Werner Herzog Talks My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done

Werner Herzog teams up with David Lynch for this harrowing true story on DVD September 14th.

The harrowing true-life tale My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? marks the first collaboration between legendary filmmakers Werner Herzog and David Lynch. The film was inspired by a young stage actor who became obsessed with a Greek tragedy he was rehearsing, eventually slaying his own mother with a stage sword. Starring Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Michael Peña, and Chloë Sevigny, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? makes its DVD debut on September 14th. To help celebrate the release of this truly unique and disturbing drama, we caught up with the iconic tsunami known as Werner Herzog himself to talk about the film, his burgeoning acting career, and the fruitful array of projects he currently has overcrowding his plate.

Here is our conversation:

It seems like a no brainer that you would eventually team up with David Lynch on a project. How did this collaboration first come together, and would you say your interests in storytelling are vastly similar or extraordinarily different from each other?

Werner Herzog: We differ from each other. But sometimes, I feel that we have common borderlines in our films. Second, you have to be careful about naming this film a collaboration. It was, in fact, a very loose enterprise where David Lynch had been a collaborator with Eric Bassett, who produced the film, for ten years. David got interested in what was going on. We were talking about making films. Going back to our voices. We wanted to make films that cost a very contained amount of money. But with the best of the best of actors. And with a great story. David got very excited. He said, "Yes, we have to do that. Do we have a project?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "I would like to support it." He pushed the whole thing. From a far distance, he had an eye on it. He gave the whole enterprise a certain credibility. That's what he gave to the production. Otherwise, he only read the finished screenplay. And then he saw the finished film.

What were David's first words when he saw the finished film? Was he pretty happy with it?

Werner Herzog: I think he loves it. I wasn't there when he watched the finished film. I was already shooting the next one. I am already two and a half films beyond My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? Labor Day weekend, I have a new film coming out. Then on September 13th, I have yet another one premiering in Toronto.

Is Caves of Forgotten Dreams one of those films?

Werner Herzog: Yes. It will be making its debut at Toronto.

With Caves of Forgotten Dreams, you will be using 3D for the first time, I believe. What drew you to this medium, and how important do you think 3D is to a film like Forgotten Dreams, where you're not just telling a story but pulling audiences into a place they may never experience for themselves in real time?

Werner Herzog: It was a very wise decision. When you see the film, you will realize that it was the only and right decision. Otherwise, I have always been a skeptic when it comes to 3D. I remain a skeptic of 3D. You should never have an entire romantic comedy in 3D. It's for something else. We are not made for seeing 3D. We are not very comfortable as human beings with seeing 3D all the time. We have one dominate eye. With the other eye, we peripherally realize that there is a third dimension. It's good that it's mostly dormant. That is my main reason for not liking 3D in cinema. For certain types of cinema, it certainly is not the right thing.

Your work most often focuses on stories that are based in truth. What fascinates you most about fictionalizing an incident that actually occurred? Do you personally believe that there is still an element of truth to this story once it is told in this medium?

Werner Herzog: Yes. There is some sort of richness inside the story that you cannot invent by constructing everything. You see many of the Hollywood screenplays, and they are complete, cerebral screenwriter constructs. They follow a very recognizable pattern. And it's kind of boring. In My Son, My Son, you never know what is coming next at you. You'll never know!

You met with the real man behind the story here. How did that meeting influence, if at all, the story that you eventually filmed? Did you find that this man's real presence had an impact on the story you wanted to tell?

Werner Herzog: No. Mark Yavorsky, who committed the murder, who killed his mother with a sword...It was actually a stage prop sword from the staging of a Greek tragedy...He was actually found unfit to stand trial. Which really enraged him. He wanted to be crucified live, on national television, for his deed. He was that crazy. He was put away in a maximum facility prison for the criminally insane. He was released after eight years, and I met him in a trailer park, near Riverside, in California. The moment I saw him, and he opened that trailer, and it was filled with memorabilia, and in one corner there was a poster of Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog's acclaimed 1977 historical adventure drama) built like a shrine with a burning candle in front of it. I shrank back into Herbert Golder. He co-wrote the screenplay, and he had come with me. I said, "Let's get out of here. This does not look right. Lets move away across the state for two hours. Or three hours." We had a very interesting conversation after that, but it was clear: Stay away from him! Do not imitate him. I made it clear to Michael Shannon, the leading actor in the film, "Do not study his voice." Because we had tape recordings. I didn't want Michael studying his idiosyncrasies. I told him, "We have to invent the character from scratch."

Its interesting that you would say that. Most filmmakers would have the first inclination to exploit that aspect of the story. But it sounds like you were pulling back from the more obvious, shocking elements in this case...

Werner Herzog: Oh, yes! Because the situation was not kosher. You have to have the gift to distinguish between life and fiction. Between stylization and real crime.

Included with this DVD is the short film Plastic Bag, which utilizes your vocal talents as an actor. Are you as fascinated with your own voice as many people seem to be? How do you perceive the sounds that come out of your own head? Are you enraptured when you sit down to watch Plastic Bag? Or are you nullified?

Werner Herzog: That is a wonderful little film. But, no, come on. I am not into this business. I have acted in quite a few films now. I have been in Harmony Korine's films, and a few others. Since I have spoken commentaries, and narrated documentaries, I have done it quite well. I do have the accent, but it doesn't matter. Filmmakers are increasingly turning towards me, and they want to have me as an actor. Or they want to have my voice in it. Ramin Bahrani, a very talented young filmmaker...For him, I am some sort of point of reference. I am a point of orientation. He was very eager to have my voice in his film Plastic Bag. I said, "Fine, boy! Let's do it! I will try my best!" On that note, you will also sort of see me, and hear me in this new season of The Simpsons. That is my upper thesis in popular American culture. I play a guest role on that cartoon, which will come out in February or March.

You've also narrated the Boondocks cartoon for Adult Swim, right?

Werner Herzog: Yes, I have done that also. And I think I am doing it quite well. I enjoy it. But I am not sitting there, raving about my own performance. It's a professional job that I enjoy. I love everything that has to do with cinema. That is directing, or editing, or writing a screenplay. Including acting. I truly love it.

There always seems to be this sense of naughty glee that is springing out of your narratives. It is always very pleasurable to hear. I love seeing you in the Harmony Korine movies.

Werner Herzog: I was so scary in the movie that my wife got calls. She received immediate calls from some of her friends in Paris who said to her, "Are you really married to that monster? We can give you shelter! We are only one flight away!" That was the best compliment. I thought, "Yes! I was good in the film, then!"

Are you talking about the last one? Mr. Lonely? Where you take the nuns to jump out of the airplane?

Werner Herzog: No. Julien Donkey-boy. Where I am playing a dysfunctional, hostile father who harasses his kids.

What do you personally think of Harmony's films? And what was that process like for you, heading on set as an actor?

Werner Herzog: I personally like Julien Donkey-boy better than Mister Lonely. But it doesn't really matter. Harmony doesn't normally have written out screenplays. One of the main scenes in Julien Donkey-boy, I have dinner with my family. I only knew that I had to put down my insane son, who tries to read a poem to me. When all of the cameras were rolling, I turned to Harmony, who was standing there behind the scenes. I asked him, "What is the text?" He just looked at me and said, "Speak!" (Laughs) Very often I had to invent my dialogue right then and there.

I remember going to see that in Long Beach. I believe it opened at the local Multiplex. Not the art theater. And people wandered out into the sunlight after it was over, completely perplexed, and specifically horrified by your performance. Did you find that people were scared of you after this film came out?

Werner Herzog: I am always good in parts where I am dysfunctional, hostile, and scary. But otherwise, in real life, I am a fluffy husband. Ask my wife.

Its funny, because you also appeared in a poker movie called "The Grand". When my girlfriend did the junket for that, she would ask the actors what it was like working with the great Werner Herzog, and they had no idea you were this iconic filmmaker. They just thought you were some crazy, insane German they'd found somewhere and invited onto the set.

Werner Herzog: That is such a wonderful compliment. Especially for me as an actor. They were genuinely scared of me when I did that Harmony Korine film. I remember that the crew was cringing. They couldn't believe it. I knew that it was good. I knew that I was a good actor, now!

What do you think of this age of filmmaking, where most filmmakers are remaking films of the past or returning to their own past accomplishments? Do you think you'd ever try to recreate Fitzcaralldo today? Or do you think it would be impossible to make that movie without using CGI?

Werner Herzog: I am neither in the business of CGI. Nor am I in the business of doing Aguirre: The Wrath of God 2, 3, 4, and 5. Nor will I ever make Fitzcarraldo 2, 3, 4, and 5. 8 and 9. I am always out for new horizons. I am never standing still. While we are talking to each other, I just finished a film, I am releasing a film, I am finishing a screenplay, starting shooting yet another film. I am just plowing on!

(laughs) Is the Piano Tuner a film that you are actively trying to make at this stage?

Werner Herzog: That is a very dormant project.

What are the other new projects that you are speaking of besides Caves?

Werner Herzog: One film is about hunters in Siberia. I made an international version of a Russian film. And then Caves of Forgotten Dreams, which will come out a few days later. I have started shooting a film in Texas, in a maximum security prison. I wrote a screenplay in-between all that. I just started on it about a week ago. I wrote this screenplay. It's a big story that takes place in the Middle East. It just goes on and on.

Aside from Caves, are most of these narrative films where you will have actors working on them as well?

Werner Herzog: Yes. Though all of my documentaries are, in a way, feature films in disguise.

Except that they don't have actors in them. In My Son, you actually utilize some of the actors that David Lynch is known for employing time and again. Do you find that you're wanting to go back to the same actors you have used in your most recent films? Are you collecting an ensemble yourself? Or are you most interested in going from different actor to different actor in every project?

Werner Herzog: It depends on the different projects that you have. Its not that you can just have an ensemble of different actors. Nicolas Cage andChristian Bale. It depends on the film that you are making. But it is good that you are mentioning this actress that David Lynch used a lot. Grace Zabriskie. She is a wonderful actress. This, in a way, was my homage to David Lynch. She was a Lynchian actress. I bow in his direction. This is my homage to David Lynch.

Are there any actors that you would consider Herzogian?

Werner Herzog: A young Marlon Brando. I would love to work with him.

You say you don't work with CGI, but as we saw with the last Terminator, they completely recreated Arnold Schwarzenegger. You could conceivably work with a young Marlon Brando...

Werner Herzog: No! No! I am not in that business. When I pull a ship over a mountain? I pull a ship over a mountain! I want to have the audience back in a position where they can trust their eyes again.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? makes its DVD debut on September 14th.

B. Alan Orange at Movieweb
B. Alan Orange