By Derek Hockenbrough
In only twelve years, Lucy Walker has emerged as one of the most respected documentary filmmakers in history. Since 2002, she has created a library of Oscar-nominated films exploring cultures and people all over the world, while enduring constant emotional roller coasters. Lucy sat down with Blindfold to talk about her journey as a filmmaker, her process, and the inside scoop on her award-winning documentaries.
BFM:Something that shines through in your documentaries is the comfortableness of your subjects on screen. Can you talk about that?
Two things there: I think one thing is that I really relate to how hard it is to be exposed, be honest, and to give your personal feelings. I think the best documentaries are about really difficult stuff. I want to make sure that we remove the obstacles and respect people to give them the opportunity to share in a way they normally can’t.
The other thing is that it’s a real gift to be open like that and I’ve picked people that have that gift. Those people that you think when you first meet them, ‘My God. They’ve been through a lot and they’re going to share it with us.’ That’s the moment when I think; this is the person I’m going to film. When I meet somebody, I constantly have my film radar going.
I can remember the moments when I met people like that. For instance, I met Faron [from “The Devil’s Playground”] and I knew he was being ripped in two. He was honest about it… The people that you want are the ones that aren’t concerned with their appearances and they know, I think, that there is a real gift in sharing: to know that your struggles can really help other people. There is an awareness to know that you can give comfort by sharing your suffering.
BFM: You eventually won your way to NYU?
That’s right. I cashed in my academic chips for a scholarship to film school.
BFM: What was the change of setting from London to New York, specifically for your perspective on the world?
It was incredible. I went to Oxford in England, where I studied literature, which offered me a chance to learn about everything. I was the first person from my family to go to college. I realized that academia was really challenging and that my mind could play that game, but I was frustrated by the loneliness of it. It wasn’t really engaging with the world in the most vibrant way.
I really enjoyed the collaboration I had when making these plays, but I never found it easy to direct. In fact, I was probably much better at everything else… It didn’t look like a promising career path but it was a kind-of dream. I had read about NYU Film School where filmmakers that I had watched when growing up attended, the makers of classic Independent Films..I was the only person in my class who had never made a film. On the first day, they have an alphabetical list of all the people in my class and next to them were the names of three films they had made. My name was at the bottom and there was this gap next to it. We watched the other films and the other students thought I had left mine off of the list. I was also the youngest person in my class. I had no money and no idea that New York became hot then cold… I didn’t pack bed sheets or an alarm clock… I had no idea what I was thinking really. I just brought my favorite books and poetry. I look back and think, ‘Wow. I don’t think parents would let their kids do that these days.’ Just going to New York with a suitcase.
But within minutes, I had met all these fantastic filmmakers from around the world, standing on a street corner in New York City and watching all these movies. I had so much to learn, I didn’t know anything about film and nobody wanted to work with me. But having been the top of my class at Oxford and this ability from a very young age to really latch on and understand really anything I turned my mind to, I picked up things very quick.
We showed our first films in front of a large audience and it was very humiliating… I was astounded by everyone else’s work. But what was great about that experience was that it was great for the ego. I was so out of my comfort zone on every level. In academia, I learned that you could be very creative with your critical thinking and the teachers loved that; they wanted original thinking…
I really enjoyed the challenge, but I was absolutely hopeless at it. The big screen is an incredibly humiliating place to play back your bad film exercises. I had a great professor tell me that I’d be great because I had so much to learn and I should make as many mistakes as possible. I still have the most amazing professors’ voices in my head today.
How did you go from NYU Film to “Blues Clues”?
Afterwards, I was very desperate to find something so I could move on. I needed to do something in the field I had studied and, at the time, there weren’t really any jobs for film directors. It’s very terrifying trying to figure out how to get in to this industry. It was kind of lucky that I was so desperate and applying for everything…
There was an advertisement for a directing job on Nickelodeon’s “Blues Clues.” At the time, my friends were very snobbish about it. I was too, I must confess. It was very difficult to get the job… But it was amazing because I was learning so much, like how to integrate animation. There was a very cognitive testing of different age ranges of kids for what was on the screen, which stuck with me and has really gotten me focused on exactly what you have people watching. You become very aware of how you direct people’s attention, which is important with documentaries because they are all information and very messy because you are shooting real life and not to a prescription…. When I left years later, all my friends wanted to apply for the job and wanted me to recommend them. This was another case of me just following whatever I found interesting which was very lucky. If I had been making my first feature, which is what I really wanted to do but couldn’t, I would have missed these other opportunities.
Devil’s Playground was Lucy’s first attempt at a documentary. While deeply imbedded in the Amish community, she followed the stories of several Amish teenagers as they experience the modern world for the first time and make the decision to return to the Amish life or leave the only community they have ever known forever. The ␣lm debuted at Sundance and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary.
How did you get into the making of “Devil’s Playground”?
When I first moved to New York, I was very fascinated with American regional and sub- culture, such as Native American culture. I still am. I had seen a student’s Amish quilt exhibition in New York and I was very struck. I had a boyfriend in Film School whose stepmother had grown up Mennonite and had this incredible story.
The idea of “what was it like?”. Which is a theme, I think, in many of my films. This fascination of what it would be like to be that person going through this thing, in those shoes, walking through that patch of life. What is it like being an Amish teenager growing up with all these rules until you’re sixteen when they suddenly get to experience “our world”. How traumatic it must be to over-night know teenage- type experiences with no parental supervision or support. And then they are expected to make the decision… to know exactly what they want in life: Do you want to be exactly like your parents or go out into this world that you are not equipped for? It’s very stark and I was very fascinated by that… It was super low-budget. We had to take return the camera every thirty days and purchase a new one on a credit card.
Lucy’s second documentary, “Blindsight”, follows legendary blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer as he leads six blind Tibetan teenagers up the Lhakpa-Ri peak of Mt. Everest. The film won Berlin International Film Fest Audience Award.
BFM: There is this idea of being a “fly on the wall” in documentary filming Did you find it easier or more difficult to film subjects that suffered from blindness?
Right. People think that because they don’t see the camera they aren’t aware of it, but I don’t think that’s true really. In fact, they are very aware. There was a moment with one of the American guides who was holding one of the kids in their arms and the kid said, “Why do you always make your arms big when you’re talking to Lucy?”. He was flexing his biceps! They are very aware and they notice a lot.
Those kids were amazing, just profoundly impressive people…. There was a line that Tashi, the kid who had the terrible story about being beaten by his parents and had the cigarette burns, said to me. He said, “Do you know what the best thing about being blind is?” I said, “No, Tashi. You’re going to have to tell me.” He said, “The best thing about being blind is that it forces you to look on the bright side”.
BFM: Many of your films deal with subjects who speak other languages and cultures that are very different in how their emotions are represented. What is your process when preparing to go into a culture that you are not familiar with? What is it like to film something that you may not be completely aware of what you are seeing or hearing?
The first thing, especially with “Blindsight,” is that I read everything I can and study the culture as much as I can. I was very immersed in the Tibetan language and Buddhism. One of the ways that I was able to relate with the kids was that I would practice my Tibetan while they would practice their English. They would feel much more comfortable and it was really fun. I also really go for it in terms of trying to immerse. I feel that what you see in the film is like an iceberg; it’s just a small amount of the giant amount of research. I don’t just show up and hope that I don’t get it wrong. What you see in the film, I know you can take it to the bank…
Also, it’s amazing when you can tell so much of what’s happening because it’s non-verbal. It’s funny when you just have no language and you can just tell someone will be a great subject. It’s a kind of sixth sense you get. It’s not even verbal, I just know that person is going to tell it and then they do. Sometimes they go and you just have no idea what they’re talking about but you know that it is magic.
COUNTDOWN TO ZERO
Lucy’s second film, “Countdown to Zero,” explores the deeply complicated world of Nuclear Weapons and the rising risk as they become more widespread.
BFM: There’s a good balance between the information giving and the more edgy or dramatic moments. Did you find yourself consciously balancing the amount of information with the more provocative ideas such as, the ease of building a nuke or the visual of the aftermath of a bomb hitting a modern metropolitan area?
One thing I did think about was that it can be very numbing to think of this kind of scale, so I had to ask myself how to convey this scale perfectly. I thought the easiest way to do it was to measure the impact on a city that people were familiar with. So I used Manhattan as a yardstick. Something I noticed in other nuclear films that I wanted to avoid was cutting to footage of the bomb exploding here and there. Because people do become so desensitized, I thought it would be better not to have a nuke up front but to talk about it a lot and re-sensitize people to it before we had an explosion. It’s so hard of a subject, because everyone knows that it’s a terrible thing but no one really wants to talk about it.
In terms of trying to find a way regarding story-structure, my strategy was to withhold it to the act-two climax. Basically, apply some screenplay strategy, which is something I always try to do with my documentaries – to build documentaries with that story-structuring shape and character arcs. I think that those story shapes work wonderfully if well executed, so why should a documentary be any different…
“Waste Land” follows artist Vic Muniz’ emotional journey as he transforms the garbage of the world’s largest landfill in Rio de Janero into priceless works of art with the aid of the residents and workers of the garbage heap, also known as “pickers.” The film was both an audience and critical smash hit, garnering Lucy her first Academy Award nomination and winning countless awards from film festivals worldwide.
BFM: Within all of your films, but this one in particular, each moment felt uncannily caught by the camera. Do you ever enter enter into filming a scene with the knowledge that it will make it into the final cut?
I have a pretty good sense of things now of when I am filming a scene, that it will make it in the cut… Which is a great feeling, sometimes you had the days when you are filming, that you just put a giant checkmark in your head. You just can’t wait to get in the editing room, because you know it’s going to be an important scene. It’s what you film for those ‘light bulb’ moments.
BFM: Do you ever find yourself consciously setting up those “moments” for filming?
It’s more about timing and figuring out when the moments are going to come together. I also keep in touch with the people in the film to find out when those moments are going to go down. There is a real art of figuring out when to show up and be there ahead of time; knowing when the chemical reaction of the people is going to occur.
THE CRASH REEL
Lucy’s latest feature, “The Crash Reel”, tells the story of world-renown snowboarder Kevin Pierce through his battles with childhood friend Shaun White in ever-dangerous tricks, the near-fatal crash at the Vancouver Olympics, and eventually when he must make the decision to give up his greatest passion or continue to snowboard, while risking his life due to a volatile brain injury. The film won the Audience Award at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary in the 2014 Director’s Guild of America Awards.
“Crash Reel” reminded me of “Devil’s Playground” in that you were so immersed in the inter-personal relationships of the subjects, in this case Kevin and his family. Did this film feel like one of the most personal?
I think that you’re right, that it’s a lot about the interactions between people and that’s where it’s important that everyone in the documentary is ok with letting you film their dynamics. The family is really extraordinary in that all of them let us do that; we got the whole dynamic…. Family arguments in documentaries are some of my favorite things, because they ‘re absolutely real life.
BFM: “Crash Reel” often explores a difficult conundrum with extreme sportsmen. On one hand, it’s this adrenaline that propels them, while on the other there is a very real danger. You manage to stay very unbiased as the third point of view, but did you ever feel that you were putting out a message or “choosing” a side?
Some great filmmaker once said that films aren’t telegrams, they don’t have messages. I try to use that in my films; that the film is my answer to the question that the subject poses to me. It’s the most reduced form of an answer I can give. I think life is complicated with nuances and I don’t pretend to have the right answers or to judge. Some things are clearer to me than others, but regarding the sports… life is complicated and the films should be too.
BFM: The way that you are able to imbed yourself within relationships feels very voyeuristic, like you’re looking through the keyhole.
I hope so. I think you get the best look at life that way… to feel like you’re understanding it and not just being told a story. You want to see the reality unfold and not just see the “arc” of the reality that somebody is performing. I think for me, the most important thing is to kind of see how life works through these films. That’s the best thing about documentaries, is that your really see life doing its thing. In some ways it’s clearer because you can sometimes see life sped up. In “Crash Reel,” you get to see Kevin growing up and really see the different stages.
Whereas, in an action film they go and get a haircut, or changing their bodies to fit the part with losing weight and workout regimens. You don’t think, ‘Oh, that’s how life works.’ You don’t see how it unfolds for people, which is kind of the most important story of all, in a way.
PROCESSES AND PATHS
BFM: Within your films, I see two themes that are reoccurring: Overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles, and finding hope when things are overwhelmingly against you. Are those themes you are consciously drawn to exploring in your work?
I love them together a little bit. I guess those are things I try to live by. The last few years of my life, I’ve been particularly drawn to them. I think in “Blindsight,” I was really inspired by these kids in how they had overcome their adversities, even the failure to climb. I mean they officially failed to climb that mountain. I think it’s so interesting to think about the victories that are in there. I love how people adapt to difficult situations, and I think that “Blindsight” taught me that in a way.
Personally, I’ve had a lot of adversity in my own life in the last few years. So, I think it’s something that I am drawn to in other people’s stories in a way that I might not have been before this period in my life. My parents died and a lot of things happened that were really hard. I feel like I was more inspired by stories of people coming through adversity because I was having a hard time, and these people were finding courageous and gracious ways to come through. Those are my favorite stories; when people are having a hard time but they do the right thing, or something incredible, or something that they are really good at. That’s how I want to live my life.
There is also this theme of opposites; in “Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” it’s nature’s creation and destruction, in “Wasteland” it’s art and garbage, in “Devil’s Playground” it’s Amish versus non-Amish and the black and white choice they have to make… I think my fascination with that just comes from the drama of it. It works really well in a documentary when you have something that has a lot of contrast in it. You need that because without it there’s nothing that’s really happening.
BFM: In editing, do you have a specific grading process when deciding what makes it into the film and what doesn’t?
When I’m viewing and logging, I do grade moments: one through five. If it’s a five, it will definitely make the cut. If it’s a one, it will almost certainly not. There’s always different interest levels. I’m more about index cards in the editing room. I’m fanatical about using them to map out the scenes. It’s when you start to put it together that you will realize what’s really important and what works with the other things. It’s all a journey. It’s about the ideas of how things work together, never really like haggling; this is good and this isn’t. But, instead, let’s try this and let’s try this, just building and building and building.
BFM: As we’ve discussed there are a number of running themes that keep popping up in your films as well as certain elements, such as a narrative structure approach. Do you have an over-all mission with your work and, if so, how would you describe it?
I guess the mission is to make the best possible films and to spread compassion as I do. To help people broaden their experiences to understand viscerally [and] intensely. With all the emotional power of this most-vivid medium, whether home watching on TV or in a dark theater watching a big screen. What it is to walk in the shoes of another person who is in one of those moments in life where the big forces – the big mechanisms of life – are exposed and visible.