Werner Herzog Talks Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

Iconic director, Werner Herzog takes on the death penalty in his latest documentary, in select theaters Friday, November 11th

This Friday, November 11th, acclaimed director Werner Herzog brings his latest documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life to select theaters across the country. A fascinating exploration of a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, the film probes the human psyche to explore why people kill, and why a state kills. In intimate conversations with those involved, including 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry (scheduled to die within eight days of appearing onscreen), Werner Herzog achieves what he describes as "a gaze into the abyss of the human soul."

We recently caught up with Werner to chat about Into the Abyss, as well as his recent decision to take on the villain role in Tom Cruise's One Shot, and his thoughts on Bill & Ted 3.

Here is our conversation.

Werner Herzog: Hello? This is Werner Herzog!

Good morning, Werner. How are you?

Werner Herzog: Good. Do I speak to some cloud in cyber space? Or do I speak straight to you?

You can speak straight to me...

Werner Herzog: Okay. Good.

I'd rather have a conversation with you, than have you chattering at a cloud in cyber space. My first question...You make it quite clear what your stance is on the Death Penalty very early on in the film. Documentaries are too often objective and stand outside the fence, letting the viewer decide for themselves what is right or wrong. Why did you decide that it was important for the audience to know your subjective view on the subject matter before taking them down this road?

Werner Herzog: I make the statement, first of all, to the inmate on death row. He should know where I am standing. Although, he already knew through my writing. You have to write to an inmate. It's only if he or she writes back, and invites you in...Then you have to go through the next step with the authorities. But I wanted to make my position clear. Because everyone will ask. Being German with a different historical background, I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment. I am the last one you should ask, to tell the American people how to handle their criminal justice system.

This film is similar to Until the Light Takes Us in that regard. Only, it shows us how capital punishment works in Norway. Were you wanting to show the opposite side of that situation...

Werner Herzog: I have never even heard about that. I have not seen that. You are mentioning something that is part of a rekindled debate. There are several cases that have caught the public eye. Now, with the nomination for the Republican Party, Governor Rick Perry of Texas is very much pro-Capital Punishment. Of course, that has captured the imagination of the general public.

In terms of your personal stance on the Death Penalty, how did that play into the cases, or the main case, that you wanted to focus on in this film?

Werner Herzog: We shouldn't speak so much about the Death Penalty, because Into the Abyss does deal with that, in a way, but there are many subjects. It's a big tapestry of sinfulness crime. It's like American Gothic. It has many other subjects. Like the families of victims of violent crimes. They are always overlooked when people talk about crime. I think it was the sinfulness of this triple homicide that caught my eye. It mystified me. And it is really disquieting to look at the crime itself.

How many letters to inmates did you have to write before you found someone that was willing to talk with you about their crime?

Werner Herzog: That's the rules! You have to contact an inmate in writing. Pretty much everyone agreed, with the exception of a woman on Death Row. Of course, you just take it as it is...

What about the humor in the film? Are you ever shocked by what someone will laugh at? Or do you find some of these moments as funny as the audience seated around you?

Werner Herzog: Of course. Of course. (Laughs) It's good that it's not just a grim movie. You have moments of great humor in the film. I love when audiences laugh. The humor came through in a natural way. You should not forget that, for every single person that I met, I had less than one hour with them. I didn't meet any one of them for more than one hour in my entire life. So, there was not much preparation. You have to hit the right tone, right away. Of course, humor does come across as it exists in normal human life, thank god!

Is that easier for you to work in that frame of time, to have such limited availability with your subjects...

Werner Herzog: Its not that I gave myself just one hour of time! It is a prison system. It allows you fifty minutes. That is it! But, otherwise, some of the persons that are not incarcerated, I still had a very intense short time with them. For instance, the Prison Chaplain? I had twenty-five minutes with him. Then he had to rush over to an execution. You have to take it as it is. As a filmmaker, you rather have to deal with it. You have to come up with an intense conversation anyway. It was inevitable. I had to deal with it. The Prison Chaplain had to rush off to an execution, so I got twenty-five minutes in this case. You see documentary filmmakers? They always shoot way too much footage. Three hundred hours. Four hundred hours. Its aimless shooting. They don't know where they are going. I know where I am going. I can do it in short periods of time. I am a professional! I had maybe ten hours of footage, all in all. Maybe even under ten hours of footage...

I assume that is one of the reasons you are able to make two or three movies in a single year...

Werner Herzog: Well, this is the exception. (Laughs) Normally, I have more footage than that. But I know what I want to shoot. I am aiming at it. And I am focused. I can make decisions quickly. I am not just aimlessly shooting, and shooting, and shooting...

How does that work in terms of which project you take on next? You shot two narrative features back-to-back, then you did this back-to-back with Cave of Forgotten Dreams...Do you then jump back to the world of narrative films?

Werner Herzog: Yeah. There are four or five projects right now. They are not financed yet. The moment something is financed, I will jump into it.

So, sitting, waiting for something to get financed...Does that free time allow you to jump into the role of a villain opposite Tom Cruise?

Werner Herzog: It does. Because it's a small part. A really small part. I came to it because there were so few shooing days.

What was it about One Shot that drew you into the material? We haven't really seen you play a villain in a movie, unless we count Julian Donkey-Boy...

Werner Herzog: You have to look at the other parts I've done. I am alright as someone who is dangerous. I look dangerous on screen. I look dysfunctional. And violent. I do have a track record for that.

You played a heavy in The Grand. This mysterious, scary guy. The cast didn't really know who you were. And they were scared of you on that set. Is it a similar scenario with One Shot?

Werner Herzog: No! They all knew! They all knew about me! Every actor in the business knows about me!

Are they genuinely scared of you?

Werner Herzog: No! Only when it comes to acting. Then I can scare them. I take it as a professional. I will do my best, like I do my best as a director.

Where is your Gertrude Bell movie in terms of projects you are trying to get off the ground?

Werner Herzog: Look, it is not financed! Not yet! Much of that film is invented, but let's not talk about it. If it's not in the making, lets not discuss it. I have lots of other things to do. I have to finish four films, now, by the end of November. I am almost finished. Then, in January, I am running my rogue film school. There is enough ahead of me.

Who gets to participate in your film courses?

Werner Herzog: Well? You have to apply. You also have to send in a film, which I always check out. Myself. I will invite those who are most promising. We should finish this. I am getting the signals, already!

Okay. Last question. Keanu Reeves wants you to direct Bill & Ted 3. Any comment?

Werner Herzog: I don't understand that question, acoustically. Can you please repeat?

Keanu Reeves. He wants you to direct Bill & Ted. Is that something you would ever consider doing?

Werner Herzog: Who is that? Who...is...that!

Keanu Reeves is an American actor...

Werner Herzog: Oh. Keanu Reeves! Sorry. I do not understand you acoustically. This Keanu Reeves says what?

He wants you to direct his time travel comedy. A sequel to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Werner Herzog: I have not seen the first and the second. So I do not know. But, if it is a good screenplay, I am ready for all sorts of wild stuff.

Does comedy and time travel appeal to you as a director?

Werner Herzog: I have not seen these films. I cannot really comment.