When the legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who once ate a shoe onstage after losing a bet, came to Minneapolis in 1999, Sheryl Mousley picked him up from the airport in her car.
“He was hungry and ready to go out to dinner right away,” said Mousley, who stepped down as head of the Walker Art Center’s film and video department this March after a two-decade career at the museum.
Herzog and Mousley went into his hotel to drop off his bags, but when they emerged and walked toward Mousley’s car, they discovered they’d been double-parked.
“The car was running and nobody was there, so I thought, ‘Well, we’ll just wait for a minute or two,’” Mousley said.
But Herzog was not an easily daunted man.
In the early ’80s he’d forced a film crew to drag a three-story, 320-ton steamship over a steep, muddy hill, and he wasn’t about to let a loutish Minnesota driver get in the way of his supper. Without hesitation, Mousley recalls, Herzog jumped into the car’s driver’s seat, stepped on the gas and wordlessly parked the vehicle halfway down the block.
“We drove away and went to have dinner,” Mousley said.
Throughout her 20-year career, Mousley and the Walker have brought to Minneapolis dozens of internationally recognized directors — including, most recently, Oscar winners Julia Reichert and Bong Joon Ho — for in-person conversations about their lives and work.
“I invited Bong Joon Ho last August,” Mousley said. “Of course, we didn’t know he was going to be coming straight from Los Angeles with an Oscar in tow.”
At the end of April, 60 onstage dialogues from the past 30 years were digitized and released on the Walker’s website — a career capstone for Mousley, who was responsible for persuading some of the biggest names in cinema to brave the Minnesota cold for an evening of candid conversation.
“It’s like a treasure trove that we had in our archive, and now that we can open it up to the public, it’s thrilling,” Mousley said.
While the timing of the resource’s unveiling during the pandemic was unintentional, she said it’s a great time to discover filmmakers and stream movies online.
“These filmmakers from around the world approach cinema from different places — from more traditional feature films to experimental films to animators like the Quay brothers and artists like Julian Schnabel and Christian Marclay,” she said. “To have these voices in one place is like opening a big box where everyone is willing to talk to you.”
An early love of film
Mousley grew up in Thief River Falls, a small town in northwestern Minnesota. As a child, she’d frequent the town’s two movie theaters and, because of their proximity to the Canadian border, she could also watch programs from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
But her lifelong interest in film came from her mother, Verna, who Mousley said was “a serious home movie maker” armed with a Super 8 camera. “On Saturdays she’d set up her projector and screen and we’d all watch together,” said Mousley, the youngest of five. “We all participated; we were either in the films or helped to make them.”
After graduating college in the early 1970s, Mousley worked at the Dakota County Development Learning Center (now known as Lifeworks). Tasked with helping young adults with autism improve their communication skills, she taught her students to tell their stories with Super 8 cameras.
Interested in making a documentary about the program, Mousley moved to Film in the Cities (FITC), a now shuttered media arts center in St. Paul, where she served as education director. After a stint at Independent Television Service, a Twin Cities-focused arm of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, she joined the Walker in 1998.
30 years of dialogues
To get filmmakers to agree to participate in the Walker’s dialogue series, Mousley said she prefers to invite them in person whenever possible.
That’s how she recruited Agnes Varda — the pioneering director who played a central role in the development of the French New Wave movement.
Mousley said she tracked down Varda at the New York Film Festival and, hearing that Varda was running late for her next appointment, offered to jump in a taxi with her. It happened to be Yom Kippur, and Mousley explained to Varda that it was the day when Jews atone for their sins.
Mousley said Varda not only accepted her invitation to come to the Walker but also made an impromptu taxicab confession atoning for one of her misdeeds. Varda’s transgression? Mousley asked it not be published.
When Varda arrived in Minneapolis in 2001, the director had just released “The Gleaners and I” and was scheduled to receive an award upon her return to Paris. But she needed a dress for the ceremony.
In the days before the onstage conversation, Mousley and Varda went dress shopping at secondhand stores across the Twin Cities.
“She was very dedicated to the idea of reuse and wanted to make sure that if she were to be onstage, she could be wearing something secondhand,” Mousley said. “She would try everything on, and I would try them on. We’d each get a dress, and then we’d go out to dinner wearing our recycled dresses.”
Mousley took the dress out of her closet in 2018, gamely wearing it onstage to present a screening of one of Varda’s final features, “Faces Places,” in the Walker’s cinema.
Making film visible
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mousley’s 20-year career at the Walker ended quietly in March, without celebration or fanfare. The day she cleaned out her office, the museum announced it would be closing. The Walker has yet to name Mousley’s replacement.
But the Walker’s newly released dialogue series offers a retrospective look not just at individual filmmakers’ contributions but also at the career of a curator who’s done more than any other person to shape the program.
If you browse through the conversations on the Walker’s website, you’ll hear Herzog reading what has become known as the “Minnesota Declaration,” enumerating principles of truth and fact in documentary cinema, and Bong’s admission that he based the chemically-spawned fish monster in his movie “Host” on Steve Buscemi’s character in “Fargo.”
As for her legacy? Mousley said that throughout her career she has endeavored to “make film visible.”
She’s proud of her work launching the Bentson Mediatheque off of the Walker’s main lobby in 2015 as a public space accessible without paid admission. Mousley calls the 55-seat cinema “a jukebox”: visitors choose one of 300 films from the Walker’s collection and then sit back as it plays on the big screen. (Included are two short experimental pictures Mousley made in 1981.)
“The door is open so you can select something to watch, and the door stays open so other people can join you, or they can wait until your selection is done to select something else,” Mousley said.
What has retirement been like in a time of quarantine?
Mousley said she thought “part of the fun of retirement would be getting to enjoy being at home, and I’m getting to do that.”
She is also, of course, watching films — at least one each day.
Zac Farber’s work-from-home office mate is a curator at the Walker Art Center.
THREE DECADES of Walker Dialogues
Unable to open its doors for programming, The Walker Art Center has released its treasure trove of dialogues with artists over the past 30 years. With such luminaries as Bill T. Jones, Bong Joon Ho, Spike Lee, Lili Taylor, Robert Redford and others, the series offers hours of insightful discussion by artists and thinkers. Take a deeper look into what some of the great creatives of the past and present have thought about in recorded versions of this series.
How to view: Walker Art Center website