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January 13, 2014

Director Werner Herzog's Latest Film Is a Vermont Exclusive

UPDATES BELOW: 12/26/13 & 1/14/13

Though the semester is nearly over, a film class at the University of Vermont has welcomed a new student: acclaimed director Werner Herzog.

Herzog, who has been making films since the early 1960s and is best known for his films Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, has been an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College for the past semester, working with students and speaking at public screenings of his films.

UVM professor Peter Gruner Shellenberger, a visiting lecturer in film and photography, recently took some students in one of his filmmaking classes to Hanover to hear Herzog speak about his films. Shellenberger brought to the event a vintage Super-8 camera, preloaded with film and, at the Q&A session, asked Herzog if he would use the camera to make a film for the UVM students.

To Shellenberger's surprise, Herzog agreed.

"Did I think he would do this?" asks Shellenberger rhetorically. "Never in a million years. But, then, there’s a part of me that maybe knew that he would be open to it," he adds, referring to Herzog's reputation for unusual film projects.

Two weeks after giving Herzog the camera, Shellenberger received it in the mail, with a roll of unexposed film still inside it. Herzog also included a few unusual conditions:

What should happen is the following: please develop the film and hand it over to your students. My demand is the following: they have to make films, collectively or individually, which should include my footage. Obviously, they do not need to take everything, nor in the order I filmed the material.

The title of their film/films has to be WHERE’S DA PARTY AT?

In my footage this appears in one of the graffiti, and at least this portion of the text should appear in the film, or all the films.

-where's da party at- Where's Da Party At? made its official début at a screening of student film work in Williams Hall on Thursday, December 12. Quite wonderfully, the poster for that event lists, in alphabetical order, the names of the filmmakers; Herzog's is right there, 11th in the list of 29, receiving no special emphasis.

Shellenberger shares with this reporter the opinion that Herzog's reputation as a "wild man" is little more than media hype, and that he is, in fact, a thoughtful and generous filmmaker. That generosity was demonstrated by Herzog's willingness to take part in this unusual project.

"The students are kind of flummoxed by [Herzog's participation]," says Shellenberger. "They can’t believe it. Students do tend to be [interested in] the cult of personality and hearsay. But a bunch of my students have already said, 'He’s a really nice guy. I can’t believe how nice he really is.' It goes to show that you don’t really know him. It was almost like a grade-school learning lesson."

For Grizzly Man, the Herzog film that Shellenberger most admires, the director shot fairly little original footage. Instead, he compiled the film largely from video shot by the late naturalist Timothy Treadwell, who lived among — and was eventually killed by — Alaskan grizzly bears.

Shellenberger is thrilled that he's had the chance to engage Herzog himself in a similar project: With Where's Da Party At?, it is Herzog's original footage that becomes the raw material for other filmmakers.

"The whole point of this [exercise]," says Shellenberger, was to receive imagery and, no matter what, work with that. Not to go after [Herzog] and say, 'What did you mean by this?' We’re now problem solvers in deciphering where to go, and in that is a huge gift."

At this time, Where's Da Party At? has not yet appeared in Herzog's filmography on IMDB. But surely that's just a matter of time. Look for an update here on Live Culture.

UPDATE (12/26/13):

There's a very good — and even inspiring — reason why Seven Days cannot not link to an online version of Where's Da Party At?

Professor Shellenberger has recently worked out with Werner Herzog the director's terms for making the film more widely available. Herzog stipulated that the film be shown only in the context of the films that the students made for Shellenberger's class, but could not be distributed as a stand-alone entity. As Shellenberger put it in an email, the students "are free to roam with their films that incorporate his footage," but not to distribute Herzog's footage (which, by the way, was shot in Detroit, not in Los Angeles, as was originally suspected) in and of itself.

Herzog's spirit of artistic integrity and generosity will likely be remembered by these aspiring filmmakers for a long time.

UPDATE (1/13/14):

Further Herzogian news!

Professor Shellenberger has posted online several of his students' films that incorporate the footage shot by Werner Herzog. Many of them are indeed titled Where's Da Party At?, and all of them contain fragments of the original Super8 footage that Herzog shot in Detroit, then effectively donated to the students.

So concludes one of the unlikeliest and most remarkable chapters in Vermont filmmaking history.

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