Monday, February 1, 2010

"There is such a thing as the bliss of evil...": Werner Herzog on The Bad Lieutenant

Call it a twisted little demonstration of the vagaries of karma. Corrupt cop saves guy from drowning and gets saddled with chronic, agonizing back pain for his efforts. Cop is celebrated as a hero while descending deeper into corruption, gambling, gobbling narcotics swiped from the property room, cutting deals with crooks, and generally harassing, threatening, and soliciting sexual favours from civilians. Plus, he’s a total showoff. But then, just when it seems things can’t get any worse, that he’ll never crawl out of the pit he’s dug for himself, everything starts to go his way. Enemies are eliminated. Creditors become pals. Problems disappear. His previously flailing football team even wins a game. We’re left with the possibility that he may be reformed, though it’s difficult to tell. He remains prone to hallucinatory visions of nature, and the lure of chemical therapy never quite dissipates.

Who is Terence McDonagh? He’s played by Nicolas Cage, so we already know not to make presumptions. He’s the titular antihero of
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, which suggests that this sordid tale we’re watching unfold is just one of many pit stops along some longer road to perdition. Of course it also suggests the movie’s somehow related to Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Bad Lieutenant (1992), though connections are limited to their both featuring lieutenants, and the lieutenants are really bad. Perhaps it’s most useful to regard Terry as, above all, a Werner Herzog protagonist, a terminally marginal male, enigmatic, ecstatic, tainted with hubris, capable of violence, witness to revelations or mirages, a tormented refugee from the dark wilderness of the subconscious. Of course, this is also a cop movie, with a lot of perfectly corny generic cop movie shenanigans. The weirdest thing about The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, even weirder than it’s absurdly double-coloned mouthful of a title, is that Herzog, author of Aguirre: Wrath of God (72), Stroszek (77), Fitzcarradlo (82) and, more recently, Grizzly Man (05) and Encounters at the End of the World (07), directed it at all. Yet the result is a deliciously improbable success, a shotgun marriage of off-Hollywood exploitation and Herzog’s eccentric, romantic, doom-laden outsider art.

It’s also the marriage of Herzog and Cage, who gives one of his most captivating and imaginative performances, steeped in gleeful pathology, seemingly seized by some invisible force that compels him to do things like terrorize a little old lady in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank. He waits for her hidden behind a door, shaving. Herzog and Cage introduced the movie to a very excited capacity crowd at the Ryerson Theatre during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where both The Bad Lieutenant and Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done had their Canadian premiere. Cage played it cool while Herzog played the showman, a position to which he’s naturally suited. In that unmistakable Bavarian-accent, Herzog merrily boasted about how “Herzog delivers the goods!” He explained how he instructed Cage to “turn the pig loose,” and Cage dutifully complied. Is Cage the new Klaus Kinski? Is Eva Mendes, who plays Terry’s call-girl girlfriend, the new Eva Mattes? Such comparisons do injustice to either party, but it’s clear that this new, increasingly almost multiplex friendly Herzog has found a fresh and reliable muse for his lessons in darkness, an actor who also just happens to be one of the biggest box office draws in the world.

When offered time with Herzog I was thrilled, even though the interview would only run about 25 minutes and would be a roundtable rather than one-on-one. This meant that I’d be sharing Herzog with a handful of other writers, including some who appeared shy of legal driving age and a kindly older lady who a tendency to interject with questions that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. Herzog was utterly charming, irreverent, frequently hilarious, playfully aggressive, and occasionally evasive. It made for a surprisingly funny group discussion. The first young woman to ask Herzog about
The Bad Lieutenant got the ball rolling with an ill-advised question the director eagerly pounced upon. I think he made her a little nervous.
“How did you make this remake your own?” she asks.
“Explain remake,” Herzog counters, his eyes narrow, fixed dead on his subject. His body is motionless. “What is the remake?”
“Well it was already… Cause, I mean…”
“Explain it.”
“Cause, uh…”
“You are the one who is challenged now.”
“Cause it’s based on a film by Abel Ferrara.”
“No it is not. Explain that. How is it based on a film by Abel Ferrara?”
“Cause it basically follows a similar… It’s based on a screenplay that was…”
“It is not. What is similar there?”
“Okay… Yeah… Nothing.”
“So why do you call it a remake? Why use the term? Because it’s floating around somewhere.”
“Okay, I’ll ask another question…”
Herzog smiles and sits back and gestures for everyone to relax. “It was just a title that was owned by the producers,” he explains. “They hoped to open some sort of franchise. That is the only connection.”

I get my first chance to pose a question. I try something I’d never normally use as an opener, but the clock’s ticking. “I was thinking that the protagonists in both The Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, like many of your protagonists, are men who commit terrible transgressions yet are seized by unnerving visions of the natural world. I wonder if you see these visions as somehow being redeeming qualities in these characters, or if these visions are what drew you to these stories.”
“I don’t think in such abstract terms,” Herzog replies. “There was a good story in both cases. I didn’t really make much choice. The film projects that I do always come like burglars at night. Like a home invasion! I just get them out. It is legitimate that you ask a question like that, but there are much simpler reasons why I do it. The Bad Lieutenant, a wonderful opportunity to work with Nicolas Cage. We kept an eye on each other for three decades. It never occurred to either of us that we should work together, and then, almost at the same moment, we thought this was an outrage. We started to try to find out about each other. I stumbled onto this screenplay and that same day I got a call from Australia from Nicolas Cage and within less than 60 seconds we were in business.”
“Do you feel any personal connection with these characters?”
“I only know that both are welcome new members to my family of characters. They’re comfortably seated at the table. Your question is certainly correct even if I don’t spontaneously connect to the way of thinking.”

Another writer asks about Cage, in what way was his performance a revelation?
“It’s not a revelation,” says Herzog. “I just pushed him to his limits. Just by my standing next to the camera and lingering there, he knew he had to go for it. He knew this was not a boy-scout field trip! But I’m not one who torture his actors like Kubrick would have done with 120 takes, completely senseless. I shoot two, three times and then it’s over.”
The kindly older lady interjects. “Woody Allen likes one or two shots. He likes to go home at 5:00, he says.”
“Well, he’s lazy bum,” says Herzog. “I’m not finishing my days early because I want to go home by 5:00. I finish it because I know this is the best we could have done.”

A young fellow asks about William Finkelstein’s script for The Bad Lieutenant, noting how much it seems like Herzog’s work, especially the iguana sequences, and lines like “Do fish dream?”
“That’s all mine,” admits Herzog. “And the entire beginning. I said to Billy Finkelstein that the beginning is boring. In his original screenplay the bad lieutenant rescues someone who is suicidal and jumps on the tracks of an incoming subway train. So what? I said we have to start it completely vile and debased and evil from the first moment, so I invented the flooded prison tract and they’re betting over how quickly the forgotten prisoner is going to drown. Also, I wanted to have more substance to the relationship between the young woman and the bad lieutenant, so I wrote the scene with the pirate treasure and the sterling spoon he gives to her as if he were handing over his whole childhood dreams. And of course the iguana and dancing souls, that’s all mine. But it was a very nice collaboration. I liked Billy so much I gave him a part as a gangster. He’s the one whose soul is dancing, with the pink jacket.”
“That’s a very impressive performance,” I blurt.
“Yes,” agrees Herzog. “I make everyone good.”
Everyone laughs.

The young woman who asked the first question returns. “In the movie you see Nicolas Cage being rewarded even though he’s constantly behaving badly. Do you feel that way about American society? That bad behaviour is constantly being rewarded?”
“We must be cautious,” says Herzog. “We are into movies. Nicolas asked me, ‘Why is he so bad?’ And I said don’t bore me with conceptual questions. And he laughed! He said, ‘Is it his childhood? Is it drugs? Is it New Orleans?’ I said to him, ‘There is such a thing as he bliss of evil. Let’s go for that.’ He just nodded and understood what I meant. But don’t draw too many connections to real life and real society. This is movies.”
Another writer says, “You’ve said that fiction is more interesting than truth…”
“No,” Herzog interjects. “Fiction is more interesting than fact. Truth is something way beyond all that.”
“Yet in terms of shooting locations,” she continues, “you vastly prefer a real city with a real story to a studio where you can control everything. Is that because the fact of landscape is inescapable?”
“I’ve never been a person who would ever like to work in a studio,” says Herzog. “Working in New Orleans was quite fascinating. I think the screenplay was written originally to be set in New York or Detroit, and the producer Avi Lerner was very apologetic and said, ‘Werner, we have to look after money, could you consider to do it in New Orleans because we have these fantastic tax incentives in Louisiana?’ I said, ‘Sure, wonderful! Can it get any better? Yes, let’s move to New Orleans!’ And what I didn’t know was that Nicolas Cage was pushing very hard to have it be in New Orleans because he loves the city. He speaks of renewal or being reborn in New Orleans. Whatever he actually means by that is certainly of deeper meaning for him. You can see that city is in a way a leading character. I avoided the clichés, Bourbon Street and voodoo and jazz musicians and you name it. It’s a very bleak…”
“And good restaurants,” says kindly older lady. There is a long pause. No one knows what to say. Kindly older lady breaks the silence. “But I don’t understand bliss of evil. I’ve never felt very much bliss of evil. I’ve felt bliss of good.”
“You are speaking of personal life,” Herzog says to her with a warm smile. “I’m speaking of movies. It’s figments of fantasies. We have to make a distinction. You have probably lived a blessed life so far. The bad lieutenant lives elsewhere.”

1 comment:

Galen Milne-Hines said...

herzog... what a character. seems like an old guy really softened by years of just working really hard to create his films, as i imagine that's a lotta work and all.. its funny that he sort of turns a blind eye to the deeper meanings/concepts and just keeps referring to "The movies!" haha
cool stuff man! see ya at the ol' pound hm?