Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Documentary: Eliciting Difficult Stories

Werner Herzog

Lesson time 14:29 min

Werner breaks down the need for narrative discipline and "knowing the heart of men." Learn how to get to the heart of your subject and shape your story.

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Topics include: Managing your emotions • Shaping the story • Getting to the heart of your subject


Emotional attachment, that's also a very tricky question. Emotional attachment with the subjects in your film. In some very deep moments, deeply emotional, deeply disturbing, I do not break down. I know I am a professional. I have to, if I start to cry now, I cannot function anymore. You cannot ask a question sobbing from behind the camera. So it's an enormous amount of discipline. And you better have to remain professional. We are professionals. And the involvement has to be only to a certain degree. A surgeon should not operate his own child. But sometimes, you get across a situation where there is somebody as if this was your own child, and you keep on filming. It is professional discipline. And of course, sometimes it has happened to me that I was, in fact, crying, tears coming down. But my voice still completely matter of fact and firm. I had quite a few moments in The White Diamond. Graham Dorrington who had built a new airship. And we were in Guyana. He needed for me, and I told him at the beginning, I have to hear from you with the story 10 years back, when your camera man, the only person who had manned the prototype perished in the most horrifying accident. You have to tell me. He said yes, I'll do it. And then during shooting, I said, tomorrow we have to do it. We are only four or five days left here, and the weather is good. And he would not do it. He would just refuse it. Say, no, no, it's too difficult, too heavy for me. And then next day, I said, we are going to do it. He couldn't do it. He was up all night pacing up and down in the jungle and talking to himself. And I said to him, Graham, I know we are not going to do it today. And I said, but you know what? Tomorrow we'll do it. And what is going to happen is this. There will be only the camera and only the sound and only me, no one else and my young 12-year-old son. Because it's a story that's not for me or for the cinematographer, it's a story for the kids. It's a story for those who will grow up. And they will carry your story to the children and to their grandchildren and great grandchildren. And he said, I think I have understood you. And I have this scene, I think, where Graham Dorrington finally tells the story. And it's very hard for him to tell it. 11 years ago, Goetz Dieter Plager died in Sumatra in an accident, in a project where I was working with him. We were using a one man airship, a small airship to film the forest canopy. I flew the airship first, a few times. And then he flew it. And it was going very well, the project. On the day of his accident, we woke up, and the atmosphere was very somber. I said to him, I don't need any tearful account of all this. Just tell me how you experienced it in all its harshness, in all its horror. We took off, he took off in the morning, a littl...

About the Instructor

When the legendary director Werner Herzog was 19, he stole a camera and made his first movie. 70 films and 50 awards later, Werner is teaching documentary and feature filmmaking. In this film class, you’ll learn storytelling, cinematography, location scouting, self-financing, documentary interview techniques, and how to bring your ideas to life. By the end, you’ll make uncompromising movies.

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Werner Herzog

In 6 hours of video lessons, Werner Herzog teaches his uncompromising approach to documentary and feature filmmaking.

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