When you visit Bloomington, I’m sure you’ll be mobbed by a group of adoring young directors. How is the film industry they’ll face different than the one you did 40 years ago?
It’s a different world, but there are constants, which is encouraging. Then as now, there is no independent cinema—independent cinema is a myth. It only exists in your home videos of last Christmas. Everything else is dependent on financing, distribution, organization. But the means of production are much more accessible. With digital cameras and editing software, you can make a feature film now for $10,000. And there are new forms of distribution on the Internet. Where that’s going to lead us, I don’t know yet.
Your lecture in Indiana is titled “The Search for Ecstatic Truth.” Can you explain what you mean by that and how it relates to your films?
It’s fairly complex, but I’ll try to give you the stenogram answer. I believe most documentaries are too fact-based. Facts do not really represent the truth, per se. Otherwise, the Manhattan phone directory would be full of truth. Four million truths! The Manhattan phone directory does not illuminate you. There’s something beyond facts, something that only happens in poetry or music. I’m after that deeper stratum of truth.
I recently saw Into the Abyss and was surprised by the strong position it took against the death penalty. Was that your perspective when you began the documentary?
It has always been my position. But let me say that it’s not an activist film against the death penalty. It’s not an issue film. It’s a true American Gothic about a big senseless, meaningless crime. Being German, I come from a different historical background. Under the Nazis, in addition to the Holocaust, there were tens of thousands of examples of capital punishment. You could be executed for cracking a joke about Hitler. So I would be the last one to tell the American people how to handle their own criminal justice. I can only say I respectfully disagree with capital punishment. Russia abolished it a year ago—one of the great achievements of [Vladimir] Putin.
One of the few, perhaps?
No, no. The perception of Putin is completely distorted in Western media. He’s loved there because he brought the country back on its feet. Under [Boris] Yeltsin, teachers were not paid, pensions were not paid. My wife is originally from Siberia, and she can tell you. Putin managed to put the house somewhat in order. At least the Mafioso and robber barons are paying taxes now. When you walk the streets of Moscow today, you immediately get the sense that the people have their pride and dignity back. So much has been made of the Pussy Riot trial, but I believe the courts are fairly independent. Putin himself has asked for clemency, which has been overlooked.
You’ve become a strong presence on camera in your documentary films. What advantages does that have to staying behind it?
Mostly my presence is through my voice. I think I’m good at commenting, and audiences like it. But I’ve been doing a little acting lately. I was recently filming a movie with Tom Cruise called One Shot that will be released at Christmas. I play the villain.
What’s it like working with Tom?
He’s very easy to work with, very well prepared. He’s the definitive professional. This notion that he’s unstable is nonsense. He’s a stabilizing factor on set. He carries everyone along with a certain air of authority.
Did you enjoy portraying a villain?
Oh, I’m good at that. When it comes to being dysfunctional, debased, hostile, dangerous, I’m a natural.
One of the most powerful examples of you on film is the often talked-about scene in Grizzly Man in which you listened to the bear attack on headphones but chose not to air it. What was your reasoning?
Well, I’m only seen from behind for 30 seconds. It’s not me who is important, but I had to address it because it was known in the media that there was a tape. I didn’t know if we’d play it for the audience or not. But when I listened to it, I immediately knew that only over my dead body would this tape ever be heard by the public. It was horrifying, yes. But there should be dignity and privacy in the moment of a person’s death. There are dozens of amateur videos of the jumpers at the World Trade Center on 9/11. In some of them, people are crashing into the sidewalk right in front of the camera. But these will never be aired, and I think that’s absolutely right. We should not see it.
What film projects are you working on?
I’m working on several documentaries and two feature film projects, but we don’t have enough time to discuss them. In general, I’m a working man. The rock band the Killers have asked me to direct a live stream to their concert on Sept. 18. I also created a short film introducing them that will be aired on the Internet. It’s new terrain, but I like these young kids.
When you shoot these days, do you use film or digital?
I’m still a man of celluloid, but it’s not always possible. Encounters at the End of the World, the documentary I did in Antarctica, for example. And it was prohibitive on death row in Into the Abyss. When you have exactly 50 minutes with a man who is awaiting execution, you can’t ask after 11 minutes, “Can we please stop here? I have to change magazines.”
What about the trip to Indiana are you looking forward to?
I’ve never been to Indiana, but the university approached me with such enthusiasm. And the new cinema they have created is beautiful. It’s also good to get out of New York and Los Angeles, which are so saturated. I like the heartland. People on the coasts speak of this “Flyover Zone.” I really do not like that attitude. Almost everyone of importance and substance in American culture originally comes from the heartland.
This is a companion piece to an article that appeared in the September 2012 issue.