10 takeaways about filmmaking from Werner Herzog’s Masterclass

In this post you will read my most useful take-aways from Werner Herzhog's Masterclass.

Werner Herzog is a German screenwriter and film director. When he was only 19 years old, he had already created his first film. Herzog is notorious for having a peculiar approach when it comes to creating films. For example: large parts of his films were shot without any storyboard. He’s also known to push boundaries of what people think is possible such as pulling a full-size ship over a mountain in his film “Fitzcarraldo” (1982), or working with extremely challenging actors such as Klaus Kinski, who allegedly was a very difficult personality to work with on set.

During his Masterclass, released in 2016, Werner Herzog shared several valuable insights about filmmaking, the life of a filmmaker and working with other people on set. Whether you’re a beginning or experienced storyteller, I found Herzog’s Masterclas to be suited for anyone who is looking for human insights rather than practical information. Here are my ten takeaways about filmmaking and storytelling from his Masterclass.

#1: Read, read, read

Reading is an important part of developing yourself as a storyteller. Not only do you learn to construct stories from the ground up, it also allows you to force yourself into any kind of creative mood. Werner himself reads advanced poetry before beginning to write a script, as it raises the level of language and complexity. “I have never met a single good filmmaker that doesn’t read. Even if you went to a prestigious film school, you will be mediocre at best”.

#2: Have a sense of urgency

When working on a script or story, having a sense of urgency can help you push yourself into a certain stream of consciousness. Werner himself doesn’t work on a script longer than 5 days, but during these 5 days he is intensely focused on his craft. You can use books, music and locations to help yourself focus on the story, rather than thinking too much about the construction of it. He doesn’t believe in the three-act structure and would rather let this creative flow dictate the direction of the story.

#3: Be your own producer

As a filmmaker, it’s crucial to know everything that’s even remotely connected with the production of your own film. Do not only master your specific craft, whether that’s directing or operating a camera, but increase your overall knowledge. Being in full control of your own cashflow and knowing where every single euro you spend is going to, will help you remain an overview and will also force you to understand where things go wrong, if they do.

Odds are small that anyone is willing to immediately fund your first film. Werner created several short films before getting picked up, and even got rejected in the most brutal ways. Take up your responsibility, fund your own film and learn it the hard way.

#4: Use your body

In the Masterclass in which he explains how to use a camera, Werner repeatedly mentions to ‘use your body’. It’s not just a piece of advice for camera operators, it actually represents a whole film-making mindset. It’s part of a strategy in which you as a filmmaker become so deeply involved in the subject, that you do not, for example, have to look into the viewfinder anymore. Beautiful images are just a result of your craft, but should never be the purpose. Momentum is always more important than perfecting your shot.

A simple analogy that can be used to further explain this insight is the principle of beautiful handwriting. The more you become aware of it, the less you will be focusing on the actual content. The style of the handwriting should be the result of an unconscious process that doesn’t distract your mind from what’s intrinsically important: the story.

#5: Don’t over-rehearse

Over-rehearsing your shots will extinguish a spontaneous spark. Giving your actors the freedom to fill in some gaps themselves can also lead to highly creative results. Werner doesn’t like to give too much background information to his actors either. He prefers to go for a more spontaneous style with room for improvisation. It’s the human performance that matters.

#6: Have a second set of eyes in the editing room

Even though Herzog’s approach is all about enrolling yourself in any kind of vision, he likes to have a second set of eyes in the editing room, and there’s a very specific reason for that: a story, film or text, is always written for an audience. It may sound like an obvious statement, but it isn’t quite that. It’s easy to get caught up in your own goals and realizations whereas films should be created to be watched by others. He even went as far as saying that “making a film for your own personal growth is one of the stupidest things”.

I completely agree with the second set of eyes, but I’m not sure whether I agree that films shouldn’t be created for your own benefit. Especially when you are at the beginning of your filmmaking journey, each film you make contributes towards an inner growth, as it can develop the way you perceive things. Personally, I love seeking for the creator in movies, and especially student shorts, as it tells a lot about the person. And when I can feel that the film somehow transformed its creator, or stemmed from a transformation, it adds to the beauty of the piece.

#7: It’s not an interview, it’s a conversation

Herzog is well-known for numerous documentaries, in which he often challenges and pushes his interviewees (sometimes even to an extreme extent). That’s because he doesn’t really treat an interaction as an interview, but a conversation. Keep the conversations short, under one hour at a time. And above all: be genuinely interested in the story of the person that is sitting in front of the camera. Lean forward and show a genuine expression. However, being interested doesn’t mean that you should be too deeply involved. Stay professional, know your craft, and get to the heart of the story as quickly as possible.

#8: Facts do not always constitute truth

This insight is one of my favorites. “We should divorce documentaries from investigative journalism”, Herzog says. A documentary shouldn’t always be just about the facts. That would make a boring documentary. Even if it is very obvious that something is staged, it can still offer a great deal of value to the viewer, because it helps them to get deeper involved.

I find this insight to particularly helpful because I experienced the same feeling when creating Beneat The Water’s Surface. It’s not investigative journalism by all means, but it does contain some true stories. At the beginning, I was very hesitant to include my own views and atmosphere, but I soon realized that is was more of a necessity than a choice. Without the suggestive music, melancholic voice-over and the deliberate choice of which parts of the story to tell and which to leave out, it would have never touched anyone.

#9: Keep your curiosity awake at all times

In one of the first episodes of the Masterclass, Herzog recommends the book ‘The Peregrine‘. I’ve read the book and it’s wonderful. J.A. Baker, the writer, describes the simple act of observing a peregrine as it if were a poem, during over 200 pages. Having the ability to do so is a remarkable skill that can only be learned by keeping your curiosity awake at all times. If you want to capture beautiful things and translate them into a story, you will always need a sense of wonder. I think that this also contributes to a deeper understanding of any subject, which can help you to develop a story that makes more sense.

#10: Be a thieve

You are a thieve. Your job as a storyteller is to be the person “who gets away with loot from the most beautiful, scary and spectacular places you can ever find”. Being a thieve is hard. Rejection will come. The [film] industry is ruthless. But at the end of they day… your work should make you and your crew think: “man, what a performance”.

His Masterclass contains plenty of other insights. If you want to learn more about his style of storytelling, do take the Masterclass. I promise, you won’t regret it.