Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Documentary: Making the Conversation

Werner Herzog

Lesson time 14:36 min

Werner discusses his techniques to "crack a human being open." Learn how to make your subjects comfortable, identify with them, and capture their humanity.

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Topics include: Interviewing through conversations • Making your subjects human


I'm a little uncomfortable with the term interview because I'm not a journalist. I do have conversations, and normally I'm not very well-prepared. Very often, of course, I know a lot of the background of a person. Or in Death Row, I know the entire first reports of homicide detectives-- a case file, sometimes 1,000 pages-- but nothing that really pertains to what I'm going to speak now on camera. I do not have a questionnaire, I do not have a piece of paper with a catalog of questions. I have to try to get into a deeper dialogue very, very quickly early on. And normally I do not speak to the persons before, so that things still remain fresh. I do not have anything like a basic standard question that brings me to the essence of a person. I don't have it, because you have to somehow be aware that every person has his or her own structure and her own value system and her own vision. So you better explore what's coming at you, and you have to react very quickly. I try to have my people whom I'm covering in the film not doing a statement for a camera. And in Grizzly Man, for example, the coroner-- who speaks very eloquently and really in a very, very strange, intense way-- I had him on camera, Dr. Fallico in Alaska, in Anchorage. And he, in front of the camera, starts to speak about deaths and his findings as a coroner. And I stopped him within 30 seconds and I said to him, you're not here in front of a jury, we're not in a courtroom, you're not the expert witness. You know what? You studied this case, you had the remains of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard on your table, you had them. And this was something you had to deal with as a person. So I want to see a human being that speaks to me. I said, did you understand that? And he said, yes Werner, I know, I think I know. And I said, let's roll it one more time. And he goes on camera and he's wonderful. In the case of Timothy and Amie, what I had were body parts. Just the visual input of seeing a detached human being before my eyes makes my heart race, makes the hair stand up on the back of my head. Particularly in combination with the contents of a tape, an audio tape that is the sound portion of a video tape. And when I find out from other investigators that the shoes nearly placed at the entrance to a tent, and the cap left on a camera so that the visual part could not be recorded-- yet the tape is running so that we can hear the sounds of Amie screaming and the sounds of Timothy moaning, it tells me that this event occurred very, very quickly-- suddenly and unexpectedly. I clearly can hear her screaming stop and go away-- maybe run away, there's a lot of background noise. Timothy is moaning, and I hear Amie beating on the top of this bear's head with a frying pan. And Timothy is saying run away, let go, run away, run away, Amie. Run away. Amie had a great deal of conviction. ...

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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