I picked up Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed a week or so ago, and it’s taking me forever to read because 1) it’s 500 pages long and I’m slow, and 2) it’s so dense with insane stories and great wisdom about creative work that I’m constantly stopping to underline sentences.
He describes himself as an autodidact, who “never felt comfortable in school” and “never trusted teachers”:
I’ve always been more interested in teaching myself. If I want to explore something, I never think about attending a class; I do the reading on my own or seek out experts for conversations. Everything we’re forced to learn at school we quickly forget, but the things we set out to learn ourselves — to quench a thirst — are never forgotten, and inevitably become an important part of our existence.
“When he was in school,” his mother says, “Werner never learned anything. He never read the books he was supposed to read, he never studied, he never knew what he was supposed to know, it seemed.”
But over and over, in the book, and in other interviews, he has one unwavering piece of advice for filmmakers: “Read.”
Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the Internet or watch too much television lose it. If you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker. Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.
He gives his Rogue Film School students a “mandatory” reading list and he brings two books with him on film shoots: Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and Livy’s account of the Second Punic War. (“The Book of Job acts as consolation, Livy gives me courage.”)
He talks a lot about approaching his screenplays with a literary sensibility, often abandoning traditional structure for prose descriptions of scenes. He’s convinced that Conquest of the Useless, his diary of making Fitzcarraldo, will outlive all of his films. “I suspect that my true voice emerges more clearly through prose than cinema,” he says. “I might be a better writer than I am a filmmaker.”
It is a really terrific book.