Timothy Treadwell made his first trip to Alaska in the summer of 1989, when he camped and viewed grizzly bears at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. The experience so inspired Treadwell that he chose to dedicate his life to the protection of the bears and their habitat. By 1992, he was camping independently in Katmai National Park and Reserve, living among the bears as they converged at key salmon runs. During his first ten years, Treadwell chronicled his experiences and observations in diaries and photographs. In 1999, Minolta loaned video cameras to Grizzly People, the organization Treadwell had established with his friend and colleague Jewel Palovak, allowing Treadwell to capture daily life in Katmai as never before. The footage he shot over the course of five years became the backbone of Werner Herzog's documentary GRIZZLY MAN, a film by and about Timothy Treadwell: the story of a self-taught naturalist and adventurer who dwelled alongside untamed wildlife, and an intensely intimate portrait of that same man as he lived each day with his complicated self.
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Throughout his career, Herzog has gravitated to stories of individuals who stand apart from mainstream society and take enormous risks in pursuing their very personal, often highly idiosyncratic aspirations. GRIZZLY MAN's Treadwell belongs to the tradition of driven Herzog protagonists found in narrative features like AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972) and FITZCARRALDO (1982), and in documentaries such as THE GREAT ECSTASY OF THE WOODCARVER STEINER (1973) and LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (1997). With GRIZZLY MAN, Herzog's probing approach to Treadwell's saga results in a film that speaks to emotional peaks and valleys we all experience.
Herzog came to Treadwell's story entirely by chance. In the early summer of 2004, he was visiting the busy production offices of Erik Nelson, an accomplished filmmaker whose company, Creative Differences, produces an average of 75 hours of television documentaries for approximately ten different networks each year. As Herzog describes it, he had misplaced his reading glasses and was scanning Nelson's desk for a sign of them. "Erik Nelson believed that I was looking at something in particular and shoves over an article about Timothy Treadwell and says, 'Read this. This is a fantastic story which we are doing,'" the filmmaker recalls. "I read it and I knew that that was a film for me. No matter what, I had to do it. I had the feeling there was something much, much bigger in Treadwell's story. And probably not so much a look at wild nature as a look at human nature: the dark side, the demons and also the exhilarations and ecstasies."
Upon returning to Nelson's office, Herzog inquired about the status of the film. "I asked Erik who was going to direct it because somehow I had the feeling they were still negotiating. Erik said to me, 'Well, I'm kind of directing it.' So I said with my thick German accent, 'I will direct this movie.' And stretched my hands out to him and he grabbed them and that was the deal," Herzog concludes.
Nelson handed Herzog the reins to GRIZZLY MAN. He explains, "I realized at that point that Werner was the perfect person for this story, which taps into a lot of the themes in his work. As a Werner Herzog aficionado, I wanted to see what he would do with this material."
GRIZZLY MAN was already well along in its development at Discovery Networks, which had produced a television special, "The Grizzly Diaries," with Treadwell in 1999. In the wake of his death, Nelson and Discovery's Phil Fairclough began incorporating his story into a program, "Anatomy of a Grizzly Attack." They quickly realized that Treadwell's tale held a unique opportunity for a feature film that would examine not only man's relationship with nature, but a complex and fascinating individual. Nelson and Fairclough, along with Andrea Meditch, Executive Producer of Discovery Docs, Discovery's feature documentary division, took their idea to Discovery Networks president Billy Campbell, who launched Discovery Docs in 2003.
Campbell agreed that the project was right for Discovery Docs. Recalls Campbell, "The first time that I became really familiar with Timothy Treadwell was, unfortunately, when I heard that he had been killed. It became national news, and I remember thinking, 'That's a really peculiar story.' I was intrigued that someone actually would spend much of his adult life living in the midst of grizzly bears. We've all had passions, we've all had causes, we've all believed in things so fundamentally. But I don't know how many of us would be willing to 'give our lives' or risk our lives every day for thirteen years. I was curious about who would make that choice and why."
Meditch was thrilled that Herzog wanted to take on GRIZZLY MAN. "Herzog is a visionary," she comments. "He has a unique way of looking at documentary filmmaking, and he's been exploring the line between human beings and the natural worldfor a long time. He also has a great passion and understanding for larger-than-life characters, and he's able to bring them to life in ways that virtually no one else can."
Crucial approval came from Jewel Palovak, who controls the rights to Treadwell's archives as the co-founder of Grizzly People. Palovak had known Treadwell since 1985 and felt a deep sense of responsibility to her late friend and his legacy. He had often discussed the subject of his video archives with her. "Timothy was very dramatic: it was the best day ever on the planet, or it was the worst day and the world was going to end. With familiar hyperbole, he had always said to me: 'If I die, if something happens to me, make that movie. You make it. You show 'em.' I thought that Werner Herzog could definitely do that," Palovak affirms. "I saw a similarity between Werner and Tim, each as a kind of maverick who would not give up on what he believes in. I knew that I wouldn't be getting a fuzzy nature film or a little conservation piece. I knew that Werner would give an unflinching honesty."
The project found an enthusiastic production partner in Lions Gate Entertainment, which in July 2004 established a feature-length documentary division in the wake of the record-breaking success of FAHRENHEIT 9/11. GRIZZLY MAN became the new division's first feature, as a co-production with Discovery Docs, the feature film arm of the Discovery Channel.
Production had to begin quickly in order to take advantage of optimum summer scenery, weather, and bear activity in Alaska. Herzog traveled to Alaska in August, accompanied by Palovak, who played a hands-on role as the film's executive producer. Production began in Alaska on Labor Day, September 4 and continued in Florida, home to Treadwell's parents, and California.
While production was underway, four researchers had been busy screening and pulling footage from Treadwell's wilderness video archives - some one hundred hours in total. Most of the footage had never been seen by anyone other than Treadwell; Palovak had seen highlights that Treadwell had earmarked to show to donors and others, but even she had no idea what the other hours held. When Herzog and his longtime editor Joe Bini began screening the footage, they were stunned. "We could not believe it. It couldn't have been our wildest fantasy to find something like this," the filmmaker recalls. "We had to stop and walk out of the building. Both of us had quit smoking, and yet we had to smoke a cigarette to take what was coming next. It was one of the great experiences I've ever had with film footage. It was so beautiful."
Treadwell's chronicle slipped the confines of the nature film. Remarks Nelson, "Treadwell was basically recording everything that was happening to him. Inadvertently or purposely, he was filming this Joseph Conrad-like epic of a man under pressure, coming apart in the middle of nature. He was this extraordinary character who did this extraordinary thing and, amazingly, covered it all. And covered it very well, I might add. He always knew where the camera was pointing; he really worked hard at making a good movie."
Some of Treadwell's sequences were incorporated whole, including the portion where he angrily demands rain from God, Jesus, Allah and "the Hindu floaty thing" - and the rain actually arrives. "No one could edit that better than it was in the camera - raw, uncut," says Herzog. "It was sometimes very stunning to be allowed to look so deep into the abyss that is the soul of everything a human being is."
GRIZZLY MAN reveals a man who could be frightening as well as enchanting - much like the untamed world he so loved. As executive producer Phil Fairclough sees it, "There is a real parallel between Treadwell's personality and the nature of Nature. He was a sort of wild animal in his own way. He could be very placid and charming and warm and sunny. At the same time, he was a dark and turbulent person. Werner, who is not afraid to have opinions and state them strongly, makes you see both the beauty and the darkness in Treadwell, and in this place where he lived for thirteen years."
Herzog ultimately felt that the last moments of those thirteen years should remain private. When the fatal attack occurred Treadwell's camera was switched on; the lens cap was not removed but the audio rolled. Herzog filmed himself listening to the audiotape in Jewel's presence. Remembers the filmmaker, "Once I heard it, I didn't waste five seconds to know: this will not be published, not in my film. Period. Even if Jewel had given me the permission and had asked me to include it, I wouldn't have done it."
By September 28, a rough edit of the film had been submitted for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The filmmakers continued to shape GRIZZLY MAN in subsequent edits. GRIZZLY MAN unravels the mystery that was Timothy Treadwell, working backwards from his death to reveal the past he had hidden for many years.
Herzog's narration adds another layer as the filmmaker offers his own thoughts on Treadwell and his concept of nature. "I do have an ongoing argument with Timothy Treadwell throughout the film," Herzog acknowledges. "I differ with him and I say so. But it's a warmhearted argument. It's like I'm arguing with my own brothers; I love them but we do have arguments once in a while. Not that I can say that I love Timothy Treadwell, but I feel very close, very often. And I feel close to his tragedy."
Herzog also wanted to honor the actor Treadwell had wanted to be before he discovered bears. "There was such a deep desire in him to be a star, and so I gave him that space to be his own star. And I vowed I would give him the best music to make him the real movie star."
To write the film's score, Nelson suggested they approach Richard Thompson, one of the world's great guitarists and songwriters - and fortunately, a close friend of the producer. Thompson met with Nelson and Herzog in Los Angeles, and after seeing a few scenes from the film he agreed to compose the soundtrack.
The soundtrack sessions for GRIZZLY MAN took place over the course of a mere two days, on December 8th and 9th, in Berkeley, CA. Joining Thompson was a small group of accomplished musicians, including guitarist Jim O'Rourke of Sonic Youth. The producer was the renowned composer/musician/producer Henry Kaiser. The method was quite unusual: the music was composed and recorded on spot, as Thompson and the other musicians viewed the finished film. It was a gamble, acknowledges Nelson. "Going into the studio with musicians of Thompson's caliber - Richard had never played with these musicians before, none had ever played together before, and there was no written score - we had no idea if it would work. But as was the case with the film itself, it ended up being an intensely creative experience. I can't imagine GRIZZLY MAN without this music."
On his involvement with GRIZZLY MAN, Thompson says, "It was a great thrill
to work with Werner, whose work I have admired for many years, and who has
produced, for me, some of the most striking and poetic images in cinema history."
On January 24, 2005, GRIZZLY MAN had its world premiere at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, where audiences and critics greeted it with enormous enthusiasm. Watching the film with its first festival audience was at once nerve-wracking and exciting, says Discovery President Billy Campbell. "To be at Sundance, which is arguably the leader in independent filmmaking in terms of display and festivals, was an honor. To have the privilege of sitting there with the filmmaker, with our chairman, John Hendricks, who started Discovery 20 years ago, sitting two seats away from Roger Ebert - it was pretty harrowing. You're like, 'Holy smoke, I hope people like this movie.' And then to hear the response, it was very emotional." GRIZZLY MAN was subsequently awarded the Festival's Alfred P. Sloan Award.
Palovak believes GRIZZLY MAN presents a multidimensional picture of the man she knew long and well. "Not many people get to pursue their lives and their dreams and do it the way they want to, and Timothy Treadwell did. I hope people see themselves in Timothy in some ways; the film is about all the different emotions, about being a flawed person but still a happy and whole person when you're in your element."
She adds, "I think Tim really would have liked the film. It might have made him a little uncomfortable in places, just because he's showing himself so nakedly. But he would have liked GRIZZLY MAN because he was a fearless person in a lot of ways, and it's a pretty fearless movie."