When director Werner Herzog steps onto the stage of the Isabel Bader Theatre next week, let's hope the only shots that are fired are verbal ones.
A few months ago, during an interview with the BBC, an angry onlooker took out a gun and shot him. His immediate reaction? "Oh, someone is shooting at us," he calmly told the reporter. "We must go."
Achtung, baby! One more story to add to the legend of the world's most eccentric living director.
"I knew right away it was not very significant," he tells me on the phone from his Los Angeles home a couple of weeks before the sold-out Hot Docs event honouring his life's work.
"I think it was an air rifle or a small-calibre .22. It didn't perforate my abdomen. It was stopped by a leather jacket, and I had a catalogue in my pocket. There was just a big bruise and a bit of bleeding."
The throwaway, precisely clinical manner in which he dismisses the incident is pure Herzog.
This is a guy, after all, who has carved out a persona as the adventurer filmmaker, willing to brave anything to capture it on celluloid. He's filmed on top of an about-to-explode volcano (La Soufrière). He's orchestrated the hauling of a 360-ton boat up a hill in the Amazon (Fitzcarraldo). And in a nifty little stunt caught in a short film a few decades ago, he literally ate his shoe after losing a bet with the then-novice filmmaker Errol Morris.
Perhaps an air-rifle shooting isn't such a big deal.
"It was broadcast by the BBC," he tells me, in his distinctive voice that's both soothing and sadistic. With his exotic mix of accents, he sounds a bit like a higher-pitched, aesthete-like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"You can view it over the Internet. Otherwise, nobody would believe it."
The idea of believing our eyes is key when examining Herzog's life and work, the best of which gets screened over the next few weeks during Hot Docs and at Cinematheque (see sidebar).
Is he a brilliant visionary, who's given us some of the most astonishing images in film? (Think of that unforgettable scene in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God where conquistador Klaus Kinski is alone on a raft, surrounded by dead bodies and hundreds of monkeys.)
Or is he the not-so-great dictator, who's unnecessarily risked the lives of his cast and crew?
Consider this: some of his documentaries include staged, prepared moments. Many of the lofty-sounding epigraphs are 100 per cent phony.
Some of his fictional features, meanwhile, include real events and non-professional actors. In Fitzcarraldo that's a real steamship going up the hill. Those are real rapids and rocks the boat crashes up against. In two fiction masterpieces, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek, the leads are played by the remarkable Bruno S., who was raised in a mental institution from age three to 26.
"It's my duty to create as much fantasy as I can and take the audience along on a wild voyage," he says, relishing the irony.
"Fantasy, even in documentaries?" I ask.
"And what do you mean by 'fantasy'?"
"Just look at my films. They're as imaginative as it gets."
Herzog doesn't distinguish between his documentaries and his fiction films. He calls Fitzcarraldo his best documentary, and Little Dieter Needs To Fly - his astonishing doc about the escape by a German American, Dieter Dengler, from a brutal Laotian prison camp - a fiction film. (Herzog's just finished shooting a fiction feature about Dengler's escape, starring Christian Bale.)
One of my favourite Herzog films, Lessons Of Darkness, looks at post-Gulf War Kuwait. The bombed-out, charred landscape is so alien , it might as well be set on another planet.
"There are facts, and there's reality, and there's illumination," he tells me. "We have to look beyond the facts and reality and find the illumination of truth. That's what I'm after. That's the voyage I'm trying to take the audience on."
It's naive of us, he says, to think that what we see on a screen, even in a doc, is true.
"We have a massive onslaught of technical tools - like digital effects and Photoshop - that challenge our perception of reality," he says.
"Reality TV, WrestleMania, The Anna Nicole Smith Show, it goes on and on. Film today is like the medieval knight who finds himself at the battlefield confronted by muskets and cannons. Warfare has changed."
It's no coincidence that Herzog unpacks a war metaphor to talk about his chosen art. One of his big consistent themes is man going head to head against nature. He's obsessed with pride and hubris.
In last year's comeback pic, Grizzly Man, he showed Timothy Treadwell unsuccessfully trying to tame Alaskan grizzly bears. Earlier docs focused on men playing Russian roulette with the elements, like mountain climber Reinhold Messner or ski-flyer Walter Steiner.
But war, as we know, has casualties.
During the making of Fitzcarraldo, documented in Les Blank's 1982 film Burden Of Dreams, Herzog risked the lives of cast and crew when he stubbornly insisted on getting the boat up the hill. Some of the film crew suffered injuries during the scenes in the rapids.
Herzog defends himself, saying the injured crew on the boat volunteered to be there.
"When you build a bridge, you normally have people who are injured," he says. "In my case, it wouldn't have happened if those people had not insisted on doing it and making their own decisions. There's nothing wrong about having a few people injured. It was never anything really serious."
But beneath the tough, don't-be-a-girlyman exterior, Herzog maintains a code of ethics.
The most terrifying scene in Grizzly Man is a quiet one where the director listens with earphones to the audio footage of Treadwell and his girlfriend being mauled to death. He decides not to let us hear it, and tells Treadwell's ex-girlfriend not to listen to it, either.
"It was clear that we were not going to make a snuff movie," he says. "It became obvious that the dignity and privacy of an individual's death was important. You just don't step beyond that."
He likens this to the footage shot after the World Trade Center attacks.
"People jumped from the 106th floor and crashed on the pavement. The footage exists, but it's never been published, and rightly so."
At a time when most directors of his stature are getting fat and sinking into irrelevancy, Herzog's as active as ever. Grizzly Man was a huge hit last year. He's editing Rescue Dawn, the Dieter Dengler film, preparing two others and writing a screenplay. On the acting front, he's playing a missionary in Harmony Korine's next film.
Unlike his peers, he's never been tempted by Hollywood, despite a few offers. He was making indie films before indie films became cool - this despite his assertion that independent cinema is a myth.
"The only independent films are your home movies about your last vacation at the beach or your last Christmas family reunion," he says. "I make films for an audience." He prefers the term self-reliant.
Still, he tells me that Hollywood could be moving in his direction.
"Not the big special effects movies like The Terminator, but more story-driven, character-driven movies with a certain vision."
He's happy about being celebrated by Hot Docs, but doesn't take it too seriously. He'll never think of himself as the wise, enlightened master.
"They're tossing me a handful of confetti," he deadpans.
And he's amused by the fact that a film called Walking To Werner, about one aspiring filmmaker's pilgrimage to visit him, is part of the festival.
"I cannot prevent people from doing that," he says. "What is good about this whole thing was that while this young man was walking toward me, a week into his walk he learned that I wasn't even at home but at the Burmese/Thai border. He didn't have to find me. He knew that."
And getting older?
"I don't look at myself that much." He pauses. "My children are growing older. Probably," he says coyly, "me, too."
Get your Herzog hit
Good luck getting into the sold-out interview with Werner Herzog on May 6 (6:30 pm at the Isabel Bader). (There's currently a little bidding war for tickets on www.craigslist.com.) But there's still a chance to catch some of the German giant's best docs and fiction features when they screen as part of Hot Docs and Cinematheque.
AT HOT DOCS
LA SOUFRIERE and THE GREAT ECSTASY OF WOODCARVER STEINER (April 29, 6:30 pm) A double bill of daredevil acts, one involving an about-to-blow volcano, the other an athlete's need to fly higher, faster and longer - and stay alive.
LESSONS OF DARKNESS (April 30, 11:45 pm) Herzog's stunning footage of post-Gulf War Kuwait is a sci-fi horror show with a Wagnerian soundtrack. The last moments will have you weeping for humanity.
FATA MORGANA (May 2, 11:15 pm) An earlier take on what Lessons Of Darkness achieved, this uneven doc has a mournful beauty, thanks to Leonard Cohen's songs.
LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (May 6, noon) Dieter Dengler's real-life escape from a prison camp during the Vietnam War is so incredible it feels like fiction. Watch how Herzog makes Dengler reenact his escape step by step.
MY BEST FIEND (May 5, 6:30 pm) Two enormous talents, two enormous egos. Herzog and his sometime muse, Klaus Kinski, battle on and off the set in a bizarre film that must be seen to be believed.
FITZCARRALDO (April 29, 8:15 pm) To today's CGI-cynical eyes, the ship-going-over-the-mountain scene - despite all the bother - isn't really that impressive. But pay attention to those unearthly sounds.
AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (April 30, 3 pm) The film that put Herzog on the art-house map still holds up. It also established his big theme of an obsessed soul (Kinski as a crazed conquistador) attempting the impossible.
STROSZEK (May 3, 8:45 pm) Herzog's gentlest, quirkiest film finds three uprooted Berlin losers trying to achieve the American Dream in the hometown of serial killer Ed Gein. The conclusion, including the famous dancing chicken scene, apparently inspired Joy Division's Ian Curtis to kill himself in 1980.
WOYZECK (May 4, 6:30 pm) Herzog has repeatedly said that theatre is dead, but he directed Kinski and Eva Mattes in a fragment of Buchner's masterpiece. The film version rarely gets screened.
THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (May 4, 8:45 pm) Herzog's other muse, the feral Bruno S., grew up in a mental institution and proved hauntingly right for this portrait of a wild man-child's tragic life.