They Call Me Verner

Northern Territory-based cinematographer Chris Tangey collaborates with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog by Chris Tangey

There would be few ACS members who aren’t used to working with big names. In fact some of those names include our own members!

A few months back, I had just finished shooting drone footage on a television commercial for Tourism Australia – under our own legend Russell Boyd ACS ASC – when the phone rang. “Werner Herzog wants you to do aerials for his new feature documentary.” To be honest, I didn’t really hear much of the rest of the conversation from the BBC Producer. Some names are ‘big’ for reasons that go beyond their filmmaking skills.

Herzog? The man who was shot during a BBC interview in Hollywood and wanted to carry on? “It was an insignificant bullet,” he calmly stated in his iconic German stilt. Herzog, the man who spent four years in the Amazon hauling a three-hundred ton boat between two rivers to give his feature film Fitzcaraldo (1982) authenticity? Not to mention the extraordinary making-of Fitzcaraldo documentary Burden of Dreams (1983) that captured it warts and all? Herzog. The man who ate a shoe for a bet. The man who hypnotised his entire cast on the feature Heart of Glass (1976). And so it goes.

As the film is yet to broadcast, and with the ever-present Non-Disclosure Agreements we have to contend with, I cannot really talk about the project… yet. Suffice to say the film is tied to Herzog’s old stomping grounds of Alice Springs and Coober Pedy from some decades earlier.

What is this now 76-year-old like to work with? He is perfectly normal, and yet perfectly not.

He carries with him a Germanic politeness and stand-offish acquaintance, yet when he met our elderly, and quite crazy, Greek mine worker in Coober Pedy, there was an explosion of soul-mating that I have never experienced before. An afternoon of filming turned into a joyous time of ouzo and banter instead. Did he come here for the opal mining? “No, I just like to make bombs. Have another drink you old German bastard!”, he replied.

Surprisingly to me, Werner Herzog – I always called him ‘Verner’ – became a big fan of the Victoria Bitter stubbie – he always called it ‘Wee Bee’ – as we travelled huge distances in the outback. His daily dose was usually consumed during the end-of-day story. But they were never self-important tales, and never for their own sake. From the time Mick Jagger invited him to the recording session for the ‘Tattoo You’ album, causing him to nod off in boredom. To the story of the snake-bitten Peruvian Indian, realising he was out of reach of the anti-venom, promptly calculated his only survival chance was to start his chainsaw and cut his own foot off. And he was right.

Apart from anything else you get the sense Herzog is still on an inexorable journey, still trying to find the answer to life, the universe and everything. I am convinced though, he also knows his journey is ultimately futile. But at least he still smiles, “I don’t smile for photos, I look like a crazy man.

It’s ok ‘Verner’, not only have you earned your smile, our industry salutes you for it.

Chris Tangey is an award-wining cinematographer, camera and drone operator who has earned two Gold and several Silver ACS Awards.

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