How Werner Herzog ended up helming a kind of remake of Abel Ferarra’s 1992 film, starring Nicolas Cage, I don’t know, and don’t really want to. I prefer to think of it as a product from an alternate universe where Herzog does this kind of thing all the time. What you need to know: it’s a blast, and funny as hell, with Ferrrara’s gritty, tortured Catholicism tossed in favour of wilful absurdity and a plethora of lizards. Cage is terrific, with a lopsided gait and a crackpipe laugh, torturing grannies and shaking down football stars, screaming one quotable line after another. It’s every cop show cliché reflected in a hall of mirrors - wholly indecent fun.
Still mystified by what I’ve seen, I hook up with Vertigo online editor Robert Chilcott to talk about the film. Earlier plans to play the dialogue with Robert as Ferrara and me as Herzog are abandoned as Robert fears the substance abuse would kill him, and I fear that I can’t take a bullet with the required sang-froid. We open in a café in Victoria, surrounded by notes, both versions of Bad Lieutenant on the laptop.
Robert Chilcott: This shot (of the iguanas) is filmed by Herzog himself? It’s his point of view. He is the iguana.
Mark Stafford: When they had a press conference at Cannes last year, Herzog praised the iguanas as the best thing in the film. And you also have Englebert Humperdink singing ‘Please release me, let me go..’
RC: That’s Herzog, stepping outside of this detective genre, disdainful of the conventions of the script.
MS: I find myself hesitant to describe it as a great film. Before the press screening of MICMACS I went to, there was a circle of top rank film critics knocking back the freebie wine and quoting line after line from Bad Lieutenant with obvious delight. Contrast this with a friend of mine who just saw it on some kind of download and thought that Nicolas Cage, and the film in general, were awful. I think that tells you what the reception for it is going to be. Filmheads are gonna love it, but I don’t know if it works properly for anyone outside of the circle of celluloid junkies.
RC: Sure. There’s all this stuff in it that is fairly generic. There’s a crime, the cop solves it, all a bit too CSI. But Herzog takes it to a different level with his asides. And Cage’s performance, his little chuckle whenever he mentions ‘your boy G’. He knows there’s something ludicrous about the whole thing.
MS: The same laugh every time. He’s there from the word go, the profanity, the hunched back, the gun in the waist band. He’s just fun to watch.
RC: And Herzog is the reptile - hissing, pissing, laughing. The joke is on everyone else. Who’s this idiot cop and this straight-to-video storyline. He empathises with the alligators, the iguanas, the snake at the beginning. The fish in the tank at the end, they’re all cold-blooded. It’s a big prank.
MS: Herzog has said that he hadn’t seen Ferrara’s Lieutenant. Ferrara is a Catholic boy, albeit of a heavy-drinking, drug-taking persuasion. His film is all about sin and redemption in a very staunch, religious, Graham Greene way. Herzog, of course, happily believes in an entirely meaningless universe of hostility, cruelty, and death. He’s not gonna take the sin and redemption angle seriously. There’s warmth there, in the characters, the dad, his girlfriend, all lovely people, but essentially Herzog’s removed, it’s all absurd.
RC: The Ferrara is a more serious film, more serious in its aesthetic, slower paced. A shorter film, but with longer takes. Cage revels in the mania of his drug abuse. Harvey Keitel is a sluggish coke addict, he doesn’t look like he’s having a very good time on it. Then there’s the rape of the nun, which he can’t really deal with. But that’s absent here, Cage’s soul is not tied to the case. And it’s almost like he’s taking coke for medicinal reasons, for his back pain!
MS: There is the murder of an immigrant family, but you’re right. Apart from being a terrible degenerate, Cage is a good cop, he seems to have his eyes on the prize and his heart in the right place - whereas you genuinely fear for Harvey.
RC: Though there is a redemption scene in this new one. Chavez, the prisoner he rescues at the beginning, saves him at the end. There’s a full circle. There is reflection in the final scene.
MS: It’s just not played out in such Catholic terms. It is a lovely ending. Apparently it arose from an improvised Herzog line, though typically it takes place 15 minutes after most directors would have finished the film.
RC: Keitel’s cop meets a fairly squalid end, whereas Cage’s lieutenant triumphs in the most absurd extreme, where everything just seems to go ridiculously right for him.
MS: It’s like a parody of your normal ‘well written’ Hollywood film, where the resolution is wholly brought about by the hero’s actions and his will is forced upon the world, but here…
RC: It’s luck, or fate. It all falls into his lap. Like when he tries to fix the football game, it doesn’t work, and yet the results of the game turn out right for him anyway.
MS: Well, he brings some of it about. The fate of Big Fate, the murderous gangster, is his doing. But the rest of it, it fits into Herzog’s world view. Blind chance has a much bigger role in life than Hollywood would allow.
RC: And what about this bizarre character that says ‘whoah’ all the time. Again, it’s Herzog taking the piss?
MS: I think that’s typical of the reason a lot of people expecting a grim thriller, or a similar film to the Ferrara, are going to be nonplussed, there’s all this odd broad comedy. There’s the bit with the old lady’s oxygen tube, and this ‘whoah’ guy who gives a ridiculous, mannered performance, but at the same time I could happily believe in him as a person, even though it’s completely mad. It’s like someone showed him and Cage tapes of the Herzog/Kinski films and said ‘look, this is how far you can go, this is what Werner’s happy with’.
RC: With Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and the other films they made together, you kind of knew that Klaus Kinski was Herzog, there’s not much doubt that he’s an alter ego.
MS: In this scene and elsewhere, there’s B-movie dialogue and bits of business that would sit happily in Miami Vice. And then you’ve got bits like this guy, which would just not.
RC: Ferrara directed two episodes of Miami Vice.
MS: Herzog didn’t need to. He’s had this career, the amazing art-house hits of the 70s, then he disappears, for many people, into the documentaries in the 80s, and in the last 10 years or so he’s come back as this incredibly prolific great director who’s all over the shop. Ed Pressman offers him this and he says sure. Knocks it out on a 35-day shoot. You end up with the least Herzog Herzog film. But it’s still utterly his.
RC: The general critical consensus is that he’s made a lot of poor fictional features in the last 10 years, but that his documentaries are superior. Where does this fit in?
MC: I love it, but I’m a Herzog fan. I think three quarters of the viewing public are just going to think it’s a thriller made wrong, that somebody screwed up along the way, or that it’s a comedy that isn’t consistently funny enough. I think that unevenness of tone, the sense of play, is part of what makes it entertaining. But most people are going to think it’s a sloppy mess. Camera shadows in shot and all…
RC: There is a scene that could be out of The Wire where Big Fate is going to buy condos, get into real estate, and he wants Cage’s cop to be the frontman for it. There’s this whole political corruption angle which…
MS: …which doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no time for it. But again, Big Fate is delivering his spiel while at the same time his two henchmen are pulling an obvious wrapped body out of the back of the SUV and dumping it in the river, so the scene becomes absurd comedy. That’s the film all over. The post-Katrina setting adds a definite presence to the film, but the post-Katrina politics aren’t explored, and the tourist New Orleans is wholly absent, not a blues bar in sight. Only one cemetery scene. It says in the notes that they filmed there mainly because of the tax breaks. It was a good decision. Cage says that New Orleans was the town that turned him into a philosopher, which is why you should never read interviews with actors.
RC: One of his philosophical principles in the film is ‘it’s amazing how much you can get done when you’ve got a simple purpose guiding you through life’.
MS: It sounds like something Ferris Bueller could say. I don’t know if it’s great philosophy, it’s a good T-shirt. It’s something that could be said by a great violinist, or a paedophile (laughs).
RC: A Katherine Hamnett T-shirt from the 80s. Here’s another: ‘When we engage with another human being we remind ourselves we are not alone’. That’s probably a quote from somewhere else that they’ve re-attributed.
MS: ‘When we engage with water we remind ourselves we are not always damp’.
RC: This one works better, in larger font: ‘Shoot him again - his soul is still dancing!’
MS: I’d get that shirt. That’s going to get quoted. Together with I’ll shoot you ’til the break of dawn!’. And ‘You mean you don’t have a lucky crack pipe?’
RC: There’s a scene where Cage gets a couple coming out of a nightclub and basically shakes them down, then makes it with the girl, forcing her boyfriend to watch. With the earlier film, Keitel gets two girls to talk dirty to him while he jerks off.
MS: In the Herzog it’s funnier, it’s outrageous. In the Ferrara it’s a scene of seedy depravity, it’s much more unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch, you’re wondering where the hell it’s going to go.
RC: It’s good to wonder. It’s good to not know.
MS: Abel Ferrara’s film is probably of more worth as a piece of art. But comparisons are futile. It’s like rating a garage punk band versus the Brodsky quartet.
RC: What’s the last Abel Ferrara film you saw?
MS: (long pause) I don’t remember. He came out of the arty end of the Times Square grindhouse cinema, with Driller Killer and Ms 45. He’s like a cousin of the cinema of transgression, like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern, but his work was just disciplined and shaped enough to play ‘proper’ theatres. His Lieutenant is pretty lean and mean, Herzog’s is baggy, oddly shaped.
RC: In the Ferrara film there’s a lot of indulgent scenes of Keitel following the Mets games coverage. He’s driving around listening to the game, the Mets lose and he shoots the radio. Everyone looks at him, so he just puts the police siren on and drives away. Now that could be a Cage/Herzog moment.
MS: There’s no scene in the Herzog as screamingly raw as that one of Harvey Keitel, out of his mind, naked and crying like a baby. His body looked like concrete covered in rubber.
RC: Ferrara said that finding out the film was being remade was a horrible feeling ‘like being robbed’. And that ‘They should all die in hell’, and wondered how Cage ‘had the nerve to play Harvey Keitel’, and called (screenwriter) Finkelstein ‘an idiot, man’.
MS: ‘He then vomited and fell off the sofa’. I guess that the difference between the two Lieutenants is that, in true punk spirit Ferrara ‘means it, maaan’, and Herzog’s playing games.
RC: The two films are separated at birth. Two babies throwing their toys out of the pram.
Mark Stafford and Robert Chilcott