A version of this story about “The Truffle Hunters” first appeared in the documentary issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
An observational documentary about a rural Italian community of old men and their dogs who hunt for enormously valuable truffles in the dead of night, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s film “The Truffle Hunters” has been a steady festival favorite since it was chosen to be in the official selection at Cannes. Dweck and Kershaw talked to TheWrap about getting the secretive truffle hunters to trust them, and getting the dogs to carry (and aim!) their cameras.
What was it that appealed to you about the community of truffle hunters and their dogs in Northern Italy?
MICHAEL DWECK We had finished wrapping the edit on our last film, “The Last Race,” in August of 2017, and we were looking for a place to go in Europe to relax. I thought, maybe I’ll go to Northern Italy where there are no tourists and find a place to disappear. And I found this town called Montalbo in the Piedmont Mountains. And the people in the town kept saying, “Why are you here now? You should be here in November – it’s truffle season.” I was telling Greg about it, and he said, “I was in that exact same place three weeks ago.”
And that’s how it started. We went back and spent time in this community and realized that the truffle hunters were a bit of a secret culture. And we’re always fascinated by these subcultures that are rare and on the edge of kind of extinction.
GREGORY KERSHAW In both our professional work and our personal lives, Michael and I are looking for places that have held on to their past, that have held on to a relationship with nature and that still a deep-seated sense of community. And as we heard about this world of truffle hunters, it seemed like the perfect entrance into, into exploring this, this community.
But how do you navigate a very secretive world?
DWECK It wasn’t easy. It took us the better part of a year to get into that community. The way conversations in these villages are, first you sit and you have a glass of wine, and this might be at 10 o’clock in the morning. And then you have some espresso and then you have some more wine. And then you try to ask a question and then they say, “Well, not yet. Come back Thursday.” That’s how it was for a year.
KERSHAW I think we surprised them, too, because we kept coming back, and they began to understand the nature of what we were doing. We would show them the footage that we were shooting. They know, in a very humble way, that what they do is important and that they found something special. They’re very joyous, happy people who are wonderful to be around. And I think they saw in the footage that we were trying our best to capture the feeling of their lives.
Obviously, what they’re doing is impacted by climate change. We get that in bits and pieces when they say, “Well, it’s a bad year.” You don’t spell it out, but it’s a clear subtext.
KERSHAW Yeah. When you’re spending time with people who live really close to the land, you see the reality of climate change. It’s not about statistics, it’s about what they see in their day-to-day lives. These men are in their 80s and they talk about what it was like in their childhood. And they would say that sometimes their father would be plowing the fields and truffles would pop up like potatoes. They were that plentiful then.
A lot of things have changed because the climate is changing. These white truffles that they find they can’t be cultivated–they can only be found in this very thin strip of land that’s mostly in Italy, but creeps through other parts of Europe. We think, and science backs this up, that little changes in the climate can have a huge impact on where these truffles are found. So the truffles went from popping up in the field like potatoes to being like finding a piece of gold now. They’re that valuable.
I have to ask about the way the film is shot. So much of it is made up of stationary shots in gorgeous settings that let the action play out slowly and carefully in front of the camera – but then you also have this completely hyperkinetic dog cam, where we’re seeing the hunt from the point of view of the canine hunter. So how do you get the dogs to serve as your cameramen?
DWECK The little village we were staying at had a cobbler, and we were able to work with him and a metalsmith and a person that supplies leather. We worked with these local vendors to create what became like a high-tech camera rig for us. I think we had, like, nine different iterations of this mount, but we thought it was really important to understand how a dog thinks and how a dog feels when it’s on the hunt. It’s as much a game for the dogs as it is for the men, but it took about two months to get that rig to work.
KERSHAW We lost a lot of cameras. A lot of things flew off in the trees.
DWECK It is the dog’s perspective that you’re seeing there. The camera’s literally mounted right above the eyes. But for us, it was also a way of capturing the exhilaration that the truffle hunters feel when they’re going through the woods. There’s a certain ecstasy that you experience when you’re around them when they find a truffle. And really, I think that the dog’s perspective brought you into their heads more than anything else.