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 Lesblank.com. 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.
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.
one really eat a shoe? Didn't Chaplin do that in The Gold
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.
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 brainwe
didn't encounter any of those. It's supposedly the most
painful form of death known to manthese bugs that
worm their way into your brain.
must have been very arduous for you, as well as Herzog
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
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
Let me ask you about artifice in documentaries. You
have a slightly different vision of what a documentary
is from simply documenting something.
would say your films are poetic and empathetic to your
subjects. You don't make exposés. You deal with
your subjects in a cinematic wayyou have your own
vision and comment in an idiosyncratic way on the subjects
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 eightyhis 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 agowhen he gave up drinking.