(I play “the banker” in the Werner Herzog movie, “Stroszek.” The film was shot around Thanksgiving — forty years ago. This is an edited transcript of an interview about my experience with Werner, acting, and more.)
It was at the very beginning of my career as a professional speaker. Still in college, I was asked to emcee and speak for the awards banquet at the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship. This event was going to highlight the presentation of an annual award — prestigious in their business — to the person who won their competition to be named best in their industry.
As I arrived for the event, the meeting planner stated that there was going to be a German film crew shooting a documentary about the contest. He told me that they are going to film the banquet — and my presentation, as well. “And, they might like to talk to you a little bit, too,” I was informed.
I introduced myself to the director — his name was Werner Herzog.
“How Much Wood Can a Woodchuck Chuck” became one of his first documentaries — long before he became so well-known and universally respected. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkcsz9QujmU)
I loved the guy — he was an absolute blast to speak with. Later, he recorded me in an interview that was briefly used in this early project. I’m featured near the end — wearing a terrible 70’s suit. (Which, I guess, is natural — this was the 1970’s!)
Fast forward to the following November; I’m in a small, Midwestern college and I receive a telephone call. Picture my situation — living in the dorm, the only telephones are in the hallway, and it’s very loud, as men’s dorms have a tendency to become. Guys are yelling, music is playing as I pick up the phone…and can’t quite understand this guy on the other end of the line when he says his name.
Then, in an accented voice, I hear, “I’m in Wisconsin and I’ve want to know if you want to come to Wisconsin and help me make a movie?”
Here’s the problem: I have this great friend who lives in Wisconsin…and he’s a world-class practical joker. I honestly thought it was my pal doing this bad German accent and teasing me.
So, I responded, “It would be easier if you would just come to Indiana and kiss my ass!”
There was a long, long pause.
Almost as if the clapboard came down for a second take, not responding to my comment, the caller simply started over. He didn’t ask, “What did you say?” He didn’t ask, “Do you know who this is?” He just started over.
“This is Werner Herzog…”
He stops me as I begin to profusely apologize — and states the reason he is calling is to ask me to travel to Wisconsin. He remembered our time together at the auctioneer event, and wants me to play “the banker” in a movie he is filming called, “Stroszek.”
I tell him that I’ve never acted before — I have never done anything like this before. I’m amazed — I mean, I met this guy and liked him a lot, but I didn’t really know him. But, how do you say no to an opportunity like that?
I agree — and I’m off to Wisconsin, despite the complaints of my family that I’m going to spend Thanksgiving away from home, doing something they don’t quite understand.
About that time in Indianapolis, one of the big stories was about a film called “Snuff.” It was a horror film, and the way they were promoting it was attempting to make you wonder if this could be a real “snuff film.”
(A snuff film is a vile, underground movie where someone’s life is actually taken on film. That’s clearly horrendous — and, unbelievably, was part of the marketing of the movie playing in Indianapolis at the time, even though it was obviously not an actual “snuff film.”)
It’s Thanksgiving week. My parents don’t want me to go and miss the family holiday. I don’t really know this guy, Herzog. As the commercial for “Snuff” plays on my car radio as I’m driving to the airport, it dawns on me that I’m flying to somewhere in the backwoods of Wisconsin to supposedly make a movie with some guy I’ve met just one time!
As I arrive at the airport, I go to the Northwest Airlines ticket counter. They tell me that I have a pre-paid, one-way ticket to Stevens Point, Wisconsin awaiting. “Good Lord,” I think, “what have I gotten myself into? Am I ever coming home?”
However, an extraordinary thing happened next. As I’m looking for something to read on the flight, there was a Rolling Stone at the magazine stand with a classic picture of Janis Joplin on the cover.
However, also on the cover is the headline of — and a tease for — an article inside titled, “The Strange World of Werner Herzog.”
I had no idea. I’m from Crothersville, Indiana. There were not an abundance of avant-garde foreign films playing in my area. As I’m reading this article on the flight, I’m saying to myself, “My God! I had no idea!”
Getting off the small, prop-job commuter plane at the Stevens Point airport, Werner is there to pick me up. It’s such a low budget film, they have one basic rental car and one van. Werner and Walter Saxer, the producer, load my luggage, and we drive to the Holiday Inn in Stevens Point to film, “Stroszek.”
As we were shooting, Herzog decides to take Thanksgiving Day off. We went to one of the cast member’s homes — which was very modest and very rural — in Plainfield, Wisconsin. I felt right at home, but we had mostly Germans with us, who had never ever experienced anything like an American Thanksgiving before.
(The only other American around was the cameraman, Ed Lachmann. He later shot some very popular mainstream films, such as “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Erin Brockovich.”)
On the drive back to the Holiday Inn, Herzog shared with me an interesting observation. He said it was a great example of the American culture to take a day to be grateful and give thanks. He emphasized that the “positive approach” of Thanksgiving was at the core of what had made America into the country it became.
I thought that was a fascinating perspective, coming from someone outside the American culture — especially considering the movie we were making, “Stroszek,” is the story of German immigrants who come to the United States expecting the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, only to have those unrealistic expectations tragically dashed.
Werner and I met up every morning, had a cup of coffee, and would ride around in the rented van looking for potential locations to shoot for the film. During these rides, it was absolutely amazing to talk with Herzog about his movies.
In the Rolling Stone article, it mentioned that in every movie (to that point), Herzog put a live chicken somewhere in the film. (“Stroszek” even ends with a shot of a dancing chicken.) Movie critics were speculating on, “What was the metaphor of the chicken?” “What did it mean — what does the chicken stand for?”
So, I asked him: “Werner, I’ve read you have a chicken in every movie. Why?”
He replied, “I hate f***ing chickens.”
I think that’s part of Herzog’s brilliance. He lets us assign our own metaphors and meanings — he refuses to tell us what colors we are required to use inside the lines he has drawn for us in his films.
There is a classic scene in “Stroszek” where the lead character, Bruno, is watching as I’ve repossessed his mobile home. He is standing as the home is pulled away — it’s just the landscape that remains…and he stands, silently, in position.
Herzog told me that a good director can even direct the landscape. After watching that scene, I realized what he meant. The bleakness of the cold, barren field — now in our view because the mobile home has been towed away — contrasted against the solitary Stroszek staring ahead — is heartbreaking.
One of the best aspects that happened during the filming was the day after Thanksgiving. It was one of the real pivotal scenes I’m in, and my script is in German. In the film, Stroszek and his two friends don’t understand what I’m saying because they don’t speak English. As the young Wisconsin banker, I just keep speaking English…and I seem oblivious to the fact that I’m not getting through. I’m there to do my job, and I say what needs to be said with a fake smile and a false sense of courtesy.
That main scene was done on the first take. I cannot speak or read German — and part of the message of the movie is about communication and understanding — so, I cannot really call it “acting” on my part. It was unique, however, because everyone on the crew was telling me, “Werner NEVER stops after the first take! That was amazing!”
I was very fortunate. The Boston Globe film critic at the time was asked what was the “most memorable moment in film” for that year — and that was the scene he cited.
Roger Ebert and I eventually became acquainted, and he reminded me that “Stroszek” was one of the films he listed as one of his fifty “Great Movies” in his book on the history of the cinema. Roger asked me how I liked being an actor, particularly after being in such an important film and getting some great reviews.
I told him that I hated it.
Here’s why: I love the freedom and control that I have as an author and professional speaker. With acting, they told me what to say, they told me how to say it, when to show up and what to wear. And, we would continue saying the words until we got it exactly right…from the director’s perspective, not mine.
However, Werner was a delight to be with — especially considering that my script was in German! Werner would tell me, “OK, here’s what I’ve written. When this scene begins, we’re at this point — and when we get finished with the scene I want us to be here. You just put my script into words that an American would use. Make it very American. But, here is where we must be at the end.”
First — especially given my lack of both training and talent — I would seriously doubt that I could ever work again with someone as understanding and generous as Werner Herzog.
However, secondly, as an author and speaker, I have grown used to writing and talking about what I believe in, what I am engaged in, and what I am passionate about. That made it extraordinarily interesting to have a situation where I was doing what someone else had created. Not merely the words — in addition, there were precise requirements upon how those words were supposed to be communicated. When the cameras were rolling, there was a part of it that was fun. However, I did not find significant gratification in being the tool that enabled someone else’s thoughts, ideas, and emotions to be expressed, after becoming so accustomed to communicating my own. However, through this experience, I grew to have tremendous…abundant…respect for those artists who are able to brilliantly do what failed to connect with my passion.
Not long before he passed away, Roger Ebert got in touch with me. He started a program called “Ebertfest” at the University of Illinois. Roger would feature his favorite films for the approximately 3,000 people that would come to celebrate Roger and the movies that he loved. I think, because of the advanced stage of his cancer, many knew this was perhaps the last one that Roger would be able to attend.
Roger wanted to honor Werner Herzog as he was one Roger’s favorite filmmakers. Ebert asked if I would come back and surprise Herzog and we could be reunited — and, naturally, I accepted immediately.
It was funny…we made “Stroszek” so many years ago, and if you watch it — well, we all change as we get older and I certainly do not look the same. I walked up to Werner, and started talking — and his face was blank. Then, suddenly, his eyes got wide…and then he burst into tears. I, too, was overwhelmed with emotion, as we shared our memories of our time together.
That night, in a large theatre at the University of Illinois, “Stroszek” played on the big screen. Just before the film began, Herzog announced to the crowd, “This is one of the great nights of my life — because I love this guy who plays the banker in this movie.” Werner graciously introduced me to the theatre and asked them to give me a round of applause.
The movie begins, and at the point where my first scene is, they open up the door of Stroszek’s trailer and I’m standing there. The audience started to applaud again! It was one of the great nights of my life, too, in so many ways. And, it was just another reminder — albeit many years later — of what a warm and generous person that Werner Herzog is.
Werner Herzog is one of the most amazing and unique filmmakers in the world — in part, because he follows his own vision.
He has a very specific viewpoint about what he’s doing…about what he wants to do…about how he’s going to do it. Then, he follows that vision.
A significant lesson I learned from Thanksgiving with Werner Herzog is that while the rest of the world may perceive you as being weird…or crazy…or wild, you really need to have a team around you that believes in you. They might be friends, colleagues, or employees — however, much of your success will depend upon having a group who are “all in” with you.
When someone asks me about Werner Herzog, they often say something like, “Oh, what a crazy man I bet he is!”
Yes, he is eccentric and he is different — however, the people that work with him would run through a brick wall for him. And, I would too. He’s that kind of leader and just that kind of person. The professionals around Werner are not “yes-men” and “yes-women.” They’re not agreeing with everything that he has to say. I know that he does not want it that way.
However, when you can assemble a team of people who believe in you that much — and because of that, will believe in your projects that much — it makes a dramatic difference.
Another significant aspect I learned that really, really shaped a lot of what I did from that point on was this: you would never start shooting a movie without a script and knowing where the story is going. Yet, I think a lot of us live our lives just day-to-day. Especially at this time of year, we’re thankful for our blessings. However, most of us just live life day-to-day in our static routines.
Werner had a script. Certainly, as we were shooting the script, there was improvisation. “What if we did this?” — that’s important too. However, I also think we need to make certain we have some kind of script — a plan or goals — that will help guide us where we are going beyond the basic day-to-day routine that can trap us with a false sense of security.
As we appreciate the blessings of this year — and as we look forward to the coming one — I would encourage you to think about how you can be more like Werner Herzog.
At this time every year, I’m reminded of how thankful I am to have spent one Thanksgiving with him.
(“Stroszek” on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/US/movie/id906242341)