It's a Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, summer just past, not quite fall, sometime between afternoon and evening. At a corner video store in West Los Angeles, CineFile, a cluster of people wait for an informal Q&A with filmmakers Zak Penn and Werner Herzog. Next door, the Nuart Theatre, a one-plex rarity with a triangular marquee and red neon sign that still works brilliantly, features Incident at Loch Ness, Zak Penn's new documentary starring Werner Herzog. The Nuart is a Landmark theater presenting both first run indies and art films; many independent films have had test runs here over the years.
Werner Herzog and Zak Penn
The waiting crowd is predominantly men of various ages, but a few women as well. Most of the crowd seems thirty-ish and forty-ish. Meanwhile, regular customers browse for their Saturday night selections, while the store clerks move a few DVD racks around to accommodate the waiting crowd. Many carry cameras or cling to books or DVDs to be signed. The sun hangs low at an hour before sunset, seeping in through a corner glass entrance and warming up the fluorescent lit store with its bold, warm colors and racks of VHS tapes and DVDs. There are predictable categories like "Directors" and whimsical ones like "Shade Tippin'" (including, for example, Risky Business, License to Drive or Doc Hollywood, featuring covers sporting actors in sunglasses, usually perched on the end of the nose.)
Zak Penn arrives first and begins browsing a few DVD titles, casually dressed and pretty much blending into the crowd. He chuckles when he sees the "Shade Tippin'" category. A few people who've seen Incident at Loch Ness recognize him and come up to ask questions. He cracks jokes easily and seems relaxed and eager to talk about his latest project. He jokes to storeowner Philip Anderson that he can't find a copy of Inspector Gadget, which he wrote the screenplay for. Scattered laughs from the customers and staff. Of course, Penn's directing now, after writing a string of movies that include, yes, Last Action Hero and Behind Enemy Lines, but also X2. Penn also is pleased to see a photo of himself on a flyer - which shows him with more hair than he's got now.
Penn's favorite Herzog films? His very favorite is The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, but Penn also has nice things to say about the more recent Little Deiter Needs to Fly. Which idea came first, Loch Ness or casting Werner Herzog in a film? Penn first thought of Loch Ness, but he'd also been dreaming up a project called "Herzog in Wonderland," a film about the German director's living the Wonderland Canyon area of Los Angeles. He then admitted that the house in Loch Ness is not Herzog's but his own, which adds to the mystery of what is real and not real in the film.
They were talking over a meal at a Westside restaurant when Penn proposed to Herzog that he act in his film about a documentary film crew investigating the myth of the Loch Ness monster. Herzog originally felt he should direct it, but Penn convinced him that it would be better if he directed and Herzog took the leading role. Apparently, little arm-twisting was required on Penn's part; he and Herzog had already been friends for some time. In the end, Penn merged "Herzog in Wonderland" with the Loch Ness idea, and so it went.
I ask Penn if Herzog, in front of the camera, had surprised him in any way. No, nothing about Herzog really threw him, but he was pleased to see how respectful the crew was to Herzog and how Herzog could get them to rally in moments of frustration. A huge help during difficult moments of filming.
When asked if the film was really made on location in Scotland, Penn quips that it was actually shot at Lake Castaic, but he retracts this the moment he realizes I'm falling for it, thanks to his deadpan delivery and my own gullibility. But it's an appropriate gag, considering all of Loch Ness is about what you fall for, what you don't; what's real, what isn't, and to what extent it's all a joke within a joke. Different viewers will have different takes; that's the fun. On top of that, we get to see Herzog poked fun at and Herzog poking fun at himself, though, in the end, Herzog comes out very respectably indeed. It might also be said that Penn, as an ambitious producer in Loch Ness, pokes most of the fun at himself, even if he gets many of the last laughs. He makes himself look like a complete idiot but in a rather brilliant way.
Herzog walks in a minute past his scheduled time, and the crowd recognizes him right away. He and Penn meet behind the store counter and ask the crowd how many have seen the movie and how many will go to the 7pm screening. Almost everyone raises their hands. There is a quick introductory talk about Loch Ness, wrapped with the warning that, for the sake of enjoying the ride, the less known, the better. There is also an emphasis on how important this weekend is to the future of the movie. Penn implores everyone to tell everyone they know about it so it'll have a fighting chance of hanging on during the first two weeks of release. Word of mouth is very good so far, but this is the first weekend for an independent film with a tiny marketing budget. Critical.
I have lots of questions about Loch Ness, having caught an earlier screening, but I also realize that most of them would be spoilers. So I shift strategies and instead hover around Herzog to pick up on his informal, personal Q&A as he autographs DVDs and books.
Herzog is relaxed, down to earth, intelligent, alternately earnest and funny. When he's serious, it's not necessarily the kind of serious one associates with films about wayward Spanish conquerors or madmen hauling steamships over mountains. He makes eye contact and greets every person and every question gently, respectfully, occasionally emphatically. His English is excellent, though there is that trace of a German accent - and a musicality in his voice which pulls you in and that, along with the intelligence in his eyes, allows you to feel you are a bit in his head, even standing there along with others for autographs under florescent lights.
Herzog splits his time between Germany and Los Angeles, but when he's not filming, he does consider Los Angeles his home. "Home is in America." He likes Los Angeles because, despite its reputation, he considers it a "serious city with serious writers." Not necessarily every screenwriter, he adds, but other kinds of writers as well. He likes the fact that Cal Tech, the bustling center of scientific discovery, is just thirty minutes from his home.
And as for America, "No one cares about where you come from or what you look like," especially if you're good at something. He cites the inspiring example of a Peruvian woman he heard of, very poor, going down to the US Patent Office and getting a patent despite her poverty and bare feet. He also tells of filming in Alaska with a crew member who was a cowboy and ex-rodeo rider: How the firmness of his handshake and the trust he felt from this individual reminds him of what he loves most about Americans.
When asked if he has strong political views, Herzog states emphatically that he does. And follows with an announcement that he won't be getting into them. "Let's not go into politics." Subject closed.
When it's my turn for autographs on my copies of Little Dieter and Kasper Hauser, I tell Herzog that I loved watching Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams, but taken together, they're exhausting. He says he thinks it's great for movies to make us work a little and then give us a release when we finish and walk out the door. How we can breath a sigh of relief, even. I agree. Of course.
Herzog's favorite directors? Many of the Iranian directors, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, but also Quentin Tarantino, DW Griffith and Elia Kazan. Also, Herzog admits to being crazy about Fred Astaire, despite his having "one of the most insipid faces he's ever seen." But he loves, loves Astaire nevertheless.
Herzog is currently wrapping up two movies simultaneously, both of which he has to deliver in about nine weeks. He's editing one during the day and one at night. One is a movie about Timothy Treadwell, the man who studied grizzly bears and was killed by them in Katmai National Park, Alaska, in October 2003. Herzog explains that the two films have overlapped due to the timing of having to be in Alaska during the peak of the salmon run. He recalls standing amongst scores of bears within ten feet of him while the cinematographer and crew kept back at a much greater distance. Ah! There is the Werner Herzog we know and love. The other film, The White Diamond, takes place in Guyana and is about how the locals interpret the appearance of an airship as a white diamond in the sky.
Later, out on the sidewalk, he bums a cigarette from two women and chats with them about the film deadlines, qualifying that he only smokes when he's finishing movies. When the movies are done, the smoking will be done. Meanwhile, he smokes.
Now Penn and Herzog watch moviegoers spill into the Nuart for the 7pm screening. The sun is very nearly down and out and the theater marquee blinks red above them, begging the ribbons of cars on the nearby 405 freeway to drop by. I could give it all away now: Incident at Loch Ness. But of course, I'll say nothing other than that I recommend catching it if you can. And I will say that I loved a line in the film about one of the characters needing to be "obsessed but credible."
Photos: Francine Taylor.