By Karen Benardello
Celebrating a long cherished passion in a community that’s struggling to protect its fragile land and a way of life is more important now more than ever in a world that’s forever been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The group of select men who have been guided by a secret culture and training that’s been passed down through generations, as they hunt for the rare and expensive white Alba truffle, is highlighted in the new documentary, ‘The Truffle Hunters.’
The movie was written, directed, produced and shot by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who previously penned and produced the 2018 documentary, ‘The Last Race,’ together. Their latest collaboration is being released today in theaters in Los Angeles and New York, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic, which will be followed by a gradual expansion around the country. The feature’s theatrical release comes after it was an official selection at such film festivals last year as the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival.
Set deep in the forests of Piedmont, Italy, ‘The Truffle Hunters’ follows a handful of men, who are between 70-80-years-old, as they hunt for the rare and expensive white Alba truffle, which, to date, has resisted all of modern science’s efforts at cultivation. They’re guided by a secret culture and training that’s been passed down through generations, as well as by the noses of their cherished and expertly-trained dogs. The men live a simpler, slower way of life, in harmony with their loyal animals and their picture-perfect land. They’re not bound to cell phones and the internet, as they choose to instead make their food and drinks by hand, and prioritize in-person connections and community.
Meanwhile, the demand for white truffles increases year after year, even as the supply decreases. As a result of climate change, deforestation and the lack of young people taking up the mantle, the truffle hunters’ secrets are more coveted than ever. However, the ageing men may just be holding something that’s much more valuable than even the prized title delicacy: the secret to a rich and meaningful life.
Dweck and Kershaw generously took the time recently to talk about writing, helming, producing and shooting ‘The Truffle Hunters’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed they were interested in making the documentary because they’re both interested in focusing on neighborhoods where people maintain their identity and connection with their local history and culture, and when they found the community in Italy, they appreciated that it’s removed from the modern world in many ways. The duo also mentioned that unlike a lot of other documentaries, they didn’t enter the shooting process with a clear-cut story; the plot arose from them spending time, and speaking, with the people who they filmed.
ShockYa (SY): Together, you co-wrote the upcoming documentary, ‘The Truffle Hunters.’ What was it about the story of the men in Piedmont, Italy, who are on the search for the elusive Alba truffle that made you want to feature them in a movie?
Michael Dweck (MD): Gregory and I are both obsessed with trying to find worlds that exist outside the world of technology, where people maintain their identity and connection with the local history and culture. The last film we made together was ‘The Last Race,’ which is about a racetrack in Riverhead, Long Island in New York, which was the last of its kind in the country. It’s a very fragile place that could easily be replaced by a shopping mall.
We then stumbled upon this community in Italy, which has a lot of similarities; it’s a place that’s removed from the modern world in many ways. We stumbled upon this place individually, and felt there was something really magical about this place that should be explored.
The more we looked into it, the more we found out that there’s a culture among this group of men who are hunting for truffles, which can’t be cultivated. It’s something that’s very hard to find, and it’s a small group of people who go out to find this valuable ingredient. Looking into this story led us on a three-year exploration into finding out who these people are in the community, and we immersed ourselves in the community while we were making the film.
SY: Besides serving as the scribes, you also directed the film. What was your helming approach like while you were making the documentary?
Gregory Kershaw (GK): The film is so much about how we were taken by this place, like Mike said. It felt magical to us, so we wanted to go out of our way to capture that through cinema. It took us awhile to figure out how to do that because in a lot of ways, we were approaching documentaries in a different way. We wanted to capture images that felt like paintings, and transmit the feelings we had while we were there.
But we wanted to do that in a way that didn’t limit what people were doing in front of the camera, and we didn’t have to ask them to change their behavior to adapt to the way that we wanted to film. So in order to let the chaos of life emerge in front of these very deliberately constructed frames, we realized that we had to take a step back and move the production at a different pace.
So on most days, we would only shoot one shot. The reason for that was that when we filmed that one shot, we wanted to make all the factors that we think make a great shot come together, and the technical factors of the light to be right. We also wanted to make sure that the light that we were shooting in evoked that moment. It was only when all of those elements came together that we would roll the camera.
Some days we wouldn’t shoot at all if those factors didn’t happen, which I think is unique for a documentary production; usually, you want to capture as much footage as you can, and create the moment in the editing room. But we didn’t want to do that; we wanted the moments to appear before the camera, and capture them as we felt them.
SY: Speaking of finding the right light to shoot in, in addition to serving as the helmers, you both also worked as cinematographers on ‘The Truffle Hunters.’ What was the process like of deciding how you wanted to visually shoot the documentary?
MD: We work with a really small crew, so it was only me, Greg, a sound person and a translator, who was also our co-producer. We were taking our time throughout this process to really immerse ourselves in this community. We had a lot of time to talk with people there.
Greg and I drove this blue van, which we put all of our equipment in as we were driving through the countryside. We spent our time talking about the people we were meeting, and the best way to film this community. We also talked about art and paintings by the Italian masters, like Greg mentioned. So by the time we got to a shot, it was pretty well thought-out. We were inspired by our mutual experiences, as well as our time with these families in this community.
Like Greg also mentioned, we didn’t rush to record every moment of their lives. So we spent three weeks with the families, and then we went home for a week. We did that for three years. We spent time with seven families, so they were pretty used to us…We didn’t start shooting the first days and weeks we met them; during that time, we instead had meals with them and talked to them, so that we could get to know them. So there was a lot of time for us to collaborate with them.
GK: It was such a powerful storytelling tool for us…While we were filming, there was a lot of waiting for the light to be the way that we wanted it to be before we started rolling the cameras. Sometimes, when we were shooting in an interior, it might look a certain way to the eye, but when it was filtered through the camera lens, it looked different.
Our goal was to let the audience see things the way we saw them. Part of that is where you point the camera, and the other part is how you shape the light. Mike and I try to light as little as possible, and if we do light, it was just about supplementing what was already there. More often than not, we were just blocking the light that was coming in through the windows. We found that if we took the light away from even one of the windows by putting a black cloth in front of it, the room looks and feels completely different.
SY: In addition to directing the documentary, you also served as producers, like you mentioned earlier. Why did you decide to also produce ‘The Truffle Hunters?’ How did you balance your producing and helming duties on the set?
GK: In a lot of ways, those jobs are all interconnected during the process of making a film like this. However, in many productions, there’s a clear line between those three jobs. But for us, because we were doing all those jobs, they all fit together. There is an added complexity to juggling all the logistics of the production while you’re also in the creative space.
But one of the things that made it easier is that we shot over a long period of time. So we gave ourselves the space to do all of those jobs, and hopefully do them to the level that they needed to be done for the production. It never felt like we were compromising any of that.
On the ground, we had a really wonderful translator who’s from the region and speaks the local dialect. Like any dialect, it’s not just the language; there’s also a whole culture that comes with it. There’s also a certain level of banter that you need to be able to do in order to communicate with people.
Our translator was able to do that, and she eventually became our co-producer, and her name’s Letizia Guglielmino. She was an essential part of our day-to-day production. She became part of the family that we moved around with us while we were filming.
SY: The film was edited by Charlotte Munch Bengtsen. What was the process like of collaborating with her to put the final version of ‘The Truffle Hunters’ together?
MD: Unlike a lot of documentaries, we didn’t enter the filming process with a story; the story came from spending time with the people who we filmed. So we knew what the story would be created after the three years we spent with the families we filmed…Each one of the people we filmed had a story.
We knew we didn’t have the ability to cover all of the scenes. So when we handed the hard drive to our editor, she asked us where the rest of the footage was, and we told her that we didn’t have any, as that’s not how we wanted to tell the story. So that forced us to go deeper into the footage that we had.
The challenge was to weave together all the characters we had to carry the one storyline. Each person has their own arc, and the overall story has an arc, but it wasn’t easy to put them together; it took us quite awhile to get to the point of the film that audiences will see.
SY: The documentary played at such film festivals as the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival. What was the experience like of bringing ‘The Truffle Hunters’ on the festival circuit?
GK: We had our premiere at Sundance 2020, which was over a year ago, and is hard to believe. It was an incredible experience in so many ways, especially since we literally finished the day before the screening. We brought the footage and initial cut on the plane to Sundance to show.
Before that, we had only seen it with each other and our sound designer in the mix room. So we had absolutely no idea how the audience would react to the movie. But we made a film that we love and wanted to make it, without making any compromises.
But we ended up having an incredible reaction at the premiere. That was so incredible and exciting to us, because it meant that this thing that we were trying to do worked in some way, and people were feeling what we hoped they would feel.
Then after Sundance, the world changed pretty dramatically a year ago, in ways that we couldn’t even imagine at the time. So most of the festivals that we were invited to after that ended up going digitally or were cancelled. We were selected to play at Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and the New York Film Festival. It’s been amazing to participate in these festivals.
So we’ve been engaged in conversations with people who have been watching the film around the world, and have been moved by it in different ways. It seems to be reaching people in so many different cultures, and they’ve been telling us that it’s been helping them somehow during this very difficult year; it’s given them some hope, and the ability to see beyond the boundaries of the current world they’re living in. It’s not the year we expected, but it still has been a fulfilling year.
SY: ‘The Truffle Hunters’ is (being) released in theaters in L.A. and New York City (today), before it expands to additional cities nationwide by Sony Pictures Classic. What was the process like of deciding how you wanted to distribute the movie?
MD: When we were making the film, we were making it for the audience to experience it in theaters. So when we were talking to the distributors at Sundance, we sat down with (executives from) Sony Pictures Classics. They were so enthusiastic about the film.
As many people know, Sony Pictures Classics is committed to cinema and theatrical releases, so that’s the main reason why we selected them. They support their films any way they can through all of these major festivals. The reception the film’s received during the festivals was incredible, so we know it’s unique and resonates with people all over the world. So the festival run was a great ride.
The U.S. theatrical release in the U.S. (begins today), and it’s going to be a slow roll-out because of the pandemic. It also opened in Australia (on February 18) in 38 theaters, so we’re excited about that. It’s also going to open in the UK early (next month), and then throughout the rest of the world.