Directors And Their Composers

Werner Herzog & Ernst Reijseger
by Stephan Eicke

In this series, we will examine the relationship between directors and their composers. Via interviews, prominent filmmakers will detail how they work with their composers and use their compositions in their films. Composers will respond by sharing their view of the creative collaboration and how they see the working-relationship with directors.

Since his first international success Aguirre premiered in 1972, German director Werner Herzog has made a name for himself as a maverick, a rogue director who accepts any and every challenge to put dreams on screens – obsessions of primarily men who decide to go against society and nature. There is, for example, Brian Fitzgerald who wants to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle. There is also Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man, who shuns a society that has not recognized his greatness. Instead, he decides to live among bears. There is also Graham Dorrington who builds a special airship. He says he wants to explore the rain forest but in truth, he wants to exorcise his personal demons. The list of extraordinary people who have been put on film by Herzog is endless – both in fiction and documentary though that distinction is a slippery slope here. In his documentary work, Herzog sometimes exaggerates, invents traditions, events, stories and memories to get to a deeper truth that can not be captured simply by holding a camera in front of talking faces. He is not a journalist, he is a storyteller.

For 15 years, Werner Herzog has worked with cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger. It was he who penned the music for films as colorful as The White Diamond, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and, most recently, Fireball. Other than Reijseger, Herzog worked with Florian Fricke aka Popol Vuh, Hans Zimmer, Klaus Badelt and others. But how does a director as unorthodox as Herzog collaborate with musicians and use their compositions? I sat down with him to find out.

Stephan Eicke: Why music at all?

Werner Herzog: I think music has some sort of inherent quality to change things, including images. When I staged operas, I always kept saying, ‘Opera is achieved when an entire world is transformed into music.’ That’s what opera is all about. In a similar way, images can be changed and transformed with music into a new quality. The images stay the same. Physically it’s the same projection of light on the screen, but the reception in an audience becomes something different. Images acquire a new meaning, a new intensity, a new form of transparency. There is something very powerful about music, and I have always seen that and have been more careful about music in my films than any other [director] who I know in my profession.

How intuitive is your decision-making when it comes to placing songs in films? I heard you fell in love with Chavela Vargas’ voice and wanted to use her music in My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done …

Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be music you can adapt in a film. There are many other pieces of music which I love but which would never work as film music. It’s a certain knowledge that I have acquired, but I had it fairly early on. I know what I am doing and I know what would fit to which images.

Do you already get ideas about which music to use while you are writing the script or shooting a film?

Sure. In Fitzcarraldo it was always clear that with his voice Enrico Caruso would be one of the leading characters in the film. That was always clear. I made a strange mistake because I believed that Wagner music in the jungle would be the right music, some of it sung by Caruso and other singers of that epoch. Wagner and the jungle do not function together. It’s like cats and dogs, they find no life together. There is no friendship. Italian opera, strangely enough, is perfect. You have to have Bellini and Verdi and Caruso. Then you are in business.

Is Wagner in the jungle too much of a culture clash?

No, it’s not a question of culture clash. Why should Italian opera not be a culture clash in the Peruvian jungle? It’s something else. It’s the music itself and the type of images. You know you can not use it, neither in the jungle nor in any other environment. You could not use music by Alban Berg, like Wozzeck. It’s something that is way too cerebral, way too insistent on its own existence. It doesn’t allow anything else beyond it. Because of that there are certain types of music where you know immediately, ‘This is not music for any film.’

You did use Wagner in other films, though.

I have used Wagner in other films, but Wagner in the jungle doesn’t function.

How did you meet Ernst? I heard you were looking for Sardinian music.

Yes, I was fascinated by Sardinian voices, the traditional shepherds in the mountains who would gather and sing songs. It’s a very “prehistoric” way of voices and singing. I wanted to have one of these CDs as a birthday present and for endless time it didn’t arrive. Finally it arrived at Christmas. It transformed into a Christmas present. There was a cello playing together with the Sardinians, and I thought, ‘I have never heard anything like this! Who is the person who plays the cello? That is unheard of! This is unprecedented!’ That’s how it immediately alarmed me, and I immediately stretched out my feelers. That’s how we met.

That was before you started working on The White Diamond, wasn’t it?

Yes. The interesting thing in the case of The White Diamond is I asked Ernst to record the music first. There was music first and then came the images. Normally it’s the other way around; you have the film, the landscapes and emotions and characters and then music has to move in and play a part. But in this case it was before anything was filmed. In some hidden ways, the music dictated the way the film was shot.

I heard sometimes the cinematographer listens to compositions of Ernst’s while shooting.

Yes, that is true. Peter Zeitlinger, by the way, is a strong beast, strong like an oxen. He is very physical, and has played ice hockey for Sparta Prague. He tells me, ‘Werner this scene has no rhythm.’ I have never heard that from a cinematographer, but he is the one who would put the camera down and stop the first take that we are filming. It was a film where we had a choreography of actors. He was weaving in with his camera between actors. I have forgotten which film it was. He sensed in his own movements that something didn’t fit. The actors were dancing a waltz and he with his camera was dancing rumba. He had to stop it. We had to find a way to bring it together. He was right in this case. In some cases when it is clear there is music I try to make him understand what’s going to happen with his images because they will transform, adapt a different life.

Was The White Diamond the first film where you had the music recorded before you started shooting?

No, with Fitzcarraldo, for example, there was music before. It was obvious. A very beautiful case would be Stroszek with the dancing chicken. I had the music for the dancing chicken all the time. I knew it had to be there in the film, and that it had to be a dancing chicken, and it had to be Sonny Terry’s Old Lost John, a harmonica piece with him yipping and howling and singing alone. It’s phenomenal. I always knew it had to be there at the end. There were other cases when I knew this has to be music for the beginning of the film. For isolated scenes I knew this has to be the music and that we have to film it in a way so it can morph together.

Ernst said you often exchange material during the shooting of the film.

Yes, all the time. We do it all the time. We do it right now. I am waiting for a new transfer of music Ernst has just recorded but not even mixed yet. So he said, ‘In two weeks I’ll have a mix and then you can hear it.’ At the moment it’s still in different tracks and it’s not the time for me to listen to it. Ernst will have parts of images that I have just shot. I am shooting constantly. Only a day ago I was filming in Oslo, and in less than a week I will be in Yucatan filming. Ernst will get some of the raw footage.

Are you talking about Fireball?

We don’t know if the title is going to stick or not. It’s about meteorites and materials that come to us from deep space and that were flying around long before the solar system was even formed.

The fact that Ernst rarely writes music to specific scenes gives you a lot of freedom as director, doesn’t it?

Yes, of course, that’s what I always do. I place other pieces of music with great ease. There is never a loss of time. When we are in the editing room and I have the feeling there has to be music, I say, ‘Let’s try for example Orlando di Lasso.’ Recently it was something with Verdi’s Requiem. ‘We have to try the Recordare, but we have nothing.’ So I said to the editor, ‘We can find it on the internet.’ There were different versions. I listened and said, ‘This one sounds good. Put it in there and we move in.’ In 120 seconds flat we have the music for the next two and half minutes in the film. It goes as fast as that.

When you edit, Ernst has usually already sent you a whole catalog of music to use, hasn’t he?

Yes, but sometimes things are missing. Sometimes there are gaps and we don’t know exactly what to do. Sometimes when the film is finished Ernst would play on his cello with the edited film or with a certain passage in the film in front of him. He would then accompany the scene. He would do the right thing. In a stage production in Berlin at the Volksbühne where I would read from a prose book of mine, Conquest of the Useless, I would nod at him and Ernst would start to play along the text that I was reading. But he did not know exactly what I was going to read next. He had to listen. Was it a moment of deep solitude or a moment of a small production catastrophe? We had big ones, like small plane crashes. Ernst, by listening to what I was saying and reading, would accompany me accordingly as if I was a singer with a score. He accompanies me. He’s the orchestra.

Ernst often improvises, even at recording sessions. That enables you to give a lot of input immediately, doesn’t it?

Yes, I do it because I am always with the musicians. I am never in the control room. We had a recording for Cave of Forgotten Dreams. There was a wonderful flute player from South Africa (Shaun Burgen). He played on a flute that kids in some of the ghettos would play, made out of a water pipe. He started a piece of music and played it very wonderfully. He was in a protestant church in Haarlem, and he was way up next to the organ. I had the feeling there was no real physical contact. It was too remote. I said, ‘Let’s bring him down.’ He was then with the other musicians. He starts playing the music and he starts it as a cerebral, free jazz improvisation. We rehearsed it once and I said to him, ‘It will not marry with my images here. It’s too cerebral, it’s too on its own. Start it like this, with this complete strangeness, but find the melody fast. Find the melody that Ernst is playing with his cello, and then the choir will pick it up.’ I would be standing next to the flute player, as an intimidation. ‘You better find the melody fast!’ I was standing next to him and I looked at him. He sees me and starts playing an improvisation of sheer strangeness, but somehow finds the melody and the entire rest of the musicians follows and flows with him. If it’s not going the right way, I would be standing right next to you. Or sometimes I would say to Ernst, ‘It doesn’t sound right here. Take off your shoes, you have to be barefoot.’ It sounds right afterwards.

Does it sound better?

It always sounds better when he is barefoot.

During one recording, you also changed the lyrics of a song.

It was for The Wild Blue Yonder. The Sardinians had a song about a beautiful island. I said, ‘No, it should not be a beautiful island. It has to be a beautiful star because we are filming for The Wild Blue Yonder, on a foreign star somewhere in the Andromeda Nebula. Change your text into ‘una stella.’ They did, and then comes the strange moment when Mola Sylla, a Senegalese with a wonderful, great voice, chimes in, unrehearsed, not knowing what the Sardinians in their dialect would sing, and I said, ‘Shouldn’t we go through the lyrics with you?’ He said, ‘No, no, you don’t have to. I am a poet as well.’ He sits in a chair, his microphone is ready, and you think he is just listening now. After 30, 40 seconds he suddenly stands up and starts to sing along with them in Wolof, his native language. This is what I really love: real musicians, real poets.

There is also a real interaction between all of you.

Yes, real interaction. He is a phenomenon, especially in conjunction with the Sardinians. They are complete beasts of music. It’s fantastic. They are all without formal musical training. One of them is breading pigs, one of them is working in the town hall in a small village as administrator, one of them is a shepherd, and the best of all voices works with a sledgehammer in a quarry. He is the most handsome, with his black greasy hair, and women fall for him. I truly like to work with these kind of people who do not come from the academies and have formal schooling. They are quintessential musicians.

It’s a bit like your Rogue Film School which is also a reaction against how film making is taught in universities.

Yeah, rogue film school is more a countermeasure against what is going wrong in film schools world wide. What we are doing is not rogue. It serves a purpose and that is music. It’s very proactive, not anti-active, and completely focused and professional. I like that.

As I said, I do interfere. That’s the other good thing. For Grizzly Man, we had Richard Thompson, a very well known American musician. I didn’t know about him, but he has done rock music and lots of other things. I was with him in the recording studio and they started to record the beginning of the film. The beginning of the film is very powerful. You have a big landscape and the protagonist and you have bears in medium distance only and the protagonist speaking about the danger of death with these wild beasts. We know from the beginning he will be eaten by one of the bears later. They started to record, and I immediately asked them to stop. I said, ‘Richard, you are cautiously sneaking into the landscape and you creep up and you start with a very slow crescendo. I think this is a mistake. Step your foot down, right here, with vigor. This now is the lay of the land. Play it like that.’ Bang, he does it. He understood what I meant.

Interestingly enough, when we recorded The White Diamond in Paris, they started with too much meter and too much energy. I just stepped out and with my arms spread out like an eagle, made a floating movement and they understood it has to sound like sailing. It can’t be with a strong meter. Wipe out the meter that chops it into the flowing movement into something that shouldn’t be there.

Ernst said you don’t like particularly rhythmic music.

No, rhythm is something which is hard to explain. I don’t like music with a strong meter. It often is problematic for the inner flow of a narration. But the question is very specific and should be exemplified with material I could show you to explain where it doesn’t fit. Why does this other material fit? That’s a long discourse and can only be solved if we watch it together.

Something interesting comes to my mind. I have to depart a little bit from how Ernst and I collaborate. I did a film about faith and pilgrimage in Mexico, a pilgrimage to the shrine of the virgin of Guadeloupe. People come on their knees from hundreds of kilometers. Some of them are half dead when they arrive. It was the BBC’s idea to tie a film maker and a composer together, and I said, ‘The composer should be British. John Taverner!’ We contacted John Taverner and Taverner immediately said, ‘No, I am not writing music for a movie.’ It was absolutely clear he wouldn’t do that. I said to him, ‘Mr. Taverner I would like to meet with you in person anyway. I would like to meet you where there is a piano.’ He said, ‘Come to my home.’ We met and I explained the project to him. He said, ‘Fine, sounds good, but I don’t work for films.’ I said, ‘We are not going to do a film together. I want you to go on a pilgrimage with me.’ He said, ‘Yes, that sounds much better.’

Did he write music for Pilgrimage?

Yes, he did the music. He was, by the way, a deeply religious man who had converted to Greek Orthodoxy. It was just an invitation to do a pilgrimage together.

Has there ever been any resistance from musicians?

No, I never had resistance, because when I interfere – and I do not do it often – I make a suggestion. I believe in the collaboration. It’s not only the musicians creating music and nothing else. In the collaboration I do have an argument, and I can articulate it. That’s why so far everybody has immediately understood it.

Did you have a similar way of working with Florian Fricke in that you exchanged material during the shoot?

Yes, with Florian Fricke, sure. He would receive the uncut, essential images. He would look at it and we would talk about what we need here. That was a very clear understanding. Later in our collaboration he moved away from me in cultural ways. He moved into an area that I never liked, a New Age quasi-philosophy. His music shifted a little bit into New Agey music. That’s how we drifted apart, and we had arguments. Sometimes they were physical arguments. We would have a heated argument and then play football. We were only four people and had two tiny goals. We would play against each other and he would foul me in a way that I still hear my bones. He hit me so hard. He was vicious. He knew where it hurt. That was our way to sort it out. You do it man to man. After the game he and I had a few bruises and it was fine.

But you stayed friends, didn’t you?

Yes, always. There was never anything that could disturb our friendship. It didn’t matter that he was in areas in life and philosophy that I did not like.

Do other producers have a say in who to pick as composer?

No, not in my films. Now I am doing a film where I am not the only director. There is a co-director and he has some pieces of music he favors very much. I have to sort it out with him. I do not know how it will work out. Ultimately, in this case I would overrule my co-director. He would have more input in scientific questions, because it’s a project based on science.

How do you decide which composer to choose for a project?

I don’t know. I do not make mistakes.

Do you, during writing or shooting, already know, ‘This is a project for Ernst’?

Not necessarily because I have very, very vague understanding of what is coming at me. I am speaking, for example, about a documentary where I have not been into the subject before. My co-director has been. We are shooting in various parts of the world. It’s very hard for me to make any judgment about what is coming at me and how it’s going to come at me and how much can I guide it and influence it and direct it. In such cases I would just wait and shoot the film, or most of the film, and then I would know, ‘Aha, we have solved this that way,’ unbeknownst to me, ‘and we came to a solution. Now we have to think about music.’

Did you listen to any of the music Ernst had written for Into the Inferno? You used other pieces in the end but not his original score.

Yes, I used the Magnificat. What else was there? I remember we had choral music from an orthodox choir, which is just the most wonderful piece I had for the beginning of the film. We were always told by our Russian people, ‘It’s no problem, you can use it. You have to acquire the rights, of course, but it wouldn’t be that expensive. The music, we have to tell you, has been used for a Russian feature film 15 years ago.’ Now comes this: the patriarch of the Orthodox Church has this choir in the cathedral under him, and they wanted to see what we were doing. I sent them the beginning of the film with this music. They said, ‘We can not allow this.’ They had a theological argument. ‘What you are showing is an ascent of a helicopter or a drone on a volcano, and then all of a sudden you look into the boiling magma of the earth. This is hell. Your title is Into the Inferno. However, this piece of music is sung by voices of angels, and it is impermissible that angels sing about the glory of hell.’ We had deep religious discussions and arguments with them, arguments that shaped orthodoxy, but it’s 16th century arguments about hell and angels. For the Orthodox Church hell is a physical reality, not a metaphor. ‘What you are showing here is a physical manifestation of hell. Sorry, but you can not use it.’ I had a one hour telephone conversation with my wife who is a trained philosopher and who comes from Russia, and we had it very well prepared, but the end result was clear: we can not use it. So I had to chose a different piece, which is still good but by far not as good as the piece we originally wanted to use.

Do you remember the name of the piece?

No, I do not remember the title. It had some Russian title. But it was clearly a piece where angels would sing in praise of creation.

Do you make a difference between placing music in feature films and documentaries?

No, it doesn’t matter. It’s very hard to verbalize, but I know I have always done it well and better than all the others. Apart from that …

Thank you very much for your time.