INTERVIEW BY JESSE PEARSON
PORTRAITS BY JERRY HSU
The life and career of Les Blank each deserve to have a book or three dedicated to them, not just a puny interview in one issue of one magazine. But that’s all we have to offer right now, and so we humbly present for your perusal this talk with one of the most original documentary filmmakers since filmmakers first started documenting.
We chose to focus mostly on three films of Blank’s that are especially compelling to us. The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1969) is an up-close portrait of the legendary bluesman, shot at his home in Texas with an intimacy and a looseness that makes you feel like you’re just another one of Lightnin’s cronies. Hot Pepper (1973) brings the same treatment to the Creole musician Clifton Chenier and his circle of friends and family. It can make you long for the bayou even if you’ve never been within 1,000 miles of it. And then there’s Burden of Dreams (1982), which is Les Blank’s legendary on-set documentary of the violent, chaotic, and insanely life-affirming Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo. From angry Indians to deadly river rapids to the tantrums of Klaus Kinski and the diatribes against nature of Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams is one of the greatest testaments that man has produced in praise of the courageous making of art.
We also threw into this interview some stuff about Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), which is self-explanatory, the Appalachian mountain musician Tommy Jarrell, getting arrested for marijuana possession in the Deep South in the early 70s, and more. To borrow the title of one of Blank’s movies, he has truly led a well-spent life.
Vice: You didn’t set out to be a filmmaker, right? It wasn’t a childhood aspiration for you.
Les Blank: I wanted to be a fisherman or a professional football or baseball player. But I developed this keen interest in biology in the ninth grade.
Yeah, I got interested in snakes, critters, and reptiles. I started reading about people like Raymond Ditmars, the curator of the Bronx Zoo. And since I grew up in Tampa, Florida, I became friends with the circus that wintered there.
What a dream for a kid.
I got to be friends with the people who ran the reptile tent, and they gave me a quarter apiece to trap live rats for them to use as food.
How old were you when you were doing that?
Thirteen or so. And then my brother had become a heart and lung surgeon, and I was very influenced by him so I thought, “Why not become a brain surgeon?” That was the direction I was heading when I went into college.
At Tulane University in Louisiana, correct?
Yeah. But then I flunked chemistry.
Yeah. You see, I’d gone to an all-boys boarding school back before co-ed was the way to go, and I was very, uh, pent up by the time I got to New Orleans. And that was a place that was full of temptations, to say the least.
In the French Quarter, the bars had no keys to their front doors because they were open 24 hours a day.
What year did you arrive in New Orleans?
1954 or so.
And you were only 18 or 19 years old, I guess?
Probably 18. And they also had rhythm and blues, or black people’s music, that I became very interested in—people like Little Richard and Fats Domino.
That sounds great.
A lot of those people lived in New Orleans then. I could go down and see them in the bars or they’d come out to the campus, to the fraternity houses, and play their music. So with all the partying, my studies sort of fell by the wayside and I failed chemistry. Without chemistry, you can’t go very far in the sciences.
What did you move on to?
Ever since I was a kid, I liked reading a lot, people like Joseph Conrad. I started getting interested in becoming a writer, so I wrote stories and poems and tried to get them published in the top places. It didn’t occur to me to go to the local literary magazine, the French Quarter. I went to Harper’s Bazaar, Atlantic Monthly…
…and I didn’t understand why they would reject me.
What sort of writing were you doing? Was Joseph Conrad an inspiration?
These were poems that were sort of an imitation of him and Ernest Hemingway. By the time I was a senior with a pile of rejection slips, I thought, “Well, if I can’t make it as a writer, I better learn how to make a living. I’ll go to graduate school and learn how to teach.”
A noble enough plan.
I got into graduate school in Berkeley, but I felt so hemmed in by the rigors of academia. In one class, we were just studying the rhyme schemes of Milton’s poetry. It was too dry and dull for me. It didn’t touch the part of me that wanted to be touched by the study of literature. So I dropped out after a few months. I was also having some personal problems with a failed marriage and, uh, fatherhood.
So it was a tumultuous time.
Very. I found myself unable to get a job. The cheapest insult came when I went in to try and be a bill collector. They insisted that I take an intelligence test, and I said, “Well, OK, if you want.” I failed it, and then I got so distraught by having failed this Mickey Mouse test. I thought maybe all the anxiety and depression were affecting my brain cells and that really got me depressed. And then I saw a big billboard that had a picture of a knight in armor on a charging stallion. It was reared up and he had his sword up on high.
I think I know what’s coming here.
And behind him was a fighter jet flying along and it said, “College graduates, be the gladiators or the crusaders of the future,” or something like that.
There you go.
“Come and join our naval air program, become an officer, and fly your own jet.” So that, to me, seemed like something curious to do. I went by their office and took their intelligence exam and I passed with flying colors. They asked me to come back and take the physical, which I passed, and then they asked me to come in for the interpersonal interview. I thought, “Well, I have no hope of getting past this.” But they probably liked the fact that I had all this trouble with the police during my New Orleans days.
What sort of stuff are we talking about?
I would find myself overindulging and doing stupid things like destroying public property and refusing to move on and—
Yeah. Fighting, too. Anyway, I had a long string of these things, and the military was intrigued. “We like our pilots to be full of piss and vinegar,” they said.
I’ve heard that. They look for rebels.
Then one of the officers found out that I had played football for Tulane and it was like, “Well, that’s it. You’re in.” They gave me my orders. On the way to flight school in Florida, I passed through New Orleans. I called a friend of mine who was in the theater department at Tulane at the time. We went out and had some beers and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I’d just seen this movie by Ingmar Bergman. It really turned me on, and I would like to do something like that but would have no idea where to begin.
Which Bergman film was that?
The Seventh Seal. It had just come out and I’d never seen anything quite like that. So I told this professor friend about wanting to get into film and he said, “Well, we have a brand-new program that just happens to be starting next semester that offers an MFA in playwriting.” So I applied to the theater program with an emphasis on playwriting. You could learn to write plays and then maybe you could write screenplays, and then you could work with actors. I thought, “That sounds like fun,” and so I told the navy I wasn’t coming.
Simple as that?
Yeah, at that point, it was. I had not sworn in. I had only been given orders. I was on the way to follow the orders but I had not sworn in. So I came within a couple of hours of becoming a navy pilot.
That could well have saved your life.
This was right between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, so yeah.
Did that playwriting course work out for you?
I took to it like a fish to water. I really enjoyed theater and acting. I wrote some one-act plays and a three-act play for my thesis. And then my professor friend wrote me a glowing recommendation to both UCLA and USC for film school. I was accepted by USC with a full-tuition scholarship.
I went there for two years and then they wouldn’t renew my scholarship for a third year. My second wife was pregnant and that kept me out of the draft, but it also kept her from working. I had to find some way to bring home the bacon.
So I went looking for work using whatever skills I had, and I ended up working for nonfiction industrial-educational filmmakers around the LA area. I learned the rudiments of making nonfiction films under real conditions—how you get your exposures, how you get enough light. With 16-mm film, you have to pump in a lot of light. I was directing and shooting and doing sound recording if necessary. Then I’d edit it all and do the postproduction sound, the sound mixing, and cut the negative. So I got a good feeling for how everything goes together.
Wow, you were really soup to nuts on these things.
Click to enlarge I’m going to jump forward now because I’d really like to talk about one of my favorite films of yours—The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins. How did you find out about Lightnin’?
There was a folk-music club in LA called the Ash Grove. I saw blues singers there like Lightnin’ and Bukka White. And then there was this young man I had met when I was doing an industrial film in Texas on the manufacturing of oil pipes. I got invited to an art opening and he was there. I told him what I did and he said he wanted to get into films. I said, “Come out to LA, I’ll put you to work as my assistant, and my boss will pay you.” So he learned how to do what I was doing. He would go to the Ash Grove with me. One night he said that he knew someone back in Texas who had a music studio who knew someone else in whom Lightnin’ trusted. And he also said that because his father considered him a complete flake and a hippie dropout, he was always trying to bug him to do something with his life. Now, his father was a well-to-do manufacturer of ladies’ shoes.
Ah, so there was some money there to get a movie done?
The old man loaned him $5,000. And this was in 1967.
So that was a good amount.
I guess it’s about 15 grand today. So we went backstage when Lightnin’ was playing, and we took a 16-mm projector and a print of this film about Dizzy Gillespie that I’d worked on. I told Lightnin’ that I wanted to do a film on him and he said, “How much money do you boys have?” I said, “Well, we have $5,000.” He said, “Well, that would be just fine. Hand it over and you can do whatever you want.” So we said, “Well, some of that money we’ll have to spend for film and for gasoline to get us down to Texas.” Lightnin’ finally agreed to $1,500 of it: $500 in advance of signing an agreement and $500 halfway through filming and $500 when it was all finished.
So we were off and running. We spent six weeks in Houston and because of our connections with all the flower children we had places to crash. They fed us and housed us.
Was there a firm plan in place for what kind of footage you wanted to get with him, or was it shot in a vérité style?
At first we were thinking of telling Lightnin’s story through recreating his life starting from when he was eight years old. That’s when he figured out that he didn’t want to lead the life of the ordinary black man in the South—
When he was just eight? Wow.
Yeah. Blind Lemon Jefferson came wandering through Lightnin’s town, and he liked Jefferson’s music and storytelling. Everybody told stories in those days—if you were a good storyteller you had it made because everybody would feed you and treat you nice.
So Lightnin’ figured he should spend more time learning how to sing and less time using his hoe to make a nickel a day. He left home at eight and followed Blind Lemon, carrying a tin cup around to collect money while the man performed.
I don’t think I knew this story. It’s so good. So your initial idea was to re-create this?
Yeah, hiring a kid who was eight years old and re-creating Lightnin’ when he first saw a train coming through town and started to play the guitar.
But it became kind of hokey and lyrical, with lots of pretty flowers and—
—scenery. Later on I ripped all that out of the film and just used the stuff that had some feeling to it.
It’s an amazing film. It feels like it could be a home movie made by the people who are in it. How much did you communicate with Lightnin’ and his friends during the shooting? Was it a fly-on-the-wall sort of a thing, or did you make your presence known?
Well, Alan Lomax’s brother, John Lomax, lived in Houston and he was a lover of folk music and supporter of people like Leadbelly. He agreed to be our in-between man, to serve as our connection to Lightnin’. He made a list of scenes we should include in the film, so we just went along knocking these shots off. At the same time, whenever I would see something that looked interesting I would turn the camera on it. The very first day we were with Lightnin’, I shot practically everything he said. He quickly got fed up with that.
I was wondering about that.
At the end of the day he said, “Enough.” He’d sung ten songs that we shot and he said, “That’s all I ever do for an LP, and that’s all you boys need for your film. Now give me the rest of that money you owe me and get the hell out of here and never come back.”
Oh my God!
So that’s how it ended?
Well, it almost did, but then as we were packing up our equipment and getting ready to pay him off, I noticed he was playing this card game and having fun doing it. I asked him what it was, and he said it was called Pity Pair. “You want to learn how to do it?” he asked me. And I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” It’s sort of like Go Fish or Rummy. You try and pair up all your cards. The first person to pair up all his cards wins the game and the money. And they play it for pretty healthy stakes. He took me for $60 in about ten minutes.
That was my only money. I was really upset and he thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. He said, “Go borrow some money and come back and play me tomorrow.” So I borrowed 20 bucks and came back the next day and he cleaned me out again and again. I got more upset and he got more tickled and then he said, “Well, you can get out that camera now if you want.”
He warmed up to you after he beat the hell out of you at cards.
After that, I was real careful to leave when he looked the slightest bit tired or irritated.
After you finished shooting with him, did you ever see him again?
He came to LA a few more times. Whenever he would come we would hang around. We played Pity Pair and once I actually beat him. I don’t know how he allowed that. He wasn’t too happy about it, but I still think he did it on purpose just to keep me around. I was getting really pissed because every time I played I lost.
I really love Hot Pepper, the documentary you made about the Creole musician Clifton Chenier, and Spend It All, your film about the Cajun people.
When I was in New Orleans there was no Cajun music on the radio. People looked down on it as white-trash music. But there was one radio commercial for Dr. Tichenor’s Antiseptic and they had Cajun music in the background. I liked the way it sounded, kind of dissonant and shrill.
And there was a Cajun on my football team who had a real wacky attitude about things and a sense of humor and I liked that a lot.
The Cajuns have a really particular outlook, don’t they?
A lot of them do, yeah. They have a lot of vitality, a forcefulness, and a direct approach to life. So I went searching for a Cajun dance hall and I found one and enjoyed it thoroughly. It made a profound impression on me. Then I learned that there were blacks in Louisiana who spoke French like the Cajuns and had music similar to Cajun music.
Theirs is a more Africanized version of Cajun music, with blues and African rhythms.
And Clifton Chenier is a legend of Creole music.
When I met Clifton and heard his music, I wanted to get him into this Louisiana film I was going to do, but he held out for too much money. So first I did a film just on white Cajuns in Louisiana. After I finished that film, I applied for my first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the cinéma-vérité director Ricky Leacock was on the panel. He persuaded them to give me the money to go down and do a film on just the black French musicians, the Creoles.
What was it like shooting Chenier? Was it comparable to the Lightnin’ vibe, where he had to warm up to you?
Like Lightnin’, he had been screwed over many times by white guys coming in and wanting this and that. So he let me in there and he took my money, but then he would never show up for me to film him.
How much did you give him?
I forget. It was a significant amount. We moved into a black rooming house in a little town near where Clifton lived, and we got into trouble right away with the police.
You had some trouble in terms of breaking the segregation laws, right?
Right. I wanted to be in the thick of things, and I thought, “What better than to move into the neighborhood?”
Yeah, of course.
And the white police got bent out of shape and started coming around and shaking us down.
The cops couldn’t have taken too kindly to what looked like a bunch of hippies running around down there with movie cameras.
Oh yeah, and I’d already had trouble with the police down there at the end of making the Cajun movie. I got in some trouble with the law and went to jail.
Click to enlarge What kind of trouble are we talking about?
I was caught smoking a joint in the bayou. Someone told the police exactly where I was and what I was doing—someone who had a grudge against a friend of mine.
Wow, that’s really shady.
Very. We were out there, and we’d just cooked a big bunch of pork meat and drank a bunch of beer, and we were taking a siesta, and, well, the long and short is that they rousted us and hauled us all to jail, and they booked all of us for possession of dangerous substances. All I had was some grass in a little tin can and maybe half a joint.
That was enough for them to bust me. I told the police that it was all mine, so the police let everybody else go. Then on the way to jail, the cop asked me what am I doing down there anyway, hanging around with Cajuns. I said, “Well, I’m doing a film on Cajuns. I was trying to show the movie to everybody who is in it.” And the cop said that he was a Cajun. I said, “Well, yeah, do you want to see the film?” I was remembering the story of Leadbelly, how he was sitting on death row for murder when the governor heard him sing and told the warden to release him. His singing got him off death row. I think it happened twice. So I was thinking of that story when I offered to show the film.
The cop said he would book me first and then he would watch the movie, and I said, “Why don’t you watch the movie and then book me?” But he wouldn’t listen to that. He was going to book me on a felony charge of distributing drugs because I had given the end of a joint to this guy who was there. But I told the cop the quantity involved, and I talked my way out of that. He wrote it down as a misdemeanor—possession of dangerous drugs—and he told me that the last guy from out of state who they’d caught on the same charge was given 40 years at Angola Penitentiary.
Holy shit, Angola? That would have been tantamount to a death sentence.
Yeah. So they booked me, and I said, “By the way, there’s only one person in the film I’ve not been able to find or show the film to, because he’s in jail. He wouldn’t be here, would he?” And they said, “What’s his name?” I told them the name, and they said, “Yeah, he’s here.” I said, “Can he come down and watch the film with us?” And they said, “Yeah, sure.” So they brought him down in his striped prison outfit, and all the jailers came in, and the bail bondsman—all of them came in to see what kind of movie I’d made on Cajuns. All these guys were Cajuns. So if they hated the film, I was done for.
Maybe your most important critical audience ever.
Yeah. And they all liked it. The Cajun friend of mine who was in there was whooping and hollering and laughing. The other guys went along with him, and they all enjoyed the film immensely. Then they said, “Well, we’ve got you booked. We can’t just go erase the record. Too bad. But what we can do is…” and they let me get bailed out and then they decided to build up my reputation in the neighborhood, so in case they let me out after less than a year, they wouldn’t get in trouble. So I did a public screening for the Kiwanis Club at their weekly meeting where they came with their wives, and they had lunch and watched the movie.
This is a crazy story.
The Kiwanis guys liked the movie, and they made a resolution to write a letter to the state library urging them to purchase a copy of the film so Cajuns would have something to see. Then I had to go to court, and the bail bondsman said, “Hey, I’ve got a brother who can represent you in court.” And I said, “OK.” He said, “But whatever he suggests to you, I strongly urge you to do it. If he says plead guilty, do that, because he knows best, and they’ll make sure you do easy time and get out quickly.” I was nervous about that. When people say, “You can trust my brother, the lawyer,” you think, “Uh-oh.” And when the judge said, “How do you plead?” and I said, “Guilty,” he looked at me with his steely hard eyes and leaned over his desk and said, “The State of Louisiana sentences you to one year hard labor at Angola State Penitentiary.”
He clunked his gavel on the table, and I nearly passed out. I wanted to scream, “I’ve been framed!” But a slight smile came across the judge’s mouth, and he said, “I hear you’ve been making a good film on our Cajuns.” And I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you come down here and film me duck hunting sometime?” And I said, “Well, I’d like to, sir, if I can get out of here.” And he said, “Well, we’ll reduce that sentence to only three months, and you can serve it in the Crowley Parish Prison.”
I thought, “That’s nine months off my sentence. That’s good. I’m not going to Angola. That’s great.” And then he said, “Which we will reduce to two weeks.” He said, “Mr. Blank, I want you to meet Mr. Boudreaux. This is your jailer and bailiff.” And we shook hands, and he said, “Follow me, sir.” And off we went to jail.
And you spent fourteen days in there?
Well, they let me off in eight days with good behavior.
Did you ever shoot the judge duck hunting?
No, I never did, but that lawyer and the bail bondsman, they had a third brother who became the first Cajun governor of Louisiana.
Oh, wow, interesting.
And so this all comes back to when I was shooting with the Creoles and the police were harassing us at that boarding house. My wife called up the bail-bondsman brother to say, “Hey, the police are harassing Les over here. Is there anything we can do to get them to leave him and his crew alone?” He said, “Well, yeah, you write a letter that says what you want my brother, the governor, to say for you, and he’ll sign it on his letterhead. Then you show that to the police, and they’ll leave you be.”
So I did that. I wrote this letter about what a great friend to the Cajuns I was and how important to their history my film is, and the governor had it typed on his stationery, and he signed it, and then I showed that to the police, and they snapped to attention and saluted me with that hat they wear, the big leather cowboy hat.
The sheriff’s hat. And they said, “Anytime we can be of use to you, Mr. Blank, you just call us up and let us know. We’ll do anything we can to make your experience here worthwhile.”
I wonder if this kind of story could happen nowadays. You set up the projector and show them the film, and all this kind of positive stuff comes out of it. It just seems like a different time to me.
There’s probably some parallel, I believe, somewhere. You could show it to them on your iPod.
Are the languages that the Cajuns and the Creoles speak fading out now? I love the way they sound.
Both speak a type of French, but they have different figures of speech. There’s a slight difference in the languages. They’re making an effort to revive them now. Those cultures get a lot more respect now than they did when I first encountered them back in the late 50s. There was no such thing as a Cajun or zydeco or Creole record anywhere.
The Cajuns were called coonasses, that was a derogatory term for them. They were at the bottom of the social totem pole.
Do you think that national respect for them grew because of people becoming interested in their cultural expressions, like their food and music?
Let’s talk about your work with the Appalachian musician Tommy Jarrell. How did you get interested in him?
I liked finding out about areas of American culture and history, and they had this real original kind of roots music there in Appalachia. It was sung from the heart. It was not something that someone sat down to compose to try and make any money.
Yeah. I love that music.
Tommy Jarrell was more or less brought to me on a platter by a woman named Cece Conway, who was an English teacher in the university system in North Carolina. She was partnered with Alice Gerrard, who at the time was married to Mike Seeger. Both of them are professional folk singers. Mike grew up in Washington with his father and mother, who were musicologists. His half brother is Pete Seeger.
They asked me to come and help them make a film with Tommy Jarrell, who they’d been researching and studying for years. We went down there and we stayed in Tommy Jarrell’s house in North Carolina, near what they call Mount Airy.
I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been there.
There’s a museum there now, with a display on him, and they sell my films there.
Was he a welcoming guy?
Very. He had a sign posted outside that said, “Guests, first two days free, third day and on $35 a day.” He liked people to come and stay a short time.
How did this compare with shooting Cajuns and Creoles?
It was more familiar to me. Those people were more like my own relatives. I felt more grounded and more at home around them. The Louisiana folks were a little wilder, I thought.
I’d like to jump forward now to Burden of Dreams. For those who don’t know, this is your documentary that was shot on the set of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, which came out in 1982. You also made the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe around the same time.
Eats His Shoe was made right on top of making Burden of Dreams. In fact, making Eats His Shoe gave me the confidence and courage to follow Herzog down to Peru where he was shooting Fitzcarraldo. If it weren’t for the success and ease of working with him on that first film, I might not have taken the big step.
Had you guys known each other through some sort of a film network?
A man named Tom Luddy, who was programming films up here in Berkeley in the local art theater, liked my film on Lightnin’ Hopkins very much. Do you know who he is, Tom Luddy?
No, I don’t know Tom Luddy. This is the first time I’ve heard his name.
He’s the founder of the Telluride Film Festival.
He’s also worked with Francis Coppola on quite a few projects. Everyone knows Tom Luddy in the film business. Around the same time I moved to Berkeley, Tom had also brought Werner here to show The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.
Ah, that’s a good one.
Yeah, I enjoyed it very much. And he showed Werner my films on Cajuns and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and he liked those. So we hung around and got friendly. Over the years, Werner would come back to Berkeley, and also he would come to the Telluride Film Festival where I was showing films almost every year. Then he invited me to Germany to show films in Hamburg.
So there was a real mutual appreciation there.
Yeah. He asked me to come down to the jungle to shoot this film about Fitzcarraldo, and I couldn’t quite figure out why he wanted to go deep in there and pull a ship over a hill. Why a real ship? Why not fake it? But he persevered, and I went along and started shooting. Then the project got shut down by Indians invading the camp and burning it to the ground, threatening to kill anybody who was left around. So the project got shut down for about a year and a half.
Did you feel in danger, or was it just exciting to you?
Well, on the first day I was there we took the ship into these severe rapids, and a cameraman got all cut up. And then right after completing that, Werner learned about the—
The guy who had been shot by an arrow.
Yeah, and this was all on the first day I was there.
We went back to the camp, and we had armed guards to protect us from those Indians coming back and attacking us. A war party was getting ready to go down the river with their shotguns which Werner had provided to go hunting with. But they took those guns to go shoot the Indians with. And Werner said to me, “You’re a good documentary filmmaker. You go along with this raiding party.” I knew how he felt about courage and cowards, and I thought, “I can’t tell him I’m too chickenshit to do this.” So I said, “I’ll go if you go.” He said, “Very well, I’ll come along, too.” And so I spent the whole night not being able to sleep and just worrying myself sick. At daybreak, he stuck his head in my door and said he started thinking it over, and he thought it wouldn’t look good if word got out in the international press that he was part of a raiding party on indigenous peoples.
And he said, “We won’t be going.” So I got out of that without him knowing how truly scared I was.
So that first day was pretty action-packed.
It was like going to war. I was scared shitless.
I think that for a lot of people the most memorable part of that film is the monologue that Herzog gives on nature, specifically that the jungle is filled with violence, and that nature is chaos. Did you agree with that, or were you simply documenting it?
I thought that what he had to say was pretty extreme, and I myself thought the jungle was beautiful. I liked the lushness and the complete enveloping of everything by the wildness and by organic nature.
But I was worried about the weird bugs down there, especially the one that would crawl in through one of your orifices and work its way up into your brain, and then work its way through your brain, out the ear on the other side.
They also have that fish that swims up inside of your penis.
Yeah, and you can’t pull them out. At first I was worried about piranhas too because I like to swim, but I found out that if the river is running swiftly, piranhas have plenty of things to eat and they don’t bother something that’s bigger than them.
Was the “chaos of nature” thing a running theme with Herzog down there?
One night after an extremely hard day of shooting, we were traveling by canoe, from the location back to the camp. The air was cool and the smell of night-blooming blossoms was overwhelmingly pleasant. The stars were out and so bright and Michael Goodwin, a writer friend of mine who came down because he wanted badly to write a story about the project, was sitting next to Herzog in the boat. He said to Herzog, “Don’t the stars look nice tonight?” And Herzog looked at him and said, “The stars are a mess.” And then he started in on the diatribe that came out again in that speech you mentioned.
So he did the whole thing again for you later?
When the moment was right, I pulled him aside and said, “Can I do a little interview?” And he said, “Sure.” Goodwin led him around to something that sparked him off on that tangent again. That’s how we got the speech. And the first time I heard it, I thought it was purely tragic. But I soon showed the film to an audience in San Diego where I screened some works in progress, and people started laughing when they heard Herzog’s speech. It never occurred to me that what he said was funny. To me, it was very painful, and I felt sorry for the guy because he was driven to that point of view.
Have you had another shoot where there was a sense of danger or potential physical harm?
Oh, yeah. I was shooting in Rhodesia during the civil war. I was with an ethnomusicologist who financed a trip to go over there and record the Shona-speaking people in Zimbabwe. It’s now called Zimbabwe, and in those days it was Rhodesia. We traveled around Rhodesia recording the traditions of the mbira, you know, the thumb piano?
It has metal keys, and you pluck them, and they make a resonance.
Yes, they have a great sound.
They say that it’s the music that the gods are attracted to. It’s similar to Santeria drumming, Cuban music, or Brazilian music, where a certain rhythm will attract a certain ancient spirit.
Right. The music functions as an incantation to the gods.
Yeah. So we would find these remote villages where people could play this music, and each village had its own traditions, but they all played the mbira to attract spirits, and they drank an alcoholic beverage made from millet seed. People would dance and sing and if things heated up properly, the spirit might show up. There are usually a couple of people there who could be possessed by particular spirits, and some spirits are more desirable than others.
Did you witness this?
Yeah. I had to be interviewed by the spirits before I could start filming.
Was that purely anthropological, or did you start to believe?
I believed in the spirits after a while. Everyone else believed it so firmly that I found myself equally believing in their reality. A couple of women who were known to be transmitters for one of the oldest of the spirits—the spirit that goes back to before men used fire to cook their meat, when people were running around eating everything raw and alive—killed a bull to sacrifice to this spirit. The moment the bull let out its cry and was dying, these two women became instantaneously possessed by the spirit. They dove on the open wound on the bull’s neck. They went at it like dogs, sticking their mouths in and tearing the meat out of the throat with their teeth. And I had an urge to do that same thing myself.
I didn’t do it, but I felt strongly like leaving my camera and diving in and fighting for the meat along with them.
Wow. Did your belief in that sort of spirit world extend past your time there?
I never got over it. I’ve been friends with one of the women since then. In fact, she’s a well-known world-music performer. Her name is Stella Chiweshe.
So this is something that stuck with you.
Yeah. But anyway, you asked if I had gone somewhere dangerous. During that civil war, the insurrection was happening, and white people weren’t welcome. We actually got chased out of one place and told that we would be killed if we didn’t leave.
So I’ve been wondering if there is a subject that’s kind of been your white whale, something you’ve really wanted to do a film about that you haven’t been able to yet.
Not really. But I’ve got a couple of projects on the back burner. Like, I want to do a film about a fruit called durian.
Oh, yeah, they stink.
They stink, and they’re dangerous. They’re big and heavy, and if one falls on your head, it’ll kill you. And yeah, it drives people crazy because it smells so strong. And then it makes other people crazy, because to them the durian fruit is irresistibly attractive. They’re thought to be an aphrodisiac. Then there’s a science aspect to it. There are scientists in Thailand who are desperately trying to genetically create a variety that has no stink.
That would be good for me because those things really do reek.
Yeah, and these would also ripen more quickly than those of their competitors in Malaysia, where the best ones grow.
People have told me that if you can get past the stink, it’s delicious. But I haven’t been able to do it. I can’t get past the stink.
It’s easy. You have to do it!