Werner Herzog, 74, confessed he didn't see a movie until he was 11. But the prolific filmmaker has sure made up for lost time. This year, he turned out two docs: Into the Inferno, about volcanos, and Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, about the internet. And he had plenty to talk about when he sat down with fellow documentarians Ezra Edelman, 42, whose O.J.: Made in America offers a multifaceted account of O.J. Simpson; Kirsten Johnson, 41, whose Cameraperson draws from her career as a globe-hopping filmmaker; Josh Kriegman, 36, whose Weiner provides a backstage look at the fall of Anthony Weiner; Raoul Peck, who brings the words of James Baldwin to life in I Am Not Your Negro; and Roger Ross Williams, 43, whose Life, Animated tells how an autistic youngster learned to communicate through Disney films.
How do you decide to commit to a specific film? Ezra, what drew you to O.J. Simpson as a subject?
EZRA EDELMAN For me, the story of O.J. always was a story about the city of Los Angeles and about the black community here and the Los Angeles Police Department. Anyone who has lived in America, or even outside of America, in the past 30 years, you understood fundamentally that the story was going to be about race. But I learned very quickly it's about a lot more than race. It's about gender and masculinity, domestic abuse, the criminal justice system, celebrity, the media ...
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WERNER HERZOG The media, yes.
KIRSTEN JOHNSON And what's so visionary with what Ezra did was that he created a film that was long enough to go into all of it. As filmmakers, we are often confronted with: Do you have access to tell a story in this very compressed way or can you push and do it in a more expansive way that really gives the space to talk about all the things that need to be talked about?
HERZOG Your eight hours do not feel like eight hours. They feel like, I don't know, an hour or so.
JOHNSON 'Cause you're totally sucked into it.
Raoul, your film also addresses race, but it does so through the words of James Baldwin. Why a film about James Baldwin now?
RAOUL PECK It's the rare instance where the starting point of the movie is the words of a person, a great author, James Baldwin. So my job was to put myself in the background and just be the messenger of those words. I've known those words since I was 15 years old. I know how powerful they are. I knew that Baldwin is also a very controversial personality. And for me, it was not about that, it was about his words and how impactful and important those words are today. I didn't want anybody to interpret him, to speak for him; I wanted to be inside his head. And that's a very tricky thing to do in documentary. I never did a documentary like this before. To rely only on those words and give them life by finding the right footage, finding the right image.
Photographed by Koury Angelo
JOHNSON And such words they are. There is an incredible moment where Baldwin talks about going to witness the civil rights movement and saying, "I discovered the thin, very thin line between me as the witness and the actor, but I also learned the actor, the position of the person, is different from the position of me as the witness." And I think these are all the things that we know as filmmakers, too. It's the people in front of the camera, the actors in the role of acting their lives, they are the ones who take the real risks.
But some of you also have taken real risks in the course of making a movie. Werner, what's the most dangerous situation you've put yourself in?
HERZOG Well, there were a few, but let's not go into that. [On Into the Inferno], if you were a cinematographer on this shoot, I would ask you, "Do you want to come along with me? But about this very volcano, I would rather take your camera. I can do camera myself, and I have done camera myself. If you really want to come along, and you know this is a risk - some of it is not predictable - then let's do it together or I do it alone." In one case, we were filming a volcano in Sumatra, in Indonesia, which had been kind of semidormant. It gave signals, and there was a serious explosion of it in 2010. However, there were farmers back in this restricted, no-go zone. And we decided with a volcanologist, let's move in. It looks fairly safe. But he would watch the volcano, the summit. And he got nervous because all of a sudden huge boulders, the size of this entire studio, would come loose and tumble down. And he said, "Quick, quick, let's do something." We fled, and it didn't do any harm to anyone. But three or four days later, it exploded much more violently, and seven people were killed exactly where we had our camera positioned. So sometimes you have to play some sort of lottery. La Soufriere [an active volcano in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean] was much more dangerous because when we arrived, there was a seismic crisis, 1,400 shock waves, up to 4.9 on the Richter scale, and it was predicted the mountain, because [it is a] geological structure like Mount St. Helens, would explode first. It would not just be a lava eruption, and it would be many times the atomic bomb, Hiroshima-size. So what do you do? We decided we would do it, and we would bypass roadblocks. The entire island was evacuated. And we went in on some jungle tracks with a car. And so you are standing there, and the mountain is 25 kilometers away. Do we do it or not? I said, "I'll take the camera, I will do it." One of the cinematographers immediately was with me. The other one was kind of hesitant. He asked me, "What is going to happen if that mountain explodes and we are there?" I said to him, "Edward, we will be airborne." But you are trying to put me in the corner of the daredevil. I have done 70 or so films. Never, ever has any actor or extra - and there were thousands - ever been hurt. Never. I myself was hurt once or twice, and a few people who were on the technical crew, yes, but that was a very deliberate decision.
How do you handle it when you encounter violence and death in the course of shooting a film? Does it affect your view of mankind?
JOHNSON I've been working in this field for 25 years, and I think we all do this because we care so deeply about what's happening in the world, and we're so interested in who human beings really are. When you look at the women in my film, when you look at the men, many of them have lived through violence that I can only imagine, and yet they are there and interested in participating in the process of making a film, which is the thing that I'm really interested in. How do we get into these relationships, like Josh with [Anthony] Weiner, for example.
JOSH KRIEGMAN It was actually in the course of working for him in politics that I got to know him well and got to see what a dynamic and interesting person he is. This was years before the scandal and his resignation. After he resigned from Congress, that was when I started talking to him about making a film. Through the scandal, he really became a caricature, a one-dimensional punch line. What interested me and my co-director, Elyse Steinberg, was trying to see the reality beyond the headlines, to show some of the full person that I had gotten to know.
Were you surprised how much access you were given, particularly after the further revelations about Weiner came out?
KRIEGMAN No. I mean, I really trusted Anthony and [his now-estranged wife] Huma to set the boundaries, which they did throughout. There are a couple of moments in the movie where they do tell me to turn off the camera and leave the room, and that was the understanding [we had]. I would respect those boundaries whenever they wanted.
How about the rest of you? Were there moments where you decided to shut off the camera or interceded in a scene you were filming?
ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS In my film, I'm following a young man with autism. I've gotten a lot of questions about whether he knew he was being filmed. Does he know what's going on? There is a moment in the film where he is going through a crisis, a breakup, and it's very painful. And that was a moment where I had to stop and say to myself, "Should I keep going? Do I keep filming this?" I had to have a conversation with his parents. And what they said to me was, "When we committed to this film, we committed all the way. Keep going." And I think Owen [Suskind, the subject of the movie] himself understood. He is someone who was raised on watching Disney animated films. He understands filmmaking, he understands movies, he understood that we were making a film and he had to show the struggles in his life.
Photographed by Koury Angelo
KRIEGMAN (to Johnson) That reminds me of a wonderful moment in your film. The 2-year-olds with axes …
JOHNSON Yes, so I'm filming some toddlers chopping wood. For me, that scene, why it's in the film, it represents these moments that we all have where [life is] just on a second-to-second basis. They're OK, and they're not OK. Oh my God, that kid has the ax, what is he going to do with it? I showed the film in Bosnia recently, and everyone was like, "Why is that scene in the film?" Every toddler in Bosnia learns to use an ax. So it's always about perspective. But when we say, "Do you intercede?" We are always interceding with the camera. Our presence is an intercession, right? We are there, making choices about the way that we relate to people.
PECK I think it goes even further. I do fiction [films] as well. When you are working with actors, there is a way you have their trust. So if you shoot a love scene, for example, when you're in the editing room, you make sure that their dignity is there because they trust you totally.
How do you decide whether to show gruesome images, like the Nicole Brown Simpson crime photos in O.J.?
EDELMAN Most people have never seen the crime-scene photos. They were accessible through the D.A.'s office. But yeah, that's a huge decision. I did not use those images lightly. For me, the point of them was, we all lived through this moment in time, and as a culture we absorbed this case in a very specific way, and it was about everything except what actually happened that night on June 12, 1994. And I felt that that's what got lost: the victims themselves, the brutality of those crimes. And I really felt that people needed to very clearly see the brutality of those crimes to understand.
Photographed by Koury Angelo
Speaking of images, Roger, how did you convince Disney to allow you to use so many clips from its big animated movies?
WILLIAMS It was a process that took about a year. Sean Bailey, who is Disney Production president, really spearheaded that process. He is a trustee on the board of Sundance, and Sundance connected us. And he really took me through the process. I had to go into the studio with all the heads of every department of Disney - legal, animation, marketing - and I had to take them on a journey through the film. I was terribly nervous. But by the time I finished, they were in tears. [Owen's father] Ron refers to it as the day I made the lawyers cry. They didn't realize how much a part of the culture [those films are], that they could actually change a life. And I think that really touched them. And they moved out of my way. I went to France to work with animators to create Owen's inner world. To do that, working with French animators, animating Disney characters, is unheard of.
There's a big discussion about diversity in film. Are things better or worse in the documentary world?
WILLIAMS Well, they're not where they should be. I think they are not better, things are worse. You'd think the documentary world, because of the types of stories we tell, that it would be more diverse, but it's not. People of color are not making documentaries because they don't have the access. Documentaries are hard to make. They are expensive. You have to have resources. You are not going to get rich making documentaries. So it's just not something that people of color go into. So that, right there, we have a problem. I'm a governor of the documentary division of the Academy. And when we look around for members who are diverse, we can't find filmmakers of color because they don't exist. So what we have to do is, as an organization, we need to go into schools, elementary schools, high schools, junior high schools, and we need to raise up a new generation of filmmakers of color who want to go into it, and we need to mentor them, and we need to provide services and want them to become filmmakers. Because it doesn't exist, because the gatekeepers, the agents, they are not people of color.
PECK Hollywood takes a lot of place in our imagination. When you see a film, it's about Hollywood, it's about actors, it's about all of the glitter, it's about the Academy Awards, and that's what young people see. And that's where they want to be - they want to be in the center. And being a documentarian, it's really to be hiding, to go into places that are rare, to talk to people, to spend time in the rain.
Photographed by Koury Angelo
When you were all growing up, you couldn't have thought of becoming documentary filmmakers. So what did you think you'd become when you were kids?
PECK I studied to become an engineer and an economist, which I did. I studied in Germany. And I started a Ph.D. And parallel to that, I was making films. I was working in production with friends of mine. Coming from Haiti, to tell my parents I wanted to be a filmmaker, that was out of the question. And it took me years to finally accept the fact that that's really what I wanted to do. And I went back to film school. So it was a long process.
KRIEGMAN I actually had these two parallel tracks of interest going on for as long as I can remember, in politics and film. Even during my time working in politics I was working on some films on the side, and then I just sort of moved over. And then, of course, the merging of the two with Weiner has been really a blessing. I think The West Wing basically is the reason I got into politics.
EDELMAN I'm pretty sure until a couple of years ago, I wanted to play center field for the Red Sox. And then I got waylaid by O.J.
No, I mean, I developed a storytelling jones in different forms of media, and I've just been fortunate to be able to evolve, telling different stories in different mediums for the last 20 years.
WILLIAMS As a kid, I always felt like an outsider. I grew up in the African-American church with my father, a pastor, surrounded by people who didn't accept me as a gay man. And so I created my own world, which I think gave me a certain amount of creativity. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect. So I would draw. I wanted to create buildings and construct things. I ended up going into journalism and was very disillusioned with the mainstream media. And then through going to the Sundance Film Festival, I really discovered that I actually could make films.
Photographed by Koury Angelo
HERZOG For me, strangely enough, I wanted to be an athlete. Ski jumping, ski-flying off ramps. But that ended when I was 15 or so because of a catastrophic accident of my best friend. So it was over from one second to the next. But I also knew it was a very short-lived sort of career if I ever entered it. And it already was clear I would make films. While I was in school, I worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory for two and a half years. And I earned enough money to make my first featurette.
JOHNSON So two things from the playground: One, in the school I was in, they would call for all the girls to line up first and come in. And then I realized at a certain point all the boys got to stay out and play longer. And so I organized a strike among the girls. And then the other really significant thing: I wanted to play football, too.
Photographed by Koury Angelo
Tune in to the full roundtable when it airs on SundanceTV Feb. 19, 2017.
This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.