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Werner Herzog on Funding His New Film: ‘The Only Thing I Haven’t Done Is Bank Robbery’

Werner Herzog’s “Family Romance, LLC” is almost a meta-movie, about a world of artifice within the world of artifice of a film. Playing in the special screenings section in Cannes, the picture follows a man who is hired to impersonate the missing father of a 12-year-old girl. The film was shot in Japan with non-professional actors and is in Japanese. The famed director tells Variety about the genesis of the project, his rogue approach to filmmaking, and how not speaking Japanese wasn’t a hindrance.

How is it to be at Cannes with a movie?

I haven’t been here for 25 years. I had quite a few films in the ’70s and early ’80s here. I always liked it because it had a serious side to it, and that’s a market.

Did “Family Romance” come together quickly?

It came very quickly; it was instantly there. I knew it was so big I had to immediately tackle it. And there was competition, I believe, from Amblin that wanted to something like that. I do believe one of the great actors of Hollywood wanted to do something about it. But before they even sent the deal memo to an attorney, I was already filming.

It’s Japanese-language. How challenging was that?

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It was done with a complete sense of freedom. I didn’t have the demands of having one or two world stars in it. I started filming with this great sense of freedom – essentially I’m stepping back into filmmaking like [1972’s] “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” or even [1970’s] “Even Dwarfs Started Small,” this complete sense of freedom and joy of filmmaking.

Do you speak any Japanese?

I do not speak Japanese. The go-betweens while shooting were intelligent translators. It made me even faster because I did not have to have the spoken dialogue verbatim. It was clear the actors would have a situation that they had to act in and very clear demands: ‘This part of the dialogue has to be hit at this mark, but how you are getting to that point you can articulate in Japanese. You don’t have to learn a text; you have to learn a situation.’

Listening to the dialogue I could sense if the mood was right or off target. It came with ease.

Was funding the picture a challenge?

I funded it myself completely, and my company Skellig Rock is the production company. I have done two more films in the last 12 months, and I earned some of the money through that. I’m still earning through other things I am doing – for example, through “The Mandalorian” part. Through the “The Mandalorian” earnings I partially finance “Family Romance.” It’s my own money, and I earn it in all sorts of ways. The only thing I haven’t done is bank robbery.

Is the resulting picture going to surprise people?

In my film there is not a single moment that you have ever seen in a movie, although it looks completely normal and regular. When you take a good look, there is not a single thing you have ever seen in any movie. That was completely organic. The awe comes because you have not seen what you are seeing there.

You shoot what you really want to see on the screen. It’s only the essence. That’s the only thing I would film. Because of that, I have barely 300 to 350 minutes of footage in total. It’s very natural for me, and nothing is missing.

Does that rogue filmmaking style mean that a wider selection of people can make movies?

Of course – just look at “Family Romance.” If you are barefoot native from the Andes in Peru, you can make a feature film.

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