Werner Herzog among the demented iguanas

The legendary German eccentric on his most American film, the dirty, profane, dazzling non-remake "Bad Lieutenant"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 21, 2009 12:21AM (EST)

Director Werner Herzog, left, and actor Nicolas Cage pose for a portrait at the 34th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri)    (Associated Press)
Director Werner Herzog, left, and actor Nicolas Cage pose for a portrait at the 34th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri) (Associated Press)

If the essence of Werner Herzog could somehow be bottled and preserved, it could make a more effective remedy for clinical depression and seasonal affective disorder than anything found in the pharmacist's cabinet. Whatever you make of the guy's movies -- a prodigious and often baffling output unlike anything else in cinema history -- he's the most irrepressibly optimistic man in show business. At one point in our recent phone conversation, he took a break from listing all his innovations and brewing projects and exclaimed in his trademark Bavaria-by-way-of-West L.A. drawl: "You name it -- it just can't get any better!"

Maybe "show business" sounds like a dis, when applied to a filmmaker who began as one of the young lions of 1970s New German Cinema (with "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Nosferatu the Vampyre"), developed a global reputation for overweening ambition (mainly "Fitzcarraldo") and then moved on to become a groundbreaking American documentarian (with films like "Grizzly Man" and the Oscar-nominated "Encounters at the End of the World"). I don't mean it to. What I mean is that Herzog loves traveling the world making movies -- lots and lots of movies -- and showing them to as many people as possible.

While Herzog is endlessly imaginative about getting his films before the public in various forms, he has almost no interest in Hollywood or its internal machineries, and also isn't much of a cinephile. When I asked him whether his grimy and delirious new cop drama "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" was inspired by the nihilistic American crime films of the '70s, he insisted that he's never seen most of those films. I mentioned "Taxi Driver" and "Chinatown," and suggested that they were relatively well known pictures, and might strike some viewers as morally, tonally and visually influential on "Bad Lieutenant."

You could pretty much hear Herzog scratching his head on the other end of the line. It emerged that he wasn't sure what "Taxi Driver" was or who had made it. "Chinatown" rang more of a bell, and I reminded him that it was directed by a European auteur even more notorious than Herzog himself. He admitted he'd probably seen that one, but didn't really remember it. American crime films from the '40s and '50s, though? Sure, he had seen them while growing up in postwar Germany.

Given that background, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Herzog has never seen Abel Ferrara's 1992 "Bad Lieutenant," which is nominally the basis for this film but has very little to do with William Finkelstein's screenplay and almost nothing to do with Herzog's finished product. For Herzog, making movies is about exploring the world and adventuring into unknown philosophical and artistic terrain. His relationship to film genres or cinema history or the other things critics love to talk about is minimal. So "Bad Lieutenant," with its memorable lead performance by Nicolas Cage as a charismatic, agonized, drug-addicted and possibly schizophrenic New Orleans homicide detective, is, as Herzog puts it, a crime movie refracted through a demented prism.

Although the story of Cage's character, Lt. Terry McDonagh, as he rises, falls and is improbably redeemed while trying to solve a gruesome drug-related massacre, is straightforward enough, Herzog leaves the genre's dispassionate objectivity behind and shows us at least some of what happens in McDonagh's mind. Hence the iguanas in his apartment (not visible to any other character), or the dead soul break-dancing on a drug dealer's carpet. Or the shot from the point of view of a bereaved alligator. (Could I make something like that up?) It's often difficult to decide which of McDonagh's failings is the worst: When he makes a date with an incredibly hot highway patrol officer (Fairuza Balk), he's cheating on his hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes) -- and then it turns out he's only interested in the jackbooted tootsie for her access to confiscated narcotics.

When I spoke to Herzog on the phone, I hadn't yet seen his other new release this season, the still more demented cop drama "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?," in which Willem Dafoe plays the San Diego cop trying to unravel the reasons why a messianic murder suspect (Michael Shannon) is holed up in his house with a pair of flamingos. If "Bad Lieutenant" is something close to a work of dirty, profane genius, "My Son, My Son" is a mixed bag, with patches of dark-comic brilliance and an uneven plot that flirts with shaggy-dog obscurantism. (It's getting a small-scale theatrical release, beginning in December, from Absurda, David Lynch's company.)

Both pictures are unmistakably the work of one of the strangest and bravest of contemporary filmmakers, a man who has combined a wire walker's level of artistic daring with a work ethic that would have made his Bavarian grandparents proud. Werner Herzog called me from his home in Los Angeles, a few days before the theatrical opening of "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans."

Werner, I know you've had some difficulty getting narrative feature projects off the ground in recent years. And you've made so many great documentaries -- I pretty much assumed you'd do that for the rest of your career. But with "Rescue Dawn" and now "Bad Lieutenant" and "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" you're a narrative filmmaker again, which must be gratifying.

Look, let's face it, in the last 10 years I made four feature films, which is quite a lot, according to Hollywood standards. But in fact I've made 15 or so [total films] in the last 10 years. It's not being back, because I was never away from it, and the next four or five projects are all feature films too. Of course there's some documentary stuff as well. Those are like home invasions: uninvited guests that I have to wrestle somehow!

You've never made a film before that felt as specifically American, in setting and tone, as this one does.

Well, no. I'm now completely comfortable making a film in English. If you look at this film or at "My Son, My Son," you would never guess that somebody made it whose first language is not English. I've settled in very comfortably, and you see I've never stood still. I've been out here looking for new horizons, new projects, new alliances with production companies, new forms of distribution, new actors. You just name it, it just can't get any better!

"Bad Lieutenant" is also an American film in the sense that it belongs to such a familiar genre. Are you a fan of American crime films ?

No. I must confess I hardly ever have seen any of them, neither on TV or in the theaters. Some of the film noirs of the early '50s and late '40s, but that's about it. I suppose this is a genre film, in a way. But you see, there's a clear stamp on it. There are things that are not in the screenplay that came into it, which I kept inventing en route, like the demented iguana or the dancing soul. I had the feeling, "Yeah, there is a certain genre here, but I shouldn't be completely docile. Just be imaginative and go wild!"

You have the iguanas and you have an alligator point-of-view shot. Do reptiles have some symbolic importance in this movie?

No, I think it's just -- these reptiles are not even visible to anyone else. When the bad lieutenant says, "What are these iguanas doing on my coffee table?" the other guys say, "There ain't no iguana!" It's just a demented sort of vision under drugs.

Nicolas Cage's performance in this movie is amazing. The character is both irresistible and thoroughly despicable. I wasn't sure whether I loved him or hated him, which may be exactly what you guys were going for.

You can see the film the way you want to see it, I do not want to dictate that. But one thing is obvious: He is absolutely formidable. Hold on, please, that's the door. A double espresso is coming to keep me awake! I'm sorry, I lost your last question.

We were talking about Nic and his character. You said he was "formidable."

Yes, you see, there's something which was guiding us. I told Nicolas that there's such a thing as, like, the bliss of evil. Let's go for it! Enjoy yourself! The more vile and the more debased you get, the more you have to enjoy it. That creates this very strange and very subversive humor.

This is another frame of reference, but you may appreciate it. He reminded me of the demons in Hieronymus Bosch's paintings of hell: He's hunchbacked, leering, with this insane gleam in his eye.

Yeah, yeah, yeah! You are the first one to mention that, but I think it's not completely far-fetched. I think there was a basic pose or physical appearance for him. We talked about it quickly, and Nicolas asked me what he should look like. The character has a back injury, and I told him, "I would like to see you with a slanted shoulder line, preceded by your gaze." Which is exactly what he does! Sometimes I give very laconic, condensed instructions, which you see throughout the film.

So I gather that when I say this film reminds me of certain of the nihilistic American crime films of the '70s, that doesn't mean much to you?

No, I don't know those films. I can tell you where it comes from, it comes from the screenplay. Billy Finkelstein, who wrote the screenplay -- wonderful dialogue and a very intense story -- has profound knowledge of this genre. He has written a lot for television -- I don't even remember the series ["Law & Order" and "NYPD Blue," among others] -- but he's a very experienced man in this field, and brought this knowledge into the film.

Tell me about the way you and Peter Zeitlinger, your cinematographer, envisioned the film. We're not exactly seeing the world from the Cage character's point of view, because he's in almost every shot. But nonetheless we're seeing the world as he sees it.

Not in all instances, but of course there's a tendency toward that. Sometimes it's a demented view. He's the only one who sees those iguanas, for instance, and of course the secret conspiracy is that we, the audience, see them as well.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but maybe we can talk about the strange scene near the end of the film where everything that has gone wrong in McDonagh's story suddenly goes right. All the narrative obstacles suddenly melt away, in about 15 seconds. It seems like a fantasy, it seems as if it can't be real. Is that what you intend?

Yes, exactly. That's very well observed. Besides, it gives the feeling and hope of a false ending, a happy ending that does not really occur. It goes into overdrive, in a way. It was clearly scripted, and it was a very good idea. We almost have a deus ex machina, which floats down from the sky and settles everything for the good. Except that it does not!

You have such a tremendous cast here. I loved all these actors: Nic Cage and Eva Mendes, of course, but also Brad Dourif, whom you work with a lot, as a bookie; Vondie Curtis-Hall, as Nic's superior officer; Jennifer Coolidge, as his alcoholic stepmother. And the rapper Xzibit [Alvin Joiner], who is just terrific as the drug lord.

I'm always very careful and cautious about casting. It's not just about putting names together. There has to be a texture, and what you probably have seen is that every single actor in this film, including the smallest speaking parts, is always at their very best. There's absolutely no doubt in my heart. And don't forget the writer, Billy Finkelstein, who plays a gangster, the one in the pink jacket whose soul is dancing. The writer turned out to be a very fine actor.

Again, without giving anything away your ending really defies expectations. I'm not quite sure what to think about it, in fact. We expect one of two possible endings -- the bad lieutenant triumphs, or he is punished for his misdeeds. And you really don't give us either one.

In my opinion, it's a very beautiful and very mysterious ending. You see, according to the screenplay, it ended with a false happy ending that became a real abyss of darkness. And I thought, no, we should not dismiss the audience like that, out into the street. There should be something vague, something poetic, something mysterious.

That's yet another way this film reminds me of both "Chinatown" and "Taxi Driver." I'm sure other journalists have brought those films up.

Actually, nobody has asked me that. People sometimes ask me about Abel Ferrara, and I've never seen his film. Now that my film is out, people can see that it's nothing like a remake. What can I say? Now, as to "Taxi Driver," I've never seen it. "Chinatown" I believe I saw, but that was a long time ago. I've forgotten that film.

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider release to follow. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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