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Werner Herzog eyes volcano, Helmut Newton docs

EXCLUSIVE: Werner Herzog developing “stylised documentary” about volcanoes, Helmut Newton portrait and Gertrude Bell feature, all with regular producing partner Andre Singer.

Fresh from his acting role opposite Tom Cruise on US thriller One Shot, Werner Herzog will turn his attention back to directing features.

The Into The Abyss director is lining up two feature documentaries: one on volcanoes and another (with development backing from Channel 4) about legendary photographer Helmut Newton.

Herzog told Screen: “I might do something about volcanoes next, a stylised documentary. I have become friends with a great volcanologist from Cambridge University called Clive Oppenheimer. He wrote a wonderful book called Eruptions that Shook the World about cateclysmic events of the past, some that almost wiped out the human race.”

Herzog is working on the project with Oppenheimer and long-time documentary collaborator Andre Singer of Spring Films.

Singer told Screen: “The idea of doing a large screen format film about volcanoes is very exciting. Herzog, volcanoes, IMAX (or another large screen format): those three words go together fantastically. The film would be a combination of nature and spectacle and their potentially devastating effects on mankind. It would be narratively led with Indonesia and Java potential destinations.”

Singer said the project could resemble 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness, the first film on which Singer worked with Herzog. That film, described at the time as “a meditation on catastrophe”, was presented in chapter form and contained dramatic footage of the Kuwaitian oil fields in flames with little voice-over and only a few interviews.

“The Herzogian hell-on-earth images of that film could be similar to those Werner strives for in the volcano documentary,” Singer added. “But it is obviously dangerous to predict what it will look like as Werner could take it in any direction.”

Oppenheimer, who met Herzog during 2007 doc Encounters at the End of the World, added: “My book itself could be condensed into something for the big screen in a Herzog style but there are different ideas floating around. The idea would be to look at some of the book’s themes about how volcanoes affect climates and human society and the evidence that volcanoes have shaped our world.”

Oppenheimer confirmed that the plan would be to visit active volcanoes, of which he said “there are plenty to choose from…But we’re not necessarily looking for the riskiest film, the story will be more important”.

Herzog already has experience of shooting volcanoes after his daring 1977 short La Souffriere: Waiting for an Inevitable Disaster, in which he visits a Guadeloupean island on which a volcano is predicted to erupt.

At the request of Helmut Newton’s widow, Herzog is also developing a documentary about the legendary German-Australian fashion photographer, famed for his work in Vogue and other high-end fashion publications.

Channel Four has put up development backing. Spring Films is among the producers.

Away from docs, Herzog is gathering finance for his feature biopic of pioneer British explorer Gertrude Bell, which has had Naomie Watts attached to play the lead.

The film will explore the life and loves of the pioneer traveler, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer, and political attaché for the British Empire, who was a friend of TE Lawrence and played an important role in the creation of modern day Iraq.

Herzog said the film is among those he is developing most closely but added: “It’s not easy to finance and the Arabian desert region is complicated these days, of course.” 

The renowned German director dismissed talk of his association with The Piano Tuner as forgettable “internet news”.

Singer himself is developing a “big and exciting composite project consisting of a three part drama, probably to air as 90-minute TV drama, a five part doc series and an interactive web-site about Chinese civilization”. The transmedia project is based on Simon Winchester’s book The Man Who Loved China about scientist and sinologist Joseph Needham. “We are producing with Irish production company Soho Moon, we have Chinese and Singaporean partners and are in talks with Channel 4 about it,” said Singer.

Herzog was in London promoting the theatrical launch of Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, which is released by Revolver on 30 March. Spring Films were among the producers.

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