Dysentery, poisonous snakes, sabotage and a 320-ton ship being pushed up a mountain in the Amazon. People got hurt. People went nuts. People actually died. How could this not make for an intense movie? And the thing is, it’s a movie about the making of another movie.
In 1982, Les Blank made a documentary, called BURDEN OF DREAMS, about the making of FITZCARRALDO. The story of FITZCARRALDO centers around a man obsessed with building an opera house in Peru, during the early 20th century. He was going to do this by whatever means necessary, including moving a steamship over a mountain by hand.
It was directed by Werner Herzog. The same Werner Herzog that an entire generation knows only as the mild-mannered, old guy with the funny accent who makes great documentaries like GRIZZLY MAN and LO AND BEHOLD. However, back in the Seventies and Eighties, Herzog was far more known for his fiction films like NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE and AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD and was considered kind of a wild man. FITZCARRALDO was going to be his most epic film, yet, and he wanted Les Blank there to capture it all.
The production originally had Jason Robards as the lead and Mick Jagger in a major supporting role. Both had to bow out after production had already begun. Robards due to severe dysentery and Jagger because the production delays ran into conflict with the Stones “Tattoo You” tour. The film was recast and reshot with Klaus Kinski as the lead and a more traditional actor to replace Jagger.
Herzog was determined to recreate, and film, the ship manually being pushed up the mountain as the centerpiece of his production. An army of local Amazon inhabitants was recruited to assist. Things did not go well. The boat slipped and several people were hurt. Mind you, this is already after two small planes had crashed carrying production members, a man cut off his own foot with a chainsaw after being bitten by a poisonous snake, angry locals had burned down some of the sets and a man made a serious offer to kill Kinski after noticing that Herzog was impatient with Kinski’s increasingly weird behavior. Even Les Blank himself was not immune to the pressures and strains of the set. In one of his own diary entries he wrote “I’m tired of it all and I couldn’t care less if they move the stupid ship – or finish the fucking film.”
Herzog, against all odds, did, eventually, move the stupid ship and finish the film. FITZCARRALDO went on to collect several major awards, including winning Herzog Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. But BURDEN OF DREAMS is an even better film. In fact, it’s possibly the best movie about making movies ever made.