Werner Herzog On Unlocking the Secrets of the Universe…from Earth

In Apple TV+’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, documentarian Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer reveal how shooting stars, meteorites, and deep impacts affect our world.

Fireball Visitors from Darker Worlds Werner Herzog Clive Oppenheimer
Photo: Apple

There may be nothing more pleasing than watching a room full of scientists erupt in glee as the probe they spent hurtling into space years prior finally touches down on a moving object in the farthest reaches of space. The information and material that the probe will send back can hopefully answer questions of the universe we’ve been trying to ask since the beginning of our existence. Since before humans even walked the earth, however, the dark blanket of the sky has been depositing meteors to our world that hold important answers of the unknown.

The new Apple TV+ documentary Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds by the filmmaking team of Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer takes a look at the history of meteors falling to Earth, and the impact they have on both science and our cultural roots. We spoke with Werner and Clive to discuss the importance of documenting these phenomena and the process of bringing it to audiences in an informational, entertaining package.

DEN OF GEEK: In these types of projects, obviously you want to be able to teach people and show them something they may not know; but is there a need to balance wanting to feed your own curiosities as well? 

Werner Herzog: It’s only curiosity. If we wanted to teach somebody, we would be teachers. But it was always clear we must not be didactic. This has to be entertaining, there has to be that excitement of science. It has to be the awe of what we are seeing, then we are on the right track.

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Clive Oppenheimer: It’s show business. And cinema.

But in the same breath, obviously we’re in a time right now where science is somehow under attack, it’s more important that we get these things out there for people.

Clive Oppenheimer: I think with the attack on science, this is probably unstoppable and it serves various agendas and vested interests. You know in some ways I’ve seen it, I’ve seen how it operates, and I think we just have to set this aside. We know what we’re about and we know what we’re trying to do with these films. Above all, it’s to make hopefully a lasting piece of art, which brings together music, cinematography, and extraordinary people and locations and ideas of the human imagination.

Talking about cinematography specifically, I think it’s interesting that there’s so much more being captured now because people have cameras in their hands all the time. It’s so interesting to know that we’re catching these physical occurrences like the meteor in Russia because there’s a whole country of people worried about insurance fraud and using dash cams. 

Werner Herzog: Well, in Russia it’s not insurance fraud. The police would try to extort money from you, stopping you saying you ran the traffic light and extort money. But that all dates back to Yeltsin’s time when police were not properly paid, when pensions were not paid, when school teachers were not paid. So it was a time of catastrophe for Russia. That’s over, but the dashboard cameras remained in the cars. You see them everywhere. 

We were lucky that an event like this was filmed. We were asked by some people who were interested to be in production if we had footage. Yes, but we need this kind of footage in 4k and all there is are such lousy videos from Russian dashboards. And I said, fine, let’s sit with a camera for 800,000 years on Mount Rushmore… maybe we will be sponsored by someone [laughter]. Of course, it’s very fortunate that we have this dash cam footage.

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Obviously, the empirical evidence that someone is looking for is coming from these objects as they are studied. But I’m wondering if there are also comparisons that can be made from actual meteors to the space junk that may have fallen back into orbit.

Clive Oppenheimer: I mean, space junk is…I would see this as quite a different kind of phenomenon. There are now archaeologists studying space junk, which I find very, very interesting in itself. But with meteorites we’re looking at things that are four and a half billion years old. So, you know, reaching back to the earliest times of the solar system indeed there are even presolar grains into stellar grains that date before the formation of our own services and that are found in some of these meteorites. 

We’re reaching way, way back in time and we’re also looking at objects that have had, and have huge cultural significance for us. One of the earliest recorded falls of a meteorite was in Japan 1200 years ago. The stone is now a relic in a Shinto temple in Nōgata, Japan. Every five years it’s processed through the streets and this fascinates me just as much as the revelation that they’re carbonaceous meteorites full of amino acids and sugars and other organic molecules. So it’s a very rich topic to dig into.

In regards to the organic molecules, when it came to Jon Larsen’s micro meteorites, I remember him saying that they’ve never found one that was exactly like the other. Or that the compounds found in each one never repeat; but in essence, somewhere that has to be something that broke up and split apart…there has to be another one out there to compare it to right?

Werner Herzog: Because I think some of them were always dust, and only at some time in the history of the universe– billions of years ago–they coagulated to solid larger bodies of metal. And I think about what Jon Larsen, the jazz musician turned scientist says, “Dust is the currency of the cosmos.” Some of them never break up; they were always only dust. And that’s the currency of the cosmos

Obviously, it’s going to be easier to study something that lands on a certain type of terrain, but I’m surprised we didn’t hear a lot about something that possibly may have been found under the ocean, or that created craters in the ocean itself. Are those existent?

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Clive Oppenheimer: Yes, almost certainly. If you think about just the probability of where a stone is going to land, most of them are falling in the oceans. And so for sure there will be the down there, but you’ve also got to think of the size of a stone that is going to leave a crater on the ocean floor if it’s traveling through two miles of ocean.

Werner Herzog: You can say that you wouldn’t see anything, but of course in the Yucatan Peninsula you have a crater that’s 200 kilometers in diameter. Part of it is in the ocean, which I think didn’t exist like that before, 65 million years ago. 

Clive Oppenheimer: Interestingly, the micrometeorites –  this cosmic dust that Jon Larsen looks for on roofs of sports arenas and elsewhere – this was first discovered in the late 19th century during what’s regarded as the first oceanographic research cruise. They dredged up sediments from the deep Pacific, and they found these little spherical particles which they realize were extraterrestrial. They’re there because they’re in areas of very, very low sedimentation from the continents that are a long way from where erosion is washing land sediments to the seabed. So they concentrated there. 

They’re found as well in the icing remote parts of Antarctica. The remarkable thing that Jon Larsen did was he said, “Well, this dust must be everywhere. It must also be in car parks in New York City and on the roofs of shopping malls. I’m going to have to sift through an awful lot of bird excrement, but I’ll find it.” He spent five years doing that till he found his first particle but now he’s got thousands of them and found out how to discriminate between them. It’s extraordinary, it’s a whole new branch of science.

Did you look into anything interesting that didn’t make it into the film?

Werner Herzog: We have something that made it halfway into the film, and that’s a black stone in Mecca, the holiest site of the Muslim world. Neither Clive nor I are Muslims – we’re not allowed to set foot into the city of Mecca. Of course we respect this, and we tried to organize with this young, very gifted Saudi filmmaker who had filmed before in Mecca. We gave him very precise instructions, there’s a wonderful shot in the film, but we have it only for three seconds. We needed it for 30 seconds but he never got the full permits to do it and we were already into editing. So, if we had to rely on cell phone footage, which was shot by one of the pilgrims.

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Clive Oppenheimer: There’s nothing in the way of something being left out of the film but there are other topics (I would have liked to cover). There’s the whole year of asteroid mining; of going out there and coming back with rare earth elements and precious metals. And there are outfits that are seriously looking into the logistics of that. There’s a Japanese company that does – let’s say you know you really want a fancy wedding, well why not have a meteor shower for the reception? So they are dropping little bits of dust from satellites to make your very own meteor shower.

Werner Herzog: Sand falling to create a meteor shower for the bride [laughter].

Clive Oppenheimer: I’d have loved it if we could have done that.

Werner Herzog: The Japanese have the most wonderful, spectacular idea when it comes to that. 

Clive Oppenheimer: Great for the premiere of the movie.

What is your dynamic like when you enter into these projects? Do you approach it as Clive having a certain expertise and that Werner is kind of acting in our place as the novice – to ask the questions the audience may have?

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Clive Oppenheimer: We work very closely and we’re in frequent contact throughout the pre-production, as we’re thinking about locations and crew, and during the editing. But we bring different skills to it and I think for me it’s neither a disadvantage or an advantage that I don’t have a training in fine arts or in filmmaking. So I can say, or suggest possibly outrageous ideas, and generally with Werner they don’t meet with negative reactions. Werner also has a very different approach.

Werner Herzog: The beauty of life is that I never had any training in fine arts and filmmaking either. I never went to film school.

That may be true, but so many people revere your films. And even though you are still making narrative films, a lot of people now know you for these documentaries. 

Werner Herzog: It’s an abomination because much of my documentary filmmaking is feature films in disguise. And what will remain of what I have done will be two things. The book that I have written–the prose texts is one thing. Like, Conquest of the Useless or, Of Walking in Ice. Then there are the feature films; Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans…anyway.

There are still throngs of younger audiences now who just know your voice from various cartoons you’ve lent it to (American Dad, Rick and Morty), and of course because of things like The Mandalorian. It’s almost like you’re creating another version of yourself. 

Werner Herzog: No, it’s not another version of myself, It’s just me doing professional work. I’m a professional man and I do what I’m good at. I would never be in a film as an actor in a romantic comedy. See, I gotta play the badass.

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Clive Oppenheimer: I’ve lost sleep, you know, ever since I saw him in Jack Reacher. That was terrifying.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday. Nov. 13.