The filmmaker talks about his documentary on capital punishment’s emotional toll during a special screening in Santa Monica

By Michael Aushenker

As the camera pans across rows of anonymous-looking headstones in heartland Texas, Rev. Richard Lopez somberly explains that on these graves of executed death row inmates, there are “no names on the crosses, only numbers.”

A few minutes later, Lopez is in tears over a squirrel he spared from becoming road kill as he realizes how ineffectual he feels with respect to the lives of the doomed men he prays for before they are executed.

Leave it to filmmaker Werner Herzog — director of “Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Fitzcarraldo” and the upcoming “Queen of the Desert” with James Franco — to coax emotion from a subject by inquiring about a squirrel.

“Nobody [else] would’ve asked him that,” Herzog told a packed Aero Theatre in Santa Monica during an Oct. 8 screening of his documentary “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.”

“I didn’t have a catalogue of questions, only my curiosity” said Herzog, 72, who was interviewed by writer F.X. Feeney and took questions from the audience.

The film examines the tragic case of Michael James Perry, who, with a fellow teenaged friend, murdered three people for a Camaro. Eleven years later, Herzog interviews the still-young Perry as he sits on death row within the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, just eight days before Perry’s execution. Ostensibly charming, Perry believes he has evolved since that fate-turning rampage. He does not deny committing the crimes, as he was linked to the victims by DNA and even led police to the bodies.

“I’ve been in dangerous situations. I mean very, very dangerous situations. I’ve seen dangerous men. I mean, very dangerous. But when [interviewing Perry], in the back of my mind I had this gnawing knowledge that I’ve never seen a man as dangerous as this kid,” Herzog said.

As a needling off-camera voice in “Abyss,” Herzog does more than interview a killer about to be killed. He gets the parallax view by talking to those affected from every angle: the surviving family member of Perry’s crimes, the father of Perry’s partner-in-crime (himself incarcerated), Rev. Lopez, and a former executioner who retired after 125 executions.

“I’m not one of those to give you a platform for your guilt or innocence. For that, you have your lawyers, your support groups, websites,” he continued. “I told the prison guard [who was interfering with an interview], ‘Sir, their crimes are monstrous but they are human beings.’ They respected me after that and the guard gave me five additional minutes.”