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Herzog’s Shadow

Students connect with German film great

Watch Zach Pughe-Sanford's film response to the Werner Herzog's collaboration.

Dancing shadows exercise their own wills independent of the characters casting them in “Where’s Da Party At?” a short film by Zach Pughe-Sanford. It’s an idea that pays homage to a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers moment in the 1936 film Swing Time by George Stevens, the UVM senior says. And it also traces to director Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which Herzog likens ancient drawings in a French cave to the shadow dancing in Stevens’ film.

There’s a good reason why Pughe-Sanford (who goes by the name Zach Alexander for his film work) had Werner Herzog on the brain during fall semester. At the initiative of visiting professor Peter Shellenberger, UVM film classes in the Art & Art History Department forged an unlikely collaboration with Herzog, one of the world’s greatest living film directors. When Herzog spoke at Dartmouth College in September, Shellenberger and his students devised a plan to offer the director a Super 8 camera loaded with film, ask him to shoot it and return it, then students would draw from his work to build their own film projects.

Shellenberger finds the anachronistic Super 8 format to be a powerful teaching tool. “With a Super 8 cartridge you only have three and a half minutes to say what you want to say, trying to get all of these things to take place,” he says. “There is no erasing it. There is no checking your little screen to see how it looks. At the end of the day, what I’m interested in developing is their instincts as filmmakers.”

Shellenberger made his pitch to Herzog during a question and answer session after the talk. “He stared at me for a while,” Shellenberger says, as he recounts the story while sitting in his Williams Hall office. “And he’s an intense person, he really is. The eye contact was intense. Then Herzog kind of scooched up to the edge of his seat and he said that yes, he hadn’t worked in Super 8 in such a long time, but, yes, he would take it. No guarantees, but he would take it.”

Two weeks later, Herzog returned the camera and the exposed reel for developing along with a typewritten, hand-signed letter detailing how he wanted this collaboration to play out. The words, which have the hint of a ransom note, beg the deep, soft hiss of the German filmmaker’s voice — “…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 my 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…”

With those directions and Herzog’s rough black-and-white footage, shot in an abandoned industrial building and featuring a striking moment when the filmmaker’s own shadow is clearly visible, Pughe-Sanford and classmates set to work in either film or digital formats.

Pughe-Sanford, who plans to move to New York City and work his way into the film world post-graduation, says he’s found a strong balance of theory in his English Department-based Film and Television Studies major and the hands-on production work of film courses in the Art Department. As for the Herzog class, he suggests that teacher Peter Shellenberger showed him an essential lesson for any artist. “He inspired me to let things unfold. The whole Werner Herzog experience began with ‘let’s try this, let’s give him the Super 8 camera and see what happens.’ The way it unfolded was the beauty of chance. You never know what is going to happen unless you try. Peter has been amazing as far as teaching me that.”