Editor Joe Bini, who worked with Werner Herzog on twenty-seven films, recalls what it was like to collaborate with a larger-than-life filmmaker.
This is an excerpt of our interview with Joe Bini on editing Werner Herzog in our new ebook Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction film, out tomorrow. Click here to pre-order.
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Joe Bini is one of the most acclaimed and internationally recognised documentary film editors working today. He has twenty-seven features with Werner Herzog under his belt, and several more with other documentarians, such as Marina Zenovich’s Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008). It may surprise you to hear, then, that until he worked on his first Herzog film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), he had no interest in documentaries whatsoever.
“It all connected for me in this first viewing of the first film I ever worked on with him,” Bini recounted to me, describing when he first met Herzog and watched a rough cut of Little Dieter. The film tells the story of German-American war veteran Dieter Dengler, a colourful character who narrates to camera about the harrowing few months he spent in a Vietnamese jungle as a prisoner of the Vietnam War. The film changed the way Bini thought about documentary: it featured a dream sequence, used recreations, and was character- rather than narrative-focused. Suddenly, through collaborating with Herzog, he realised that all the things he loved about fiction cinema could be accomplished in nonfiction, too, with just as, if not more, exciting results.
Creating documentary character studies is an interesting proposition when you’re making films with Werner Herzog, whose public personality is so peculiar and distinct that he’s become a meme (something, Bini says, Herzog himself is very aware of). In this interview, an excerpt from a longer conversation featured in the ebook Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction film, Bini discusses the ups and downs of working with Werner Herzog for almost two decades. What is it like to collaborate with a man who is perceived almost cartoonishly by the outside world? How much is Werner Herzog’s on-screen persona a character and how much is the real man? Bini weighs in.
Pre-order Subjective realities (out tomorrow) to read the full interview, in which Bini goes into detail about the process of editing a Herzog film, his favourite films they made together, and why Grizzly Man (2005) has had such an enduring legacy.
Seventh Row (7R): Could you tell me a bit about your background as a filmmaker and how that led to editing with Werner Herzog?
Joe Bini: One day [when I was working as an editor in the ‘90s], I got a call from a friend of mine who worked at Zoetrope, which was [Francis Ford] Coppola’s company. He said that a famous filmmaker was in town and had been editing a documentary on Avid, and Zoetrope didn’t have Avid. He’s like, “You have Avid. Would you be interested in working with this guy?” I was like, “No, I don’t do documentary.” I was a real snob. But [I asked] who the filmmaker was. It was Werner Herzog.
The next day I’m sitting with Werner Herzog, and I feel like a complete asshole because I don’t know anything about [his documentary work]. The first day, when he showed me a cut of the film [Little Dieter Needs to Fly], I remember a couple of very specific things. One is that it had a dream sequence, which I had never conceived of being in a documentary. That a documentary could have a dream sequence — that it could be subjective in that way and deal with interior states of mind — was mind blowing.
The other thing was even more intense for me. There’s a scene in the film where [Herzog] takes Dieter back [to the Vietnamese jungle where he was a prisoner of war] and [Dieter] walks us through what happened to him. It’s weirdly staged. He has these guys standing [behind him] holding rifles. What are they doing? You never really quite understand. I guess they’re the guards [from his memory]… but this is a documentary!
There’s an amazing scene where [the guards] run him through the jungle, which is what they made him do when he was a prisoner. There’s this element of… you’re making the guy do that?! That’s kind of sadistic. It must be quite disturbing for him. So I’m connecting to the character on this level.
[Editing with Herzog] was always a very weird experience. It was just me and him. There weren’t other people chiming in on it. I didn’t realize, at the time, how exceptional that was, and how different that would be from the normal circumstance. We did what we wanted to do. That’s a really important thing to say [regarding how it shaped] who I am as a filmmaker.
7R: Herzog’s documentaries are famous for the voiceover that he almost always includes. A lot of documentaries try to make the director invisible, which sometimes makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it’s not clear what power dynamics are at play, and why this person is making the film. That’s very much not the case with him.
Joe Bini: There’s no stronger point of view than his. There are people who are that strong, but none stronger. Every one of his films is absolutely through his lens, both literally and figuratively. I was very comfortable with that from my narrative background, because it was narrative. When we talk about creative nonfiction, to me, that’s a fundamental question: whose eyes am I seeing this through?
I was also really comfortable with the fact that Werner Herzog is a character. Werner Herzog isn’t exactly like the Werner Herzog you see in the films. The other crucial point about his filmmaking, which you touched on, is the narration. There’s a few elements to that. One is him as a character. The more you watch the films, you know what he is like as a character.
There were two flavours of voiceover. There’s the pragmatic voiceover, which is about getting from here to there. In Little Dieter, I love how raw it is. There’s literally moments where Dieter’s talking, but he talks endlessly, so we turn the sound down and Werner says, “And then he said this, and then he went over here, and now he’s over here,” and then you turn this sound back up. (laughs) I remember on my first day, I was like, oh my god, that’s horrible. You can’t do that. Now, I really appreciate that the filmmaker is doing that, because it’s an understanding of what’s important.
Then, there’s a more poetic narration, which is what you think of when you think of the best Werner Herzog narration. It was not made like, “Here, I wrote a piece of narration; put some video on it,” or, “Here’s a nice piece of video; write some narration for it.” They [were produced at the] same time. It was very intuitive, like, “Right here, right now, we need some narration to get from here to there, but what do we want it to be about?” He might [think of something] that could come from an idea that he has, or it could come from an image.
If you look at the sentence structure, it’s really unique. You would never write like this. It’s quite poetic. You can tell that it’s following a line of thought, but if you don’t have the picture, you wouldn’t write it that way.
7R: It’s interesting that Werner Herzog is a character in pop culture now. I assume he’s quite aware of that?
Joe Bini: Yeah. I was always quite uncomfortable with it, and I still am. I’m not saying this as a criticism. I’m simply saying it was hard for me to sit with somebody for three months, who I knew in a specific way, and then somebody could walk in the door, and if it was the right person, he would turn on this persona. We would be at the Toronto Film Festival for a Q&A, and things that he would say, it was like, “I just don’t know how to take that, man!” (laughs) It was hard for me in the relationship. He has a persona in the world. He’s a meme. Especially now, he’s been on The Simpsons or whatever.
7R: To prepare for this interview, I looked at ‘Best Werner Herzog moments’ compilations on YouTube, and you get this montage of him saying outlandish things in voiceover, as well as clips from The Simpsons. It was interesting to see how that character is perceived.
Joe Bini: It’s super interesting. My skewed perspective is, I see that character as different from the character who I’m making in the editing room. The narrator character in any one of our films is partly me, too. That’s an important thing to say. It’s kind of an outrageous thing to say.
Going back to Little Dieter, when the film came out, particularly after Dieter passed away, I used to get a lot of questions about what was Dieter like? Tell me about Dieter? What happened to his wife? I felt so uncomfortable answering those questions, because frankly, I don’t give a shit about the real life [people behind the] characters in these films. I don’t see them as people. To me, a character in a documentary is a combination of a real person and the filmmaker who’s making a film about them. Just what they shot, let alone what they edit, is very pointed.
It’s another reason why, to me, it’s so important that it’s clear whose point of view this documentary is [from], so that you’re not suggesting at all that I am showing you this real person. I am showing you a character in a film. One thing I really love about Werner’s films is that that’s never a problem, because you understand that they’re all Werner Herzog characters. That’s partly because of the way they’re edited. Even he, as a character, is a filmmaking construct. I was a big part of that, [because I was] there when the narration was written and I co-wrote it to some degree — co-writing in the sense that I made imagery that structured the sentences.
7R: As well as the voiceover, Werner Herzog also appears in a lot of his films as an interviewer. I’m thinking of Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (2011), in particular, where the interviews are really vulnerable and emotional. He’s talking to people about grief and trauma. Is he more himself when he’s doing those interviews?
Joe Bini: I think so. I think he’s very humanistic in those interviews. I love that film for that reason. And hey, there’s no narration in it! We decided early on that that one would be super raw. It just didn’t feel right to aestheticise that film.
He comes across almost even more strongly in that film than in any other because of how he is in those interviews. He’s like an actor. I don’t know that he’s performing, but he brings this energy. It’s almost like Al Pacino or something, the energy he brings. But you’re never looking at Al Pacino; you’re looking at the other person [that he’s talking to]. [That energy is] so full on and so intense. Everybody you see, they’re responding to it.