Maureen Gosling was the late Les Blank’s collaborator, sound recordist and editor for twenty years on over twenty documentaries. I met up with Maureen at the retrospective of Les’ work at the Sebastopol Film Festival – and we talked about her experiences of working with him on Burden Of Dreams, one of the great films about filmmaking.
Released in 1982, Burden Of Dreams follows the tempestuous production of director Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon jungle. Fitzcarraldo tells the story of an Irishman living in Peru during the rubber boom in the early 20th century. An opera lover, he dreams of building an opera house in the city of Iquitos and tries to raise funds by collecting rubber from a remote part of the jungle using a steamer dragged over a mountain from one river to the next. With Klaus Kinski in the title role, Herzog’s production mimics Fitzcarraldo’s ambition and tows a boat across jungle between two tributaries. Herzog faced two years of delays, cast changes, financing problems and eventually hostility from a local indigenous tribal council. Burden of Dreams captures the chaos and madness of the venture, and Herzog’s increasing despair about the possibility of realising his vision. It’s a poetic and sometimes disturbing exploration of the single-minded pursuit of images that filmmaking entails.
Maureen, I wanted to start by asking about how your collaboration with Les Blank came about?
I started working with Les in 1972 and I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. I’d met him a year before when I was studying anthropology and he screened films at an anthropological film festival – and to me it was fascinating that his films turned an eye on America, not on some distant culture. So at one point, I said ‘If you ever need an assistant, let me know.” I didn’t know what that meant, but later, he got in touch with me. His film partner had bailed because he had moved in with Les’ ex-wife and it was a traumatic situation. So Les took the risk to take on someone totally green, and the first films I worked on were as sound recordist on Dry Wood and Hot Pepper, about Black French culture and Zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier. By the late seventies I’d worked as assistant editor on Chulas Fronteras, then sound and a bit of editing on Always For Pleasure, then sound and a lot of editing on Garlic Is As Good As Ten Lovers. By 1981, when Herzog wanted someone to do a film about the making of Fitzcarraldo, I had really been mentored in. Les was getting tired of editing, so he passed that baton to me – there was no territoriality about it at all. He just realised that I understood his sensibility and his style. I added my own to his and he was glad to let me do that. He was much more interested at that point in distribution: he was starting to really sell his films.
Shooting with filmmakers as subjects can be complicated because we’re generally wary about being in front of the camera (perhaps knowing its power to manipulate). In the making of Burden of Dreams, was your independence as a filmmakers from Herzog an issue, or did he give you free rein?
When Herzog asked Les to do the film, pretty much he’d decided that he was the only person he wanted to do it, because he really liked Les’ films. There was a lot of mutual admiration between the two of them. We did a kind of ‘audition film’,Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and realised that the guy was charismatic and a great subject for a film. So even though we’d heard all these crazy stories about Herzog jumping into rivers with piranhas and leaping into cacti and getting cactus needles in his knee [on completing the shoot of Even Dwarves Started Small] and we were a little nervous about him, we were also fascinating by the project and the chance to go to the Amazon, to Peru, to film with indigenous people in the middle of the jungle. We couldn’t turn that down.
Werner always trusted us to do what we needed to do and allowed us to shoot whatever we wanted to. I always appreciated that, because we did have some projects where the subject ended up not liking the film and they didn’t want it released. That happened to us three times with rock musicians. But Herzog just sucked it up and let us do it.
My sense is that up to that time, Les’ films were often about the magic of the everyday and that by following Herzog you were heading into this epic territory. Was there a tension between those two filmic approaches?
One thing about Les is that when he was turned on by a subject, he really shot well. As his editor I could tell when he was not so engaged. When we came back from this trip, the footage was incredible. Les was always on the alert, fascinated by what was going on.
We didn’t shoot all the time and there were long periods of time when Herzog couldn’t film. We couldn’t really go anywhere because where we could go was so circumscribed, so we read and sometimes we would just shoot the nature around us. We knew there were lots of rumours about the production and its political relationship to the indigenous people in the locations and because we were there we could see what was really going on. Herzog was trying to negotiate: we didn’t see him hurting people or doing anything bad. I only saw Herzog raise his voice a couple of times. Mostly he was very calm. His vision was pretty crazy in a way, but it wasn’t like mining for gold and polluting the streams. It was an artistic project.
There’s the moment in the film when from an audience point of view, the worker is crushed by the boat as it falls backward and we’re unsure whether this is real event in the production or a scene from Fitzcarraldo. Immediately before this the engineer has resigned because he says that the plan to haul the boat over the mountain isn’t safe. Why did you cut that in the way you did, giving us a moment of uncertainty about whether someone has really been killed?
We wanted to leave the ambiguity there because it was a risky situation that Herzog was putting people in and we had our mixed feelings about that. At the same time, in the way that it’s edited, there’s enough to see ultimately that the guy isn’t hurt and that this is a fictional scene in Herzog’s film rather than documentary reality. Herzog was very worried about it when we did the Spanish version because he didn’t want to add any more fuel to the controversy that Fitzcarraldo had caused in Latin America. When we did the Spanish translation, we were trying to figure out how to make it clear that the guy was acting. And I realised the simple solution was someone off camera saying ‘Corte’ which means ‘cut’. But we wanted it ambiguous because it reflected our own mixed feelings.
That’s the power of the film. There’s a feeling of unpredictability about how far Herzog might take things – and we’re torn between admiration of his pursuit of his vision and fear for the possible consequences. Was that tension something you became aware of during the shoot?
We aimed to shoot cinema verité of the scenes that Werner was directing. We just sat back and watched him work and filmed the process. Every once in a while, because we were in the camp, we would realise we hadn’t interviewed Werner for a while. One time we had just come back to the camp from shooting the scene of the boat crashing in the rapids and Michael Goodwin had been talking to Herzog and during the conversation Herzog said, “Even the stars down here look like a mess”. Michael thought we should get Werner to say that on camera, so we brought that up in an interview and Herzog just spilled it all out.
The first time Werner watched it was at the Cannes Film Festival and he was sitting there at the beginning and Les said he was sinking in his seat as the film went on. That scene I think was hard for him to watch.
Would he have preferred you to take it out?
There are two or three things that Werner didn’t like about the film, but to his credit he left us to make the film we wanted. He believes that people still think that people died because of the making of the film. And he also doesn’t like the piece of narration, which says that he decided to film in a remote jungle location to bring out qualities in the actors. He said that if he could have found a mountain in between two rivers right outside Iquitos he would have used it.
Knowing you were going to be editing the film, did that change the way you worked with Les during the shoot?
Les had edited his own films and so he knew you need coverage. As a sound recordist I realised that one of the things we could do with the film to show the cultural clash between the different parties was for each of the groups to have a musical theme. Herzog was constantly listening to this beautiful choral music, and I realised that needed to be his theme. And then we had Caruso’s music representing the film production, we had the indigenous people’s music, and we had Peruvian music that we picked up when we went to Lima in the market places to represent the Peruvian side. That was really helpful when I figured that out as it allowed me to connect it with images and use it for transitions so that you would realise subliminally when the film was changing its focus from one group to another.
And I realised that the sound of the jungle was also a musical theme. So I recorded the frogs and the birds – which we used in that sequence in the film during Herzog’s Shakespearean monologue That was the jungle’s theme music.
How did you start the process of editing the film with Les?
We were shooting 16mm with sound on magnetic tape, so I first had to sync everything up of course. Then we would just watch. Les always had a problem watching dailies, thinking, “Oh my God there’s not a film there”. But I knew there was a film there – so I would do the first pass. I reduced it from 50 hours down to 20 or 25 hours and we would watch that in real time and take notes.
We knew there were three things we wanted to do dramatically. We wanted the film to stand on its own, not just as an accompanying ‘making of’, so we knew it had to tell the story of Fitzcarraldo. So the scenes from Fitzcarraldo are in order. We also wanted to show Werner slowly losing it and what was making him go crazy. And the third thing was the cultural contrast, and clash or not. Then we began to identify what scenes fit with those things, and how they linked with the story of the film.
So at the beginning of the film you land there on this little airstrip and it really gives a sense of place and where we are, out in the middle of nowhere and so on. And the last shot is when the photographer in a little village we visited puts the cap on his home-made camera. When I saw that I just thought ‘Oh my God, how amazing’.
Would you mostly be editing on your own?
Yes and I prefer that. I would do a lot of work and then Les would sit down with me and respond with ideas. The only time when that’s difficult is when I don’t know much about the subject. Whereas, especially when I’d been on set – as withBurden of Dreams and a lot of Les’ music films – it made things a lot easier as I already knew so much about the people and the subject. So it’s easier to watch the material. Sometimes I do work on films on subjects I don’t know anything about and watching footage is my education in the subject. By the end of looking at it I feel like I’ve become an expert, But I still need a director who knows it and has an idea about what it should be. But otherwise I like to sit down by myself as much as possible, and then, when I run up against an impediment I call the director and we discuss.
How was Les as a viewer of your work-in-progress?
Les had to be in the right mood to sit down and watch. He had to get his coffee and he had to do this and that and have the right comfortable chair. And sometimes he would watch and afterwards he would say ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing, it’s fine, keep doing what you’re doing.” And I would say, “But I need help, please help me!” and he wouldn’t always give me a response, and that was very frustrating. At other times he would make wonderful observations. He would say you need to focus more on this, or you need keep going in that direction there, or how about if you switch the order here. He would come up with an idea and then I’d be on my own again. Closer to the end I needed more feedback and we always did feedback screenings, because we wanted to get an audience response and it’s better to find out before the film’s finished rather than afterwards. It has to feel like it has its shape before you show it. If you have a mix of filmmakers and non-filmmakers, and a mix of those familiar with the topic and those who aren’t and then you get a nice mixture of feedback.
I think it took around 9 months to edit. I mean I figured out that if we had the money and that was all I did, I could edit around ten minutes a month; so a 90 minute film, 9 months.
Did you show Herzog a rough cut?
No. I was so amazed that he accepted it. Unlike some of the rock stars we made films about, who didn’t have the courage to be seen. I always give him credit for not censoring us and trusting us.