From the Peruvian rainforest to the Katmai Alaskan Wilderness, the depths of the Chauvet caves of Southern France to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Werner Herzog is a journeyman who has long questioned man’s relationship with nature. In Salt and Fire, Herzog takes us to Bolivia’s sprawling Salar de Uyuni, the worst’s largest salt flat. A desolate beauty of biblical proportion, here transpires a kidnapping and desertion in this eco-minded quasi-thriller that feels like a natural extension of Herzog’s last documentary, Into the Inferno. The auteur again twisting his most recent obsession (volcanoes) into narrative form to varying success.
Salt and Fire is fundamentally grounded in global environmental anxieties that, with the smack of President Trump’s latest executive undermining of environmental law, ring especially harrowing today. Even when his human characters sway a hair robotic and didactic, stating their intentions sans the sheen of normative human interaction, there is a clarity of message to Herzog’s plain-faced philosophizing. At this literal end of the world, man’s affair with nature is most precarious. It’s delivered with little nuance, but at least he’s attempting to make his point.
Celebrated German actress Veronica Ferres plays Laura, an ecologist commissioned by the U.N. to investigate a recent ecological disaster who must flirt the line between science and emotion. I spoke with Veronica about fulfilling the dream of working with a living legend, shooting on location in some breathtaking locales, getting in touch with nature and acting alongside Michael Shannon.
Working with someone like Werner Herzog is a dream that a lot of actors and actresses have throughout their lifetime. Can you give me a walkthrough of what it was like working with him and what’s so different about working with him as opposed to other directors?
Veronica Ferres: Werner is a volcano to work with. He is very intense but very easy to work with. You just do exactly what he tells you to do and that’s the exact way. He has a very strong vision about everything and he’s playing with the pressure that he puts on actors because he’s only shooting one take. So you have to be at the highest of your acting when the camera rolls. I felt very, very much loved and supported and it was a very intimate relationship. Very few people were part of the crew. There was no makeup. No wardrobe. When I was thirsty, Werner gave me the water. He gave me coffee because it was very cold in the morning. The relationship that he builds with an actor is very intimate.
The film really urges audiences to think of environment issues in terms of emotional impact and not just raw scientific data. What are you and Werner hoping that audiences will take away from this and the conversations that it will spark?
VF: I always try to go into a movie with no expectations but for sure I was very excited. The last movie he was doing with Nicole Kidman and you know how everything happens. I was taking a domestic flight years ago in Europe and in the airplane in the first row Werner Herzog was sitting with his wife. The day before I started reading one of his novels and I had his book in my handbag and I wanted to ask him for his autograph. I felt so bad, like a groupie, so I asked him, “Can you sign this? My name is Veronica Ferres.” And he said, “I know who you are. I will work with you one day.” I thought he was kidding. Two months later, he wrote me a nice note and I was so proud. Two months later, he called me and said he was working on something for me. “Would you mind reading it?” And I said, “Sure I would love to.” He said, “Your character’s name is Laura” and I thought ok, she is probably the supporting part, not the leading part. She’s probably opening the door or she’s a servant or a cleaning lady. And Laura was on page one to page 120. I started crying. It was a dream come true to work with this icon that I admire so much. And then a couple of months we started shooting in Bolivia. 15,000 feet of altitude and sometimes no running water, no TV, no telephone, no reception, no email. It was incredible.
It sounds like a very immersive shooting experience. Some of the places where you shot the film are truly breathtaking, in particular the ocean of salt which plays such a big role in the film. Can you talk about going out and experiencing these unbelievable landscapes and having Werner as somewhat of an interpreter, as someone who is so close to and in touch with nature?
VF: Nature never had so much cruelty and beauty to me. By setting his characters in an environment where nature is kind of inspiring them but threatening at the same moment. The second half of the movie, when she is in the desert with the two blind boys – who were really blind – it was a completely different kind of working because the kids were not actors and I had to improvise everything because you never knew what they were going to do and I was not speaking their language and they couldn’t speak any English.
So all of that stuff out in the desert is fairly improvised? Was there blocking you were working from or would Werner roll the camera and you would see what you would find.
VF: There was blocking but when the camera was rolling, the blocking became useless. They were doing what they were doing. At some point, we just didn’t rehearse. We would just have the camera roll and be in the situation. I admire these two actors, these two kids, because they were so transparent and so part of the moment and so grateful and generous. They were playing with a little thing they found on the floor and were playing for hours. When you see our kids in our civilizations here, they need special games and internet and so many things for their attention or to have fun.
Your character Laura has this tendency to state exactly what she’s thinking and exactly what she’s feeling even when she’s in danger, to her captors she will say exact what she means and that’s something that’s rare in both real life and in movie characters. What is it like playing a character where you can really take everything she says at face value?
VF: Because of the intense situation she’s in and she doesn’t know whether in the next moment whether they are going to kill her or rape her or if in the desert they will run out of water and die of thirst or they are running out of food. The situation is so extreme that she has no choice but to enjoy every moment and take every moment as it comes. It’s the purest form of life that she’s ever experiences. She is very concerned but there is no calculation, no manipulation. It’s just her and nature and if she’s gonna make it, the kids are going to make it. If she’s calm and not showing her fears to the children then they will stay calm. So she’s taking them at night in her arms and warming them and cuddling them. It’s a beautiful relationship that starts between them – the two blind boys and this replacement mother. When at the end, Michael Shannon explains that scientists always try to measure things and are always writing data and statistics whereas you should experience with your own life and your own fear and your own loneliness what we are going through here because of this disaster. And we are tired of you just writing statistics. That’s not the way it works.
What was it like working with Michael Shannon? He’s such an interesting guy.
VF: He is actually one of the best actors in the world. He’s so powerful. He’s very shy but very respectful. He’s a real gentleman to women. He’s very supportive and very professional and very well prepared.