DATE January 13, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Werner Herzog discusses his new documentary, "Grizzly
Man," and several of his other films
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
My guest, Werner Herzog, was a leader of the new wave German cinema following
World War II. Herzog has always been interested in physical and emotional
extremes, and in recent years, he's focused on documentaries. His latest,
"Grizzly Man," tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, an American who devoted
himself to learning about and living among Alaskan grizzly bears. Herzog's
film draws heavily on video diaries Treadwell kept describing his life with
(Soundbite of "Grizzly Man")
Mr. TIMOTHY TREADWELL: Most times, I'm a kind warrior out here. Most times,
I am gentle. I am like a flower. I am like--I'm like a fly on the wall,
observing, non-committal, non-invasive in any way. Occasionally, I am
challenged, and in that case, the kind warrior must, must, must become a
samurai, must become so formidable, so fearless of death, so strong, that he
will win. He will win. Even the bears will believe that you are more
powerful and, in a sense, you must be more powerful if you are to survive in
this land with the bear.
DAVIES: After 13 summers among the bears, in 2003, Treadwell and his
companion, Amie Huguenard, were attacked and killed by a grizzly. "Grizzly
Man" has earned best documentary or non-fiction film awards from the Los
Angeles, New York and Toronto Film Critics Associations. Among Herzog's
best-known feature films are "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," about a mad Spanish
conquistador, "Nosferatu," a retelling of the Dracula story, and
"Fitzcarraldo," about a man obsessed with building an opera house in the
The DVD of his latest documentary "Grizzly Man" has just been released. I
spoke to Herzog last summer when it first appeared in theaters. I asked
Herzog what Timothy Treadwell was trying to accomplish by living among grizzly
Mr. WERNER HERZOG (Director): Well, I think only he would have the answer,
but unfortunately, he's dead, and we can only try to read from and understand
from his letters, diaries, photos and video material that he has left. But
apparently, he saw himself in a great mission to save the bears, who
apparently didn't need that much redemption or saving, because they were
relatively well-protected and kept by--in this case, kept by a national park,
a federal national park. But he was also a great educator. He taught
schoolchildren over the years, tens of thousands all in all, for free, never
solicited a fee, so he was on a real mission.
But I do believe that he probably didn't save the bears that much as the bears
saved him. He was a deeply troubled man, haunted by demons. He was an
alcoholic--I mean, in a severe stage of alcoholism. And he speaks about it
himself, and he had a near fatal overdose, apparently heroin, so in coming
across the wild nature out there in Alaska and seeing the grizzly bears, it
was like an epiphany for him, and he said to himself, `I must protect the
bears. This is the great mission in my life.' All of a sudden--and he says
so in the film--he has a life. Now I think the bears redeemed him more than
he redeemed the bears.
DAVIES: You know, I was going to play a clip from the film. This is from one
of Timothy Treadwell's video diaries in which he...
Mr. HERZOG: Yes.
DAVIES: ...talks a bit about kind of what this mission in his life has
brought him. Let's listen to this. This, again, is from my guest Werner
Herzog's new documentary, "Grizzly Man."
(Soundbite of "Grizzly Man")
Mr. TREADWELL: If there--I have no idea if there's a God. But if there is a
God, God would be very, very pleased with me. If he could just watch me, he'd
know how much I love them, how much I adore them, how respectful I am to them,
how I am one of them and how the studies they give me, the photographs, the
video, and take that around, for no charge, to people around the world, it's
good work. I feel good about it. I feel good about myself doing it. And I
want to continue, and I hope I can. I really hope I can. But if not, be
warned, I will die for these animals. I will die for these animals. I will
die for these animals. Thank you so much for letting me do this. Thank you
so much for these animals, for giving me a life. I had no life. Now I have a
DAVIES: And that was Timothy Treadwell from...
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...my guest Werner Herzog's new documentary, "Grizzly Man."
Mr. HERZOG: How tragic to hear this voice, because very shortly after that,
he was killed and devoured by a grizzly bear, together with his girlfriend.
DAVIES: You know...
Mr. HERZOG: It clearly makes me ache when I hear his voice like that.
DAVIES: It is interesting that he survives 13 summers of the bears, sort of
living in close proximity to grizzly bears.
Mr. HERZOG: Yes.
DAVIES: But the summer that he perishes comes on an occasion in which he
stays later than he normally would. Does it seem likely that he might have
been killed not by the bears who he had come to know well over 13 seasons, but
by other bears who were out late, probably hungrier?
Mr. HERZOG: Yes. And wild and not as much accustomed to the presence of a
human being. When he returns, he writes in his diary most of his bear friends
were gone into hibernation, and wilder, scarier, more aggressive bears,
hungrier bears, big bears from the back country had moved in and taken over
the stream where there was a last little bit of the salmon run.
DAVIES: He shot more than a hundred hours of video. I think he was used to
running the video camera at all kinds of encounters with the bears, and as it
happens, a video camera was running in this last tragic attack when both
Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by the bear. The
video camera was running, but with the lens cap on, so, in effect, that it was
an audio record of the attack itself. Now we don't hear that audio in your
film, but you do listen to it. Tell us, was it your decision or someone
else's not to air that audio? How did you decide to use that in the film?
Mr. HERZOG: It was very easy to decide this, because I listened to it in
presence of the guardian or the custodian of Treadwell's materials, Jewel
Palovak, who had founded Grizzly People, a non-profit organization, together
with Treadwell, and she's holding all the rights to his books and photos and
videos. And so she allowed me to listen to it, and it was instantly clear for
me, under no circumstances whatever, that is going to be published. Number
one, it was clear to me we are not doing a snuff movie. Number two, it
occurred to me instantly, you have to respect the privacy of and the dignity
of an individual death. You don't drag it into the open.
So not permissible and of course, Jewel Palovak wouldn't have agreed either,
even though she never listened to the tape, and she has not done so until this
DAVIES: You tell us at the end of this film that Treadwell's story isn't so
much about nature, which he seems to think it is, but a look at--into
ourselves and our nature and this gives his life meaning. What does his story
tell us about ourselves?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, it certainly is not a film about wild nature. I ignored
much of that footage and he has dozens and dozens of hours of fluffy bear cubs
playing with mom bear. And he has dozens and dozens of hours of bears fishing
for salmon and bears roaming the landscape and so.
But the real interesting side of what he filmed--because he pointed his own
camera at himself very, very often--he wanted to be a movie star. He was
actually a failed movie star as well, tried to get into some TV soap operas
and shows like "Cheers." And he wanted to be a star and points the camera at
himself and now all of the sudden we gain insight into the human nature, into
the human heart, their souls, into our human condition more than anything I've
seen in a long, long, long time. And that's the great value of his footage
and it's all this turmoil. It's him being haunted by demons, him in
exhilarations, in joy, jubilation, dejected, in self-deceit, in moments of
paranoia, in moments of victory, in moments of defeat, everything that's human
life, human existence, human condition and it's wonderful that we have that.
And that makes him so big that is way, way, way beyond a wildlife
DAVIES: In recent years you've done a lot of--more documentaries and I was
curious about someone who has spent so much time in feature films creating an
image from scratch, if it's a different skill to tell a story where you are
capturing and editing images in reality. You don't like cinema verite where
you just present a chronicle.
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah, I think cinema verite somehow doesn't make a clear enough
distinction between fact and truth--as if facts constituted truth--but there's
quite, quite a distinction that I make. And I'm after something that you find
in great poetry. When you read a great poem you would instantly notice that
there's a deep truth in it. You don't have to analyze the poem in academic
ways and all this. You know it instantly and it passes on to you and becomes
part of your inner existence. And it's the same thing in cinema. In great
moments of cinema you are hit and struck by some sort of enlightenment, by
something that illuminates you and it's a deep form of truth. And I call it
an ecstatic truth, the ecstasy of truth, and that's what I'm after. And I'm
after that in documentaries. In feature films and in documentaries--you can't
even call my documentaries documentaries because I fabricate, I invent, I
write dialogues for it. So the borderline between documentary and feature
films is quite blurred and doesn't exist like this for me.
DAVIES: One of the things I wanted to ask you about was that in your
documentaries it is your vision and we hear your voice and we hear your ideas,
but--and I'd like to play just a bit of your voice-over from your recent
documentary "Grizzly Man." This is my guest, Werner Herzog, and I will just
tell our audience that although it's not critical to my point, in this
particular piece of the voice-over we are seeing a close-up of a large grizzly
bear who, at times, looks directly into the camera.
(Soundbite of "Grizzly Man")
Mr. HERZOG: And what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that
Treadwell ever filmed I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I
see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such
thing as a secret world of the bears and this blank stare speaks only of the
half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell this bear was a
friend, a savior.
DAVIES: You know, of the five or six moments in the film that really stuck
with me that was one of them. What do you think your voice brings to your
Mr. WERNER: I think there is for the audience a person recognizable behind
the movie. It's not just an anonymous film that you normally would see on TV
and you hear a well-polished voice in the studio and done by an actor. Here
you can identify the human being behind the film and you even see me once for
something like 30 seconds on screen but from behind. So I thought this was
right and good and don't hide in anonymity behind your movie.
DAVIES: Veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog. "Grizzly Man" is now out on DVD.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're speaking with filmmaker Werner Herzog. His new documentary
"Grizzly Man" tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a self-taught American
naturalist who lived among Alaskan grizzly bears and was eventually killed by
one. Herzog has directed more than 50 films and was a leader of German cinema
in the postwar period. Several of his feature films starred the temperamental
actor Klaus Kinski. Two were set deep in the Amazon jungle, "Aguirre, the
Wrath of God," about a crazed Spanish conquistador, and "Fitzcarraldo," in
which a man obsessed with bringing opera to the jungle hires hundreds of
Indians to haul a massive steamship over a mountain to reach his rubber
Anyone who has seen the documentary, the Les Blank documentary "Burden of
Mr. HERZOG: Right.
DAVIES: ...which is about--it's a remarkable film about your making of your
film, "Fitzcarraldo," which, for audiences...
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...who haven't seen it, tells a three-year epic and all the
difficulties you overcame filming this incredible story deep, deep in the
Amazonian jungle. And your star then was Klaus Kinski, who, as you note, was
legendary for his tantrums and rages. I wanted to ask you, since Klaus
Kinski--on this set, when you were making "Fitzcarraldo," there were many,
many times when people had to wait for days at times, weeks...
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...and he would go into these rages. And you also had--in addition
to the European cast there, you had scores, maybe hundreds of indigenous
people, Indians, who were...
Mr. HERZOG: Sure. Yeah.
DAVIES: ...observing this raving madman actor. How did they react to Kinski?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, normally they would huddle and whisper, and then they would
fall silent. They would form a circle with their backs out there and they
would huddle, and they were kind of afraid. The funny thing is that the chief
of all these tribal people came to me after one of those mad rages, raving
and ranting of Kinski and screaming for hours; he came to me and he said, `You
have probably noticed that we were kind of afraid.' And he says, `But don't
you believe that we're afraid of this raging madman who is screaming about.'
They were afraid of me because I was so quiet. They were really afraid of me.
Mr. HERZOG: You see in the same movie, I had to...
Mr. HERZOG: ...hoist a huge steamboat in one single piece over a mountain
with 1,100 savage--quote, unquote, "savage"--Indians and with no technology,
literally no modern technology. And that boat weighed a couple of hundred
tons, and I don't know if you can imagine what that means. So--and we had two
plane crashes and we had all sorts of things. And Kinski's screaming and
yelling and throwing tantrums every two hours. So you've got to live with it
and you've got to somehow fortify yourself with enough philosophy.
DAVIES: Did the Indians ever offer you any help with Kinski?
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah, well, they wanted to kill him and they asked me, `Shall we
kill him for you?' And I said, `No, I'm still shooting. I still need him.'
It is not a joke.
Mr. HERZOG: They would have done it in 10 seconds flat.
DAVIES: You know, one of my favorite of your movies--in fact, one of my
favorite of anybody's movies, is "Stroszek." And it's this tale of this man
who gets out of prison, a man, I guess one might say, of diminished mental
capacity. He hooks up with an abused prostitute and an eccentric old man, and
they make their way to, of all places, Wisconsin to start a new life. And
it's just a remarkable story, and one of the interesting things about this is
that the lead in this who plays this disheveled man is a gentleman by the name
of Bruno S., who was not an actor...
Mr. HERZOG: Right.
DAVIES: ...at all. Tell us about what brought--what you saw in him and what
brought him into your movies.
Mr. HERZOG: I saw him by coincidence in a documentary made by a young Berlin
filmmaker, a film student, about marginal people who are doing street singing,
and he was one of them. And I instantly knew that man had to be the leading
character, in "Kaspar Hauser." Actually, in fact, he was a forklift driver in
a steel factory, but he had spent 23 years locked away between his third year
of age and he was 26. What happened was he was the son of a prostitute who
didn't want this child, and she beat up that baby so severely all over
the--for no reasons whatsoever, and when he was three years old and he was
speaking already, she beat him so savagely that he lost speech, and that was a
pretext for her to get rid of him, and she put him into an asylum for retarded
and insane children.
And he spent something like six years, until he was nine, started to escape,
was recaptured, ended up in correctional center, in some sort of mild forms of
prison, and then he had a long career of minor offenses, vagabondry or
breaking open a car window when it was bitterly cold and he was homeless, and
he would sleep in the car and police would drag him out, and he got four
months in jail for that. So for 23 years he was locked away and
systematically somehow destroyed by society.
And he had an illuminating power inside of him which you cannot describe
unless you see the movies. And he never wanted to have his name released. He
wanted--I said to him, `You are the anonymous--the unknown soldier of cinema,
and I want to construct the monument for the unknown soldier for you.'
Mr. HERZOG: And--yeah.
DAVIES: What was he like to work with on a movie set? I mean, clearly not
someone who was a trained actor. And it brought a lot of difficulties.
Mr. HERZOG: Complicated, because he had moments of utmost despair and would
talk to me in the middle of a shot, just look at me and start talking to me
for two and a half hours. Of course the camera would stop, and I insisted
that the entire crew would freeze in their positions and listen attentively
what he was saying to me. He needed that, and I took the time and I was OK to
guide him in his work in these two movies I made. It's unprecedented in depth
DAVIES: And what became of him after those two movies?
Mr. HERZOG: He never wanted to become a movie star, but of course, he became
better-known. And the barber gives him a free haircut, and the pastry baker
drags him in and gives him a cake whenever he walks by, and they are proud of
him. It improved the climate around him. And he actually worked as a street
singer on weekends, during the week as a forklift driver. And he retired. He
retired a couple of years ago, and he lives on pension now in Berlin.
DAVIES: Well, Werner Herzog, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HERZOG: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Filmmaker Werner Herzog. His latest documentary, "Grizzly Man," has
just been released on DVD.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, the wickedly witty judge of "American Idol," Simon Cowell.
The show begins its fifth season on Tuesday. And we'll hear a review of the
new French film "Cache."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Simon Cowell, "American Idol" judge, discusses the
show and his new book
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
"American Idol" begins its fifth season on Tuesday and once again we'll be
treated to some awful singing by people who think they're quite talented. And
we'll hear the blunt, some would say cruel, criticisms of the show's most
controversial judge, Simon Cowell. He's not just a judge, he co-created the
phenomenon, which started with the British TV show "Pop Idol." He's now
executive at BMG Records. Last season, the winner of "American Idol" was
Carrie Underwood. Her album "Some Hearts" is number one on Billboard's
country chart and her second single, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," is also number
one. It's the 87th number-one single by a past contestant on "American Idol."
Let's hear Carrie Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel."
(Soundbite of "Jesus Take, the Wheel")
Ms. CARRIE UNDERWOOD: (Singing) She was driving last Friday on her way to
Cincinnati on a snow-white Christmas Eve, going home to see her mama and her
daddy with the baby in the back seat. Fifty miles to go and she was running
low on faith and gasoline. It'd been a long, hard year. She had a lot on her
mind and she didn't pay attention, she was going way too fast. And before she
knew it she was standing on a thin, black sheet of glass. She saw golden
light flash before her eyes. She didn't even have time to cry. She was so
upset. She threw her hands up in the air. Jesus take the wheel. Take it
from my hands 'cause I can't do this on my own. Oh, let me go and give me one
more chance. Save me from this road I'm on. Jesus take the wheel.
DAVIES: Singer Carrie Underwood.
Terry Gross spoke with Simon Cowell in 2004.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Now on "American Idol" you've seen a lot of very bad singers. What do you
think makes bad singers think that they're good?
Mr. SIMON COWELL ("American Idol" Judge): Oh, God, well, I wish I could
explain that. I can't answer that. But I can, I think, answer why these
people enter a competition like "American Idol," because I think today more
than any other time in history we live in what I call a fame epidemic, whereas
when I was at school--I'm 44--when you asked the people in my class what you
wanted to be when you left school, most of the girls would reply `nurse,' and
most of the boys would reply `racing driver' or `train driver.' Ask that same
question today and I think most of the replies will be `famous.' And I think
that's partly because of just how--the type of magazines which are popular at
the moment. They are broadcasting the type of lives you could have if you
become famous. And this is to encourage everyone now to chase that dream.
GROSS: Boy, you're really feeding into that, though, aren't you, with
"American Idol"? Particularly, like, there's videos in it where all of the
contestants talk about what it's like to ride in a limo and to get the
makeover and to have somebody do your makeup and sign autographs, and it's
like, `Oh, boy, maybe I'll be famous, too, one day.'
Mr. COWELL: Oh, absolutely. I mean--but I think the show works because--in
other words, one feeds off the other at the moment, I think, Terry.
The--it's--we--I love the idea of giving somebody 15 minutes of fame and
actually taking it away. I do. I love it.
GROSS: Why do you like the `taking it away' part?
Mr. COWELL: I don't know. I'm just quite sadistic, really, Terry.
GROSS: That sounds that way, actually.
Mr. COWELL: But that's--you know, that, of course, we argue with being the
ultimate torture. As you quite rightly say, we put them in the mansion and we
give them the limousine and their fate now is determined by somebody picking
up the telephone or not picking up the telephone.
GROSS: Did you know right away that you were going to, as a judge, be rude,
or totally honest, depending on how you want to look at it? But did you know
that that's what your persona was going to be?
Mr. COWELL: I didn't really think about it too much, actually, Terry. I got
so caught up in the development of the show in the UK, I hadn't really given
my role too much thought. And, in fact, when we started auditioning, the very
first day, on the very first British show, it was just terrible because we all
kind of got camera-fright and became very polite, so the first hour of TV was
just atrocious and it--and in the end I had to take out one of my fellow
judges, out of the room, and say, `This is just awful because I'm just dying
in there, because all the things I want to say I'm not saying. So I think we
should just behave as we would in a normal audition,' and walked back in the
room and from that moment on it all changed.
GROSS: Well, now, wait a minute, at a normal audition do you speak that
honestly to the person who's auditioning or is that how you talk after they
leave the room?
Mr. COWELL: If I'm being honest, we're worse, because, you know, normal
auditions someone will open the door and we'll just say, `Leave,' before they
GROSS: Oh, really? Why? Based on their hair or something?
Mr. COWELL: Yeah, just on the way they look, on everything. You just know
if you're auditioning for something specific and somebody walks in who you
know is not suitable. I mean, it's like the door opens: `Leave.' So I--you
could argue that perhaps, you know, in real-life auditions people are treated
a little bit more harshly.
GROSS: One of the things I found very interesting about watching "American
Idol" is that in a way it's a catalog of all the bad mannerisms that have
seeped into pop music. Like if you watch the show enough, you can see all of
the things that have gone wrong in pop music that people are picking up on and
trying to emulate.
Mr. COWELL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: For example, like that kind of melisma where you're singing around the
note and up and down...
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and around the note and embellishing a lot without doing a good job
of it, without really adding anything, and it becomes really annoying. It
just becomes pure mannerism. There's a lot of that on the radio. There was a
lot of that in "American Idol 2."
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: Do you ever feel that way, that you're watching this kind of catalog
of things that have gone wrong in pop music?
Mr. COWELL: A hundred percent. I--because like you, Terry, I loathe that
kind of singing. Because for me when you listen to some of the great singers
like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, you know, these guys never sang like that
but they were just amazing singers. It's almost an affectation now because
you're not supposed to sing like that. I absolutely loathe it. But I was
talking to the girl who brought me down from the publishing house earlier on
and I was just basically saying--we just both said how much we dislike music
on the radio at the moment because it's so monotonous.
GROSS: I just want to make it clear that I don't think all singing around the
note is bad, it's just that there's a certain kind of pointless embellishment
that's really annoying.
Mr. COWELL: Well, it is. It's like people coming in, Terry, where they try
and copy an artist so accurately that they even sing the ad libs.
GROSS: Right, right. Right.
Mr. COWELL: And you try and explain what an ad lib is, you know? It's not
part of the song, it's an ad lib. And they do it in their audition. I mean,
it drives me nuts. And there aren't too many Frank Sinatras or Ella
Fitzgeralds around at the moment to copy. They are copying bad singers in the
first place and, of course, it becomes like some ghastly Xerox machine, you
know? The original isn't very good and the copies are even worse. But, you
know, Terry, look, if I'm being honest with you, the show works because of its
Mr. COWELL: If it was a perfect show, it would be boring.
GROSS: How much of a say do the singers have in which songs they do?
Mr. COWELL: They--it is totally down to them. I mean, you know, Terry, we
could sit there week on week really helping them with their choice of songs,
choice of arrangements, what they wear, but the fun as the show continues is
watching the contestants getting it right and of course watching it get them
wrong. For instance, when Clay sang that ghastly version of "Grease" on
"American Idol 2" and came running out in that awful red leather jacket, you
just think, `What are you doing?' But that's--again, you know, the appeal of
the show is that some weeks they get it right and often they get it wrong.
DAVIES: "American Idol" co-creator and judge Simon Cowell speaking with Terry
Gross. We'll hear more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with "American Idol" judge
Simon Cowell. The show's fifth season begins next week.
GROSS: You know, "American Idol" is really just like an incredible marketing
machine. You know, you put the people on TV. By the time the series is over,
the person who wins is a star. Then they make the record. So there's already
an audience waiting for the record before the record is even released. And
then, after the first season, there was the movie. Now there are, you know...
Mr. COWELL: Don't mention it.
GROSS: What's that? Don't mention it?
Mr. COWELL: Don't mention that.
GROSS: That was a big failure, wasn't it?
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
Mr. COWELL: God, almighty.
Mr. COWELL: But the funny thing was...
Mr. COWELL: ...I remember when the producer told me the name of the film,
and he said, `It's called "From Justin to Kelly."' I said, `Have you ever
heard of a director called Ed Wood?' And he said, `No.' And I said, `Well, it
sounded like the title of one of his films, because it sounds like a
transvestite movie, "From Justin to Kelly."' But he didn't get the joke, and
it ended up looking like an Ed Wood movie. Big mistake.
GROSS: Well, couldn't you have stopped it?
Mr. COWELL: No, absolutely not. I mean, there are certain peoples who, you
know, who are involved with the artists who can do what the hell they want. I
mean, I can hold my hand up as the record label and say, `Big mistake here,
guys,' but, you know, they learned their lessons.
GROSS: Now early in your career as a record producer, you--I mean, you know
how to market things. You called the World Wrestling Foundation and suggested
you do an album with, you know, Randy "Macho Man" Savage and some of the other
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...not because they were great singers, but because they had an
audience who would buy their product. So you had a built-in market.
Mr. COWELL: Yes. Yeah. It was just common sense. They'd come over to the
GROSS: Oh, let me just say, it's the World Wrestling Federation, not
Mr. COWELL: Federation.
Mr. COWELL: You're absolutely right.
GROSS: It sounds like a non-profit organization the way I said it.
Mr. COWELL: Believe me, that's not. They came over to London. And I read
it in one of our newspapers that they'd sold out 82,000 seats in 27 minutes.
Now hang on a minute. There's not a rock band in the world who can do that.
And I also found out that they were selling about two and a half million
videos a year to the fans who watched the show. So it didn't take a lot of
time to realize that if they were selling that many seats and that many videos
that there would be a lot of kids who would want to buy an album from the
wrestlers as well. It was just common sense.
GROSS: But did it ever make you think, `But I'm not being true to my musical
love. I'm just doing this as pure marketing'?
Mr. COWELL: What do you think, Terry?
GROSS: `Give me the money.'
Mr. COWELL: OK. Give me the money. And you know, it's a funny thing about
the music industry which, yeah, I think it's quite unusual. Because I think
in television and film, it's readily accepted that both TV and film has to
survive as an industry by selling to all sorts of demographics. I mean, you
have children's TV. You have more serious TV. You have mass market TV. My
theory about the music industry is that why shouldn't we run the record label
with that concept, which is of course you can have the more credible serious
stuff, but why shouldn't a younger audience be able to buy music they like,
which isn't necessarily the most artistic form on Earth, but they love when
they buy it? I mean, I've never seen the sense of being snobbish about music.
You either like it or you don't.
GROSS: So there's versions of "American Idol" now in 21 countries. What are
some of the most interesting differences between what the singers in each of
those countries are like? You know...
Mr. COWELL: Right.
GROSS: ...how they perform, what their mannerisms are, what really irks you
Mr. COWELL: Well, here's the interesting thing. Nothing changes all over
the world, Terry. You know, it's--if you took away, you know, the talking
part, it's really difficult--probably with the exception of Lebanon, which is
fairly ghastly, "Lebanon Idol." It's almost a contradiction in terms, isn't
it? But it's--no, it--that's why I think the show works as a universal show,
which is that the same rules apply. Most of the people who turn up are
terrible. Every single person believes they are God's gift to the music
industry. So they are the same.
GROSS: Does every country cover Stevie Wonder records?
Mr. COWELL: Yes. Every country now. The funny thing was is that we, you
know, as you know, started the show in England. And then when we sold it all
over the world, every country tried to find somebody unpleasant on the judging
Mr. COWELL: And that's quite bizarre, people who I've known for years as
jolly nice people suddenly turning into complete pigs. And that's quite
GROSS: Everyone who watches the show knows that part of the drama of
"American Idol" is the tension between you and one of the other judges, Paula
Abdul, who was a pop star in the '80s. And her persona on the show as a judge
is somebody who's always supportive. Even if she hates the singer, she'll
find something nice and encouraging to say to them. And you're just the
opposite. If something bothers you, you'll just bluntly say it. So you argue
with each other on the show, and there's a whole constellation of jokes about
your relationship. Did you know things would be like that? 'Cause after--you
must have been in on hiring her in the first place. You created the show.
Mr. COWELL: Well, when it was decided to hire Paula, you know, we all had a
hand in the decision. And I only knew of her as a pop star, and I only met
her for the first time when I walked into the audition room on that first day
in Los Angeles and I was introduced to her 20 or 30 minutes before the show
started. And it was Paula who, you know, kind of reacted strangely within the
first hour of auditioning, because I don't think she quite knew what the show
was going to be like. And I guess she thought we were all going to be like
the people on "Star Search" and tell everybody they're great. And after the
first three or four auditions, I mean, she was horrified, really horrified.
And that did create a lot of tension.
GROSS: When Paula Abdul became a judge on the show, did you feel like saying
to some of the contestants on the show, `This is what happens to pop stars 10,
20 years later. People don't know who they are anymore'?
Mr. COWELL: God, that's a good point. No, I didn't actually, but now you
mentioned it, I think I might mention it. I--`Don't enter, this is what
happens.' But you know what? Funny enough, Terry, at the end of the day, I
actually do like Paula. And because, you know, she's actually got a much,
much harder job than I've got. It's easy for me to criticize all these people
and to be rude. I would find it really hard to do what she does week after
week, which is to try and see, you know, the bright side of things. I
couldn't do it.
GROSS: One more question. When a performer is doing what you consider to be
a really bad job, you often accuse them of being, like--performing like they
should be at Six Flags or some other, like, theme park or amusement park. And
but in some way, the type of pop singing that's done on "American Idol" seems
to be the type of pop singing that would flourish at those parks, but not have
a home in a lot of other places. You know, the clubs that teen-agers and
college students go to don't have that kind of pop. And, you know, the
expensive clubs like in Vegas have older performers. I know you've created
venues for them, but was there a pre-existing venue for that type of pop of
people that age?
Mr. COWELL: Probably not, no. I take the point you're saying, Terry, which
is that, `You look as if you're contradicting yourself sometimes.' The
problem we had was simply this, is that if we had decided to bring in rap
music and hip-hop music, I actually don't believe anybody would have watched
this show. The only time we feel that we can keep an audience is when they
are singing older songs in an older style. And you'll notice that all the
people who've won this competition have never varied from that. I mean, one
of our better singers, Tamyra Gray, she veered off slightly one week by
singing something a bit more contemporary, and she was voted off the show. So
GROSS: Why is that, do you think?
Mr. COWELL: Because I--do you know, I honestly don't know. I think you could
argue one of the reasons is because there is an older audience watching. But
you could also say that even the younger kids who are watching, even though
they don't like to admit it, they actually do like traditional old pop songs.
GROSS: You know what I think it is, too? You take something like hip-hop,
you're supposed to have a certain, like, street creed or authenticity or
Mr. COWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: And you're certainly not going to get street creed or authenticity by
being on "American Idol."
Mr. COWELL: Listen, you've hit the nail on the head. And, you know, we had
this supposed rocker on the show last year. His name was Patrick. But he was
somebody who looked like he'd gone into the rock shop and said, `Make me a
rock star.' I mean, he just wasn't believable. And I described him as being
a sheep in wolves' clothing and made the point, 'cause when he said to me,
`I'm into rock 'n' roll,' I said, `No you're not, mate, because rock 'n' roll
is anti-establishment. This is establishment, this show. So just by the fact
that you bothered to audition, you've told me very, very loud and clear you
are not rock 'n' roll.' But it's exactly the point you just made. You know,
if you really are into that kind of music, you stay away from a show like
GROSS: Simon Cowell, thank you so much.
Mr. COWELL: It's been a pleasure. I've enjoyed talking to you, Terry.
DAVIES: Simon Cowell, the co-creator and judge of "American Idol," speaking
with Terry Gross. "American Idol's" fifth season opens Tuesday.
Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "Cache."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: New movie "Cache"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The 63-year-old German director Michael Haneke has a reputation for exploring
extreme and violent states of mind. Working in France for the last five
years, he's made a serious of films including "La Pianiste," in which Isabelle
Huppert plays a piano teacher given to voyeurism, sadism and self-mutilation.
Haneke's acclaimed new film, "Cache," won him the best director prize at last
year's Cannes Film Festival. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
One thing I get to do as a critic is walk into a movie without knowing
anything, not even the premise, and I love this. I love being disoriented and
letting the filmmakers only gradually give me my bearings. Now I realize I'm
in the business of taking that pleasure away from you, and that's going to be
especially true of Michael Haneke's "Cache," which is a strange hybrid of
political parable, meditation on the video medium and ghost story. And what's
thrilling is our disorientation. So what I'll try to do is tell you some
things about "Cache" without taking away that sense of discovery. That's the
best reason to see it.
The first thing is that the movie plays with perspectives. It's tantalizing.
Are we watching a video within a movie or real life? The reality is often
blurred. The first shot is a long static view of a city house with people
coming and going. It turns out to be a tape mailed to the protagonist,
Georges, played by Daniel Auteuil, and his wife Anne, played by Juliette
Binoche. Who sent it? Why? Was it perhaps a crazed fan? Georges, after
all, is a famous TV personality. He interviews authors on a highbrow show
surrounded by formidable bookcases.
Because cache means `hidden,' let's switch for a moment to a genre that was
once the province of horror films, but it's likely been seeping into the
mainstream. Call it `the revenge of the repressed.' Something once
happened--an injustice, maybe cultural. In a Stephen King novel or
"Poltergeist," it might be that developers dug up the graves of an Indian
burial ground, or the protagonist committed a crime long ago and now a demon
has emerged from the depths of his unconscious. Post-9/11, this device has
been adopted by liberal filmmakers. They've created scenarios that drive home
the source of the Third World's anger. "The Constant Gardener," "Syriana,"
"Munich," even "Crash" rub our noses in the West's weald ignorance. This
filmmakers argue that to maintain our comfort and affluence, we've pushed our
imperialism and racism out of our minds. We've cultivated a cultural and
At the core of "Cache's" narrative is a Paris riot of October 1961 in which
around 200 Algerian immigrants protesting their disenfranchisement were killed
by the police. Now what does Georges, the public face of the old bourgeois
intelligentsia have to do with all this? Obviously something. The truth, as
it turns out, is cruel and some of the imagery grisly. And the source of
those images is maddeningly hard to pin down.
It's impossible to see "Cache" and not think of the riots that tore up French
cities a few months ago. Haneke was almost supernaturally prescient. But the
movie has a serious flaw, which is that its protagonist has no stature as a
dramatic character. Georges relives his past in dreams, avenging dreams, the
last of which will haunt you for a long time. But he remains stubborn in his
denial. Haneke never lets him rise to the occasion. He has too much
contempt for him, which I think is an example of an artist putting politics
ahead of drama.
But "Cache" does point the way for mainstream directors to use genre devices
to explore the politics of forgetting. And that's something film can do with
more psychological complexity than the news media and more visceral kick than
literature. It can show us the costs of the hidden, the ever-escalating rent
on those locked storage rooms of the mind.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.