IT BEGAN as another documentary about the myth of the Loch Ness monster but has turned into one of the most talked-about movies of the year, with some describing it as Scotland’s Blair Witch Project.
When world-famous director Werner Herzog revealed he was tackling the mystery of Nessie, there was huge interest but questions about how even he could deliver any surprises.
In the event, Herzog has astounded critics by creating an apparently straightforward documentary that transforms into something closer to a psychological horror movie every bit as complex and compelling as the myth itself.
Such was Herzog’s desire to stretch the boundaries of fact and fiction that many of the people involved in the project, all of whom ‘played’ themselves, believed right up to the end they were filming a documentary.
Incident at Loch Ness, which ends in a sinking and double drowning, has already won an award in the United States and the internet is abuzz with discussion and conspiracy theories about what happened during the making of the film.
It begins in mundane, documentary style with Herzog’s preparations for his trip, during which he makes it clear he thinks the monster is a "fantasy".
He interviews real-life naturalist Adrian Shine, who tells him: "The more time you spend here the less monsters you will see, because the more things you will understand."
Then there are on-screen indications of tension between Herzog and the producer, Zak Penn, who issues everyone with "official expedition jumpsuits" and insists on renaming their boat Discovery IV, even though there was no I, II, or III.
Penn brings in Michael Karnow, an eccentric, bearded cryptozoologist, who insists the monster does exist and they will find it.
The expedition descends into bitter in-fighting and ends with a collision in the mist, the loss of the boat and the ‘drowning’ of two crew.
The suggestion is that Herzog’s boat has collided with the monster, whose presence is merely hinted at by a dark shape breaking the water.
Incident at Loch Ness won the New American Cinema Award at the Seattle International Film Festival, while visitors to the Internet Movie Database, the net’s main public-access film site,
have been swapping rumours and comments on the message board under headings such as "This looks awesome", "Is this real?", and "Great movie, but don’t read any more about it."
Even before anyone had seen the film, the ‘drownings’ were reported on a website, "The Truth About Loch Ness", supposedly set up by one Greg Atkins, a member of the crew who was sacked when it was discovered he could not swim.
Herzog is regarded as one of the world’s greatest film-makers, and one of its most eccentric. He employed 500 Indians to haul a steamship up a South American mountain for Fitzcarraldo, his 1982 epic about a man who wants to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle.
Herzog last night told Scotland on Sunday that the original documentary idea for Loch Ness had "evolved" into something more even before he arrived in Scotland last summer.
He said: "It was an intelligent mixture of both planning and a spontaneous evolving of the film. Zak had a very intuitive approach, where things weren’t planned, to let the characters play out.
"How do you establish truth? Facts are not enough. That would be the accountant’s truth, but there’s something deeper in cinema, and deeper in poetry, than just the factual truth, and from beginning to end I think the film is searching and digging around into something.
"It’s a feature film, which uses certain techniques of documentary and there are true elements of documentary in it. But I would be the last one to be able to define what it is. We shouldn’t worry about it. There’s one thing prevailing: it’s a very funny film."
Last night, the unwitting ‘stars’ of the movie revealed just how successfully Herzog had masked his real intentions.
Oban-based David Davidson has worked as marine co-ordinator on several films, including Ewan McGregor’s Young Adam, and was hired in that capacity for Herzog’s film. He was told it was a documentary and he would appear on camera, though he thought he would just be in the background.
He was surprised when he was told his ‘character’ was coming across so well his role was being expanded. He was encouraged to improvise around a script. "Then it was being described as a movie, it wasn’t just a documentary."
Adrian Shine insisted there was no indication Herzog was making anything other than a conventional documentary except he did appear to be using a mist-machine one day.
"Mr Herzog never confided in me as to what sort of film he was making, but given his reputation I don’t think I would be surprised by anything," he said.
Production designer Jacqueline Smith added: "Some people were getting a bit frustrated on the crew, because they didn’t really know what was happening. Any local people involved were even less aware of what was going on."
Incident At Loch Ness screens at Edinburgh Film Festival on August 26 and 28 and opens in the US next month.
NESSIE documentaries date back to the 1930s and a film that included fake footage shot on Loch Lomond. But the monster has by no means been restricted to documentaries and was the subject of the 1934 film The Secret of the Loch, in which an eccentric professor advances the theory that Nessie is a dinosaur.
What a Whopper (1961) boasted a stellar cast, including Adam Faith, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey, and a storyline in which a writer decides to stimulate interest in his new book by making and photographing a fake monster.
The best-known Nessie film is probably Loch Ness (1995), with Ted Danson as a sceptical American zoologist. Nessie also starred in a low-budget movie called The Loch Ness Horror (1981), filmed in California.