Undergraduate film students at the University of Vermont are preparing to screen films that incorporate unusual material: original footage shot by the celebrated German director Werner Herzog.
The student films include portions of a three-and-a-half minute reel that Herzog, best known for the documentaries Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, shot with a circa 1975 Super 8 camera this fall.
Herzog has stipulated that the films must be called "WHERE'S DA PARTY AT?", based on graffiti of the same phrase in the source footage he provided to the class.
The Super 8 Herzog used was on loan from Peter Gruner Shellenberger, a UVM Visiting Lecturer in Filmmaking and Photography who initiated the collaboration in September. Shellenberger brought the pre-loaded camera to a lecture that Herzog was giving at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and made his pitch during the Q & A session.
“I figured, why not? Why not give this a try, just to see what could happen?” Shellenberger told VPR Wednesday. “I rode my motorcycle down there and had this camera stuffed in my jacket…Never really expecting that he would do it at all.”
But Herzog agreed, and took the camera. Two weeks later, he returned the machine, and the reel of film for processing, to Shellenberger.
“He went down to some crazy bombed-out complex of buildings and filmed graffiti,” Shellenger said, guessing that Herzog had made the black-and-white footage in Los Angeles, where he lives.
“There’s a moment where he films his own shadow, and it hits you right away. You’re like, ‘Oh my god, he really made this. There he is,’” Shellenberger said.
The intrigue continued. Two days after the film arrived, Shellenberger received a typed and signed letter from Herzog with explicit instructions for how to use the footage:
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 by 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.
Inspired by Herzog’s footage, Shellenberger’s students – who were also shooting with Super 8 cameras – made their own short films.
One group of students struck cinematic gold while shooting a thriller near the train track on Burlington’s waterfront: they came upon a long freight of cars, each one emblazoned with the name “Herzog” in giant block letters.
"Working with Super 8 is a very physical experience," student Emma Stone told the UVM Communications Office. "You have to be physically in touch with the camera and hope that it captures what you see through it."
The student films are set to screen at UVM on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 6 p.m. on the fourth floor of Williams Hall. The screening will likely begin with Herzog’s reel, Shellenberger says.
But Shellenberger, who is based in Edgecomb, Maine and has taught Super 8 classes at the Maine College of Art, has grander designs for the project. He says he’d like to seek funding to put the student films online and invite Herzog to comment on them and “go full circle with it.”
“Ultimately, that would be a fantastic thing to put out into the world.”
The film class has not communicated with the director throughout their semester, though Shellenberger did return the developed reel and send Herzog a Super 8 camera to keep.
For his part, Shellenberger remains partly in shock that the collaboration actually happened.
“It still seems pretty exceptional that he [Herzog] did that…That he’s been that generous.”