Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Author Ben Taylor talks FITZCARRALDO

In anticipation of tonight's screening of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, BMFI Programming Intern Dan Santelli caught up with Ben Taylor, author of Apocalpse on the Set: Nine Disastrous Film Productions, via email with some questions about the famously disastrous production.

Ben will be giving a one-hour introductory talk about the 1983 film at 7:30 pm. Keep reading for a sneak peek.

What motivated you to write Apocalypse on the Set?

The real motivation for writing the book was to explore and put to paper the incredible stories behind these pictures. Some were well known, others not, but the real events behind each really reads like its own story full of difficulty, failure, success, heroes and villains. The challenges of filmmaking are so unique. It seemed that taking a look at the process, as seen through these nine films, would really illuminate just how difficult it can be. The business of feature film production is a rare one in that it sits at the intersection of art, money, and ego. These nine stories all have their own cast of very real characters and present their own unusual problems but they each share the same theme of perseverance and struggle. As a result, each was a story worth telling.

You talk about the production history of movies such as Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Waterworld. What led you to incorporate Fitzcarraldo into your book?

Fitzcarraldo was an easy and natural selection for inclusion in the book because the story of the production was one that included nearly every problem that can be encountered on a film shoot. There was the lead actor Klaus Kinski, who was at best recalcitrant and at worst insane. There was the boldly ambitious director, [Werner] Herzog, who was devoutly committed to an impossible vision. There was the harsh, distant environment of the jungle in which they filmed. There were furious locals threatening death and indigenous species that were no less lethal. Fitzcarraldo can be seen as a compendium of all the problems experienced in all the other pictures discussed in the book.

One of Herzog’s frequent collaborators during this time in his career was actor Klaus Kinski. How did Kinski’s involvement affect the already troubled nature of the project?

Klaus Kinski (in white) was so reviled on set that the natives actually offered to kill him for Herzog. Later, Herzog said that he was sorry he did not accept the offer.

Kinski was a major player in the drama that unfurled during the shoot. It’s almost as if the punishing heat and other intangible challenges of the picture took on a physical form in the shape of Kinski. It is difficult to understand just where the character ends and where the real man behind him begins. Were his on-set rants really genuine emotion or was this his own esoteric method for inhabiting the role of the no less bizarre character he was hired to play? His later autobiography, All I Need is Love, is full of hateful language about Herzog that the director later explained was all for show and in fact a collaboration on their part. Kinski was an undeniable asset to the finished product, but the emotional cost of having him on set amid so many other problems was great. Though at times he seems mad, it is also apparent that there are few others that could endure such a picture from beginning to end.

Herzog required his crew to haul a steamship across land, like the character in the film, without the use of special effects. What do you think was more troublesome, Kinski or the steamship?

The steamship seemed to become the epicenter of all the other problems. The task of hoisting the ship brought delays, and the delays brought frustrations, which in turn brought short tempers and an extended stay in the jungle. These things led to Kinski’s erratic and insane behavior which only brought the director and cast closer to a breaking point. The steamship seemed to provide just the fodder necessary for Kinski to feel justified in his hysterics, and so I believe the ship, at the center of the shoot, was the most troublesome aspect of the shoot.

This steamship was transported across this mountain by the crew without the use of special effects because of Herzog's dedication to what he calls "ecstatic truth".

What particular problem(s) of Fitzcarraldo’s production phase make it unique when compared to the problems of other disastrous productions?

In all the other shoots explored in the book you will not find one with a more difficult personality than Kinski’s. This is one essential difference that makes the picture so unique when compared to the other films discussed. Additionally there is a distinct feeling that the production of Fitzcarraldo is one that was very much untethered from the traditional studio system and thus it was controlled more locally, from its location in the jungle. Having the production and the decision making simultaneously based in the jungle seems to have invited a deteriorated method of thinking. There were no rational minds sitting in air-conditioned offices. The decisions dictating the shoot were made by the same man who believed it was feasible to hoist a steam ship over a mountain. The production resembles a prison where the incarcerated become the rulers.

Thanks, Ben!

Have some questions of your own? Ask Ben tonight at his talk, which begins at 7:30 pm, before the 8:30 pm film screening.

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