Considering the planning and shooting of The Truffle Hunters took years, it’s only fitting the roll-out of the film would have quite a journey. After premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck’s delightful, visually magnificent documentary exploring a storied, sacred tradition would go on to be selected for Cannes, Telluride, TIFF, and NYFF––a rare feat for any film to achieve. After an awards-qualifying run last year, it’s now finally arriving in select theaters nationwide, including NYC’s Film Forum this weekend.
I said in my review at last year’s Sundance, “The Truffle Hunters explores this age-old tradition of culinary treasure-hunting and the clash of passion and commerce around such a specific way of life. Executive produced by Luca Guadagnino, it’s also far from your standard documentary in terms of the picturesque approach in which we meticulously enter this Northern Italy milieu.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Kershaw and Dweck to discuss how they pull of their perfect frames, the sacred bond between canine and human, how capitalism is effecting this insular world, the only three truffle recipes you need, and more.
The Film Stage: I love this approach to documentary filmmaking, but it must take a lot of work to compose these perfect frames. Can you talk about your process for this and if it affects the relationship with your subjects at all?
Gregory Kershaw: It took us a long time to figure out how to shoot this film and in some ways I would say the process even started with our previous collaboration, The Last Race. We experimented with different ways of approaching the documentary subject, but this film, before we started filming, we were enchanted by this world because it felt like a fairytale to us. It feels like we’re moving through a storybook. How do we bring an audience into this storybook with us? When we started shooting just still frames, we were looking for that feeling. I should say we didn’t really start shooting until several months into the project after knowing people. Once we started realizing that this is the way we wanted to portray the world. We talked a lot about the subjective truth of the world––how we portray not just the facts of the world, but how it feels to an audience. We wanted to bring a very deliberate perspective to the framing. We wanted to construct the shots in a way that would transmit a feeling in the content of the image and the way they were framed.
But we were also creating a verite documentary. We wanted life to unfold naturally, to unfold unfettered in front of the camera. It took us a while to realize this very simple idea, which was that it took time. We couldn’t force our idea of what we thought the world should look like into the frame. We had to just spend time in this world, listen to it, and let the strands evolve slowly, over the course of the day. We would never rush into getting a shot if all the conditions weren’t right. We would wait until the technical factors were right, the lighting, but we would also wait until the people we were filming were in this situation where we thought something interesting might happen.
We might start with the idea for a shot or something we wanted to capture, but that would change totally by the end of the day. We’d set up a shot, then we might go inside for a coffee with Angelo and his friend might come over and we might start a conversation with them. Then we might realize that shot we thought was going to work, they aren’t going to be there anymore, so we would bring the camera to wherever they were at the time. It was always evolving. Everything had to line up and come up together and only then we would roll the camera. And we would roll it for as long there was potential for something interesting to happen in front of the camera. So that could mean three hours of just rolling the camera and what you see in the film is just a tiny slice of that.
One other fascinating aspect of the film is this sacred bond you capture between humans and dogs––from the forest to the bathtub to the dinner table. You had a sense of what you were going to capture, but as you see this bond deepen, if that changed your viewpoint on how you would structure some of the film?
Michael Dweck: We didn’t have a story going into it, at all. That only developed in the edit. After a few years, we understand each person we filmed and their life and their kind of arc. The relationship between the dog, which they consider their partner and sometimes their children, we only discovered just by luck. The first time we attached a GoPro to a dog, we said we wanted to see the POV of the dog, because we wanted the audience to be immersed in how the dog feels on this hunt.
But what we didn’t realize, the first time we were looking––and it’s on Birba––we see during the shot, and it’s 2.5 hours of footage, at some point he stops Angelo and has what appears to be a conversation with Birba, and Birba’s listening because we see his POV. It was a very personal conversation. It was a conversation about things like, “I’m going to prepare a Christmas meal for you and I’ve been going to the farmer’s village. I’ve been getting the vegetables and the chicken and we’re going to have a really special meal together.” That told us there was more to their relationship than we knew because at that point we hadn’t been invited to his home, or any of the other truffle hunters’ homes. That was maybe a year-and-a-half in already.
But once he invited us into his home, soon after we started to understand––he had three dogs, Charlie, Bisco, and Birba––how they lived. The furniture, the whole house, was really designed for the dogs. There were no dog dishes on the floor, for one. But he had a couch and they were watching soccer. They are watching a Juventus game . Each one had their own couch. He said, “I want you guys to join me for lunch.” It was freezing outside. We were out for hours. He cooks chicken with some vegetables and a nice broth. There were four plates set on a table. There were only three of us––three humans. And he hadn’t invited us to sit down yet. He comes with the pot, brings it over to the table, and it’s the table you see here. [Points to the film’s poster.] Birba hops up and he serves Birba first, all the big chunks of chicken and carrots. We were starving by the way. He said, “Okay, you guys can sit down.” And he gave us like a spoonful of broth and we ate.
We realized then that this is their life together. And the conversation would then continue. As we started to get to know these truffle hunters more we realized it was very similar with Angelo, who has seven dogs, and Sergio, who has four dogs now. Same thing, having a bath. They were in the mud all day and all night working together and the sun comes up, we go home, and they go in the bathtub… just imagine the rituals to us what that seemed like. We’re used to the dog comes home, stands outside in a fenced-in area. No, this dog is cared for like a family member. We wanted to bring that perspective to an audience and show, like was Greg saying, how much of a fairy tale this ended up being.
This movie could have just been a beautiful, serene adventure through this world but you get into some affecting subject matter. You see how capitalism can run amuck and destroy these insular worlds and we don’t even know it’s happening from an outsider’s perspective. Can you talk about eloquently weaving those themes into the film?
Kershaw: The relationship of these truffle hunters to the truffle market, when we were doing our early research, we were struck by the absolute absurdity of the situation––where you had these truffle hunters, where they lead these really beautiful, but simple lives. They live very close to nature. Most of them grow their own food. They don’t have a lot of money, but they have incredible richness in their lives.
In some cases, maybe just two kilometers away, you have this town Alba, which is the commercial center of the truffle trade and that’s where Gianfranco, the truffle hunter, has his store. It’s selling fungus. We have to remember that truffles are fungus growing under the ground. But in the window, it looks like a jewelry store. And the truffles are lined up and they are selling for thousands of dollars––a fungus that if you don’t eat in three days, it’s no longer good. And there are many tourists in this region and a lot of the people that come to this region, the international tourists, have a lot of money and they come just because this is the place to come for truffles. You see him making these sales for exorbitant amounts of money that are almost mind-boggling, but that’s not actually where even he makes the big sales. The big sales are all done on the phone in the backroom. So he has this storefront where sells truffles, but in the back room, that’s where he’s calling all of his customers around the world. He’ll have people fly in on private jets in Milan and then they’ll jet down to Alba, which is three hours away, pick up a hundred thousand dollars worth of truffles or more, and fly back. So the absurdity of these two worlds is in some ways hilarious.
There were also some aspects of it that were shocking, which are best articulated by Angelo. He’s upset because he’s seen what this market, what this greed has done to truffle hunting–-how it has commoditized this thing that he loves and commercialized this thing that he loves. He’s seen that it’s resulted in this fierce competition amongst truffle hunters, which in some cases has resulted in the poisoning of dogs, which is absolutely unthinkable if you spend any time around a truffle hunter and their dog. I think in a bigger sense he’s very connected with what’s going on in the world. He reads a lot. He’s always reading the paper and he sees the beauty that this region holds–and it is still holding on to most of it, but he’s seeing these changes that could potentially happen, and he sees them happening around the world on a much bigger scale. It makes him angry and I think rightly so because there aren’t many places where people have held on to the things that we think are truly valuable for human life as they have in this region.
As a bit of a lighter question, I went truffle hunting a few years ago in Italy and it was a beautiful experience but it really opened my eyes to some of the falsehoods––at least from an American point of view––about what are actually real truffles and things like that. What did you learn in this regard in the process? Also, what are your favorite recipes using truffles?
Dweck: Well, the first thing we learned is that truffle oil is fake. [Laughs.] We had no idea. Those little bottles you buy that are $30 is just really low-quality olive oil that has a chemical compound to make it taste like and smell like truffles. We learned that the right way to serve a truffle seems to be the simplest way. A white truffle at least, is just three ways. One way is two eggs, sunny-side up, shaved as it’s warmed. The second way is over risotto, shaved as it’s just poured onto the plate. The third way is tagliolini, which is the egg pasta that comes from that region. In that region they call it 30-egg pasta. That’s it. So simple.
Kershaw: This whole incredible world revolves around the truffle. It’s a magical thing. It’s a fungus, but it’s a magical thing. The reason is that science hasn’t cracked the code for it. It can’t be cultivated. Everything that we eat, science has figured out. They’ve figured how to mass produce it. It can’t happen with a truffle. It just grows in this pretty specific piece of land in Europe and science hasn’t figured out how to reproduce it anywhere else. It’s kind of a beautiful thing that exists outside the boundaries of science and outside the boundaries of human knowledge.
After seeing the premiere at Sundance pre-pandemic and then during the pandemic at the drive-in at New York Film Festival, it plays very differently to me. We’ve all been forced to live this simpler life during this time, something the film gets to the heart of. What has your experience been like as the film has screened in many different places?
Dweck: Well, we’ve all experienced in the last year how disconnected we are from community and from humans. I think this shows a world that’s really connected and a community that’s really vibrant. Also, like you were saying, it shows a simple life, and a life closer to nature, and a life close to animals. I think a lot of people, especially in this country and also in Europe, they are realizing that maybe life in the city––where Gregory and I both live, we met living in the same building in Manhattan––we are questioning this idea of living in the city and maybe we should be closer to our food supply. Maybe we should start growing our own food. Maybe we should protect nature more than we do. This is not an impact film by any means, but we started a conservation fund because we fell in love with this region and want to preserve the community. So we raised quite a bit of money that we’ve already given over to them. They are going to be purchasing all of the land where we shot the film––the forest––so the community can hopefully stay intact without deforestation galloping into the territory and destroying it.
The Truffle Hunters is now in theaters and opens in NYC at Film Forum on April 2.