How Werner Herzog Filmed Death Row

The director talks about the process behind his new movie, Into the Abyss

herzog camera 615 into the abyss.jpg

As a 15-year-old filmmaker, the Bavarian-born Werner Herzog stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School. That theft marks the inception of his roving, quixotic career as the director of more than 60 features and documentaries. Those include Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), a portrait of a conquistador in the Amazon looking for El Dorado; Fitzcarraldo (1982), the story of a rubber-tree baron whose plans run aground in the Peruvian jungle; Grizzly Man (2005), the documentary account of a man's life and death among bears in the Alaskan wilderness; and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3-D plunge into the Chauvet Cave in southern France, home to the world's oldest paintings. Here he discusses the inspiration and process behind Into the Abyss, his new documentary about two men convicted of a triple-homicide, one of whom receives the death penalty. The film will be released on Friday.

A PROJECT ABOUT A MAXIMUM SECURITY PRISON has been on my mind for a very long time. In my adolescence, nobody would finance my material. Nobody would have any confidence in me because I grew up fairly late physically, so my puberty was kind of late and I looked like a school child. That's been on my mind forever, in a way, and all of a sudden I thought about doing a film on death-row inmates, mostly because I was fascinated by the idea that we do not know when and how we are going to die. But they know.

I am not an advocate of capital punishment. And I'm saying that being a German, with a different historical background. Being a guest in your country I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment, period. I don't try to be didactic. I simply have a different historical load on my shoulders.

Practically, you have to write to an inmate and you have to have an invitation from him or her in writing. Only then you can contact the warden, and the warden has to give his okay, and in a way defense attorneys of the inmates also should be contacted. In one case, an attorney asked me not to have his client on camera because it might jeopardize his chances in an upcoming hearing. So I said yes, of course, this is cancelled right now. There are certain limitations.

Contacting various death row inmates in Texas and in Florida got me in touch with Michael Perry, who actually was executed eight days after I had a conversation on camera with him. So it's from his person that the idea spread out. I had the feeling that the crime was quite complex—two perpetrators, three murder victims, four crime scenes, but all of a sudden [my interest] spread beyond the crime itself. It spread to certain fascination about the chaplain, a fascination about the former captain of the tie-down team, the victims' families—all of a sudden victims' families are much more in focus than I ever thought they would be. An entire tapestry around the utterly senseless crime.

It's hard to plan and organize things. With every single inmate you have 15 minutes, and that's all you will ever see of them. With the death-house chaplain I had twenty five minutes, and that's all the time I met him in my entire life. He had to go straight to an inmate during his execution. You do not have any time to prepare yourself, to research, to establish a catalogue of topics. You have to immediately function, and you have to immediately find the right voice.

The death-house chaplain, he sounded very much at the beginning like a TV preacher. Almost phony, speaking about the message of a forgiving god in paradise awaiting everyone, about squirrels and horses and deer looking at him. All of a sudden—and this is something you cannot learn in film school—I knew I had to crack him open. And in a very cheerful voice behind the camera I'm saying, "Tell me an encounter about a squirrel." And all of a sudden he unraveled. You see, you have to know the heart of men. You cannot prepare yourself for something like this. You have to perform right away.

Of course, I should mention that there is much more deliberation later on and much more shaping, more off-the-film editing, but that is a separate phase of filmmaking. During work it's very, very intense, and editing is even more intense. Both editors and I started smoking again. Both of us could only work five hours a day on it. Normally we are regular eight-hour guys. But it's so intense. You do this work and then you are glad to be out of there and not reflecting anymore, just breathing and walking a few miles in the woods.

—Werner Herzog, as told to Alex Hoyt