, a quest for truth in cinema. There’s always something in common. Like animals — I like to cast animals in important parts. I just love it. In Bad Lieutenant, we have the iguana. And in My Son, My Son, we have the ostriches and the flamingos, which were my invention.

Q: How much of My Son, My Son departs from the real-life story?

A: Well, Mark Yavorsky [who committed the original matricide]
was never on a rafting trip in Peru, although Peru was only a second
choice for me. I originally planned to shoot it in the western edge of
the Himalayas, because there’s one river there that’s the most
violently raging mass of waters, and if you try to kayak that, you will
perish. But it was unwise to go to Northern Pakistan, so the next most
violent raging river I knew, from shooting Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, was the Urubamba in Peru.

Q: You met with Mark Yavorsky before he died. What was he like?

A: I could immediately tell this man was not really right in the
head. He had spent eight and a half years in seclusion for the
criminally insane, and now lived in a decrepit little trailer. And in
one corner, he had built a shrine to Aguirre, with crosses and
burning candles, and I thought, “This doesn’t bode well.” I felt
talking to him might still be dangerous, so that was the first and last
time I met with him.

He was still completely enraged that his trial didn’t take place
because he was decided to be incompetent. But he wanted to stand trial.
He wanted to be condemned. And he wanted to be crucified on national
television. And this idea was still lingering in his head.

Q: Why not include that? 

A: It would have been unwatchable. The beauty of filmmaking is
that I’m not a court reporter or a stenographer. I don’t have to follow
everything in detail. So instead, I made some decisions where I could
invent wildly and yet still get to the real substance. To me, the more
fascinating element was this anonymous fear creeping up at you. It’s
not a regular horror movie, with someone with a chainsaw. It’s more
subtle because you can never name what makes it scary.

Q: You never seem to want to call any of your characters insane, even if everyone else does.

A: The difficulty with that starts with the definition of
sanity. People say, “You have characters who look demented,” but I can
only say that I am personally sane, perhaps the only clinically sane
person in Hollywood. My fascination is more like looking into the deep
abyss of the soul.

Q: Looking into that abyss can have very different effects on
different people. Ian Curtis of Joy Division committed suicide shortly
after seeing
Stroszek; David Lynch took inspiration from the film while shooting The Elephant Man.

A: I didn’t even know that! David never spoke about it! But it’s
a tricky question about the other case. I’m fairly convinced that a
film does not drive anyone to suicide, and there must have been some
deep personal worries inside this man. But it is something strange that
the last film someone wants to see is Stroszek.

Q: Is the Gertrude Bell story or The Piano Tuner next for you? 

A: Gertrude Bell, there’s no screenplay, no actors, no finances,
so it’s way too early for that one. It remains to be seen whether it
could be or made or not. And what happened with The Piano Tuner
was I was approached to do a more personal take on it. I saw a story
buried deeply in the novel that was fascinating, but it became clear
that the production’s ideas differed too far from that, so it’s better
to let that one lay dormant.

I have five or six film ideas crowding my kitchen at the moment.
They come in like burglars in the night, and either they go to sleep,
like The Piano Tuner, or I have to evict them through a window and expose them to an audience. But none are sequels.

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