Werner Herzog Interview
Werner Herzog Interview
Did you intend to make part of the film devoted to the town? Because I love the way it's edited, I love the way it segues into stories like the guy who got stabbed in the ribs and went back to work.

Werner Herzog

A screwdriver fifteen inches long through his entire chest!
Did you intend to tell those stories as well?

Werner Herzog

Yes, I wanted to understand the environment, I wanted to understand something about Texas. I'm not into Texas bashing. And this young man is totally heroic. You see here his friend throws a knife at his feet, the most legitimate case of self-defence and he doesn't pick up the knife. And also what I find very heroic is he learns how to read and write in prison as a grown-up young man. It's a phenomenal achievement.

And I really like the young man, I mean, you can tell how I connect to him and how he shows his tattoo, 'Bailey' and his girlfriend, he has a child with her and just, really – he has a lot of humour by the way, as well. And the environment and the dark side of Conroe, Texas, which is north of Houston, was very fascinating for me.
You mentioned Death Row starting on Channel 4 [a series of films, interviewing death row prisoners]. Can you talk about how that came about in conjunction with Into the Abyss?

Werner Herzog

Originally I planned to do Into the Abyss but there should be a variety of death row inmates all in one film and it immediately became complicated and the case of Perry and Burkett immediately emerged without much planning as something so powerful and so intense that it had to stay a separate, unique story, a big tapestry of a Gothic America. [Laughs] The big Gothic Americana! And since I had had contact with other death row inmates, I immediately decided, 'No, they should be shorter films,' very precise portraits of these inmates and it should be much shorter films. And I made four.
Perry, eight days before execution, still had hopes that there would be last moment clemency by the governor...
So in terms of sequence order then, had you already filmed Into the Abyss and then moved onto the others?

Werner Herzog

It overlapped and it also overlapped with my editing of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. And it overlapped with other events, like I was acting in a film, playing a villain and I ran my own rogue film school and I started a big installation for the Biennale, for the Whitney Museum, which is called Hearsay of the Soul. So there were quite a few things overlapping but for me it was very easy to keep things separate, for me it was always clear [that] Into the Abyss is such a huge story that it should be just one film, there was not even an attempt to mix other things in it.
Do you think it's possible to change people's minds [with a film like this]?

Werner Herzog

It's probably able only to change basic perspectives. Films otherwise are pretty powerless. You see, capital punishment has to be dealt [with] in different platforms. Microphones are the right tool, I guess. Speakers, Parliamentarians, rallies of many, many people. So that's going to bring some change.

And of course my attitude towards capital punishment is clear, I make it clear in the film without making a big fuss about it and I do believe there’s something very clearly subversive about it – a state, under no circumstances, should be in a capacity to kill anyone off with no reason whatsoever – the only exception would be warfare. But there are pacifists who would even exclude warfare from the possibilities of the state. There shouldn’t be euthanasia, there shouldn’t be genocide, there shouldn’t be capital punishment, and women shouldn’t be ordered to have abortions, for example. A state must not be in a capacity to kill anyone, period.
Linking back to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you said you were editing that while filming this. Is there a similarity between the two films in terms of looking into the soul of humanity – was that a conscious choice?

Werner Herzog

No, no, certainly not. It dawned on me later on that Into the Abyss could have been the title of many of my films. I had a controversy about the title, there were voices who wanted to have the title [changed to] The Red Camaro [laughs] and I said, “No, we are not advertising a car - what does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not evocative at all. This is not going to be the title. I reserve the natural right to give it the appropriate title.” And all of a sudden, it dawned on me that it should be Into the Abyss, which has been accepted by everyone now. At least a dozen of my films could have been called Into the Abyss.
You say upfront in the beginning of the film that you’re not pleading for their particular cases, but was there a sense that they thought it could be a possibility - that something they said on film would be heard by people involved in their case? Had they seen [Errol Morris'] The Thin Blue Line for example?

Werner Herzog

The Thin Blue Line was an issue film, where the only purpose was to get this man off death row because he was apparently innocent – very legitimate, and a very fine film. I really like Errol Morris’ film, but that is a very different movie. In my case, there was no reason to try to exonerate anyone - the film doesn’t make any deal about guilt or innocence and in writing I told everyone that this film will not serve as a platform to prove innocence. For that, they had very good lawyers and other ways to do it - support groups, the innocence project. Perry, eight days before execution, still had hopes that there would be last moment clemency by the governor, and Perry, at that time, still had an ongoing appeal.

I did not want to insist on the amount of guilt; there are two confessions by Perry, one actually taped, so detailed that only the perpetrator could have had that knowledge. Besides when the two young teenagers were subsequently murdered after the mother was murdered, there was a young woman present that witnessed it - and so on and so on. So I didn’t want to make them look too bad ahead of facing the appeal panel.
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Content updated: 27/06/2019 15:34

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