When asked what he looks for in a documentary subject, Werner Herzog doesn’t hesitate before responding, “Enthusiasm. It doesn’t have to be eloquence. A sense of awe. Something that inspires us.”
There’s no shortage of that in his latest film Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, which he co-directed with Clive Oppenheimer and debuted on AppleTV+ today, all about the fascinating world of meteorites. Because t’s not just the science behind these fireballs that the two filmmakers are interested in—they want to explore the impact on religion, culture, and that Herzog-ordered brand of wonder that shooting stars have inspired in humankind for generations.
It’s not the first time Herzog, the celebrated German director known for his dreamy cinema as much as his distinctive accent, has teamed up with Oppenheimer, a volcanologist from the University of Cambridge, to uncover the secrets of the universe. Oppenheimer appeared in Herzog’s 2007 documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, and acted as the on-screen interviewer in Herzog’s 2013 doc about volcanoes, Into the Inferno.
This time, Oppenheimer shares directing credit, and, he told Decider in a phone interview, was much more involved in the process. With Oppenheimer in front of the camera and Herzog behind it, the two travel from Mexico to Russia to India to Antarctica in search of meteorites, meeting a cast of interesting characters along the way. Herzog and Oppenheimer spoke to Decider about finding those characters, the allure of space rocks, and their opinions on the 1998 films Deep Impact and Armageddon.
Decider: This isn’t the first time the two of you have worked together, but I believe, Clive, this is the first time you’ve been listed as co-director alongside Werner. Tell me what that collaboration looked like on this film.
Clive Oppenheimer: There were things that I did more of, perhaps on the research side. There were things that Werner did more on—the narration, the commentary. But we were in continuous communication throughout the pre-production, production, and post-production. It certainly was a step up for me, from Into the Inferno. I learned a huge amount— from the logistics, through the details of color grading. I learned something new. But it was very exciting to hold an entire film project in your head, as it all pieces together as you’re filming in each location, building towards the assembly. Very exciting.
Werner Herzog: One very important element you didn’t mention is casting. Like in the feature film. You have to cast well, otherwise, you’ll never make a good film. Clive came up with all of the cast of characters. He has an eye for those who would be good on camera. You can tell, for example, the Jesuit lay brother in the Vatican. He’s wild, kind of loose, almost, but very disciplined in his thinking, and exuberant at the same time. The sense of that all comes across through all of the characters with whom Clive has conversations. That’s a very, very important thing, and Clive is really good at it as well.
It really is impressive how deftly you navigate conversations with eccentric characters, like the researcher at Arizona State, who seemed very concerned you were going to drop his meteorite.
Oppenheimer: I was concerned!
Did you drop it?
Oppenheimer: I didn’t. No, yeah, I didn’t want to drop it on my foot, the big iron one, which weighed about 70 pounds. And I certainly didn’t want to drop the one with these organic molecules that had just fallen in Costa Rica. I didn’t even want to breathe on it, to be honest.
Werner, you’re known for finding characters like this for your films. How do you find your subjects? Do you have criteria?
Herzog: Enthusiasm. It doesn’t have to be eloquence. A sense of awe. Something that inspires us. Film should never be didactic, we should never have any didactic discourse. It has to be something lively. It has to be cinema. It has to be something that comes across in a lively conversation when you talk to people. Clive is really good in these conversations, either with molecular biologists or a tribal elder somewhere in Australia. Never condescending, never patronizing—always curious. We don’t have these kinds of figures; the only one who comes to mind would be David Attenborough for his BBC series. But David Attenborough is different, he speaks texts that are very well-prepared and very well-written and organized. But Clive is the one who is lively and does it on the spot. We don’t have anyone like him. And I mean now, Clive. We have no one like David Attenborough, and I mean it with all respect to him.
Oppenheimer: Oh, well he’s a national treasure here, of course. It’s also, it’s the authenticity that you’re after in speaking to people about what they’re experts in. Whether it is the traditional knowledge or whether it is the composition of meteorites, there’s no need to go beyond what people can really speak about.
Why meteorites? What drew you both to this subject as your next film together?
Oppenheimer: About a year after the release of Into the Inferno, I’d been toying with one or two ideas for another film. I was on a trip to South Korea, when I made a side trip to the Korean Polar Research Institute. Most meteorites studied in science are found in Antarctica, and the Koreans go every year and search for them. I saw their collection, or some of them in an UltraClean lab, each one wonderfully curated. Speaking with the meteoriticist, it just snapped into my head, almost instantaneously, that this was an obvious topic. Of course, there are many documentaries on shooting stars, meteorites. But the way Werner and I treated this—where we dig into the entanglements of nature and culture, with these phenomena—it speaks to very grand themes. Origins of life, human origins, because of the way the biological clock was reset 65 million years ago with the impact of an asteroid in the Yucatan. And it also speaks, perhaps, to our destiny, if there’s another big one coming in someday. It really brings in so many fascinating themes.
And how did you react to that, Werner, when you had this idea brought to you for your next film?
Herzog: It didn’t take more than a few seconds as I sat with it. You know, when you’re a filmmaker and a storyteller, you know: this is big. And we just do it.
Oppenheimer: Yeah, it was good to speak with Werner. Because even though we’d made Into the Inferno together, some of the initial reaction I got from people who’d been involved in that production on reading my pitch for the meteorites film: “Well, it sounds a bit of an intellectual survey.” And that’s a million miles from anything that I’m interested in filmmaking. Yes, the films, I hope, are educational. But that’s not the purpose. The purpose, really, is to make cinema.
One great moment of cinema in the film is when you were with the Korean Polar Institute, and we witness a scientist sob with joy over a meteorite. I’m just curious: when was the last time that both of you cried tears of joy?
Oppenheimer: Well, I’ve certainly done it. I’m trying to think of when the last time was. I don’t know that there’s been a whole lot of opportunity in the last nine months.
Herzog: Well, crying doesn’t come easily to me. [Laughs.] But, let’s face it, the short moment where the Korean scientist finds a huge meteorite of the ice and he’s going completely wild, he’s going ballistic over it — it’s not shot by us, it was shot by the Koreans a few years prior. But seeing that, we fell in love with these guys, and with the main scientist in particular. It was clear: this footage had to be in the movie.
I had heard that you .
Herzog: It’s an internet myth. I just made half a sentence, a side remark, that Baby Yoda is an extraordinary achievement. And all of a sudden next morning, you find yourself commented by tens of millions comments around the world. Of course, mythology is created in the internet. However, I find it a real, real wonderful cinematic achievement. Everyone who has seen The Mandalorian, or the installments so far, would agree with me.
People have long debated Deep Impact vs Armageddon, two movies about meteorites hitting earth that came out the same year. Given that you use a clip from it in the film, is it safe to say that both of you are on team Deep Impact?
Herzog: I have not seen either one of the films. I have only seen excerpts. I knew it from the trailer, and I’ve seen something like 10 or 15 minutes of Deep Impact. But never the whole film. And I have never seen Armageddon.
Oppenheimer: My favorite film on this was made in 1916: The End of the World, a Danish film.
Herzog: A silent Danish film, yeah.
Oppenheimer: A remarkable film. The scenario is, the astronomers see an object through their telescopes, and predict that it’s going to strike the earth. There are about 12 minutes of this film, of the best special effects they could come up with in 1916. It’s a very, very extraordinary film. It’s not a new theme, actually, to make something of this scenario.
There’s a great moment in the film, Werner, where you interrupt a scientist to say actually, you’re not made of stardust, you’re Bavarian. Which is hilarious. But is that just a joke, or is there a real objection to that idea?
Herzog: Part of it is objection. The Bavarian part of it, of course, was meant to be a joke. And of course, everybody remembers the moment and laughs. I anticipate—it’s not completely out of the blue, when Clive was talking to this wonderful scientist of Indian heritage, a wonderful woman, [Meenakshi Wadhwa], who is showing microscopic pictures of meteorites. They were talking about stardust and all this. I knew it was coming, that they would mention all of us, we are made of stardust. You see my hand softly coming in from behind the camera and pushing Clive softly to the side, and then you hear my voice. [Laughs.] I was prepared to say that. It was simmering in me.
How do you write your narration—what’s the process there?
Herzog: I write my own narration that I speak later, and I write it spontaneously on notepads while editing. I instantly try it out — I have a professional microphone right next to me, one step away. I speak it, and then we notice: Ah, it’s too long. It’s few seconds too long, reaches over into the next sequence. So I would shorten it. Clive would say, “Oh no, this is unclear. There’s a mistake. You have to rephrase it. You cannot say something that’s scientifically not correct.” So I listen to him. I would rephrase things. But mostly, the commentary is very obvious to me—where it has to be and what has to be said.
Oppenheimer: It exists on around 1,500 little yellow post-it notes. All scribbled down. But we had a lot of fun in the edit. Especially with Werner trying to get around place names like Chicxulub.
Herzog: Yeah, or naming an obscure little river in eastern Siberia. Of course, it’s okay for the audience to hear and notice that I’m struggling with pronouncing the unpronounceable names.
Into the Inferno went to Netflix for release. Why did you guys decide to bring Fireball to Apple?
Herzog: I think Netflix declined to have it on their platform, and Apple wanted it. I think it was as simple as that.
Oppenheimer: Yes. We were financed very early on by Sandbox films, which is an off-shoot of the Simons Foundation. Sandbox was a tremendous advocate of the film from very early on. They gave us not only financial support but a lot of tremendous input into some of the pre-production. I would say that the sale of the film was ultimately out of our hands. It’s with the production and the distributor that also came on board.
Werner, it feels like you have a whole new generation of fans thanks to The Mandalorian. How do you feel about this new fanbase? Have you watched the series yourself?
Oppenheimer: There was a chap on one of the flights from when we were leaving Hawaii, somebody who didn’t know you, but instantly recognized your voice from The Mandalorian on the row behind us. Was very curious. Couldn’t help asking.
Last question: What have you guys been watching in the pandemic? Werner, I’ve heard you’re a fan of WrestleMania—did you watch this year?
Oppenheimer: I’ve been watching quite a lot of movies, lately. One of the stand-out ones was Capernaum. Not sure how you pronounce it, really extraordinary film.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Watch Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds on AppleTV+