I Just Film:

Les Blank, born Tampa, Florida 1935. Attended Tulane University in New Orleans. B.A. in English Literature, M.F.A. in Theater. The rest of his achievements, including a charming account of his obsession with the movies, can be found at his website But all you really need to know about Les are his lyrical and eccentric films. He made the first of these around 1967: his stunning love poem to the blues, The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins. (The time we showed this film to the enigmatic Bob Dylan is chronicled in the Gadfly archive: "Something Was Happening But I Didn't Know What It Was.") The Lightnin' Hopkins film also marked the beginning of his twin life-long fascinations, music and cooking, which continued through his entire oeuvre: Spend It All, Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, In Heaven There Is No Beer?, A Well Spent Life (Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb), Cigarette Blues (bluesman Sonny Rhodes), and Gap-Toothed Women.

How did you come to know Werner Herzog?

Tom Luddy, the guy at the University of California Pacific Film Archive who was programming at that time, liked both our films, and he introduced us. We'd meet over the years at the Telluride Film Festival. We got to know one another, and we hit it off. Then at some point I realized he was an interesting subject himself for a film. Around that time he had a need for someone to make a documentary while he was filming Fitzcarraldo and asked me if I would do it. Around that same time, I started shooting the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. There are two sides to the story of how this came about. Herzog claims he made a vow to eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever made a film that got shown at Berkeley. But Errol claims Herzog stole his idea when Herzog went to film those oddball people up in Wisconsin for his film Stroszek. Anyway, in the making of that movie, I saw how interesting he looked on film and that gave me the courage to go down to the Amazon with him and take my chances whatever may happen down there.

Can one really eat a shoe? Didn't Chaplin do that in The Gold Rush?

But that was a shoe made out of candy. Herzog really ate his shoe. Everything but the sole. He cut it up with poultry shears and he took it to be cooked in a Chinese restaurant to soften it up, but it ended up as tough as tempered steel. The idea being that if you cooked it in duck fat it would end up tender, but it had just the opposite effect.

Did he have any after effects from this?

I saw him the following day and he looked a little pale, but he was still alive. He claimed he did it because America's soon going to be extinguished if we don't get new images. That we're suffering from stale, old imagery.

I remember Mick Jagger was originally cast in Fitzcarraldo. He said that in the Amazon, when you pee there are bugs that will climb up your pee stream and bite you.

Well, the first camp that Herzog built was in the Amazon basin. It was steaming hot. It was full of mosquitoes and stinging and biting bugs. We were in an area of the Jivaro Indians, the ones that shrink heads and kill priests and eat nuns. And they decided to revert to their history of being hostile to outsiders. They went to war against Herzog and burned his camp down, and threatened to kill him and all the cast and crew if they didn't get out in a certain amount of time. Then Herzog relocated higher up to the foothills of the Andes, so it was actually pleasant. Cool at night and warm in the day, but not devastatingly so, like it was down in the valley. There were malaria mosquitoes, but not so many that they made life difficult. There were some fierce fire ants, but you could always see them coming and get out of the way. The little bugs that climb up your pee stream and the ones that climb into your orifices and make their way into your brain—we didn't encounter any of those. It's supposedly the most painful form of death known to man—these bugs that worm their way into your brain.

This must have been very arduous for you, as well as Herzog and company.

It was physically difficult trying to keep the film dry and the camera dry. The fuses kept blowing out when you were charging the camera at night. It was done through the generator the camp used. When the generator ran out of gas in the middle of the night, I trained myself to sleep lightly so I could hear it when the motor turned off, and wake myself up and pull my battery charger off charge, otherwise when they filled it up with gas and restarted the generator, the power surge would blow out my fuses. Burned out all the European fuses I brought with me that way. I had to use some high-resistance American fuses. It was like putting a penny in a fuse box.

What was it like dealing with Herzog? He must have been beside himself with all this going on.

He was. But I learned more or less to read him, and when I could see he was amenable, I would approach and try to get some interview or ask him if I could tag along. I had to be careful when I stepped in.

What about Kinski?

He was impossible to communicate with. You couldn't carry on a conversation with him; he couldn't keep his thoughts coherent when he talked to you. Kinski yelled a lot. He had tantrums. Generally Herzog could calm him down, but Herzog himself never yelled at anyone. The producer, Walter Saxer, whom you see in Burden Of Dreams having verbal jousts with Kinski, was a little more prone to yelling.

Let me ask you about artifice in documentaries. You have a slightly different vision of what a documentary is from simply documenting something.


I would say your films are poetic and empathetic to your subjects. You don't make exposés. You deal with your subjects in a cinematic way—you have your own vision and comment in an idiosyncratic way on the subjects you film.

I do what I do. I just film. I stick things together in a way I think they should be put to make a picture of what it was I saw.

What are you up to next?

I'm making a film about Butch Anthony, a self taught artist in Alabama in his early thirties who makes art out of the junk he finds. Another one I'm doing is on a tea importer from Marin county who goes to China and roots out very fine rare teas. He's also big into composting and worms and introducing vermiculture to China. Then I'm doing one on the documentary filmmaker Ricky Leacock who just turned eighty—his first job was as the cameraman on Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story. He's living with a younger French woman he took up with ten years ago—when he gave up drinking.