Iquitos was briefly transformed during the making of the film, Fitzcarraldo. This is what it was like to be on set with legendary director, Werner Herzog.
Filming on a hot afternoon in Iquitos, the German director roars his sentence into the oppressive heat of the Amazon: Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog film production, 1a, the first, flap!
This day will stay in my memory. I’m the only European journalist on the ground, for whatever reason. The calendar shows the 4th of January 1981. It is a Sunday.
Just before noon, while the sun is high, the heat sticks to your body as if you were in a humid laundry room. Today on set there are 1,500 extras. The crowd gathers to shoot a scene along the malecón of Iquitos.
A movie that starts playing out in real life
Embarrassed, almost shy, Werner Herzog directs the filming. The movie is about insanity. Fitzcarraldo, a Cauchero, wants to bring a big work project to the Amazon basin. It’s a pretty crazy idea for the jungle, and more madness follows closely behind. And by putting together this large filming production, Werner Herzog strangely resembles Fitzcarraldo.
Similar to his protagonist, the greater the difficulties, the stronger his will to finish his project. Herzog has become his own movie character. During the film’s production, he tells me: “I am not very interested in what the German newspapers write about me. I do not care if people go into my films, that’s only economically relevant. I’m only interested in completing the Fitzcarraldo film.”
This film is big news for Iquitos
The film is a big event for Iquitos as Werner Herzog has brought work to the Amazon in areas where the 8 million dollars ought to stay: interpreters, cooks, doctors, costume tailors, drivers, plumbers, skippers, mechanics. In Calle Putumayo, for example, a spacious tailor’s shop is now the costume office. For several weeks Herzog is the second largest employer in the whole of the Amazon, just after the military.
If you listen in Iquitos, you quickly feel the enthusiasm and exuberance. The filmmakers are macho – for a man in these latitudes, this is a great compliment. The wiry director jumps from towering trees, the producer beats his hand bloody without a grimace and the production manager George Sluizer travels through the Amazon, which here is Iquitos is as wide as twenty football fields.
The extras are going into each shoot with a full heart. Each person per day is paid S/1000, which is gratefully received by residents of a country that is hopelessly impoverished after 12 years of military dictatorship.
Let the cameras roll
Producer Walter Saxer and director Herzog explain the scene via megaphone. They explain thing such as why it is important for the cameras to capture the bright colors of the actors’ clothing; why cinematographer Thomas Mauch wants to film the mothers with children in the foreground. The tone between the filmmakers and the filmed is warm, and the extras act with noticeable panache.
Half of Iquitos watches Fitzcarraldo while he climbs onto an Amazon steamer and sets out with his cronies to the remote rubber fields. Hundreds of citizens from Iquitos, mostly from the well-to-do middle class, have been put into fine turn-of-the-century costumes made in local tailor shops specifically for the film.
The steeply sloping promenade with its many colorful costumed women and men offers a spruced-up, cheerful picture. The Molly Aida is about to go down. The band on the steep bank begins to play a jigsaw Creole farewell march. Duke asks for rest in the rainforest.
As the afternoon draws up lazily, all the scenes are in the box. Thomas Mauch turns off his camera and is enthusiastically applauded by the locals. Werner Herzog also claps, facing the extras. The shooting day is like a happy folk festival, and every one of the more than a thousand people sees himself as a little movie star this Sunday.
The adoption of the surrounding extras is done by Herzog by a handshake. Next to me is Mick Jagger and he too is in raptures.
This is an edited version of the article that originally appeared on Notes and Notes from the Road.
Cover photo: Flickr
Now that you're here:
We're asking you, our reader, to make a contribution in support of our digital guide in order to keep informing, updating and inspiring people to visit Peru. Why now? In our near 20-year journey as the leading English-language source on travel in Peru, we've had our fair share of ups and downs-but nothing quite like the challenges brought forth in the first quarter of 2020.
By adapting to the changing face of the tourism and travel industry (on both local and international levels), we have no doubt we will come out stronger-especially with the support of our community. Because you will travel again, and we will be ready to show you the best of Peru.
Your financial support means we can keep sharing the best of Peru through high-quality stories, videos and insights provided by our dedicated team of contributors and editors based in Peru. And of course, We are here to answer your questions and help whenever you need us.
As well, it makes possible our commitment to support local and small businesses that make your visit an unforgettable one. Your support will help the people working in these industries get back on their feet once the world allows us to make our dream of enjoying everything Peru has to offer a reality again-from its mouthwatering gastronomy, thriving Amazon and archaeological wonders such as Machu Picchu.
Together, we will find a way through this. As a member of our community, your contribution, however big or small, is valuable.