Friday, 30 March 2012

He’s the man François Truffaut called “the most important filmmaker alive”, the director of Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, among others. As his death row documentary, Into the Abyss, is released, the multi-award winning filmmaker speaks to IdeasMag…

Why do you make films about people in extreme circumstances?
It’s better than making films about a dishwasher. We go to the movies to see an extraordinary story. Human beings that move us, terrify us, exhilarate us, where you can look deep into the human heart, including our own soul or heart – I don’t see this as extremes. I’m a filmmaker and I wouldn’t be interested in making a film about you having a sandwich for lunch.

Describe your relationship with the prisoners in Into the Abyss.
In normal cases it is an exchange of services; you hire an actor, you pay him money and he delivers some other goods – a performance on screen. In this case it’s not really an exchange of services, with the only exception that they have a voice they haven’t had in 10 years in solitary confinement. I allow them to be human when everyone else would tell you they are monsters, that they shouldn’t even have a trial, that they should be hung. “Hang them high” or “Just shoot them” – that’s what you would hear, and I treat them with dignity and respect. My attitude is clear: the crimes are monstrous but the perpetrators are not monsters – they are always human.

What was your approach when interviewing them?
[Michael Perry – one of the death row inmates who features in Into the Abyss] believed I was a reporter doing an interview. I said, “No I have no questions, it’s not an interview”. I said, “I’m a poet – let’s talk, let’s see where it takes us.” Of course it’s very intense; you have a limited amount of time that the prison has dictated [and a] limited amount of technical crew allowed inside.
Like in a feature film, I am good in casting. I see, “Oh that’s a person with whom I must speak,” although I know literally nothing about them. [With Into the Abyss] every single person I filmed is in the movie – with one exception, a former girlfriend of Michael Perry. She was very dull so I didn’t even look at the footage in editing.

How did you build an emotional connection with your interviewees when your access was so limited – often to less than one hour in total?
You have no time. You have to find the right voice instantly and with everyone differently. Every single [interview] has a different voice from behind the camera from my side. You have to have a way to get the best out of them – you have to know the heart of men. In a way I think I always had it, but it’s also experience, life itself, an intense life that I have had that gives you other insights.

You run a programme for young filmmakers called the Rogue Film School – what sort of things do you teach there?
Let me say something about the Rogue Film School: it’s quite wild, guerilla style. It’s an organised answer to a huge avalanche of young people who come and want to learn from me, to be my assistant. I try to pass on certain things but I don’t teach anything specific, with the exception of how to forge documents – a permit for example. But I encourage them to be self-reliant. Don’t wait for financiers to step in. Don’t waste your life. Go out and work as a bouncer in a sex club for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a feature film – you can make a feature film for $10,000 these days. And I encourage them to travel on foot, [and to] read read read read because no one is reading any more.

Do you think reading is more important than watching films?
I do not watch films on a regular basis, but I do read. Many of these young people who do not read are incapable of developing or understanding the cohesion of a big story, of something epic. They have no sense for it when you are only twittering. Conceptual thinking, the great fantasies, the separate realities, the parallel universes – they come to you in reading. I have a mandatory reading list for those who attend [the Rogue Film School]. It has nothing to do with books about films: it’s partially poetry, Roman antiquity – Virgil’s Georgics, old Nordic poetry from Iceland 1,000 years back and, for example, the Warren Commission report on the assassination of Kennedy. It’s kind of a wide list and it could be any 500 or 5,000 other books.

This interview originally appeared in IdeasMag.

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