If you had to make a list of filmmakers who are unlikely to partner with a brand on a major new campaign, Werner Herzog’s name would probably be near the top. (Herzog in the 1980 documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe: "We have to declare holy war against what we see every single day on television. I think there should be a real war against commercials.") Selling products is not what the man is about. But when the goal of the campaign is to get someone to use a product less—and the consequences of using that product at the wrong time can be life-and-death—then you’ve got the legendary German director’s attention.
That’s how Herzog came to direct to the documentary From One Second to the Next, which is part of the "It Can Wait" anti-texting-and-driving campaign from AT&T and agency BBDO New York. "I was approached and immediately knew that this was something I should do, and I knew I was competent to do it," Herzog tells Co.Create.
The 35-minute film, which premiered on Thursday and is available to watch for free on YouTube—and which will be distributed to more than 40,000 high schools around the United States—is a brutal piece of documentary storytelling in which both the perpetrators and the victims of texting and driving open up about the ways that the collisions have changed their lives. The film also lives on the site ItCanWait.com, where visitors can take a pledge not to text and drive, share their own stories and see stats on the problem (including this troubling one: 75% of teens say texting and driving is common among their friends).
Herzog has documented people at the extremes of life before. His most recent feature film, Into the Abyss, tells the story of death row inmates in Texas. And while he says that his approach to getting people to open up with him on camera was similar in both films, he’s careful to stop comparisons there—Herzog’s work has often been fascinated with the function of filmmakers as artists, but here, he’s an activist.
"There was always a guiding principle. What we are doing has to do with a campaign, and the campaign is very, very simple: Don’t text and drive," he says when asked if the storytelling potential of the film’s subjects were what attracted him to the project. "The consequences are catastrophic, and the statistics are appalling. This campaign certainly comes at the right time. It had to be done. Everything else is of secondary importance."
That focus makes for an interesting partnership with AT&T and the "It Can Wait" campaign, which is focused on finding both technological and social solutions to the problem of texting and driving. According to Michelle Kuckelman, AT&T executive director of integrated brand marketing, the team was thrilled with Herzog’s approach to addressing a societal problem. "One of the things that he’s very interested in is all of these interactions through a device that doesn’t need to be connected," Kuckelman explains. "I think that’s why he took the project: You’re taking something that is literally transforming the way we communicate. You’re always connected, every second. You don’t really know how to stop. While we’re trying to solve that from a technology perspective, he’s wanted to hit it head-on from a social perspective."
And while signing on to work on a campaign paid for by AT&T and other wireless providers might be surprising, coming from Herzog, the way he talks about the issue itself is not.
"Much of the traffic now in messages is mostly banalities. All the catastrophic accidents when these young people were texting, every single message that was sent while they were driving is utterly trivial, in every single case," he says in the same thick German accent that’s narrated so many of his films. "I do believe that very much of what’s going on with texting [in general] is of the same triviality."
For Herzog, the message against texting and driving is one of the basic, fundamental messages that needs to be communicated to everyone as part of their passage to adulthood. Teenagers are inundated with messages about drugs, drinking, sex, and more—but Herzog was not concerned with making this one stand out, believing in the power of its simplicity. "I don’t care about so-and-so many messages. There are very few, very simple ones: Don’t open fire at anyone with a firearm. Don’t even aim one at anyone, not even with a toy gun. Another message that’s very simple—don’t drink and drive, period. And now another new one: Don’t text and drive. The consequences are visible. We are showing you some of them."
It’s clear from talking to Kuckelman at AT&T how much faith the "It Can Wait" campaign had in Herzog to show those consequences effectively as well. The banality of the texts themselves, which Herzog speaks of when describing the social value of text messaging, is also the thing that the campaign’s focus groups found resonated with the young people they’re trying to reach. "The key insight was that juxtaposing a really insignificant text with a very significant consequence is what got them," she says. Since Herzog and the campaign were both on the same page regarding the objectives and the techniques that could help accomplish them, he was empowered to take control of the final product.
"Only my regular editor, Joe Bini, and I would do the film, and we pretty much had [complete] freedom," Herzog says. "Only a few things were under discussion, and we made a few modifications—small ones—and that was that. I think everybody that was involved immediately saw it and appreciated that this was going to be very, very strong. You could tell right away, even during shooting."
Herzog realized just how strong it would be while he was shooting after stepping outside during a stretch of filming indoors and visiting two vans with a video link to the footage, one for AT&T and one for the ad agency. "Whenever I took a pause, I would stumble outside and I would see these two cars, and every single person in both vans was crying. [At the premiere] the same thing happened—I think half the audience was crying," he says. "Including me."
Those familiar with Herzog’s work might have a hard time imagining him crying, given the dark aspects of humanity he’s chosen to document in his 45 years of filmmaking. But the power of the film, and its subjects, are such that it’s difficult to imagine who wouldn’t be moved. During filming, Herzog nearly found himself retreating to a bad habit of his own to deal with the stress. "Of course it was not easy, because you are directly confronted by a family that was hit by a catastrophe where nothing is as it used to be, so it was not easy to do," he says. "Sometimes, I would even rush out for a cigarette –- and I have given up smoking more than 10, 15 years ago. I would rush out just to hang onto a cigarette."
The impact of From One Second to the Next will ultimately be hard to measure. For his part, Herzog is comfortable with not ever knowing. "We have no idea what kind impact it will have," he says. "But if it prevents one single accident from happening, I have done my job well. Everything is good then."