VENICE, Italy - German director Werner Herzog says his "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," starring Nicolas Cage as a drug-addicted homicide detective and Eva Mendes as his prostitute girlfriend, has nothing to do with Abel Ferrara's 1992 cult classic starring Harvey Keitel. He hasn't even seen it.
"There is no relationship, because I never saw it. But I am convincingly told that they have nothing to do with each other," Herzog told reporters on Friday at the Venice Film Festival where the movie made its premiere.
"I hope that Abel Ferrara will see my film, which he has not seen. And I hope I will see his film soon. I am sure we will meet soon with a bottle of whiskey between us."
That could happen sooner than he thinks: Ferrara is showing a film "Napoli, Napoli, Napoli" out of competition in Venice.
A brutal murder of a family of illegal immigrants drives Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant," but the movie defies any conventional plot line. It's more than a murder story, and doesn't want to be an expose of corruption. Herzog said the title came with the project, and he couldn't change it, but that he did rewrite substantial parts of the screenplay.
"To me it's a fairy tale, a warped fairy tale, but a fairy tale," Mendes said.
Cage's iguana-hallucinating homicide detective Lt. Terence McDonagh walks seemingly unscathed through potential disasters of his own making, always tempting fate to catch him. He is addicted to painkillers to treat a chronic back injury picked up while rescuing a prisoner from the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina, and will do anything to get his fix: shake down colleagues working in the property room, youths coming out of clubs and a college football star whose stats he can recite.
Playing a drug haze was much a much different process for Cage than when he played an alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas." For that film "I would have a couple of drinks for the prescribed scene, see how it would feel and put it in the movie," he said.
"I hadn't had a drink for five years, or anything," when it came time to shoot "Bad Lieutenant," Cage said. "It occurred to me that this was going to be more of an impressionist kind of landscape where I was going to try to look at the landscape of something that happened to me 20 years ago and try to recall that in my sober mind."
For Cage, one clear underlying difference between his bad lieutenant and Keitel's is the latter's search for redemption, Cage said.
"The movie (Abel) made, which is excellent, but it is very much a Judeo-Christian program where the character is loaded with Catholic guilt and redemption. Terrence has no guilt. It is not about that," Cage said. "I did not choose to approach the film with the idea I was portraying evil in anyway. You can ask me if he is a good cop, a bad cop, I won't answer. He just is."
In one of the best lines of the film, filled with black humor, Cage tells a drug kingpin who has just shot a hit man coming to settle a score with Cage's lieutenant: "Shoot him again. His soul is still dancing." Cajun music exults as the "soul" breakdances.
"It is a very dark humor," Herzog said. "It is so dark it becomes hilarious."
Herzog acknowledges the film was initially set in New Orleans for the tax breaks, but said he immediately jumped at the chance.
"New Orleans has something very, very strange. You sense the collapse, but not just the physical collapse, also the collapse of civility," Herzog said. "We shot at one street intersection and the next night two people were shot at this intersection. So you always had the thought, yes, there are always dangers."
Cage called New Orleans "really the biggest character of the film. More so than my character, or Eva's character."
"It is a potent genus loci, which is a very spiritual kind of energy that I wanted to embrace and put in the movie," Cage said.
"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is competing for the Golden Lion, which will be awarded Sept. 12.