'Salt and Fire,' starring Michael Shannon, Veronica Ferres, and Gael Garcia Bernal, is in theaters now

By Joe McGovern
April 07, 2017 at 10:46 AM EDT
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The experience of interviewing legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog is as unique as the man himself. While talking about the German director’s new movie Salt and Fire (in theaters and on demand now), a thriller starring Michael Shannon, Veronica Ferres, and Gael Garcia Bernal, Herzog is asked to reveal a recent movie which he thinks is great. “Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House,” he answers. “I think that was 25 years ago. Maybe 30.”

He’s correct. That film by the brilliant Iranian filmmaker, who died last summer, came out exactly 30 years ago. It’s a classic Herzog answer: blunt, non-evasive, probably honest, yet somewhat outside of the parameters of the question that was asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t see that many films,” he demurs, in that wondrously crisp, deadpan Bavarian accent that has coursed through the iconic narration of his documentaries (among them Grizzly Man, My Best Fiend, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Encounters at the End of the World, Into the Inferno) and random pop-up appearances on The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation.

But Salt and Fire is one of the director’s fiction works (that astonishing list includes Aguirre the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fitzcarraldo, Heart of Glass, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Rescue Dawn) and it opens just a week before his long-delayed Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman. We begin our 15-minute phone conversation — Herzog preferred to call at 8:00 a.m. local time — by talking about the gorgeously barren setting of his new movie, a place where he surprisingly had never filmed before.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It seems obvious that you would be drawn to Salar de Uyuni, the harsh but beautiful salt flat in Bolivia. Did you have some previous connection or some history with that place?
WERNER HERZOG: There was no history. The script was based on a short story by Tom Bissell named “Aral,” which takes place in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on the dried out Lake Aral. That was originally where my film was planned. And the interesting thing about that location is that there are large fishing boats stranded on the land because there’s no lake water left.

That could have been an amazing place to shoot, too.
No. It didn’t look interesting because most of the ships have been dismantled already for scrap metal by a Chinese consortium. And for logistical reasons it was virtually impossible.

So that led you to Bolivia?
I first looked at some salt flats in Bonneville in Utah, but they didn’t seem right. It was then when I came across Uyuni.

And they are the largest salt flats in the world. Over four thousand square miles.
It’s not a question of largest. It’s a question of extraterrestrial. And they looked more extraterrestrial than anyplace I’d seen. Not of our planet.

There is a dormant volcano named Tunupa that plays a role in this film. I’m assuming the idea of a volcano was fresh in your mind while writing, having just finished your documentary Into the Inferno.
Not originally. But once I arrived in Uyuni and I saw the volcano, I immediately had the feeling it should be a part of the story. I do have a lifelong fascination with volcanoes. [Herzog shot a short documentary, 1977’s La Soufrière, on the side of a volcano poised to erupt.]

In Salt and Fire, there’s a bad guy character in a wheelchair named Krauss — played by Lawrence Krauss, the famous physicist. I don’t think he’s ever acted before.
No. But he was in my documentary about the internet, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. We have been friends for about 10 years and the minute when I first saw him, I said to him, “You look like a very good, very elegant villain. You should be in one of my movies!”

You don’t have anything scheduled yet for your next film. What are you developing now?
I’ve never developed anything. Things come at me with great rudiments. There are three or four feature film projects that could be next. Sometimes my films have a strange fate.

In 1992, you released Lessons of Darkness, a haunting quasi-documentary mostly consisting of helicopter shots of the burning Kuwait oil fields, Hussein’s so-called scorched earth policy. The film was seen as your own unique commentary on the Gulf War. Are there projects you want to make now to comment on today?
I think Salt and Fire would be a good example. I do have a few feature film ideas that are all very much about the world today.

What can you tell me about those?
It would be too early to say something. It depends which one gets financed first.

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This is your third time directing Michael Shannon in a film.
He’s the best of his generation in my opinion.

It seems like you two share a lot of sensibilities, in terms of your style. Both of you are concise and unfussy.
Probably. You probably know that I was the first one who burdened him with a leading character role, in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. I didn’t discover him but I engaged him in his first big leading part.

What’s the collaboration like between you and him?
Instant rapport. Very, very easy. I’ve always had a good time with actors. Nicolas Cage [in Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans] and Nicole Kidman [in Queen of the Desert] and Christian Bale [in Rescue Dawn], all very easy to work with them. Maybe the only conflicted sort of relationship was with Klaus Kinski. But even there I made his egomania and his paranoia kind of seductive for the screen.

You made My Best Fiend about him, which is one of the great documentaries about friendship and performance. He died in 1991 but people are still fascinated by him. And by you, too. How aware are you of that fascination?
It’s bizarre that the internet or something else out there that has embraced me. The internet has a lot of bizarre qualities. I would say it has something to do with a clear understanding of something authentic. When you look at Facebook, it’s all embellished selves. It’s all fake, all those personas created online. If there’s somebody out there who’s hardcore, somehow the internet understands it.

Are you able to see some of those interpretations of you?
There are at least 25 or 30 or maybe 40 doppelgängers and imposters of me out there. There is [a parody] Twitter, which is not me. There is Facebook, which is not me. There are letters to my cleaning lady, which were not written by me. And the are voice impersonators. And there are people who give advice in my name while trying to imitate my voice.

Do you have some affection towards all those?
Perhaps. I have to get accustomed to the different ways that the wider public spends their time. And I know that I should not overlook the glorious achievements of the internet. I’m fascinated by it, of course. What else can I say?