It's a fall morning in Magnolia, and Linas Phillips is living, sleeping, and editing his movie in the small front guest room of the house of his producer Dayna Hanson (better known as one half of local dance troupe 33 Fainting Spells). The movie is called Walking to Werner, and it documents a pilgrimage Phillips made on foot this summer from Seattle to the Los Angeles home of Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog. Phillips was inspired by the first-person documentary style of his hero, and specifically by Of Walking in Ice, the account Herzog wrote of walking from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend. The movie is audacious, funny, and—a week and a half before the rough cut is scheduled to screen at Seattle Art Museum—far from finshed.
Phillips, dressed in a tan corduroy sports jacket and matching slacks, crouches over his Mac PowerBook, poring over some new tapes he'd shot just that morning. Behind him are a fluffy Pomeranian and a small gray cat; Hanson is trying to convince them to love each other. "Come on, you guys," she urges them. "You're brother and sister." Facing a painting of a bird that's been embellished by line drawings in crayon, Phillips gazes at some dawn footage he shot over Lake Washington. The sunlight is postcard-pretty, if somewhat diffuse. Phillips tells me about an Australian man who happened to be up at the same unnaturally early hour. "What do you call this lake?" he'd asked Phillips. Because of his broadly accented vowels, Phillips heard him say "light." It was a strange question. "God light?" he suggested.
In these relaxed quarters, Phillips looks preternaturally serene. In the footage of his journey, which he mostly shot on his own, his lank blond hair and big blue eyes remain constant, but his expression is volatile. When he's squinting against the sun, it's sometimes hard to tell whether he's frustrated or ecstatic, a portrait of art-school distractibility or a vision of the divine.
A graduate of New York University's Experimental Theater Wing, Phillips had little experience in film production before launching this project. Planning was minimal. Money wasn't raised, permissions weren't secured, releases weren't signed by interview subjects. It's become something of a sticking point now. "Who cares about releases? These people were talking to me because God told them to!" Phillips exclaims.
Many of the people he interviewed during the trip didn't so much talk to Phillips as proselytize. In an indelible segment filmed near Naselle, Washington, Phillips talks to a 19-year-old woman whom Hanson and Phillips have informally dubbed "Jesus girl." She speaks frankly about demons telling her she was the trinity, and explains that she now attends both Narcotics Anonymous and Emotions Anonymous. Despite her unnerving story, she has the presence of mind to give Phillips directions back to her house—not to use in the movie, but just in case. ("Oh my god," Hanson says, as we're watching the footage. "She just gave us instructions to find her, to get the release.") Perhaps most incredibly, she foreshadows later developments in the film. After glancing briefly heavenward, she tells Phillips that he might not find what he's looking for at the end of his journey.
In the next scene, Werner Herzog leaves a message on Phillips's voice mail, saying he'll be in Burma and Laos when Phillips is scheduled to arrive in L.A.
The ending of the movie is still a bit up in the air. (Phillips's idea involves getting rights to copyrighted material.) And a lot of his best footage—much of it involving religious fanatics—isn't guaranteed to make it in, either. (Again, that problem with releases.) There's a man who preaches against idol worship. There's a guy who lives on the beach in Southern California who urges Phillips to seek positivity, practice meditation, and get a good night's sleep. There's an ex-Mormon named Michael who calls himself the Prophet and speaks in an incantory chant. It was past dusk when the interview was shot, but next to Michael you can just make out a sign for Hauser, a town on the Oregon coast. There's a Werner Herzog movie called The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and Phillips is taking this as a sign.
Walking to Werner screens at Seattle Art Museum, Sun Nov 6 at 7:30 pm; Linas Phillips will be in attendence. Werner Herzog will be in town to introduce four of his films, also screening at SAM: a double-header of The Wild Blue Yonder and Lessons of Darkness, Tues Nov 8 at 7:30 pm, and Wheel of Time with The White Diamond, Wed Nov 9 at 7:30 pm.