Christian Bale and the Art of Extreme Acting

What won't the best actor of his generation do for a role? Not much.

"It wasn't a difficult film at all," he says. "I've made much more difficult ones. What the New Yorker article describes ... you have to understand, the journalist was there in the first week of shooting. We had an inexperienced producer and technical crews from Hollywood, Europe and Thailand, and it took a few days to get it streamlined, which was witnessed by the New Yorker journalist. Three different philosophies about how to make a film had to come together. But do not worry about this: I have the authority to make a crew follow me, which came through a very clear vision of where we were going."

And there's no doubt that, despite this being Herzog's "Hollywood" moment, Rescue Dawn bears all the imprints of a signature Herzog film. It's meditative and oddly paced, and how it will play with mainstream audiences remains a very open question.

To Herzog, though, the film is a valentine to the best aspects of the American character. "Everything that I like about Americans was in Dieter Dengler," he says. "Courage, optimism, self-reliance, loyalty. It's what is, in essence, America. I'm not in the business of America bashing."

Director Werner Herzog was thrilled to rope Christian Bale for Rescue Dawn.
Director Werner Herzog was thrilled to rope Christian Bale for Rescue Dawn.

In the end, the film is also why Bale and I find ourselves staring across a wood table at each other on a burnished morning in a luxurious beach-side setting.

"Rescue Dawn, I guess we have to talk about that," I say.

"Oh, did you see the movie?" Bale asks.

"I did."

"You did, but you didn't like it."

"What makes you say that?"

"Because you said, 'I guess we gotta talk about that.' You're like, We gotta get on with that."

"I gotta be honest. I didn't love it."

"Why was that?"

Bale is almost laughing as he prods me. It's reassuring to know this shit is funny to him, too, and it betrays the quiet confidence that has been evident in him from the beginning. He doesn't really care whether I liked the film, but he isn't above provoking an interesting conversation about it. I tell him that, though the performances are great — and they are — I thought there was an odd flatness and distance to the film. Things stopped just short of where I felt they needed to go in order to fully pull in the viewer. I suggest — and this shouldn't surprise fans of Herzog's docs — that there was, despite the incredible attention to the physical geography of Dengler's imprisonment, almost too much room left between the audience and the internal landscapes of the characters as they go through their Job-like struggles. In other words, I know what Dieter endured — torture, deprivation and hopeless jungle — but I'm not sure I came away knowing him.

Does that make sense?

Let me put something out there and see if this might be what it is. I can't speak for Werner, but I can say what my understanding is of some of his beliefs about moviemaking. He loathes quick-cut editing and the reliance on editing to manipulate an audience. He feels that it's a fraudulent way of approaching film. He will go for a very simple setup. He doesn't believe in creating a heightened tension, or comedy, or anything through editing. He believes something is either there or it's not there, and you should just sit back and watch what unfolds.

The article in The New Yorker raised a lot of questions about Herzog's methods, one of the more interesting ones being: Is he making a movie or is he on an adventure? Did you ever question that yourself?

You see, I like being on an adventure. I would say, yes, he's on an adventure, with the belief that that will become part of the movie as well. Certainly, with Werner, there's a whole lot more than what is going on the screen. Which is why you can get whole movies made about the making of a Werner Herzog movie ... there's a whole world of, like you said, adventure and craziness going on outside the movie.

I want nothing more than heading off to strange places and having an adventure. I never felt with Werner that there's such a strong pull for that adventure that he forgot there was a movie being made. He's very, very passionate about that actual movie and what he's making. He's a very intense man, or he's the most gentle and laid-back you ever met. It's one or the other. There are no in-betweens. He's extreme in that degree.

As long as it's not just posturing or vanity, then I love that. I love seeing people who care very much about what they're doing and the fights that ensue because of it, or the crazy ideas ... you just try it, you know? Just give it a shot. And Werner still has a sense about him ... Like you said, is it really 50-odd movies? ... and yet there's still this sense about him, like he's trying it for the first time.

How deeply were you put to the test — physically, mentally, your patience?

Ah, I could have been pushed a lot more than I was. I mean, it's not like there aren't ... I mean, when I see [co-star Steve Zahn] again, there's always great stories to reminisce about — ludicrous situations we'd find ourselves in, sitting in rivers with snakes going down it, or squatting in a patty field for hours on end, or, you know, torrential rains coming down and flooding the whole set, or whatever.

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