Werner Herzog on His Obsession With ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ and Eating His Own Shoe
The legendary filmmaker behind “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Grizzly Man” opens up to Tarpley Hitt about trash TV, his new Japanese family-rental film, and his legacy.
The Gummo director, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and dirtbag shades, recalls calling Herzog in the ’90s, pretending to be a rug salesman. “He would sit on the phone with me for 20 or 30 minutes, thinking I was a rug salesman,” Korine says. “I could sell him four or five different rugs and he never knew. He always takes you at your word.”
But Herzog, the same man who asked if Pokémon GO involved murder (“Physically, do they fight? Do they bite each other’s hands? Do they punch each other?”), has also spent five decades documenting some of the funnier, more bizarre episodes in human lunacy. Herzog’s humor dots his own stories—when he threatened Klaus Kinski with a gun; or rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash, then dissuaded him from smoking in the gas-drenched wreckage; or took a bullet on camera and, blasé about the whole thing, disrobed to his paisley boxers. It also runs through his work. Take Timothy Treadwell’s offbeat home videos in Grizzly Man; or the black leather boot Herzog bought, boiled, and ate in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe; or the entire plot of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Herzog’s talent for taking things at face value lets him approach subjects with a curiosity, somber existentialism, and empathy that underscores their eccentricity, without losing sight of their stakes. That’s what he has done in his latest feature, Family Romance, LLC. The movie, which debuted at Cannes last year and streams on MUBI this Friday, follows Yuichi Ishii, the proprietor of a Japanese family-rental business, as he works with several clients—playing the father to a young girl, the boss of an anxious train worker, and the paparazzo to a would-be social media star, among others.
The German director phoned from his quarantine in the Hollywood Hills to talk about Family Romance, LLC and other non-ironic interests: bad books, Honey Boo Boo, Baby Yoda. “Who is on the line?” Herzog asks on the grainy conference call. “Can you explain? Apparently, it’s a young lady.” The streaming platform’s publicist, also on the line, answers at the same time as I do. “Ah yes,” Herzog says, “I can hear both of your voices on top of each other now. Shall we just jump into it?”
Let’s jump into it. I just watched your movie, Family Romance, LLC. It’s a deep dive into human loneliness, and we’re in the middle of one of the loneliest global experiments in a while—people are in isolation for months on end. What effect do you think quarantine will have on companionship enterprises like Family Romance?
It’s a hard question to answer. But I think it will guide us to the essentials of contact. We are not going to be satisfied with 2,200 friends on Facebook, who are all virtual and whom we have never met. I do believe we will go back to the very essential persons who are meaningful to us, with whom we will intensify our contact. Of course, solitude is not only something you will find now with the pandemic, but has started much earlier. Part of it is through the internet, because our human contacts are artificial and constructed, only social media and not for real.
I’ll give you an example: a young, 15-year-old girl who I met. She had 2,200 contacts, meaning who she texts messages a day. 2,200. She was constantly, constantly—day-in, day-out—texting. Of 2,200 friends on Facebook or so, virtual friends, she may have known only 20 of them. I had not seen a more lonesome person in my entire life. Of course, aging populations, like in our society and like in Japan, add to the existential solitudes. The pandemic now adds a new quality to it.
You’ve talked about the internet as this parallel surrogate life. Do you see the relationship between Family Romance rentals and internet friends as similar?
No. But in a way, it’s the same massive trends and events in the evolution of our civilization. It’s separate rivers that are flowing together.
There’s a scene in the movie that suggests a relationship between new technology and Family Romance—when Ishii is in the robot hotel and says he wants to figure out how to incorporate robots into his business. Do you think that kind of technology could become a part of the family-rental world, that they could cross over in that way?
Well, it has already crossed over, since easily a hundred years or more. We are renting family members ourselves for babysitters. They replace a busy family member for the parents of the kids, to stay at home when you are going out to a restaurant or a movie. Of course, we delegate emotion to—not robots—but to, let’s say, the teddy bear or to dolls.
But robotic companionship is coming very big time. I haven’t seen it myself, but my wife was at M.I.T. and she saw a demonstration of a new companion robot. It was a fluffy, big-eyed little creature that could intentionally read many, many, many facial expressions, like sadness—it will sing a song to you to cheer you up. My wife says, “I’m not going to buy it,” and yet, within five minutes she is hooked. She loved that little creature.
There have been several news items about your role in The Mandalorian and how much you liked the mechanical Baby Yoda. Is that a similar relationship?
It’s a similar thing. This mechanical Baby Yoda is a phenomenal technical achievement. It is fantastic! I think it took the engineers two years to build it and construct it and refine it. It’s an extraordinary achievement. You start to project emotions almost as if it were a real creature. It’s a funny thing that, although you know it’s an artifact, the emotions are always true. In Family Romance, it’s a similar thing. Although everything is a construct, everything is a lie, everything is fake news, everything is a performance for you, the emotional response is always deep and is always right. The emotions are always right. It’s a very, very strange thing. Even though it’s all invented cases by me.
You’ve made many fiction movies and nonfiction movies. This is based on a true story. Why did you decide to make this a fiction film instead of a documentary?
Well, it is based on a true story. But in the same way Aguirre, the Wrath of God is loosely based on a true story—I mean, a historical figure. We know very little of him. But it’s a pure feature film. We fictionalized it. Family Romance is a total, utterly, fictionalized film. It’s a feature film. But it has such an authenticity to it, that even professional reviewers, like from Variety, believed it must have been a documentary. But within two minutes flat, he was like, This cannot be a documentary. Everything is scripted. Everything is staged. Everything is rehearsed and acted and directed.
It’s kind of like the family members in that way. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that, in a recent interview in The Guardian, you mentioned that Errol Morris recommended that you read this bad book about a lion tamer whose arm was bitten off. You talked about the importance of reading bad books and watching bad TV. Why is it important for you to read bad things and watch bad shows as much as good ones?
Well, because the world is full of unexpected surprises. The book of the failed lion tamer has some wonderful, deep insights, although you have to read it against its own texture—the book. I keep saying, when you are a poet, when you are a filmmaker or writer, do not avert your eyes from what the real world is. You have to know what the real world is. Watch what is going on in trash TV. When you look at Wrestlemania, it looks more truthful than what you might see in political life out there today.
Why is that?
Because I think real politics, in some of its traces, is a wilder fiction, and a wilder misleading, and a wilder stylization, than what you see in Wrestlemania. I will not name names now, but you will find it easily.
What makes something “bad” for you? What is trash TV for you?
Oh, you know it instantly. Just turn on Wrestlemania, and you know. I kept watching with a kind of shudder of horror this show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, for example. I don’t know—have you ever seen it? It’s not on anymore.
I’m familiar with Honey Boo Boo, but I haven’t seen the show. Can you describe watching it?
It’s about a little girl, 5 years old, who is appearing in beauty contests for children, talent shows for children.
What did you think of it?
Well, I thought it’s part of the real world that we inhabit. We have to know what is the world. We always try to avoid to see it. And yet it’s always out in the open. I think Here Comes Honey Boo Boo had quite a huge amount of followers as a TV show.
I was watching your movie, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and you talk about TV in the beginning of the film. You say, “Talk shows kill us. They kill our language.” Does that square with your desire to watch, to consume bad TV? Is it important to see that, or is it a different kind of bad?
No, no, I do not watch and consume, culturally. I look into, I poke into the pockets where I know you should not avert your eyes. Real discourse, real dialogue, is always very superficial on talk shows. But it has become much more superficial, when you look into social media today. The discourse on social media, the exchange of tweets, it seems like that has become much more worrying for me. You should not forget that Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe was made three or four decades ago. So it’s me, decades back, and of course, living in the world where there’s no internet. Living in the world where you start to notice that people read less and less, and are not as connected to coherent thinking and coherent storytelling anymore.
Would you say something different now if you made that movie now?
Well, I would say, adapt it to the situation now. It’s not wrong what I am saying, but it’s antiquated. It’s dusting out my ears, when I see it. Besides, the film shouldn’t have been published. Because [the director of the film] Les Blank, a friend of mine, said, Oh, I’m filming how you are eating the shoe. It’s only for the family album. And I said, Fine, if it stays within a very close circle of friends. Then, he published it all of a sudden. And I said, Les, you bastard! You published this! You owe me a bottle of great Napa Valley Cabernet! And he paid for a great bottle of red wine and we were back to friends in five minutes flat. But it shouldn’t have been published.
And why not?
I don’t know, it’s too private. If something is personal, if I’m speaking with a certain privacy of things—the act of eating my shoe is not for the public itself. It’s not completely wrong that it was published. But I’m somehow ambivalent about the whole thing. Let’s forget it. It’s out there. I accept it as it is.
Right. What are some of your favorite bad works and trash TV? You have mentioned Wrestlemania, are there others?
Yeah, there are a few others. But I don’t want to point them out because everybody will immediately think and report that I’m only watching trash TV, as if it were a portrait of my soul. The point is not that. I poke into these shows eventually, as a poet must not avert his eyes.
I ask only because I also like Wrestlemania somewhat. Wrestling is this performance where everyone understands that it’s fake, but it still communicates a basic human emotion— kind of like Family Romance. Do you think of Family Romance as a kind of kayfabe?
Yes, and it’s performative. In most cases, people know that they have hired somebody, like hiring a person for a wedding, filling in for the family that is not complete, because the father of the bride cannot be presented to the family of the groom, because he’s an alcoholic. So everybody—or almost everybody—knows that it’s a performance now. They accept it. It has done good to all, to almost all of the participants. That’s what Yuichi Ishii actually tells me, and what I have seen with real clients. A client who is a deeply solitary man hires a friend for an afternoon and they are having a great time. They even do selfies and he publishes it on the internet, on social media, to show how great a life he has. It has done good to him.
When you were researching the film, did you hire family rental members?
They are all family. All the extras are from Family Romance, from that company. They are all performers from there. So, they are not complete amateurs. They are professional impostors, professional agents, professional actors, in some way.
But did you hire someone to be a family member of yours?
Yes, did you go out and try the experience yourself?
No, but I have experienced it in my life by hiring a replacement for me doing babysitting. We do that, it’s not a new phenomenon.
Did you get a sense from research and from Ishii how long this business has been around—in its current form, not just in babysitting and so on?
Only a few years—five or six years. And it has exploded in Japan. He has close to 2,000 actors, performers that he sends out through his agency. There are parallel agencies that have become involved in Japan. It’s exploding. And it’s coming to us as well. There are signs of it coming at us.
In the film, Ishii’s work consumes his life to the point that it starts to infect his understanding of his own family. Did you find that to be the case, working with actual actors and Ishii himself, that the work follows them home?
Ishii himself, yes, acts roles. The actual boss himself acts roles. In the film, he acts in various roles, but he has self-doubts. That was my own invention. I asked him to do it. He said, Well, sometimes I think a little bit about what I’m doing. But I think he doesn’t have deep self-doubts. This one element that his confidant tells him, maybe—and this answer disturbed him—Could it be that your own family is rented by someone and they are playing a family? They are only playing roles. And this is how the film ends.
You’ve been critical of conventional film schools, and you have your own Rogue Film School. Are there lessons from having made this film that you would incorporate into that curriculum?
Yes, there are many lessons. Number one, I keep teaching how to pick a safety lock, and how to forge a document, like for example, a shooting permit. I have shot in military dictatorships and films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God wouldn’t have been made without massive fraud and fake shooting permits.
So yes, at Rogue Film School, one lesson is, if you really want to shoot a film you can make it with no money. You have to be your own cinematographer. Your actors and your collaborators have a share in the movie, so you do not have any expenses. Today, you can shoot a feature film with big-screen quality on your own cellphone. It will cost you nothing. You can edit your film on your own laptop. You can make a big film that is going to be shown in theaters for no money. I had a small camera—4K—so small, so unintrusive, that even filming in crowds, no one noticed a feature film was being shot. The lesson is, roll up your sleeves and go out and do it. Family Romance is theatrical quality, and was selected for the Cannes Film Festival in its official selection, for example. It was on big screens. Now, you can see it on a streaming platform.
Since you mentioned fraud just now, in an interview for Lo and Behold, you mentioned that you wanted to do a follow-up film about Bitcoin, and that you were completely mystified by it. In the years since, have you learned more about Bitcoin? Are you still interested in it? Do you own any?
No, it has been superseded by new projects. Since I made this film, I have made four or five new films. I just finished a film on meteorites, which will be released fairly soon on an Apple streaming platform. When, I do not know yet. And since I cannot shoot film at the moment, because of travel restrictions, I’m writing. I’m writing poetry and writing prose texts.
What are you reading in quarantine?
Oh, everything. I’ve always been reading. I do not watch that many films, but I do read every day.
Does anything good stand out to you? Or bad, for that matter.
No, no. What I’m reading, everything I’m reading right now, is very good stuff. Only very punctually and eventually do I poke into trash literature.
To bring up Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe again—in it, you say that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking. Have you been cooking in quarantine?
Yes, I have. But my wife is better. I’m good in certain narrow programs. But I’m good at that. But yes, it has something creative, but it was more like a remark—as a joke, of course. There are many alternatives to filmmaking. I should write more. I think my prose writing, such as Conquest of the Youth and Of Walking in Ice, are books that will outlive my films. I do have a feeling that my writings will have a longer life, but I’ve been wrong so many times when it comes to making a judgment on my own things. I have made so many mistakes, so I take it with the necessary caution. But at the moment, I believe it.