Welcome to the Jungle: An Interview with Steve Zahn
by Matthew Vasiliauskas
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Shoes are much more than a necessary safeguard for bipedal movement, and in fact will often create an intricate and intimate window into the emotions of the wearer.
Colors, shapes, sizes, manufactured and self-made designs all construct a revealing geography of individual ideology, and possesses the potential to not only fulfill the owner’s desires, but inspire the viewer as well.
In a particular scene from Werner Herzog’s latest film Rescue Dawn, stars Christian Bale and Steve Zahn trek through the foreboding and dense Laotian jungle when they unexpectedly come upon the remains of a shoe. Hungry and having been without footwear for months, the two men rejoice at the opportunity and take turns wearing the tattered sole as they continue to progress deeper into the unknown. Realizing Zahn’s growing discomfort, Bale at one point says, “Here, Duane, you wear the sole now.”
The sole is what supports a shoe, and though it is torn and falling apart with each subsequent step in this case, it is still powerful enough to relieve the physical and emotional strain of the journey, and provide the two men with the motivation to strive for the survival of their own souls.
Rescue Dawn tells the story of U.S. Air Force pilot Dieter Dengler, played by Christian Bale who is shot down and captured in Laos during the beginning stages of the conflict in Vietnam. Upon capture, Dieter is taken to a small Laotian prison camp where he meets two American soldiers already held captive for two years; Duane, played by Steve Zahn, and Gene, played by Jeremy Davies. Despite Duane and Gene’s insistence on not causing trouble, Dieter has no plans of remaining in the nightmarish camp and begins setting into a motion a plan that will take him out of captivity and into the vast and nearly escapable Laotian jungle.
Based upon Herzog’s previous documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the film chronicles in brutal detail the psychological and physical strains of prison camp life, but more importantly examines the complex workings of friendship and the sacrifices and considerations which must be made in order to combat the claws of hunger, betrayal and insanity.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Steve Zahn and speak to him about his experiences on the set, and his first time working with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog.
Matt Vasiliauskas: How familiar were you with Werner Herzog before signing on to do this film?
SZ: I was a big fan of his prior. If there was a film that came up that Werner was doing, I would immediately be interested in it because it was Werner Herzog. But in this case, the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly was one of my favorites, and I’m a big documentary buff, and that was a film I would always send to people who had not seen it, saying that it was just remarkable. So when I found out, on the list of things my agent was reading to me, that Werner was planning on doing a project based on this documentary, I jumped at the opportunity, and said you got to get me into this somehow, and I want to meet him. And Werner was great. I remember, he called my agent, and my agent called me and said, “He wants to know what you like to eat.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” So I went to his house, and he cooked me a steak, and it was great. I was wearing a coat I had borrowed from the set I was working on. And we had a great dinner and talked. I didn’t have to preface anything with, “Well, I do a lot of comedies, you know.” He didn’t care about that at all. And then, the next dinner, he said, “You know, I would really like you to play Duane,” and I said I would be honored.
That was 2003, and then they finally got the financing five months before we were set to go, so we stopped everything and started dropping the weight. I couldn’t wait, and I was so glad and thrilled that it was being made and that I was there.
MV: Perhaps one of the most exhilarating emotional experiences of the film is the bond your character shares with Christian Bale.
SZ: One of the most moving parts of the documentary is when Dieter is sitting on this bridge at the edge of the Mi Kong River, and he’s talking about Duane and his death, and it’s so beautiful how he talks about his relationship with him and how he was closer to him than he was to his mother or brother, and that not only did they need each other’s companionship and protection, but they needed each other’s warmth when they slept at night. That’s an image I always wanted in the movie.
It’s like this old couple. And I remember that one moment in the movie when the chopper flies over and we think we’re going to be saved. It was such a great moment I remember. That was one of my favorite days because it was something we didn’t even plan, and we were on the ground hugging, and we didn’t know for sure if it was being covered because Werner doesn’t cover anything. If that would have happened in any other movie, you would have spent a half-day of coverage on that. And I don’t even know if it comes across like that, but it doesn’t matter, because it was so great. We shot that early in the movie, and from that point on, we knew we had something special going on.
MV: Herzog is known for pushing actors to their limit. Was this style of directing at play here, and did it affect you in any way?
SZ: Oh yeah. And it was hard to get to those points because of Werner and the way he runs a set, and because there are no distractions like bowls of M&M’s, make-up or anything like that. You’re either there working, or you’re not, because you’re going to get screamed at, and I love that about Werner. All that excess bullshit that you don’t need to make a movie is taken away. And the pushing is not excessive. We’re all excited to work for him, and I’ve never worked with someone as hands on as he is. And so, through that, you just gain this ultimate respect for him. And it’s not until the end of the day that you wonder, Man, I don’t think I would have done that for other guys.
MV: What was the set like itself? Were there any comforts, or were you pretty much roughing it throughout the duration of the shoot?
SZ: There were no comforts. And I’ve done little movies before where there were no trailers, but for this, there was absolutely nothing. Christian and I work the same way. When the scene’s over, we’ll just sit and joke around. He’s actually one of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with. We didn’t go back to our trailers and have to be reminded that we were barefoot and hungry. We were. We just hung out on set, leaned against rocks and fell asleep. There were times when we fell asleep next to the river because we were so tired. And then we would wake up and there would be this sound and a camera was two feet from us with Werner behind it shooting us. You never knew when he was going to cover something or not. We stopped asking, “Can we put our shoes on now?”
MV: Because of Herzog’s more improvised style of directing, do you in turn have to adjust your style in order to fit the demands of the scene?
SZ: Yeah, well, that’s your job, to come in and tell the story depending on what your circumstances are. There was that friction. There were people there being used in a way they didn’t think they ought to be used, and that was frustrating to them. Now, you can either question that and say he’s an idiot, or you can give into it. Even if you think he’s an idiot, go, “Okay, this is how we’re working,” and you’ll be fine. Because then at least you’ll have the freedom to build upon the story.
MV: Some of the most telling moments of the story are the silent close-ups of character’s eyes.
SZ: I really enjoyed doing something where you didn’t have to talk all the time. I love movies like Never Cry Wolf or Jeremiah Johnson. These stories are told through the trees and the environment and the journey. And the eyes are very expressive, and you get that from the DP. And it’s great, because you’re so dirty that you don’t know who’s who, but you see their eyes and a lot of this story is expressed through that.
And because there wasn’t a lot of coverage, those moments that allowed them to get tighter with the shot are much more prominent and slowed down which adds to the overall feel.
MV: You’re typically recognized as being associated with comedies. Are you okay with this association?
SZ: Yeah, I don’t mind. I just want to have longevity and work in this industry. I love making films. The 22-year-old pothead is funny, the 42-year-old pothead is not. And I’m going to play the appropriate parts as I get older and continue to evolve.
Matthew Vasiliauskas is a filmmaker and film critic living in Chicago.
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