Released in UK cinemas today, Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is an exploration into a grisly true crime story. Featuring conversations, Mr. Herzog stressed that these were not interviews, with a young man on death row, his accomplice and many of the people whose lives were touched by this particular crime, Into the Abyss speaks to the causes and consequences of murder and also to capital punishment in the United States.
I, and two other journalists, were lucky enough to speak to Mr. Herzog for roughly half an hour and he was as fascinating to speak to as his films are to watch. A transcript of this conversation can be found below.
How did you come across the subject and choose to make this film, at this time?
Well, it was a simple thing. Once I knew I was going to film with inmates on death row I looked at the nature of crimes and this was immediately conspicuous and standing out, because the amount of senselessness and the amount of nihilism of this crime. In a way, inexplicable for me. And until today, in a way, still inexplicable. You do understand, for example, a bank robbery and somebody starts to shoot and a bank clerk gets shot. It’s within our comprehension, but it’s very hard to really grasp what went on in this triple homicide. The amount of senselessness.
I would try to cover this case, a true American Gothic in a way, and there there are very clear steps that are mandatory. See, normally you have a different way of approach. Here the rules say you have to get in touch with the inmate in writing. Only if he or she answers back in writing and invites you, then the next step would be to ask the warden of the prison, the authorities, to allow you to do it. And then, of course, there are huge security restrictions, you are not even allowed, for instance, to have cash money on you. But you are clearly instructed how to behave, what to do. I was allowed only three persons with me as a technical crew and the rules are that you have less than one hour fifty minutes and that’s that. You can ask for a second encounter but there has to be a hiatus of at least three months in-between. It is super-maximum-security. And it is understandable that the State of Texas or the State of Florida does not want to see a death row inmate on a weekly basis in a talk show, for example [chuckles]. There has to be a real distance in time until you are allowed to see the person again.
With regards to the interviews, what’s your process like?
Number one, I do not do interviews. I have no questions. I do conversations but I have no catalogue of questions. And when they ask me, are you a TV journalist? I say ‘No I am a Bavarian filmmaker, I do films. But lets face it I’m not a journalist, I’m a poet.
Do you go in with information though or is it dependant on just what comes up?
I made myself quite knowledgeable about the case itself. I read the case file, which is around a thousand pages and I’ve seen crime scene videos, which you actually see in the film itself, photos, first reports from homicide detectives, listening to the tape confession of Michael Perry. So, I knew what happened in… in the real world, out there.
Perry confessed to the murder [Herzog interjects “Yeah, twice.”] and yet later is adamant that he’s innocent but you didn’t show him explaining why he confessed and then later changed his mind.
I told them in writing immediately, ‘this film is not meant to be a platform for you to prove your innocence. Are you still willing to see me?’ However, I gave them the chance to declare themselves and he proclaims his innocence. And I did not want to prove his guilt either. I’m not in the business of guilt or innocence, but for your comfort I can tell you that I have, for example, listened to the confession of Perry which is so in detail that only the perpetrator could know all the details. They’re all verified by findings at the crime scenes and what the film doesn’t even mention or show, during the subsequent murders of two teenage boys, after the mother of one of them was murdered, there was a girlfriend of one of the perpetrators along as an eye-witness. And an overwhelming amount of physical evidence. But we have to understand someone who has no defence any more and is going to be executed eight days later, talks him or herself, as a last recourse, into innocence. They possibly even believe in their innocence, because when you are ten years in solitary confident, in a concrete cubicle these things occur, and there’s no more defence for him. It shouldn’t give you sleepless nights as to whether he was innocent or guilty, what gives me sleepless nights is that there is capital punishment. I would be an advocate of life in prison.
It added another dimension speaking to Jason Burkett’s father but we didn’t hear from Perry’s family at all. Was that deliberate or were they not willing?
Well, what you hear in the film right at the beginning is that Perry’s father died only ten days ago, or twelve days ago. So, the father wasn’t there. He had no siblings and his mother categorically refused to be on camera. After Perry was executed I very cautiously approached her, ‘would it now, since everything is closed and your son is dead, would you like to reconsider’ and again it was no. From that moment on, of course, I would not bother the mother any more. But I had the feeling that after the execution she might like to say something of significance but there was a very laconic no and that was that.
There is a wave of films that are considered ‘issue films’ and there are many acts of advocacy in documentary filmmaking but your film does not really feel like that [Herzog – “No, it’s not my business”]. Was that something you were conscious of making Into the Abyss and how do you feel about that?
In principle I don’t like this ‘issue films’ and [exhales deeply] it’s not really what I really like to do. And capital punishment is not really the issue of this film, it’s an American Gothic and as the secondary title [A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life] suggests, all of a sudden what emerged from the footage was a kind of urgency of life, when we talk to someone who is on death row how do we see life. It’s not only a look into them, it’s a look into ourselves. As you mentioned, the father of Jason Burkett, he talks about life, about what he’s done wrong, how we should raise our children and it’s a very compelling and convincing take on it. Either way, not only the father of Burkett, but in other cases, when I’ve spoken to death row inmates and speaking about life and children and so on it’s always, always inevitably small family values. We have a tendency to dismiss it as petit bourgeois or whatever but all of a sudden it becomes serious, small family values and absence of family cohesions, broken families, drugs, all sorts of things.
When you spoke to people for the film was there anything that really surprised you, that you weren’t expecting to hear?
Everything is a surprise because I had no idea as to who I was going to run. There was no pre-production, there was no prior contact aside from the exception of a letter with an answer ‘Yes, you are invited to talk to me on camera’. Everything was from the first moment, every single moment was, unexpected and new terrain and a voyage into the unknown.
If you didn’t go in with any idea of questions how did you get that wonderful story from Alan, who said he’d done his last execution and was never going to do it again?
It’s not only him. If you look at the young man who was stabbed with a screwdriver through his chest, how I connect with him. Or the woman who was the daughter and sister of the victims. I do connect and I have it in me. I’m good at that. There’s no technique or anything and there’s no catalogue of questions. Can I bring it to the short formula? You can do this if you know the heart of men, then you can do it. You do a feature film and you work with actors if you know the heart of men. And all the actors in all my films are better than in all of their previous films, or their subsequent films. Kinski… Nicholas Cage, for example, has been better than ever before or after in my film. Christian Bale too.
You seem primarily interested in people’s stories. Who stood out to you in Into the Abyss as having a really interesting story?
Let’s face it, I’m a storyteller, number one. I’m making films for audiences and if you have no story, only traces of a story, you shouldn’t get into this profession. You have to put something on the screen that has fascination as a story, that gives us insight into ourselves, frightens us or exhilarates us. By the way there are a lot of exhilarating moments in the film.