Back in July 2001 I wrote an early draft of Rescue Dawn for German filmmaker Werner Herzog. At first, I was just supposed to help with grammar and sentence structure, as well as assist with the soldier’s dialogue (it's a war film). But after meeting with him at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley and discussing the project, I was given free reign to re-write the entire screenplay, including the reworking of major scenes.
We also collaborated on several new scenes after going through my changes at his apartment. He would start by asking how I would respond to a certain situation, say a guy kicking me in the face while I was on the ground (the main character is a prisoner of war), and I would rattle off a series of vulgarities - just whatever came to mind - and he sat there and transcribed everything I said, verbatim, stopping only to inquire about the meaning of a particular word.
For lunch each day we went to the liquor store across the street and grabbed turkey sandwiches and Sobe fruit juices, which he seemed to enjoy. When we weren't working on the script we talked about books, Harmony Korine (who I admired), the pros and cons of digital video, and what it was like to walk from Berlin to Paris, which Herzog did in his early 20s to visit a sick mentor. After a few weeks, it almost felt like we were friends.
What strikes me now, as I look back on the experience, was his obsession with getting every little detail right. If I had a question about Dieter Dengler, the Naval officer whose story the film was based on, Herzog would go to his desk and pull out a handwritten letter from his archives, or an old photograph from the war, and he was like this little boy showing off his stocking at Christmas. His enthusiasm was contagious.
Herzog is often praised for his tenaciousness, and you realize the stories you hear about him are true, how he'll stop at nothing to get each film made, but he’s also so down-to-earth, so passionate about his craft, that you walk away from each conversation inspired.
What's interesting, though, is that I was warned about his temper beforehand. I heard all the crazy stories about him pulling a gun on Klaus Kinski back in the day, and I was told to watch my tone with him. Instead of working with a megalomaniac, though, I found him to be this gentle, soft-spoken man, and he couldn't have been any nicer.
At the time, I was thrilled just to work with him. In fact, when he left his initial voicemail I played it over and over, partially because I couldn’t understand his thick accent, but mainly because I was so happy he had discovered me. It was surreal. Here I was this no-name MFA student at the time, writing weird short stories that were really polarizing, and here was the master of German Cinema leaving me voicemails.
A few years pass and I'm teaching English at this junior college in Sacramento, and I hadn't heard from Werner in a long time. I guess I assumed the project had been scrapped. Maybe he couldn't find funding. Maybe he wanted to work on something else. Maybe he didn't like what I had done with his script.
Then, one night after watching Grizzly Man, Herzog's 2005 documentary about Timothy Treadwell, I started to do some research online. A few google searches and boom, I find the trailer for Rescue Dawn. It was exhilarating, and a bit strange, to hear Christian Bale – a great actor, in my opinion – say my lines.
When I first met Herzog I agreed to waive screenplay credit (it was, of course, his story), but he promised to credit me as a consultant. This was his idea, and it seemed perfectly, so I signed off on it without consulting an attorney. Five years later, when I finally saw the film opening weekend at the Embarcadero Theater in San Francisco (with, like, ten other people), I waited till the last credit on the screen rolled by. My name wasn't on it.
So it goes, I guess.