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First Person: Going Rogue at Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School

If you open my cell phone you’ll find a picture of Werner Herzog when he was 40 years old, directing Peruvian natives to pull his 340-ton steamboat over a mountain for his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. When I found out that this same behemoth of renegade cinema, Werner Herzog, was opening the first ever Rogue Film School, I knew that this was the academic experience I had skipped grad school for.

The school’s website confirmed it. Herzog is quoted on the homepage:

The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have traveled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lock picking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects…

Well, I had never done any of those things, but I understood his point and figured we were on the same page. Earlier in the year, I had produced and directed my first feature film that I shot in Brooklyn with small donations from 150 friends and family members, a credit card, and a volunteer crew of thirty dedicated souls. It was a gruesome shoot, and imagining Werner’s steamboat is what often got me over the proverbial hill. So I submitted an old short film, wrote the hell out of a 250-word application essay, paid my $25 fee, and got accepted three weeks later.

Next came the challenging part. Although I had gotten in, I soon learned that this would not be the twelve-student atelier that I had envisioned, but rather a fifty-person lecture. The weekend seminar would cost a whopping $1,450 that I didn’t have, and after raising money for my feature I had no stomach to roll out another campaign.

At this point I asked myself: What would Werner Herzog do?

Well, not only does the Rogue Film School’s syllabus include forging shooting permits, but I also heard Herzog once say he stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School because he “had a natural right to take it.” It seemed like he was telling me to forge my way into his film school.

I was lucky in that, upon acceptance, the administrator sent out the exact location and schedule for the class. My first thought was to confuse them during the Friday meet-and-greet and claim that I had paid. If they argued, I would produce a counterfeit Paypal receipt and the seminar would be over by the time they cleared it.

Then I had a better idea — and one less punishable. I should just sneak in. They couldn’t possibly check everyone’s ID all the time, and there must be a backdoor to the conference room through which I could slip.

I showed up at the Wilshire Plaza Hotel’s lobby bar to find forty or fifty young filmmakers milling about, with Werner Herzog himself at the center. He was engaging his students, actively trying to meet each one individually. Ages ranged from eighteen to forty, and each bright-eyed apprentice had a grey lanyard around his or her neck with a rectangular badge hanging from it. These were the credentials that would get each student into the seminar.

I needed a closer look. I perched myself near the bar as a pair of credentialed young ladies eagerly introduced themselves to me, assuming I was in the program and worth meeting. When they saw my missing badge, they excused themselves, and then hesitated for fear of rudeness. I seized the opportunity.

“What is this thing you’re all here for anyway?” I asked. They were excited to tell me about it.

“That man over there, Werner Herzog, is, well, our favorite film director, and —”

“What does this badge say?”

I grabbed the badge. They enjoyed my curiosity, admiring their new prizes along with me. We studied each letter together.

I felt like a secret agent. I used my fingers to measure the border design, using my pinky finger to approximate the width of the top margin and my thumb for the left. When we were done, I walked back to a booth and jotted down my notes on a napkin.

On my way home, I stopped at my cellist friend’s apartment to peruse her collection of backstage passes, and found a white lanyard and accompanying plastic ID holder that were the approximate size and shape. I spent two hours coloring the lanyard grey with marker and manufacturing the ID in Photoshop.

Everything was set. No element of my fake credentials was perfect, so I threw on a scarf and blazer to obscure it and readied myself to be the pretentious film guy whom no one could talk to.

I walked past the stooge at the door with a nod and a smile. He smiled back. I was in.

The school was what you’d expect. He got lock picking out of the way at the outset and quickly moved on to forgeries. He spoke of the World Trade Center antics of Phillipe Petit of Man on Wire fame, and recounted temporarily halting his shoot on the Peruvian Amazon only after getting shot at by a teenaged border guard. Two days later Herzog returned from Lima with a “beautiful” four-page forgery adorned with three large signatures and an official-looking German stamp that translated: “If you want the rights to this photograph, contact the owner of the copyright.”

We went over practicalities like releases (which he stressed) and final cut (which he de-emphasized). He moderated discourse over boundaries for the grotesque, and showed clips from both his films and students’ films to illustrate good versus bad camera movement, respectively.

I never introduced myself to Werner, as he had a habit of knowing every student and their films, and no trickster likes to be tricked. And on the last day, two hours before the seminar wrapped, one of the administrators tapped me quietly on the shoulder and asked me my name. I watched her double back to the desk, confer with her counterpart, and pick up her cell phone. As I bolted down the stairs and out of the hotel, one piece of advice Werner gave us rang in my ears: “When Klaus Kinski is foaming at the mouth, raging at you for two hours and a half… you must dazzle him by biting into the last piece of chocolate that you have.”

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