‘Grizzly Man’ at 15: Werner Herzog and the Filmmaking Team Look Back on the Doc Sensation

The movie that brought Herzog to the masses — as a voice, a meme, and a movie star — came together in an equally unlikely fashion.
‘Grizzly Man’ Oral History: Werner Herzog and Others Look Back
Werner Herzog
Lena Herzog

In 2003, Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Hugenard, were killed and eaten by a bear in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. The naturalist’s tragic end followed 13 years of living in the wilderness, where he studied animals through a quixotic style that traditional scientists deemed dangerous and irresponsible.

It also brought Werner Herzog to the masses. When “Grizzly Man” came out 15 years ago, the eccentric filmmaker was familiar to the arthouse circuit as a member of the German New Wave. His best-known work was released decades earlier, but Herzog continued cranking out idiosyncratic documentaries, mining for poetry in the natural world and humankind alike.

With Treadwell, Herzog found the ideal subject: a wild-eyed obsessive carving a unique path, fully aware that it could lead to self-destruction. The movie is a small wonder of non-fiction commentary, weaving Treadwell’s revealing home videos along with the filmmaker’s own entrancing observations about the chaos inherent to all existence. “What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears Treadwell filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy,” Herzog drones in the film’s final moments. “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”

“Grizzly Man” won Herzog a new generation of fans and grossed $4.1 million at the box office. His moody, existential voiceover turned him into a celebrity and a meme overnight. But nobody saw it coming, not even Herzog himself. Here, the original team behind the project relive the fast-paced process that brought the movie to the world, and what they make of its ensuing success.

ERIK NELSON, PRODUCER: I’ll be immodest and say I was the genesis of “Grizzly Man.” I started out as a TV guy. Among my more notorious productions was with CBS doing “World’s Most Dangerous Animals,” which was then ripped off as “When Animals Attack.” One big dumb idea. Based on the success of that, when Lionsgate was coming together in 1998, they bought my company. I had a six-year contract, I’d made my bones, and I was done with my term in 2004. That’s when I turned my attention to more interesting projects. I had a relationship with the Discovery Channel, and when I read about Treadwell getting killed in October 2003, I immediately saw the potential in this story.

JEWEL PALOVAK, CO-FOUNDER OF GRIZZLY PEOPLE AND EXECUTOR OF TREADWELL’S ESTATE: Timmy always had a great story. He was a really fun, cool, enigmatic person. He was always so dedicated to his animals. When he died, it was like a punch in the gut. Erik thought that Timmy was a reality-show character. I told him I didn’t really want to do that, that Timmy’s story deserves a lot more.

KEVIN BEGGS, LIONSGATE TV CHAIRMAN: Discovery Channel had seen all this success with “Shark Week,” and they had put an RFP out to producers saying that they needed the equivalent for land-based predators. Erik found the Timothy Treadwell story and originally it was going to be a one-hour special. By the time it got to me, it was Herzog’s crazy story about this guy living with the bears and redeeming his life.

NELSON: I’d met Herzog at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Festival when I was promoting one of my “Animal Attacks” shows. We’d built a 50-foot animatronic great white shark, and I brought it to the festival and put it in the lobby, much to the consternation of every legitimate wildlife filmmaker. We did demonstrations in the lobby where I had the mechanical shark eat a whole salmon. I’m doing this demonstration and I spy someone over in the corner. It’s Werner. After I’m done, I have all this salmon residue in my hands, and I go introduce myself to him. I say, “You’d know how to get this off my hands.” Werner says, “Lemon juice and vinegar would do it.”

I invited him to come over to my office in Laurel Canyon. Who wouldn’t want to have Werner Herzog hang out in your office? We’d just have him hanging around. That’s when I was developing “Grizzly Man.”

I thought any actor worth their salt would want to work with Werner. I thought this story would be good for him and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose foundation had supported some of Treadwell’s expeditions. I suggested Werner try to do this story with DiCaprio. It was DiCaprio meets giant bears — aka “The Revenant,” before its time. Werner took the material and then came back and said, “What about the documentary?”

Grizzly Man
“Grizzly Man”Lions Gate Films

WERNER HERZOG: I was not looking out for a movie when I stumbled across this. I instantly knew this was so big that it had to be done instantly.

Erik said he had to start within 10 days, the salmon run had started, and the density of bear populations on these rivers is really high. It had to start immediately. I asked him who was directing the film. He said, “I’m kind of directing the film.” I heard that. Kind of. I had the feeling he didn’t quite know how to tackle it. I pushed out my hand to him and said with the worst German accent I could muster, “No, I vill direct this movie now!” And he accepted. I think he was glad.

NELSON: I’d seen “My Best Fiend,” which I loved. He was on camera a lot on that, and in the back of my mind, I realized that Werner was a great reality character. He’d done incredible documentaries on European volcanoes and fires in Iraq. Those subject matters weren’t my genre, but the idea of fusing Werner’s filmmaking style and his personality on-camera with my “Animals Attack” school of filmmaking was irresistible.

HERZOG: I was rumored of being a daredevil, so Erik immediately founded a new company for this film. If the company went under it would not immediately destroy his entire enterprise. He was a wonderful collaborator.

PALOVAK: I loved a lot of Werner movies, although I thought some of them were confusing. However, when I saw “Burden of Dreams,” and read about the determination behind the production of “Fitzcarraldo,” especially how he dealt with Klaus Kinski — well, Klaus wasn’t Timmy, but Werner had the same sort of drive and determination.

HERZOG: Comparisons between Kinski and Treadwell is too much of a thing for the media, and irrelevant to “Grizzly Man.” Klaus Kinski was never injured on my sets. OK, I have to admit: Sometimes I got injured.

PALOVAK: I went to Werner’s house in Laurel Canyon. He wanted to get to know me. We looked through footage, we hung out with his cats, his wife made me dinner. He comes across very doom-and-gloom sometimes, but he was so cool. I knew I’d get some flack from more eco-minded people who wanted to see more of a traditional nature documentary. But I also knew that Timmy would like it more if Werner directed. Also, I figured people would learn more about Timmy’s work that way.

HERZOG: I am rumored to take impossible risks. But I don’t. I’m a very professional man and I’ve always had a very keen sense of risk assessment. I had hoped it would strike a chord among American audiences or others in technical civilizations that had lost their connections to the natural world.

PALOVAK: People either thought Timothy was some kind of saint, a magician with animals, or he was some kind of idiotic wingnut who deserved to die. Once that started happening, I was approached by a myriad of places. Some wanted a straight nature doc. Everyone wanted to hear the tape of his death, which was not happening.

HERZOG: Jewel had the tape that only recorded the audio of the last six minutes from Timothy and Amy’s life when they were mauled, killed, and eaten by a bear. The lens cap was still on. Of course, I had to address this tape and speak to her about it.

PALOVAK: I told Werner, “We’re not making a snuff film. I am not going to a theater to hear people scream for their lives.” But he got to hear it, and he was pretty freaked out when he did. I remember him pushing him play and me looking out and just watching his face. Then, he knocked back a bit of cognac.

NELSON: Werner was obsessed with Treadwell as a loon, Treadwell as this Klaus Kinski type. He didn’t want cuddly nature stuff; he wanted Treadwell going wacko. I had our loggers go through the 90 hours of Treadwell footage and look for stuff where he goes wacko with a rating between one and five stars. Werner only looked at the ones that had three stars or more.

HERZOG: We talked to the coroner in Alaska who gave her Timothy’s wristwatch that was taken from an intact hand. The rest of the arm was gnawed down to the bone. The wristwatch was still ticking. These are moments that are so unexpected. You didn’t know what was coming but you had to be courageous and just accept it.

NELSON: We started shooting Labor Day 2004. We had to deliver a cut to Sundance by early October of that year. Sundance is in January. Werner’s editor, Joe Bini, started using Richard Thompson’s music as scratch music. Werner fell in love with it. Well, I knew Richard Thompson. I shot a documentary on the making of the soundtrack, which took two days in early December. We had to improvise it live because we didn’t have time to do anything else.

RICHARD THOMPSON: Werner Herzog has made some of the most remarkable films in cinema history, and when I found out the premise of “Grizzly Man,” it seemed like a fantastic chance to be involved in something truly out of the ordinary. After half of the first day feeling our way, we hit our stride, and basically were done in two days … and had enough outtakes for the soundtrack of the spinoff TV series.

NELSON: We screened his nine-day cut for Lionsgate, and let’s just say it was not a great screening.

BEGGS: They were really rushing to make Sundance. Nobody wanted to wait another year. We got a screening at the Lionsgate screening room. It was really rough — something that should never be shown to anybody without that deadline. It went over like a lead balloon. Everyone walked out depressed. It was seen as a traffic accident of epic productions. And then it became this masterpiece.

HERZOG: There was only one edit, a final cut right away. We completed it in nine days. This cut was presented to Sundance. But when the music was finally recorded, the cut needed a few small adjustments.

NELSON: Werner had gone to Paris to film “White Diamond.” He felt his work was done. When he got back from France, we got to work. There were a lot of conversations about the structure. Werner rewrote the ending of the film, saying in voiceover what he thought about Treadwell. Jewel just freaked out, saying it wasn’t true.

PALOVAK: I resolved to be in that editing room. There were definitely things I fought and lost on, but there was a compromise on the scene where Timmy loses it on the beach. He worked there for 13 years. There were a few people he didn’t like who weren’t great for animals. I knew that would make people mad if we had their names in there.

HERZOG: Jewel Palovak had no role in the editing, but she, as the legal owner of Treadwell’s videos, had to be consulted in a meaningful way. She was a courageous companion.

NELSON: Jewel said, “You can’t do this! I’m still trying to work with these people!” Werner said, “To hell with it, I’m going to put up a card saying, ‘I’ve been censored.’” Instead, I sat at my computer with him over my shoulder and we rewrote the ending with a narration to cover up the names. He says, “I have seen this madness before on a film set,” and “his rage was transcendent.” That was my line, I wrote that.

HERZOG: I’m a storyteller deep in the bottom my existence. As a storyteller, you instantly know if some incident is big. I don’t need much of a middle man. You see, I don’t need the studios, and the studios do not need me either. Because of that, we have a very easy cross-pollination sometimes.

BEGGS: A few words from Werner Herzog is better than whole books of philosophy. That became the why of the movie. Without him, it was just sensationalistic.

PALOVAK: Werner made Timmy’s story sound like a slow descent into madness. That’s his thing. But Timmy wasn’t really like that. He got more and more into saving the animals and he was convinced by the amount of hunting going on that he had to be there.

NELSON: “Grizzly Man” didn’t even get shortlisted for the Oscar, which made me insane. The film that won that year was “March of the Penguins.” The next year we did the film “Encounters at the End of the World.” The first line is Werner saying, “I knew I was not going to make a film about fluffy penguins.” It was like our fuck you to the Academy.  And guess which film gets Werner his only Oscar nomination? “Encounters at the End of the World.”

BEGGS: Getting in business with an artist like Werner and letting him do his thing resulted in this extraordinary accomplishment that was so far from the origin of the project. As a creative executive, you had to let artists run and do their thing. If we had been more regimented and made it a more 48-minute special for TV, we would’ve missed out on this genius artistic exploration that he did.

NELSON: “Grizzly Man” was a star-crossed project. Werner went on to become a cultural treasure. After he did a voice on “The Simpsons,” he said, “I’m a cartoon now.” I said, “Now?”

PALOVAK: I was proud of the movie because I thought that — good and bad — at the end of the day, Timmy would’ve really liked the movie. It was really weird to get recognized. I was in Costco and some old lady tapped me on the shoulder and said, “He never should’ve been out there!” Honestly, I still get these weird emails. A couple of days ago, I got some rant on Facebook, this guy posting like eight giant paragraphs about what an idiot Timmy was. It still goes on for me. I do think it has helped the awareness of the bears’ plight. But due to the easing of hunting restrictions, I don’t know that right now that the country is trying to save them.

“Grizzly Man” is available to stream on Hulu.

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