With his new film “Salt and Fire,” German filmmaker Werner Herzog once again blurs the line between fiction and documentary with a narrative that revisits one his most-explored subjects: man vs. nature.
Veronica Ferres stars as Laura Somerfeld, a research scientist sent to South America on behalf of the United Nations to investigate a man-made, lake-gulping ecological disaster dubbed “Diablo Blanco.”
Upon arrival, Laura and her colleagues (Gael Garcia Bernal and Volker Michalowsky) are met by a group of armed mercenaries who abduct the trio and abscond to a heavily guarded hacienda owned by mysterious and verbose businessman Matt Riley (Michael Shannon). As Laura prods for answers in a cat-and-mouse game with Riley and his sidekick Krauss—played by real-life physicist Lawrence Krauss—she discovers the men are not simply witnesses to a looming disaster below the equator.
When “Salt and Fire” debuted last year at the Toronto Film Festival, critics described Herzog’s latest project with a spectrum of phrases, including “clumsy but hilarious,” “thoroughly hypnotic,” “littered with preposterous musings,” “whimsical,” “dull and nearly pointless” and “surprising and occasionally beautiful.”
And while the most discerning cinephiles are generally in awe of the 74-year-old auteur’s works of fiction, from the 1979 horror flick “Nosferatu the Vampyre” to the 2009 Nic Cage crime drama “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” the responses to “Salt and Fire” are more reflective of the average moviegoer’s divisive reactions to Herzog filmmaking.
I recently caught up with “Salt and Fire” star and two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon to discuss the movie’s jaw-dropping locations, what it’s like to act with a physicist and why you should give Herzog a chance.
David Onda: When you were first presented with the script for “Salt and Fire,” what was the story within that you were eager and excited to tell?
Michael Shannon: I’m very drawn to any story that calls out the environmental catastrophe that we’re experiencing here on planet Earth, and deals with people trying to figure what to do about it and if it can be avoided. To that extent, this was an ideal script for me.
Onda: And you actually filmed this in the Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia. The images are stunning. I can’t imagine what it was like to be there in person.
Shannon: It was amazing. And I got to bring my little brother David. He came with me and we got to share that experience. He doesn’t travel much. He lives in Kentucky. Werner was very nice to him, actually. They got his ticket and got him a room at the hotel. He had a great time. It’s a very peaceful place, and it’s nice to get away from all the noise.
Onda: There is a brief scene in an incredible train graveyard. Was that an actual place?
Shannon: Yep! It’s an actual place. Everything in that movie is an actual place. That place blew my mind. The place where my character lives, that hacienda there, is the oldest hacienda in South America. It really does date from, I think, the 1500s. It’s all real.
Onda: Your character’s motives are a mystery for much of the movie and Werner’s script leaves a lot open for interpretation. How did you find the humanity in Matt Riley?
Shannon: I don’t know, I think he kind of lays it out in the end. He’s disillusioned and he feels like no matter what data gets collected and what scientists say, the world isn’t listening to it and no one’s taking it seriously. There’s a desperation, I think. It’s a desperation that I can say I empathize with. I would never carry it to that extreme by kidnapping somebody, but I’ve certainly had days where I thought, “What the hell is it gonna take for people to understand what’s going on here and do something about it?” That’s kind of the core of it, I guess.
Onda: Matt and Laura play this cat-and-mouse game that ranges from revulsion to admiration by the end. How did you work with Veronica to understand that arc?
Shannon: I think a lot of that arc is based in the chaos of the situation. I don’t think it’s something that you can necessarily chart out. I think, ultimately, they wind up being similar people in a way. They have very similar point of views and a similar sensitivity. At first, there’s some hostility, but a lot of that is defensive. It’s not aggressive hostility. It’s the kind of hostility people have when they’re scared. Take away the fear and you can really start to know another person. Once you get rid of that neurosis, then there can be a coming together at that point.
Onda: It’s not every day you see a physicist cast in a feature film in an acting role. What was it like working with Lawrence Krauss?
Shannon: It was fascinating. He’s obviously—it’s silly to even say it—but he’s a very intelligent man. I think that’s pretty vital when you’re acting. A lot of people think of it as an emotional form, but being very smart is helpful, too. I was always fascinated by what he was doing and how he was approaching it. I don’t think he’ll go off and play Hamlet or something. I think he knew that this was something that Werner created with him in mind, and it kind of fit his personality in a way. It was a lot of fun working with him.
Onda: It’s been several years since you last worked with Werner on “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” How did this experience differ, if at all, from your previous collaboration?
Shannon: This was a really fast shoot. We shot this movie in under 20 days. In a way, it was more relaxed than “My Son, My Son.” We were all living together. The hacienda where my character lives—that’s where we were all straying. We would work during the day and then we would have dinner in the kitchen at night, and we were just together all the time. It was almost like we were on a vacation or something. During the day, we would run around and shoot as much as we could, but it was never a terribly long day because Werner doesn’t like to work 14 hours a day because he knows there’s more to life than that. I think “My Son, My Son” was just more stressful. It’s also because the nature of the character was more stressful for me.
Onda: There are unexpected moments of humor in the movie, including a very entertaining photo shoot on the salt flats. Can you tell me about that?
Shannon: I think that’s part of Werner’s strategy, you know? He’s not interested in creating some facsimile of an actual life event. That bores him. I think he wants to keep people on their toes not knowing what to expect next. I think he feels that engages people in a different way, that they just can’t relax or zone out and be comfortable in their knowledge that they know what’s gonna come next. Werner’s personality works very much that way. Werner can go from being kind of tormented or frustrated about something to smiling and acting like everything’s OK. His personality is always very much in his films.
Onda: If you were watching this film with an audience and could point out some of the little things you love about it that they might not notice otherwise, what would you point out?
Shannon: It’s mostly, like you say, a matter of the things you get to see as you’re watching this movie. The things like that train graveyard, the locations. You’re seeing a part of the world that the majority of mankind will probably never see. That’s Werner’s gift to all of us. He has devoted his career to showing us things that we wouldn’t see otherwise. And I know, to a large extent, that’s what most artists and filmmakers do, but I think he’s done it to an extraordinary degree.
Onda: It’s no secret that Werner’s films are divisive. For people who may not have given his work a chance, what would you say to help them understand his style?
Shannon: It’s so hard, you know. As an artist, I’ve always been open to so many styles and forms and ways of telling a story. The only thing I can’t really tolerate is when people are relying on a system or formula that has already happened before and it’s producing something that’s basically safe. The thing about Werner is when someday he is gone, these films are going to represent the imagination of this incredible artist for years to come. And maybe someday we’ll catch up to him. Maybe someday we’ll catch up to his point of view.
“Salt and Fire” starring Michael Shannon is now showing in select cities and available to rent with XFINITY On Demand.