Werner Herzog has breezed through films about all sorts of shady topics, and put himself in harm’s way just as often, but with Meeting Gorbachev—a string of conversations with former Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev, now 87—the unflappable Bavarian director finally found a subject that put him on the backfoot. “I had to learn on the run how to deal with him,” Herzog admitted when he stopped at the Deadline studio with his co-director André Singer.
Singer was the originator of the project, it turned out. “Originally, I was asked to make a film about Gorbachev by a German television station, MDR, in Leipzig,” Singer said, “and having had Werner as my colleague and mentor and inspiration for about 30 years, I thought, ‘If we’re going to do a film like this, who better could we ask than Werner to both co-direct and talk to Gorbachev himself?’”
Herzog agreed, but on his own unique terms. “It was not [a series of formal] interviews,” he said. “I was not approaching it as a journalist. There was no paper catalog of questions. It was a free conversation. My plan was sometimes to expand way beyond his biography and speak with him about things that he himself probably hadn’t ever contemplated.”
Nevertheless, just getting to Gorbachev in the first place proved problematic. Said Singer, “He’s a rather isolated and rather lonely figure in Moscow. He’s stubborn. He won’t leave Moscow, [even though] his family are in Berlin, in Germany, and he lives in a sort of cocoon surrounded by Russians who don’t like him. And it was with a rather tragic King Lear type situation that we were confronted. He has a foundation of people who look after him, and we spent a long time talking to them and persuading them that what we were doing was in a way sort of revisiting something that was important to him in his old age.
“He’s 87, he’s rather sick,” Singer continued, “and I think he felt that this was one chance, again, of putting his story of the 1980s and early 1990s forward to an international public. So in the end he was extremely welcoming, but it was difficult, because he wasn’t well and we had to try and fit our interviews and get Werner across when he was actually physically able to do it. And that was very tricky over a period of a year.”
Find out more from Singer and Herzog about Meeting Gorbachev by clicking on the video above.