Touching the void

With his latest documentary Into The Abyss receiving raves after its September world premiere, acclaimed director Werner Herzog talks to realscreen about the creation of the dark project.
November 1, 2011

At the age of 69, Werner Herzog is on one hell of a hot streak.

After hitting box office gold with last year’s 3D extravaganza, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his latest effort, Into the Abyss, is now picking up buzz on the festival circuit and winning rave reviews. He has even landed a major on-screen role in a Hollywood blockbuster, being tapped to play the bad guy opposite Tom Cruise in the upcoming feature One Shot, in what should amount to a remarkable casting choice.

At present though, the German director’s key focus is on Abyss, which had its world premiere in September at the Telluride and Toronto international film festivals.

The 105-minute documentary is built around conversations in Texas with Death Row inmates Jason Burkett and Michael Perry – the latter of whom was executed just eight days after Herzog met with him – as well as interviews with an assortment of related characters, including the wife of one of the murderers, the guard charged with overseeing the lethal injection process, and family members of the murder victims.

The film’s premiere came right as the thorny issue of capital punishment was once again thrust onto the news agenda in America, with the decision by Texas governor and U.S. presidential hopeful Rick Perry to deny clemency to condemned convict Troy Davis giving Herzog’s doc a fresh urgency.

“There was always a sense that the issue had to come up again,” says Herzog, talking to realscreen on a sunny hotel patio in Cannes, “and all of a sudden it’s a big time debate in the United States. I have always made my position clear to audiences – to the inmates, to the warden and everyone – that I’m not an advocate of capital punishment.

“However, it’s not an activist’s film against [it], because I cannot vote in the United States. I’m saying, ‘I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment.’ And I do disagree.”

Herzog says that when he was 16, he pursued and ultimately abandoned the idea of doing a project in a maximum security prison in Bavaria, and as such the idea of revisiting the issue of crime and punishment “has been dormant” for some time.

“It somehow got a push because one person who interested me was facing execution in only eight days,” he explains. “However, it was quite clear that the film should be much more than just Death Row inmates; I was also fascinated by the side of the families of victims of violent crime. The film is dedicated to them.

“And I was fascinated by the fact that somebody has to do the executions, so I spoke with the prison guard who would strap you to the gurney for the lethal injection and who, after 125 executions, had a breakdown and cannot do it anymore.”

During its development, Herzog’s project – coproduced by Creative Differences, Skellig Rock, Spring Films and Werner Herzog Film – shifted through a number of different forms and guises, taking on various titles along the way, including Gazing into the Abyss and Werner Herzog’s Final Confessions. It eventually settled into two distinct entities: the feature film called Into the Abyss, and a four-part television series called Death Row, the latter of which promises to be a less existential affair.

U.S. net Investigation Discovery (ID) and UK channel More4 backed Abyss, along with theatrical firms IFC and Revolver, with ID also committing to air Death Row. ZDF Enterprises is handling TV distribution for both projects, and will launch Death Row at MIPTV, having launched Abyss at MIPCOM in October.

While they both sprang from the same source, Herzog says there will be “a clear distinction” between the two productions, with the theatrical film featuring “a big tapestry of events around a sort of gothic America, and a look into the deep recesses of the human soul, going way beyond the crime and the perpetrators, going way beyond capital punishment,” he explains.

As such, Herzog chose the title Into the Abyss to illustrate that the film’s subject matter extended beyond Death Row. “Wherever you look, there is another abyss,” he says. “Even among the families of the victims, it’s almost abysmal what you are witnessing there. And I gave it a secondary title: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, because the entire last chapter of the film is about the urgency of life. All of a sudden the wife of one of the perpetrators is pregnant by him. How do they do that? There must be an enormous urgency of life which goes beyond crime and punishment.”

The biggest challenge in making the film, says the director, was access, with several subjects understandably reluctant to talk on camera about such a sensitive and divisive topic. “Some of them flatly refused, which is fine,” he says. “Then with the others, you have to have a permit from them in writing to talk to you. Then you have to have the permit from the warden, who – without giving you any reason – can deny you access.

“And, of course, you better have an understanding with the attorneys that you are not going to damage the chances of their clients in their appeal procedures. It happened in one case; an attorney said, ‘Please don’t do it, because my client has a tendency to say stupid things on camera in interviews, and it may damage his chances in court.’ I said, ‘This project is hereby cancelled!’ I cancelled it only 36 hours before I was due to be shooting.”

The critical reception to Abyss has been extremely positive, and the film is already gaining heat on the awards trail, having picked up the best documentary prize at the 55th BFI London Film Festival in October.

Its release sees it following an extremely successful predecessor. As Herzog’s first foray into 3D, Cave of Forgotten Dreams has raked in more than US$5.2 million in ticket sales to date, putting in one of the best theatrical performances by a documentary in North America this year.

“It’s strange,” Herzog says with a chuckle. “No one would have predicted it because it’s about Palaeolithic people doing paintings and art 32,000 years ago. A French cave with French scientists who speak French, filmed by a Bavarian. Who in the United States would rush and buy a ticket to see a film like that, for God’s sake? Yes, that’s quite an uphill battle.

“But I always had the feeling this film would connect with audiences and it actually really connected,” he says. “It’s not because the film is in 3D – maybe that’s part of it, but it’s about looking into the deepest, darkest recesses of history or prehistory and asking, ‘Where do we originate from? What motivates human beings to create art and culture?’”

But while Dreams is still doing good business theatrically, it will have to come down from some screens to make way for Abyss. Given the word of mouth surrounding the doc thus far and the resurgence of debate around capital punishment, the filmmaker leaned on distributor IFC/Sundance Selects to bring forward its theatrical release date, scrapping a planned launch next year and instead releasing it on November 11, 2011, which will put it in contention for the coming Oscars.

“Although that means it’s going into the Christmas season,” Herzog says with a smile, “and this is the last film you want to see in a Christmas mood!”

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