When you walk into a Werner Herzog film, you know that you’re going to see something that’s at least slightly unusual. Admittedly, I’m not too well-versed on the director’s films, but I knew enough to know that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was going to be strange, and it certainly was. If you’d like to see Nicolas Cage snort various drugs, hallucinate about iguanas, and have sex with people on top of cars, step right up! It’s all here waiting for you.
Despite its moments of insanity, Herzog’s new film is also very solemn, showing post-Katrina New Orleans through an unflinching gaze. We follow the film’s characters through the nicer parts of the city, yet the slums also get their fair share of screen-time. As Herzog said himself, he wanted to avoid the touristy aspects of New Orleans, and he certainly succeeded. The polar opposites that the film depicts are very peculiar, and attempting to get to the bottom of them with Herzog himself was certainly an experience:
Thomas Sullivan: Just to settle things first and foremost, is this a remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, or a reboot?
Werner Herzog: Everyone who has seen my film knows there is no relation — you’re actually the last person to ask me that. I’ve never seen the film, yet I know the story, and they have nothing to do with each other. One of the producers of the film had the rights to the title, so we used that. We thought we could open a franchise. Abel Ferrara heard it was going to be remade, however, and he made a huge scene. He’s quite the character.
TS: Why did you choose this project?
WH: I thought the screenplay was well-written — it had wonderful dialogue. I hadn’t seen dialogue like that in a while. I got in touch with the screenwriter, and it became clear that we would not shoot in New York but in New Orleans because it was much cheaper. I also wanted to modify the script and add my own personal touch, so I added in the iguanas and the “wild stuff” and the “dancing souls.” These things evolved en-route, as it was not that we were prisoners of the screenplay. Nicolas Cage, in particular, had a lot of freedom to improvise. I told him to “turn the hog loose.”
TS: What was it like working with Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes? Had you met them before filming?
WH: I ran into Nicolas Cage about three years ago, but we didn’t really notice much of each other. Later, we both looked at each other’s works and enjoyed them, but it didn’t really occur to us to work together. Eventually, there was this outrage of “why are we not working together?” and we both decided that we weren’t going to do the film unless the other was involved too. The same for Eva Mendes. I knew her a little bit, knew that she didn’t have many films to her credit, yet I immediately had a feeling that it would make a great texture between Nic Cage and Eva Mendes. I had to fight to get her in the film.
TS: You haven’t really forayed into the “crime” genre before. Do you think you’ll be returning to it anytime soon?
WH: I have five or six other projects pushing me already, so I don’t really know. It’s not really a crime film, though — it’s more of a film noir. Certain times beg for a film noir like the Great Depression or other times of insecurity and financial collapse, and I thought this time period was appropriate for it. The film is so debased, so vile, thus hilarious. The audiences immediately responded to it.
TS: How was it getting so close to all of those animals, especially that alligator?
WH: I love to cast animals in important roles, though this is a different style, as they appear in a demented fantasy based on someone doing drugs. When I was shooting them, I was only millimeters away from the iguana. The other one was a desert lizard — very vicious. It bit me very hard and I could not shake it off. It was like a vice of steel holding onto me! It was a great moment for the entire cast.
TS: This was your first film to be shot in a big city. How was that experience?
WH: It was definitely new terrain for me, but the city of New Orleans is good with locations no matter what. I think New Orleans is a landscape and a location that has something very fascinating that I tried to find. Of course, it is way beyond the tourist postcard cliches like the French Quarter.
TS: As a cinema studies student, you say that you hate that academic field. Why?
WH: It probably hasn’t done very much good for you, but whatever. There’s no cerebral approach. It’s like how academia has almost killed poetry — it’s going to kill film as well. I hope film is robust enough to avoid dissection. Those who engage film are losers. You should shake that off as soon as you can.