Christian Bale on Herzog and 'Batman'

Maui Time | June 29, 2007
Werner Herzog's sensational narrative version of the intimate wartime story he told in his acclaimed 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, is a wartime escape movie to beat all others. Set in a Laotian jungle, Dieter (Christian Bale) becomes the only American to ever break out of a Laotian POW camp. The gutsy tale of survival is put in excruciating perspective from Bale's fertile performance in yet another physically demanding role that supports the widely accepted notion that he is the top UK actor working in films today.

Born in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire Wales, Christian Bale's career launched into the stratosphere on his first film assignment, or Steven Spielberg's 1987 movie, Empire of the Sun. Since then, Bale has become an icon of international cinema with memorable performances in diverse films such as Metroland (1997), Velvet Goldmine (1998), American Psycho (2000), Laurel Canyon (2002) and Batman Begins (2005).

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bale at Manhattan's Regency Hotel on Park Avenue on a balmy June day to discuss working with another iconic figure of cinema, namely Werner Herzog.

CS: Had you seen Little Dieter Needs to Fly or been familiar with Dieter Dengler's story before making the movie?

CB: Not prior to meeting with Werner -- that was the first time I heard of Dieter. I did research in as much as watching the documentary numerous times, and I got in touch with his family as well. Actually, I bumped into Dengler's son in a supermarket out of nowhere. That was a weird kind of coincidence. Obviously, talking with Werner, because Werner and him were good friends, Werner was never much interested in describing him much to me. He wanted me to just invent it myself, and said, just feel free to take license and do whatever I wish with it. But, I just felt that he was such an interesting character. He had some, kind of peculiar, mannerisms that in many ways were too strong for me to actually perform in the movie. His voice, for instance, was something that, as he got older, appeared like he had really tried to reduce the oddity of his voice. But he had a very strange tone to it when he was younger. He also had this uneasy dorkyness that I saw in him as well -- this kind of prankster naivete and childlike nature, but not entirely comfortable in his own skin. He was certainly not your typical tough-as-nails wartime hero. So I just kind of took bits and pieces from the various resources at my disposal and then made up the rest of it.

CS: It seems like research would almost be redundant because you were filming in the jungle under the same extreme conditions that Dieter suffered in.

CB: Yes, I mean there's no need for learning about the jungle or anything like that. He didn't know anything more about surviving in the jungle than what he learned from the short military training film that you see them watching in the movie.

CS: What was it like eating maggots for the movie?

CB: Visually, people go "eeeww" and squirm but there's not a whole lot to it. It's more of a texture than anything else -- it was something I was doing off-camera, not live ones, but in the Thai markets they fry pretty much everything. They had all of these insects and they add salt and pepper and herbs to them and stick them in a bag, and I would be munching them around the place anyway.

CS: How is it going from big budget productions like Batman to a film like Rescue Dawn where there are not even chairs to sit in on the set?

CB: Well that's what I like, ducking between them all because, obviously, Batman is not a movie that you can make in the same fashion that we shot Rescue Dawn and nor should it be. I went straight from Batman Begins onto Harsh Times, which was a great move because we shot Harsh Times is 20 days. It was a mixture of either very experienced people or people who'd never been on a movie set in their lives, who were making it. And I like that -- you know, the mixing it up, but I think it's important to make a movie in the style in which you want the movie to appear. So, with something like Rescue Dawn, it's totally unnecessary and kind of stupid to be trying to bring trailers into the jungle anyway. It really does affect what you see onscreen -- the way that people behave off camera.

CS: How important is it for you to do things like eating a snake and going through the extreme physical challenges of your character?

CB: I just have fun doing it. I feel like these are experiences that I'm not going to have possibly ever again in my life, and so I want to do it. I'm not scared of doing them. I'll take a professional's advice. If they're telling me, "You know what? This one's gonna kill ya." I'll say, "OK, maybe not this time." But there's numerous times when I turn to stunt guys and I go, "Sorry mate, there's no way I'm not stepping up for this one. I've gotta do it myself."

We had these fantastic Army helicopter pilots who were crazy, crazy bastards and I would just hang on the railing on the side, and they were taking out tree branches and I'm hanging out over it. You know, I got an incredible little sightseeing tour of the Thai jungle and waterfalls. The exhilaration of hanging out of the helicopter and chasing a snake and grabbing it, is what I like. Probably my favorite thing about doing what I do is that I do get to have these very unique experiences.

CS: Can you talk a little about how your relationship with Werner came to be, how it developed and how he worked with you?

CB: I wasn't really familiar with much of his work. I've seen Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe in video stores. I met with Werner after reading the script, which I just liked a great deal, and liked him. Some of his first questions were, (in an exaggerated Herzog voice) "Would you like to swim in snake-infested waters, and eat a snake and have leeches all over you"? -- which I thought was kind of an unusual job interview. And then it happened pretty quick. He seemed to think that I was up for it. I was down in Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia with my wife [Sibi Blasic], just sort of backpacking around down there and got an e-mail from Werner saying, "How about playing Dieter?" That was back in late 2002. Then, he was working, because Werner never stops working on different things and he's a bit perverse -- like we got offered money by various reputable production companies, and he just had no interest in working with them. So he waited until somebody could make the movie very tricky and said they were the people he wanted to work with, and so it took until 2005.

CS: Was there anything that caught you off-guard in working with Herzog?

CB: Oh yeah, we were losing weight and he was saying he was in solidarity with us, and then the gaffer told me that he caught him eating a box of Pringles out in the jungle one day. So that was a bit surprising.

He's somebody that I liked a great deal because he provokes reactions. I enjoyed it because it was very memorable. We had our disagreements, but in a way that any proper friends have. My friends are all people that I've had disagreements with, and seen different sides of and become sort of adversaries for a short time. I saw that in Werner, and his incredibly soft, gentle side as well -- that most people have no idea that he has there. I just liked that here is somebody I might want to strangle in the morning and then by the afternoon I was giving him a hug or something. It was kind of ridiculous, the gambit of emotions that you go through around the man.

CS: Have you watched Rescue Dawn with an audience?

CB: I watched it in the Toronto Film Festival with an audience, and I saw it last night as well, and the reaction seemed to be pretty good. I have to say last night, I had been doing a night shoot the night before so I hadn't slept at all, so my head was up and down and all over the place. In Toronto, it seemed to be very well received, but I do obviously acknowledge that they knew that we (the other cast and Herzog) were all there.

CS: How is the experience of making the second Batman now that some of the baggage of being new to the franchise has diminished?

CB: It's been a lot easier because of that. People aren't kind of questioning it. There's been an acceptance that these guys know what they're doing, and also because we've all gotten so familiar with each other. It's the third movie I've made with Chris (Nolan), and the third movie I've made with Michael Caine. I've got to know everybody. It's like my fifth movie with the DP [Director of Photography Wally Pfister]. It flies along because there's no question of trust because we all know how we like to do it, and there's a nice kind of shorthand communication between us.

CS: Do you feel like there’s some pressure that you have to make it better than the last one?

CB: Well yes, you must -- you have to do that. I mean, if we're just doing the same, then what's the point. There are people who should demand that it does get better. That would be the death knell wouldn't it, if we got complacent and said, "We just have to bang out the same thing we did before." Sure, we use our strengths and we're not going to discard the things that work, but we've got to move forward as well.

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