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New Film Explores The Magical World Of 'Truffle Hunters'

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The documentary "The Truffle Hunters" follows a small group of secretive old men in the Piedmont region of Italy, who've spent their lives digging up the rare, and exceedingly expensive, white truffle. The movie looks at their quiet, quirky lives as they deal with a changing economic and global climate, and revel in the companionship of their truffle-sniffing dogs.

KMUW's Fletcher Powell recently spoke with the movie's directors, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, about how they bring the audience into this unusual world.  

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FLETCHER POWELL: When I think of all of our five senses, the one that's the most difficult to convey in a movie is smell. Which is too bad, because it's also the one that biologically is the most connected to our memory and our emotions. And for you, it was something that you had to figure out because, I gather, the key to understanding the allure of truffles is smell. So, I'm curious what you talked about as you were trying to figure out how to solve this problem.

MICHAEL DWECK: Well, we spent three or four months in this world before we actually picked up a camera. And a lot of what we spoke about that — how do we bring an audience into this world and immerse them into this place and have them feel how we felt? And that's kind of where the language of the film came from is that we decided to just create this, almost like a fairytale storybook, which is how that world seemed to us, and take the audience through almost like a series of cinematic paintings, scene by scene, in a very uninterrupted, pure way. That's why there's not really editing. There's no editing at all in the scenes, other than the doggy cam. So you have a chance to really sit and enjoy and just take in this place.

And a lot of what you're asking about smell had to do with sound, because we did spend quite a bit of time on the sound, and a lot of the sound has to do with smelling. So we had ... little mini microphones the size of rice kernels mounted on the dogs on both their paws and on their noses. Also, we spent a lot of time recording sounds from humans. And also, we kept saying, how do we bring an audience into a musty house, you know, 19th- or 18th-century house? So you can smell what that feels like. And a lot of that has to do with the soundscape.

GREGORY KERSHAW: Yeah, cinema has this magical ability to transport people. And that was always the focus of our filmmaking process, even before we knew what the story was going to be. We knew that we had been invited to a place that was really special. I mean, as Michael said, it feels like a fairytale. It feels like you're kind of almost traveling back in time. And we wanted to use cinema to bring the audience into that world, that feeling that we felt there.

And it's when you're in any location, you know, you perceive it in so many different ways. You perceive it through your eyes, you perceive it through your ears, you perceive it through things that cinema maybe can't do on the surface, like touch and smell. But they're all part of the feeling of being in a place, and through the cinematic, through the tools of cinema through using cinema, we wanted to bring the audience into all those feelings that might not be readily apparent when you're looking at a two-dimensional screen.

There's a scene in the film where the truffle judge, he's the guy at the center of this truffle fair that, basically every truffle that is sold at this really high-end truffle market has to pass under his nose. And he determines if it is up to standard. And only those truffles that are up to standard, that pass his test, can be sold. And there's a scene in the film, towards the end, where he's eating that truffle. And for us, that was the moment when we said, we want the audience to smell the truffle. They've been waiting for, you know, probably an hour at this point — we want the audience to have the experience of smelling a truffle.

The scene is very simple. We filmed this judge eating a truffle that was shaved over eggs with fondue, and have a glass of Barolo, and you're watching him. And I think he's a man who, he lives through his senses, and he takes just — you can see whenever we had meals with him and you could see the joy that he gets from a glass of wine or eating a local dish that's prepared with expertise. You can see it on his face. You can see the experience of eating, in this case the truffle, but then, we said, how do we bring the audience into this moment?

And for us, it was just this idea of putting a musical track of opera over this scene. We found this old Enrico Caruso track. The moment we put that music over that image, all of a sudden it transformed it, and it really brought you into his head. We also use sound design to kind of shape how that music is being perceived by the audience. There's a moment where we do a little trick with the sound design that really just completely shapes the soundscape for the audience and puts it right in their head. That moment, we hope that you smell a truffle, you taste the truffle.

You mentioned how much he lives through his senses. The entire movie really is very sensual, it conveys a lot. The sound design, as you've been talking about, is pretty remarkable — as a radio guy, that's really important to me. But Michael, you talked right at the beginning about the look of the movie, and it's not something that people, I think, typically expect when they go into a documentary. As you said, almost exclusively static camera shots, what seem to be very deliberately composed frames. And the lighting makes it look almost like Renaissance oil paintings. Like the interiors almost seemed like Caravaggio or something. Certainly, that was all very intentional, but how also did you maintain any kind of spontaneity that might be necessary while you're doing a documentary, even one that is as stylized as this?

DWECK: Well, that came from the process. When I talked about the months that we were with these families, I think we started out with six or seven families, and we spent three years making this film. And these people live pretty remote lives with really not much technology, that much modern technology. They don't really use cell phones and they don't have computers, and they don't spend their days watching Netflix.

So their days are really spent on the farm. And at night, truffle hunters are going out truffle hunting during the season. So we kind of had a route and we said to ourselves, well, let's keep immersing ourselves in their lives. Let's keep coming back without a camera. Let's just come back, have lunches, have breakfast, share some wine, some espresso. And let's just keep doing that ... for two reasons. First, it was really for us to learn about this world because we had no story going into the world. We just thought there's something magical here, and let's just explore it. And that was a bit of a risk because we didn't know if we would find anything, but we enjoyed the place. We liked being there a lot. And we liked being with these people and kind of fell in love with the region and the people.

So, it was a joy for us to keep coming back and back and back and back, and then eventually, there was a time — we spend a lot of time talking because we shoot maybe one shot a day at the most — and it's Gregory and I driving this van, it's just two of us kind of driving to the countryside. And we spend a lot of time talking and we visit people. And there's a certain point where it feels right, where the people we're filming feel unencumbered in front of the camera, where it almost disappears. And it feels right when everything is really set up for us.

That means that everything is lit beautifully, the light was coming through the window at the perfect time. There, you know, Angelo's making his chicken in his kitchen. That moment kind of feels right, because they all have really busy lives, and they have rituals that repeat themselves. So we understood those rituals. We would kind of be there, we'd say, OK, well, we know Carlo and Maria are going to have lunch exactly at noon every single day, and we pretty much know the conversation is going to be — "You have to stop truffle hunting because, you know, if you get hurt, we're screwed." So, it took a lot of that.

What you're seeing in the film, like that example I just gave you is really, let's say three minutes of a two-and-a-half, three-hour conversation. What we do, we set the camera and then we basically turn it on and let it roll. And we're just trying to really hide ourselves and their lives just go on. And if we get something interesting, we get it. If not, we come back again and again and again and again. And eventually, sometimes we strike gold. And most of the time not. But that was kind of the process of getting us into this world. The result of that is this full immersion that we felt the audience could, it could feel like you're watching a narrative film, in many ways. And we didn't want to present just information. We didn't want to have interviews. We didn't want to have any narrator. We just wanted you to feel — like, really feel — how it is to be in this world and how it felt for us.

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The truffle hunters that you have in the film are all pretty delightful in their own ways. They're definitely all characters. Is this something that kind of comes with the territory or did you just happen to find the right people?

KERSHAW: I think that was part of what drew us to this region. When we first started exploring this place, which we really kind of stumbled upon by chance, but, it's a really beautiful, beautiful area. I mean, it's filled with these beautiful rolling hills, and on each hill, there's like a little town that's kind of like a world unto itself, that has its own cultures and its own traditions. But everybody that we encountered seemed to have this joy that they carried with them. And especially when we started meeting the truffle hunters — it took us a long time to even meet the truffle hunters. I mean, everything about this world is a secret.

And even within the communities, it's kind of a secret within the community as to who the truffle hunters are. And we would go to a trattoria that had truffles on the menu every day, and we would ask the trattoria owner, we'd say, "Oh, could you introduce us to the truffle hunter that you buy the truffles from?" And he'd say, "Oh, I just leave money in a box. And in the morning there's a truffle. A truffle appears." He said, "I never talked to the guy. I haven't met him."

Even before we started meeting the truffle hunters, we met people in the community. We met the priest. We met the owner of the local restaurant. We met winemakers. And then they started introducing us to their friends, who would introduce us to their cousin, who would eventually introduce us to the truffle hunters.

And yeah, most of the people that we found, it was just, we experienced this group of people. Most of them in the film, they're 80-year-olds who were filled with life. I mean, they were just there, their daily lives were just filled with joy. Aurelio, who you see in the film, we'd be walking in the woods with him and he just breaks out in song. That's just what a day with Aurelio was like. And what the film ended up being really came from just being inspired by them and seeing a world that was so filled with joy. Especially at a time when our world feels troubled in so many different ways right now, and here was this place that had held onto this beautiful identity that had this deep connection to nature, the local traditions and their lives — 80-year-old men were just exploding with joy.

And what we wanted to do was figure out a way to share that with the audience. We wanted to create a film that when you see it, you feel that joy that we felt when we were making the film, and hopefully people leave it and they're lifted by it. Because whenever we were filming, we would spend, you know, a month there at a time filming. And we would just, we would leave to go back to our homes — Michael lives in New York City, and I live in Sweden — and we'd immediately be talking about, how can we get back there? How can we get back there as soon as possible? Because we were just so lifted by the people that we were filming with.

DWECK: And the wine a little bit too, just saying.

Something I really loved about the people is that they — all of the hunters are kind of at slightly different stages in their hunting life. You've got one guy who's a little bit younger, who seems to be still plowing ahead, hunting all the time. But then you've got the man whose wife doesn't want him to be hunting any longer. You've got the man who's decided to completely give up truffle hunting because of how much everything has changed, and it apparently doesn't give him joy anymore.

And then you've got the man who is sort of facing death. And he's kind of got a tension for himself between preparing for that death, but also not wanting to believe that it's happening. He knows he needs to give up his dog, but he clearly doesn't want to do it. He won't give up his secrets, even though he knows he's nearing death. These different life stages are also just so fascinating.

DWECK: Yeah. It took a while to get to that point because, like the example you give, Angelo, who's given up truffle hunting, he has a prize piece of land. He has a beautiful forest, and that forest has produced his white truffles. And he's seen what's happened to the forest. He sees the effect climate change has in the mountains. He knows that it doesn't snow anymore like it used to seven, eight years ago. It wasn't like, we're not talking centuries ago. So, he sees the effect. He sees the effect of globalized culture and he's pissed, he's mad. He's a bit frustrated. He wants it to change and wants it to stop. And he's right in a lot of ways.

And I think this was not an impact film, by any means. We didn't set out to make an impact film. But we ended up falling in love with this place and realized how fragile it was. We would see, like, Sergio would call us one morning. He called us really early, maybe it was five o'clock in the morning, saying, "You have to come now, they're clear-cutting the forest." They're taking these century-old oak trees, which you need for truffles. And someone just cut them all down for firewood. And we got down there, and there was one tree left, basically. Everything was stumps. And there were two guys there with a chainsaw. And (Sergio) was crying, he was saying, "They destroyed my forest."

We realized how fragile it was. So we formed a conservation program, we raised quite a bit of money that we've given to a nonprofit on the ground there that's being managed by one of our truffle hunters. And they're purchasing the land where we made the film, the forest land. They've already done that, and it's going to continue. So that won't be a concern anymore. So, at least we're trying to set an example for the area where we can bring also bring a younger generation into the truffle land and realize how beautiful it is to be close to land, and not maybe as close to technology, to enjoy nature a bit and the companionship of an animal. So we're hoping that that's going to help that.

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One thing we haven't talked about that we have to talk about are the dogs. The theater that is showing "The Truffle Hunters" here in town, they were formed out of an idea of showing movies that deal in some way with the nature of nurturing. And that's really on display with how the truffle hunters interact with their dogs. It's very clear both that the dogs are incredibly important to their work, but also incredibly important to their lives.

I think we hear dogs' names, I'm going to say about 10 times as often as we hear any human's name. And they are also fighting against people who clearly don't care about the dogs, because there — I was shocked, maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was shocked to see how much they have to deal with people poisoning whatever the dogs might be sniffing out and eating. I guess because of competition, I'm not exactly sure why they were doing that, but it was kind of horrifying to me. And just to see how these men live with their dogs and interact with their dogs is really remarkable.

KERSHAW: Very early on in the process of making this film, we realized, well, first of all, the first thing we realized was that in Italy, it's not pigs that find truffles. A lot of people think that it's pigs, and that still happens I guess, in France. But the problem with pigs is, if they're going after a truffle, they're going to try to eat it. And if your finger gets in the way, there's a good chance you might lose a finger. So dogs are easier to train to give up the truffle. And they also cover a lot more ground.

But we realized that the dogs and their owners just, they have these incredible relationships with depth beyond — I mean, I'm a dog lover and I grew up with dogs, but the relationship that these truffle hunters have with their dogs, it's at a depth that I've never really seen before. And I think a lot of that is probably just because they spend so much time together. You're out in the woods for 12 hours, and they go at night so no one sees where they're finding their truffles, and also so there are no distractions. But it's 12 hours in the darkness alone with their dogs. And then they spend all day with their dogs, too, when they're up.

So, it's a ton of time, and really the ability to find truffles, it takes a very highly trained dog and it takes a relationship that's built over many years between the truffle hunter and the dog. They need to constantly be in communication with each other. So, when we entered into their lives, we saw, like, the relationship between Aurelio, who's one of the truffle hunters in the film, and his dog Birba. And Birba eats on the table with Aurelio. She doesn't eat dog food. He cooks it for his dog, Birba.

And we also realized that we needed to figure out a way to express the dog's perspective in the world. We have the human perspective in the world, which as you described, we tried to make it very painterly. We tried to make each image kind of feel like a liquid Caravaggio. But with the dogs, we realized, it needed to be something different. And we spent a lot of time coming up with what we call the doggy cam, which ended up really being, after a lot of experimentation with all these high-tech tools, we worked with a local Italian shoe cobbler to come up with a little harness that went on each of the dogs' heads and allowed us to put a GoPro on their head. And that footage, the footage that we got, it was astonishing. One, because you really are transported into the dog's perspective. You feel the thrill of the hunt. You feel the thrill of finding a truffle.

But what we also realized is we were able to see the relationship that these dogs have with their owners when they're hunting. And in the case of, like Aurelio, we saw that Aurelio talks to Birba. And at first, we thought, "OK, maybe he's just giving her commands." But then when we had it translated, we realized that he actually has conversations with her. He confides his feelings towards her, and it's really astonishing. And you're looking at the footage, 'cause she'll look up to him and it almost feels like they're somehow having verbal communication. And maybe they are, I don't know. But the relationships that they have, it's just, it was a really, really beautiful thing to experience and see them evolve.

And, of course, the poisoning that's happening in there is horrible. We wanted to address it into the story and what the reason — there's a lot of reasons that it's happening. But basically, the short of it is that the demand for these truffles is through the roof. I mean, they can sell for, well, there's a truffle auction in the film where a truffle sells for $100,000 for about a kilogram of truffles. I mean, it's just astonishing. And this is a fungus that if you don't eat in like three days, it's disappeared. A hundred thousand dollars. And so the demand for them is just, is going through the roof.

As people in the world want this really delicate product of nature that can only grow in this region, but the land that is producing it, Michael said it, every year, there's less truffle forest, climate change is disrupting the balance in the ground. So the competition is fierce. And as a result, there are, well, we don't know how many, but there are some truffle hunters that have taken to poisoning, putting out the poison baits. Basically as a warning to other truffle hunters to stay away from their land.

DWECK: I wanted to add one other thing. When I was speaking about the conservation program before, that's one thing, another thing we're addressing in that program is they've trained German shepherds, four German shepherds, really, to go out and actually just sniff out these poisons. And it seems to be very effective. But we also think through education — just overall education, to the truffle hunting community and to a young generation — that's going to really help just eliminate that problem. Hopefully.