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‘Soon you’ll hit gold!’: the day I took lessons with Herzog, Atwood, Lynch and more

‘I lived in a hammock in the jungle for one-and-a-half years,” says Werner Herzog. “And it was fine. I ate snakes, alligators and giant crawling maggots.” In that calm, steely voice familiar to anyone who has seen his documentaries, the German director is talking about his commitment to film-making, casually mentioning the time he threatened to murder Klaus Kinski and how, in turn, the actor planned to murder him. He also talks about being shot, forging the president of Peru’s signature on film permits, on-set plane crashes and refusing to stay at Nicolas Cage’s home because he couldn’t face watching egg dribble down his lead actor’s chin at breakfast time.

I’ve spent six hours in the company of Herzog, sitting rapt as he talked me through the insights he has picked up in the course of a wild career, in which tradition and convention have been treated with disdain. “The three-act film is ridiculous,” he says. “It’s brainless – the signature of a mediocre film.” Although he calls directing “a series of failures and banalities”, his love for the end result is clear. “I’m morphing into Brando,” he says softly, as he stares transfixed at Marlon in the opening scene of 1952’s Viva Zapata!

All this is taking place in my home in Sheffield, with me sitting on a chair with my feet up, a glass of wine in hand, an Airedale puppy named Alf curled up close by. Herzog is one of 80 high-profile names to deliver online courses via MasterClass. The site, which launched in 2015, has had Serena Williams on tennis, Steve Martin on comedy, Martin Scorsese on film-making, and Margaret Atwood on creative writing.

The idea is that “everyone should have access to genius”. Co-founder David Rogier was inspired by his gran, who escaped the Holocaust to New York. She applied to 25 medical schools, was rejected by them all and even told: “You have three strikes against you: you’re a woman, you’re an immigrant and you’re Jewish.” But she persevered until she got in, later telling Rogier: “Education is the only thing someone can’t take from you.”

During lockdown, these classes are proving more popular than ever: membership, says the company, has increased tenfold. But, with mountains of free stuff already out there, what’s the appeal? “It’s the intimacy of being in the room with the greats,” says Rogier, “but in a way that doesn’t feel like taking a class in school. You’re learning from the world’s best.”

The classes mix entertainment and education, each one shot in a different location. You can learn basketball on the personal training court of NBA star Stephen Curry, or step into the kitchen of Massimo Bottura, the chef of the three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana. “No two classes are remotely the same,” says Rogier, who keeps a wishlist of potential teachers. “Everyone has their own approach.”

There is apparently no such thing as a typical student. Nikki Wolf was in the US air force but is now a “stay-at-home mom” in Kansas City. She’s been a member for three years (cost is £170 per year in the UK for access to all classes) after being given a cooking class and moving on to everything from mixology to interior design to photography. John Robinson lives in Derby and signed up for chess lessons from Garry Kasparov. “I’ve since taken everything from Chris Voss’s FBI hostage negotiation series to Misty Copeland’s ballet tutorials,” he says. “To have just one of these masters would be great. To have all of them in one place is quite something.”

In an attempt to lift the ennui of lockdown and use my increased free time for some self-improvement, I decide to give these masters and their creative wisdom a go. Classes, which can last anything from two to five hours, come with a PDF workbook, along with articles that an active community of students pick over.

Herzog’s homework assignments prove tricky, though. I am unable to spend a night in a forest, listening for inspiring sounds to record. Nor am I able to randomly walk in any direction for 100 miles, or arrange an interview with a prison inmate. I do, however, set a timer and listen to Beethoven for two hours while writing a film scene by hand without deleting a single word. “Be inspired by the music,” advises Herzog, “and challenge yourself to write with precision.”

Misty Copeland teaches ballet dancing for MasterClass. Photograph: Danielle Levitt/The Observer

This contradicts the advice of Margaret Atwood. “The wastepaper basket is your friend,” she tells me. “It was invented for you, by God.” But I write away in messy scrawls as Beethoven’s Eroica swirls around my ears. Never cutting words feels counterintuitive, reckless even, but it forces greater consideration. I type up the scenes, expand them, and soon have 30 pages of a script that seems to have come from nowhere.

Beyond Herzog, classes vary from the broad to the specific. Some wish to impart avuncular guidance, with follow-your-dreams mantras. Martin opts for more of a life-story approach, peppered with encouraging remarks. “You’re a thought machine,” he tells me. Elsewhere you find meticulous detail. The documentary film-maker Ken Burns shares his editing software on screen, letting you see exactly how he put together his epic, The Vietnam War. TV writer Shonda Rhimes breaks down her pilot script for Scandal act-by-act.

The access is impressive. If you grew up in a pre-internet era, the task of getting a copy of David Lynch’s cult film Eraserhead might have been arduous. Here he talks you through the cinematography and gushes about how the site where he found some oil tanks for a scene was “the most beautiful place on Earth”. If you dig through YouTube videos and read such books as Catching the Big Fish, you’ll find some of Lynch’s insights familiar, but as he talks through clips, pulls out photos and walks you through his sets, there is an intimacy that feels unique.

People living in, say, remote Scotland can get personal advice on scoring films from the likes of composer Hans Zimmer, something that would otherwise require extensive travelling and huge expense. But there are occasional problems with listening to successful people talk about how to be successful.

Get intimate with David Lynch.

‘Pretty soon that pen will start moving’ … David Lynch teaches scriptwriting. Photograph: MasterClass

During a section entitled Say Yes to Weird Experiences, humourist David Sedaris encourages various surreal pursuits that suggest only that he has quite a lot of time and money on his hands. “I like to go to another country to get my hair cut,” says Sedaris, as though hopping on a plane to chat with a barber in Japan for inspiration is a realistic option for impecunious writers. Gordon Ramsay’s scrambled eggs, which require white truffle and sea urchin, also seem more eccentric than educational.

With schoolchildren being forced to embrace video-conferencing, is education facing a future along MasterClass lines? “Education is changing,” says Rogier. “The old ways are breaking down. We don’t measure success on grades or certificates, but on actual impact. We ask our members if they learned something that changed their life. But education and learning aren’t the same thing. This isn’t online education – it’s a place to learn and grow.”

Have I learned and grown? Not in a life-changing way but enough to help lift the fog and reignite a spark. Herzog’s class was, in all honesty, outstanding. His methods, however, might not be for everyone: it’s possible that reading eighth-century Chinese poetry to “get into the fury of language” when writing a script won’t appeal to those looking to nail a tricky piece of contemporary character dialogue.

Still, there’s no shortage of oddball advice. To advance my script, I ditch the esoteric poetry in favour of Lynch’s writing tips. I sit outside at night, on a lawn chair facing east, with a bottle of red wine – a Bordeaux, he insists – and a packet of cigarettes (even though I quit years ago). On my lap is a yellow writing pad, in my hand a black ballpoint pen, ready. “Pretty soon,” says the legendary film-maker, “that pen will start moving and words will come out.” It does and they do. “Ninety per cent of it will be worthless, horrible stuff,” he adds. “But soon you’ll hit a vein of gold – and it’ll come pouring out.”

Learn more on the MasterClass website.

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