Werner Herzog on Meteorites, Stargazing and His New Apple Doc 'Fireball'
We spoke to the prolific filmmaker about his latest film, 'Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds.'
Werner Herzog’s new documentary on humanity’s relationship with meteorites, Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, crashes to Earth at an opportune moment. Many are rediscovering—or discovering for the first time—a connection to the night sky via stargazing. (On the other hand, there’s no moment in human history when we haven’t had a visceral link to the night sky.)
Fireball, out now on Apple TV+, is absolutely as broad as it sounds, with little central thesis pulling you toward anything resembling resolution. It leans on “the excitement of discovery,” as the director put it to me. It might not have a flashy subject, but the surprising variety of entry points to discussing meteorites as objects of beauty, veneration, and intrigue quickly sucks you into the journey. It takes the viewer globetrotting with Herzog—whose narrations are as ponderously Herzog-ian as ever—and co-director, host, and professor Clive Oppenheimer, with whom Herzog worked on the 2016 volcano documentary Into the Inferno.
Here, Herzog and Oppenheimer have found some of the most compelling stories around meteorites on the planet and bring them together, revealing cycles of death and rebirth, destruction, and creation that accompany these rocks of unknown origin. Meteorites have brought organic compounds to Earth; they may have wiped out dinosaurs, which allowed mammals to thrive; they inspire scientific discovery; and they have a place inside religious lore, including a tribe whose ancestors depart this plane on a flaming meteorite. It’s a starting point, catnip for the curious, but never allows for an easy answer about the origin of meteorites, our place in the galaxy, or the ways humanity searches for meaning in the unknown.
I spoke with Werner Herzog about stargazing, traveling the globe, and the need for documentaries that ask questions without answers.
Thrillist: Is stargazing something with which you have a deep connection?
Werner Herzog: Well, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 20 years or so. You don’t see much of the night sky. There’s not much stargazing going on. But, of course, stargazing is phenomenal in Antarctica because it’s so dry. There are no distortions in the atmosphere. The two best places for me were in the Sahara Desert and Bolivia in the Uyuni Salt Flats. There is no humidity there at all, and you are so close to the stars, and there are such incredibly present numbers there that you just go down on your back and look at the sky. You have the feeling that you can harvest them with your hand.
Was your interest in meteorites rooted in these experiences, or is your interest more academic?
I didn’t have much academic interest in meteorites. It was just a phenomenon I was aware of. But Clive Oppenheimer pitched it to me and, of course, all of a sudden, there are cultural connections. How do foreign cultures absorb this phenomenon? Including to the Muslim world, Islam, that venerates the Black Stone in Mecca in the Kaaba. There are the Australian Aborigines, tribal people, or people on the remote island between Australia and New Guinea, where they believe that the souls of the departed ride on meteorites into the Netherworld. So, it’s so full of fantastic concepts and so full of excitement and awe that it was clear we had to make the film.
Was your primary interest in the science or the people that surround these meteorites?
There’s another side that’s fascinating, which I didn’t know: On meteorites, the building blocks of life were found, like amino acids. Not biological sort of things, they’re like sugar. I was totally blown away by the fact that on a meteorite in eastern Siberia, close to the Bering Strait, tiny fragments of so-called quasicrystals were found. Quasicrystals are a sort of order within crystals that is impossible or unthinkable, should be even forbidden. For hundreds of years, science proved that it was unthinkable and impossible. All of a sudden, a mathematician in England, [Roger] Penrose, who won a Nobel Prize in physics, he mathematically proves that there’s a form of order that is unthinkable, but it exists out in space, in nature. Of course, it’s abstract concepts, but they really exist in nature. The most stunning part is in tiling, tile ornamentation can do only certain things. The unthinkable tiling of quasicrystal structure was discovered by artisans in Iran 500 years ago. It’s a lot of totally fascinating things. Wherever you reach you strike gold.
The structure of Fireball feels different than the average documentary. It doesn’t move linearly. It doesn’t have a central thesis trying to answer a particular problem. It's primarily interested in surfacing questions rather than answers. Is that a fair assessment of this and your other recent documentaries like Into the Inferno or Encounters at the End of the World?
I know exactly what you are talking about. These are films that I do not want to see anymore. Documentaries that understand themselves as part of journalism. I’ve always said documentaries can do so much more, they can be so much deeper, so much more exciting, and give you so much insight, some sort of illumination, even touching something which is elusive, some sort of truth. Go for that. Move away from the issue films, where you have an issue... We have a pattern that is just dusting out of my ears. I don’t want to do this, and I don’t want to see it.
In a film like Fireball, is it difficult to move from the point of inception where you have an idea to building an explorative structure like we see in the end?
Accepting Clive Oppenheimer’s offer and idea to do a film together on meteorites, you know how long I had to deliberate?
Three seconds [laughs]. I was on board. I’m saying that because as a storyteller—I think I’m really deep in my heart, I’m a storyteller—a storyteller knows if he or she stumbles across something really big. The same thing happened with Grizzly Man, for example. I instantly knew that this was big. It was so big I had to do it.
How does that decisive moment differ from Grizzly Man to Fireball, which are different kinds of documentaries?
Each film, each content, each subject dictates the form. You do not come and see Timothy Treadwell’s footage with wild grizzly bears in Alaska and moving to them at two feet away and even touching their face and singing a song to them… you do not come with a preconceived structure and squeeze everything into the fetters of an intellectual structure. Give the footage a chance to come alive. In the film on volcanos, let’s see what happens, let’s see how people are around there. We are not journalists, we do not come with preconceived questions. I kept saying to Clive, again in Fireball, “We are not journalists, we have conversations.” I do not allow you to show up with a piece of paper and a catalog of questions. That’s a distinction.
The last scene in Fireball lingers on a tribe sharing their dance about where the deceased go, riding on a meteorite. It’s powerful. How did this scene, a dance that hadn’t been performed for a long time, come together?
It’s an interesting question because it was contested. There were parts in the production and in the distribution who very strongly advised to have Antarctica as the last piece of the film. I kept arguing and Clive was on my side, I kept arguing. In Antarctica, you have the feeling of solitude and space. You see Clive walking along on the ice, and you know he can walk 5,000 kilometers without meeting a human soul. The day would end after five months because the sun is circling, doesn’t go under. The Austral summer lasts, the day lasts, five full months. You prepare this search for meteorites, and all of sudden you go into something where the voyage takes you out of our bodies, takes you out of our own planet. You go into a situation where our souls start to depart. We are not physically anymore, our souls will depart like the tribal people there believe, the souls of the deceased ride on meteorites and reach the Netherworld. That has to be the end. There was intense debate about this. As filmmakers, we prevailed to have the end as it is. We like the end as it is.
Was any of the pushback because the dance was staged for the film?
It was actually staged by the tribal people there. They had not performed the dance there for half a century, for 50 years! An elder had to teach it, and they were excited that there was a camera that was looking at them with great sympathy. They said, “We barely know this dance anymore. Give us time to rehearse it.” There was something dormant in the culture already, and it was reawakened because a camera was there. It’s a wonderful moment to know that, and the commentary tells you it had not been performed for 50 years.
Do you find a moment like that moving to you as a filmmaker?
That’s what filmmaking is all about, to make visible that which is deeply dormant inside of us. You see it goes much deeper. Cinema is not only what you see as a projection of light on the screen. Sometimes you awaken images that are part of all of us or almost all of us. I kept saying in Fitzcarraldo, you move a ship over a mountain, the jungle of Amazonia. I kept saying why do I do it, I was asked why don’t you do it on flat terrain. I said no, it’s a great metaphor which is dormant inside of us like Moby Dick, the white whale or something like that. I can’t explain what is dormant, but I know it’s dormant in us, and I can make it visible. That is cinema.
These recent films have involved you shooting in far-flung places. Do you enjoy that travel or has it just been necessitated by the subject matter?
I never wanted this kind of traveling. Normally, I would go to a foreign culture and I would stay a long time. Fitzcarraldo I stayed a long, long time. I built two identical ships. I built a camp for 1,100 people, extras. I hoist the ship over the mountain. So, you work with people of that culture, you breathe, you eat their food. But traveling every week or every two weeks to a different continent and the time difference, being tossed in a different culture, it’s not healthy for us. I never liked this kind of thing. Unfortunately, meteorites have rained down on us indiscriminately, literally everywhere [laughs]. So, you had to make a selection of where do you go? Then you stick to the plan.
I thought about that a lot during the film. As you say, meteorites have rained down everywhere, but you go to just nine or so locations. How did you hone in on those places and stories?
That’s an interesting question because I see it in young filmmakers. We had 32 or so different locations, people, and events. A young filmmaker would have gone out, they pride themselves, “I filmed on this for two-and-a-half years already. I have got 3,000 hours of footage.” You see, my heart sinks when I see that. Editing starts in selecting what you’re doing. Meaning, you narrow it down, you do not go to all 35 interesting locations. We narrowed it down to 12 or so. We only filmed there. We only went there. Clive and I had never met some of these people. We only knew them through email exchanges. We go in, we shoot an hour, and we disappear, and we never see them again. Our cinematographer, a wonderful, wonderful man, strong as an ox, a former ice hockey player for Sparta Prague, one of the best teams in the world. He’s wonderful but I have to admonish him, he keeps rolling the camera. We filmed Day of the Dead in Mexico, an incredible procession, all of a sudden, he keeps rolling, he keeps filming policemen keeping the crowd back. I said, “That’s not what we want to shoot. Turn it off.” He says, “Yeah, but I’m filming that.” I keep saying to him, “We are filmmakers, we are not garbage collectors” [laughs].
Every place you went wound up in the film?
Yes, every single one. I’ll give you something crazier. Right before this, I shot a feature film. Just a few weeks before I started to film [Fireball], I finished a feature film in Japan, Family Romance, LLC. It was the tiniest crew you can imagine. I was my own cinematographer with a very small, high-caliber digital camera. I shot it in very few days. It’s a film that was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in the official selection. It’s a very strong essential film of mine. You know how much footage I shot? No one in the profession believes me. I shot 320 minutes of footage. Grand total. Not 320 hours. Not 3,200 hours. 320 minutes [laughs]. I was even amazed. But that should be the attitude. Go for the essentials. Go for the jugular.
Are there locations you regret not getting into the movie?
My greatest of all regrets, there’s footage in there, but Mecca, the Black Stone. What an excitement. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims, all of a sudden, when the guards step aside, like metal fragments attracted by the stone, they touch it and kiss it. I would give so much if I could be there. Unfortunately, I am not a Muslim, Clive Oppenheimer is not a Muslim. So, you cannot go there. You have to respect their rules. You just don’t do it. You don’t go there in disguise, posing as a Muslim. You just don’t do it. How much I would have loved, still would love to go there and experience it.
It’s a beautiful opening moment along with the dash-cam footage of meteorites tearing through the sky in Russia. Since the rock has never been tested and some scientists doubt that it’s a meteorite, was there any hesitation about including the Black Stone?
It doesn’t matter. The overwhelming evidence that we have points in the direction that it is a meteorite. It doesn’t matter if we have full knowledge or not. It does not matter that the custodians of the holy sites in Mecca would never allow to ship the rock into a laboratory to have it X-rayed. It’s not going to happen. You accept it, full-heartedly. Sometimes, we do not need to know everything, but to watch the intensity of prayers, the intensity of pilgrims is so wonderful that you just want to be there.
More than space, Fireball is about the people around the meteorites. But would you go deeper down this particular rabbit hole, film a documentary about space again?
For a long, long time I’ve said I would like to be on the Space Station. But I wouldn’t qualify. For example, I have broken teeth. I think you wouldn’t be accepted with incisor teeth that had to be replaced, knocked out [laughs]. Let’s face it, I would love to be on a scientific mission to Mars, which is not going to happen. It’s very difficult to get that crew there. There are things that I cannot do. I can sleep well.
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