An Unexpected Journey With Werner Herzog

'Lo and Behold' celebrates the digital connection that defines us

In the rainforest. Wearing a bandana and a loincloth, and wielding a chainsaw instead of a machete, he knew exactly what to do." Werner paused and took a sip of wine. "The Peruvian native tied the bandana around his thigh, pulled the knot tight, pulled the throttle on the chainsaw and cut off his leg above the knee." Looking with earnest concern, I manage to utter, "Really?" Werner smiles, "He lived."

If you haven't seen the film Fitzcarraldo, you should. It's not just about the vain and misguided attempt of a wayward Irishman to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle; it's the story of Werner Herzog, world famous director. When I made this observation to Werner, he merely smiled, maintaining his enigmatic persona.

Dining in Dallas with my new friend and co-creator was turning out to be everything I could have hoped for. We discussed Werner's history of filmmaking and I briefed him on the myriad of advances made possible by the invention of the Internet. A magnificent and intriguing beginning to a journey I still didn't fully understand.

Fast-forward to when Dave Arnold, ECD of Pereira & O’Dell New York and trusted creative friend, embarked on a journey with me to create something for Netscout that transcended traditional B-to-B marketing. We needed something that would travel beyond our media spend and connect with an ever more advertising-averse audience.

After a few proposed concepts Dave and his team came back with a long shot of an idea, "What do you think about doing commercial shorts with Werner Herzog?" I started to hear Werner’s rich Teutonic voice narrate the importance of the connected world in my head. "Why not? There’s certainly no harm in trying," I said, harboring some doubt. After all, we were talking about the most celebrated film documentarian around. I wasn’t too far off the mark when we heard Werner bluntly respond to the invite by saying, "No! I do not do commercials."

While this is true, he had developed the "It Can Wait" no-texting while driving campaign for AT&T as a PSA. I am convinced that anyone who catches these shorts on YouTube will never look at a phone again when piloting an automobile. I reminded Werner of this during our second attempt to recruit him, when he told me that the internet just was not interesting enough. It simply didn't grab him.

While thinking of plan B, something tragic (and wonderful) happened. Century Link, a large service provider in the western U.S., suffered a cut fiber optic cable, which plunged substantial parts of Arizona into digital darkness. I scanned an Associated Press story on the incident and started to draft my last and final plea to Werner. I included the article's description of tearful ASU students who couldn't turn in homework and the on-the-edge Starbucks addicts suffering an unscheduled caffeine crash—and hit send.

In short order, I had Werner on the line. "What's the big deal if we lose the internet? We'll go back to the 1980s, I was getting by fine in the '80s," Werner said emphatically. "Well," I replied, "it's not that easy. We would not go back to the 1980s, we would go back to the 1880s."

Now, to many of you this may seem obvious, but until you really stop to think about what happens when the connected world gets interrupted, you really haven't thought it all the way through. This is where Werner comes in. He was really the perfect candidate for this mission simply because he is a tourist in the world of technology, and yet a consummate and tireless explorer. And while he doesn't even use the Internet, he understands how pervasive and critical it is to the everyday function of our global society. He knows what is at stake. He knows there's a story there.

Ultimately Werner conceded, and we embarked on the tedious task of begging, cajoling and corralling talent. We did not really get any flat-out rejections. After all, this was Werner calling. Rather, we had calendar conflicts from Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Sergey and Larry at Google. We did however get a yes from Elon Musk, Leonard Kleinrock, Bob Kahn, Kevin Mitnick and many other notable digital pioneers. We started production in May and things really heated up in June when, after shooting in Las Vegas at Def Con (the hacker and cybersecurity conclave), Werner sent me this note:

Dear Jim, Yesterday, we finished shooting in Las Vegas, and it is not only my own impression, but of everyone who has witnessed the whole shoot instantly realized that this is much bigger than we all expected. The project has taken on its own life, and size, and substance, and everything points into the direction of a feature-length documentary film. This is a film I would ultimately like to submit to the Academy Awards …

It has only happened once in my life that a film has taken its own course, overwhelming its original intentions, Grizzly Man, and I am very happy I let it develop its own life. Best, Werner.

The rest is history. Anil Singhal, CEO of NetScout, had the courage and the vision to back me and Werner on the 90-minute feature documentary called Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. We finished editing in November, just in time to submit to Sundance. We subsequently won premier status at the festival and were able to license the film that same weekend to our new friends at Magnolia Entertainment.

So, did it work? When I started at NetScout, an average annual impression count would hit as many as 2.5 billion. During the first week at Sundance, we drew 9.5 billion, and in August, when the film hit the theaters, we reached 25 billion. Werner's story was indeed worth telling.

Developing branded content not riddled with product placements, slogans or campaigns is not an easy thing to pull off. You need to believe your audience is smart enough to value thought-provoking content and give you the credit for developing it.

The people we sell to are truly the guardians of the connected world (our initial concept name), and we are certainly happy to celebrate their contributions and work side by side with them to protect and propel our digital world forward.

And thankfully, Werner still hasn't made a commercial.

Jim McNiel (@JimMcNielis the global CMO for NetScout Systems and, until recently, a frustrated filmmaker. Lo and Behold won the Arc Award for Best Use of Long-form Nonfiction (film).

This story first appeared in the January 16, 2017 issue of Adweek magazine.
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