Talking Documentary Filmmaking with Werner Herzog at Telluride

While at Telluride Film Festival last month I had the privilege of speaking with one of filmmaking’s most passionate and well-known documentarians. Werner Herzog gave me his full attention as I sought advice on an aspect of filmmaking that is essential to a good documentary. We spoke about access.

Herzog’s been making movies for 50 years. He’s now got a theater named after him at Telluride. And with all that notoriety pretty much any film he makes will show on a big screen somewhere. He doesn’t have to use time lapses or motion effects. He’s Werner Herzog. His films now sell on story alone. But story isn’t the only thing Herzog has going for him. He’s got access. And maybe that too is because he is a German filmmaking icon. But there’s more to it than that. He spends time with people, getting to know them, becoming involved in their lives. And he doesn’t care to tell a “balanced” story.

When I told Herzog that the water brokering community in Colorado seemed to be closing ranks to avoid participation in our documentary, “Watering the West: The Story of the Cache la Poudre River,” he said, “Forget them. Just tell the side of the story that you have.” Well that would be the conservationists alone, and I tend not to want to preach only to the choir. But I’ve been thinking about Herzog’s advice. Maybe he’s onto something. Icon status aside, he digs passionately into every story he tells. Yes, it’s only one side, but he takes us to places we wouldn’t otherwise see.

So back to the storyboard…and looking at digging deeper into water issues, here, where we live. How can we take people into this world that is integral to our lives in the American West, but of which we know so little? More to come on access, on Herzog, and on what it takes to get a documentary into theaters. Is story enough if your name isn’t Werner Herzog?

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