Los Angeles-based peripatetic filmmaker Lucy Walker plants seeds of ideas to see if they grow into movies she might want to make. She’s picky about what material is strong enough to support the time and energy it takes to make a film. If a story does not warrant a feature, she may turn it into a short instead.
Her sky-high standards have yielded back-to-back Oscar nominations, for feature “Waste Land” (2010) and short “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” (2011). In a world packed with excellent documentaries, Walker’s tend to rise to the top.
Her latest, the moving and shocking verite doc “The Crash Reel,” which will play DOC NYC and follows snowboarder Kevin Pearce after he suffers a debilitating brain injury while training for the Olympics, screened well at Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, LAFF and at the Academy. It opened July 5th for a one-week Oscar qualifying run at Laemmle’s Monica Theatre; it debuted on HBO this summer and reopens in theaters this month.
After pursuing drawing and photography, Walker studied literature and directed theater as an undergraduate at Oxford. She went on to NYU Film School with a Fulbright scholarship. In New York she worked as a DJ and musician, and directed music videos. Her documentaries took her into the heart of Amish country (2002’s “The Devil’s Playground”), up the heights of Mount Everest (2006’s “Blindsight”), and into the debate over nuclear weapons (Cannes 2010 official selection “Countdown to Zero”).
Anne Thompson: Why did you go to grad school at NYU?
Lucy Walker: I needed to forget everything I just studied [at Oxford]. I had never made a film before. I got there and realized everyone else had made several films. It was quite a mystery that I got in and I had a lot to learn. Sneaking down to the sixth floor watching films, there was a British professor teaching British cinema: Bill Everson. The last film he screened was [Michael Powell’s] “I Know Where I’m Going.” It’s so fun and so dramatic. I love this idea that I know where I’m going. I’ve always been a fiction filmmaker and I’ve been heading in the direction of fiction filmmaking, doing documentaries along the way.
AT: Isn’t documentary the most interesting area right now in filmmaking? Aren’t you able to be more entrepreneurial?
LW: I love my work, apart from when it’s driving me crazy. But I get to be interested in stuff and think like a filmmaker as I’m buzzing about the world and then see an opportunity to make a film, and then make it happen.
AT: How did ‘The Crash Reel’ come about?
LW: I met Kevin Pearce. I had agreed to mentor an event and he was there. I was instantly drawn to him because he has this superstar charisma. He reminds me of River Phoenix. He is this beautiful, humble, hardworking, talented kid and your heart goes out to him and I wanted to help him. Initially I didn’t think it was a film for me; I thought I could introduce him to a different filmmaker. But I thought to myself, “it’s an incredible story: Olympic hopeful turns to brain injury survivor after a spell in a coma having to learn to walk or talk again.”
It was a two-act story that wasn’t finished that I didn’t have footage for. But as I observed him at this retreat, I realized the story wasn’t over at all, that he was determined to go back to the sport. Yet I heard if he hit his head again he would die and so it was this great setup. He wants to go back to a sport that involves a lot of hitting. It’s like an Ovid “Metamorphosis” story. The sword that never misses and the shield that never gives out. We can all relate. We all have to dig deep and reinvent ourselves when our dreams don’t work out.
This kid is doing it overnight at 25 with a brain injury. You wonder if his judgment is impaired. You get to this twilight zone of brain injury… how much is his brain giving him the information about how injured he is? It’s not like a broken leg. This is your brain protecting itself, possibly, but not sharing with you what’s actually going on. As he says now, he was far gone. He didn’t know how far gone he was. That’s very dramatic and troubling to observe.
AT: You weave together several strands: Kevin Pearce as a snowboard star, safety in extreme sports, and the closeknit family that helps him to recover. Did you pull back from making it more of an agit prop documentary about the politics?
LW: It’s Kevin’s story, and Kevin is very passionate about the sport. And I was going to make a story about Kevin. I always wanted to observe and make verite films. I like character, plot, scene, drama. That’s my milieu and it was an important project. What I like to do is let the audience understand for themselves and get as much complexity and richness as they can. And also because it was my collaboration with Kevin and he wanted to raise awareness about what he’s been through and that’s a powerful journey, that raises questions about the safety of the sport.
But it would have been unfair of me to make a film that was a call to end action sports. I do think the conversation about safety should be keeping pace. There should be more responsibility. Insurance coverage should be mandatory. There are a lot of interventions you can get. And a robust conversation about the safety is inherent in the story. We have a separate campaign and Kevin has his foundation, but the film itself is verite first and foremost. I wanted to mine the story in all its food for thought and lay that out as a feast for the audience to enjoy.
AT: You’re a filmmaker who is thoughtful and skilled but aware of the need to entertain and keep things accessible.
LW: You don’t know where it’s going: it’s emotional, it’s intense, it’s well-wrought. That’s what I am proud of, the craft.
AT: Why did Pearce’s sponsors stay with him after he was injured?
LW: Kevin is really a superstar and he’s so beloved, with a brilliant agent to boot. It would have been cheesy – harsh – had he been dropped immediately on his accident. I know how much the sponsors love and regard him and they wouldn’t have wanted to do it, it would have been horrible PR for them. He needed support more than ever. His agent managed to persuade them that he’s now an advocate for the sport so the sponsors continue to support him. They all love him. But they haven’t rushed to help the film. None of them have stepped up in any way. So we’ll see as the film goes onto HBO and into theaters whether they choose to support it. We hope that they will step up and will play a leadership role. I think that would be really appropriate.
AT: When marketing a specific topic like this, don’t docs lend themselves to a niche approach to finding audiences?
LW: I had a tricky time financing this one. It’s not a snowboarding film. It’s enjoyable for audiences even if you’ve never thought about snowboarding in your whole life. It’s very scary. A lot of folks like us aren’t even aware of quite how acrobatic and extreme some of these sports are. If it’s in the Olympics, it’s extremely dangerous. It’s not like gymnastics with a soft mat. It is akin to Formula 1 racing and Kevin’s dad in the movie has a great point when he makes that comparison and says that the similar dilemma there regarding safety is that they had to limit the size of the engines because the drivers were killing themselves. The athletes just want to win. The story “Senna” is on top of the minds of the documentary community.
AT: Did “Senna” inspire you to cut together archival footage? You used 232 different sources, five alone to recreate Pearce’s crash?
LW: Yes, “Senna” was terrific. Also “Capturing the Friedmans” was another example of a film that used a trove of wonderful footage, and there are so many brilliant archival films that have inspired me. Even “Central Park Five” used this to great effect. I am so picky about what films I get myself into because it’s such an explosion of energy and commitment once you get in there, you destroy your life until you deliver these films. I never want to be in the position of making films that won’t be a great use of 90 minutes of someone’s life.
My main trick is to work with amazing people. It’s a long and twisty journey and you need people that really are amazing and have this rare gift of honesty and courage and really open up. That’s what’s great about “Crash Reel.” The family had the philosophy that if you have a disability, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, you should share it. That is an honor and a duty. They have that ability and that’s why the film works so stunningly, because the audience can really relate because it’s so raw and so intimate. That’s my main trick.
And then show up when stuff is really going down. They had a real problem that first Thanksgiving, they needed to do an intervention. You need to make sure you’re there. By the time people meet the sparks will fly. You show up when stuff’s gonna go down. People won’t mind about the camera because people are so consumed with what’s going down.
AT: How do you convince the family to come in close? Who filmed those dinner scenes?
LW: Nick Higgins. I recorded sound. People think it’s multicamera, but that was Nick moving around.
AT: The gift that you got on this film was David, the brother with Down syndrome. He was so articulate.
LW: He’s obviously a super intelligent young man notwithstanding his Down syndrome. It’s shocking to see someone who is self aware about his Down syndrome, who wants to talk about it in an emotional way. It’s a great testament not just to his intelligence but also to his family. It’s clear he couldn’t be more functional as they couldn’t be a more functional family.
That relationship between Kevin and David, one with a newly acquired brain injury and another with an intellectual disability from birth, is a very interesting dynamic. That final scene is one of my favorites. We actually finished the film, submitted to Sundance, got in, and we were racing to finish the film. The ending was great, but the rest of the film was monster-good, just so strong, and this wonderful executive producer Dan Cogan said the ending wasn’t quite as strong.
It was before Thanksgiving and I thought, ‘I have to go back.’ Nick Higgins had to be with his family. I was scrambling around trying to find a DP in Vermont for Thanksgiving dinner and get on a plane to Vermont, losing my mind. I got there and I was so grateful I had gotten there because the scene that transpired – if you had given “The Crash Reel” minus that finale scene to any screenwriter in Hollywood to tie it all together, no one could have come up with this. Life is the best writer if you are observant enough. The way that the two brothers challenge one another to accept their disability and the palpable grace and joy and relief you feel when they embrace their situation rather than fight it, is such a shocking drama. And then of course Dave in general has this uncanny ability to say what everyone is thinking. It’s not only this great emotional gift for the family that you see, but the best dramatic device. One should always write a Down syndrome brother who comes in and says what no one else will say because it works so well in the scene.
AT: I see on Facebook that you travel a lot for your work. Why are you based in Los Angeles?
LW: I’ve been to Korea, Myanmar, San Francisco, London, DC, Provincetown in the last three weeks. It has been the most fun, but I am happy to be home. I’m living in Venice Beach about four years. I like New York and London too; I didn’t mean to leave London, it just worked out. I moved here for “Countdown” at the request of the producers. I like it here because there’s a moment right now in LA where so many creative people are coming. I was at NYU in the 90s and that was the moment I felt like, having had my academic background, I had a creative awakening at my time at NYU with these artists. We were living in these gigantic lofts in Manhattan. It was an incredible period. I was a DJ. My friends, Moby in particular, who I didn’t trouble for a third film in a row–he wrote the soundtrack to “Tsunami” and “Waste Land” and one track for this. The music is very much informed by my fun days in New York. That was really fun.
AT: How did you afford all those tracks?
LW: I have a brilliant music supervisor Matt Biffa and he and I reached out to artists who we know and got a really good deal in place. We could go to other artists and say Chemical Brothers and Moby are in on it. The artists were really kind. I also thank Pedro our editor, who also edited “Waste Land” and edited another short of mine, “Crooked Line.” I first hired him simply because he spoke Portuguese and I didn’t want to go back to Brazil and wanted to be home for a bit, and was still finishing “Countdown.” I said to the producer, “don’t worry I’ll just get a Portuguese speaker in LA.” I had a weekend to find a Portuguese speaking editor. One was available that Monday in LA and he had no credits as an editor really but he had worked with Frieda Lee Mock and Jessica Sanders who I revere. Pedro and I have the same cinematic sensibility and amibition. He also did music editing on “Tsunami” because, like me, he’s a big music nut. It’s fun to be so malleable with someone, it’s really a sculpting of clay. You are manipulating the elements, in a heavy way. It’s very craft-oriented and disciplined.
AT: “Waste Land,” which is your most acclaimed film so far, is a remarkable mix of art and life.
LW: I am picky about material I want to work on. When I see something that is full of visual and cinematic and emotional potential, important and unique and moving, never before seen on film… I had this NYU professor Boris Frumin; he was a fantastic teacher and used to make us shoot video every week and show it to our fellow students. He would lambast us,”Bad! Boring! Generic! I’ve seen it before.” The highest praise was “never before seen on film.” I feel like that about these films. Is it strange, lyrical, never before seen on film or is it bad, boring, generic? I feel circumspect going in because with these films, I jump into the biggest hole I can find and then I have to dig my way out.
“Waste Land” began when Peter Martin introduced me to Vik Muniz. I didn’t want to make a film that’s a survey about an artist. It’s tough, my favorite artists, Van Gogh, I want to look at his paintings but do I want to look at a film that’s a survey? Doesn’t work as a script. I’m looking for something I can turn into a narrative nonfiction story, a beautiful filmic piece, a work of cinema. A survey of pictures and talking doesn’t work as cinema for me. I was very dubious that it was going to work out. When we met we really hit it off and I kept thinking about these paintings where he plays with scale, I thought that was really cinematic. It was days of chitchatting in London in his studio in New York before he asked, “have you ever worked in garbage?” It was a story and I wanted to meet those people and go to that place and I was completely terrified. I saw the whole thing with “Waste Land” and I think it was my best ever idea. It was a collaboration.
AT: How did you come to do “Blindsight”? Did you go up Everest?
LW: That story, I got approached by somebody who later was less involved in the project. Originally I got approached by Vanessa Artiego, distributor of my first film [“Devil’s Playground”]. Erik Weihenmayer was going to Tibet and wanted to know was there a movie in it and I thought, “My god, yes, and here’s how we should do it.”
It was awful. I am never going up Everest again. I’m very athletic. I used to do triathalons but I’ve never done altitude before. The sexism of the mountaineers was the most challenging thing about it. Of all the challenges on all my films, the mountaineers took the cake. It’s an interesting world. The drama on the mountain is amazing and the Sherpas are amazing people, they’re not yaks, they die up there too. They’re not immune to altitude, they are just motivated by paychecks and have a tradition of carrying stuff up there. Erik was already thinking about making a movie but there wasn’t a script or a sense of what it could be, but like the Kevin story, it’s, “how do you tell that story? What do you include and not include?”
AT: Why do you keep going back to shorts?
LW: Some stories work better as shorts. Partly they are short because I refuse to make them a moment longer. I didn’t make “Tsunami” a feature because it doesn’t have the sufficient narrative development to do that. The economics on shorts aren’t great. They’re fun, they keep you on your toes. I want to make myself a better filmmaker and the more I make and try stuff – sometimes you don’t know what’s going to work. With “Crooked Lines,” we went to film different athletes around the world preparing for the Olympics. We discovered as we were filming, one of the athletes didn’t show up because he was disqualified. All this fallout happened. So we caught this Olympic athlete meltdown which is not the story you normally get. This was the more interesting story and a little bit like that “I Know Where I’m Going” moment. It’s fun to try stuff because you never know when things will take a different direction serendipitously without your own brilliance being applied.
I learned on “Blindsight” that the unexpected thing could be your friend. Terrible stuff happened and we didn’t climb to the top of the mountain but it was a richer film because of it. The real problem is when people tell you, “stop filming.” Unexpectedness is your friend. Lack of access is your real enemy. I’ve been lucky. I would recommend working in Brazil. No one will stop you.
AT: You showed up right after the tsunami in Japan.
LW: I was already planning to go. I was going to make a film about the cherry blossom. And then the tsunami happened and the release of “Countdown to Zero” got postponed and I had a gap in my schedule. Initially I thought, “it’s going to be more interesting now than ever.” The cherry blossoms are all about the transience and fragility of life and the tsunami has just demonstrated this in the Fuku region. My next thought was the terror, the nuclear contamination of Tokyo. I called up the DP, my friend Aaron: “what was I thinking? This was the worst idea ever.” The night before he was supposed to fly in. This is a man with a wife and children. He said, “you always get cold feet, Lucy. Don’t even worry about it. Let’s go and see what happens.” We were the only people flying into Tokyo. The immigration people looked at us like we were just bananas.
I feel happy to have told that story because no one else has ever done it. And I saw the devastation. The opening shot is the worst footage I’ve ever seen in my whole life, so we licensed the clips at the beginning of the film that talk about the tsunami. That was also not any ordinary licensing job because those people were witnesses to the tragedy. That was very difficult, sensitive stuff, but I am so proud. I feel good that we were able to tell those stories and the ambassador to Japan, who is this wonderful supporter of the film, is always sending me medals. It’s a good feeling that we sometimes get a bad rap as documentary filmmakers–maybe because of reality tv, where you feel like you can go into a scene and interrupt and manipulate and make lots of money–but I feel instead you can be of service and tell stories that aren’t otherwise told and really wake people up to other people’s realities that they would never ordinarily think of. What’s it like to be this person who is a world far away from them?
AT: As a woman do you bring more intuition to your skill set?
LW: I might be able to put up with more. And I’m more scrappy, I don’t suffer the ego constraints: it has helped me that I have no seeming floor in terms of what I will do to get a shot. That’s where being a woman comes in. I have no expectation that it should be easy. I don’t know about the observant thing. I think there are men who are super observant and empathic.
AT: You have an androgynous quality. You’re athletic, stylish, rigorous, feminine, fearless, sensitive, highly demanding of yourself and others, with a tough work ethic. That isn’t something I think of as male or female but a combination of both.
LW: You have to be an all-arounder and I am. I am a bit academic and a bit athletic and a bit visual and a bit musical. At school I liked everything. And I was an achiever and I really enjoyed it. I was curious and wanted to know everything. With a good teacher, I was super interested in stuff.
AT: Were you competitive?
I wasn’t competitive in the sense that I was happy when other people were doing well, but I always wanted my films to be good, I wanted them to be fabulous. I owe it to the film and the people who have entrusted me with their story to do the best I can, and to the collaborators. I gave credit on this last film to everybody involved. I feel you owe it to everybody, it’s such an intense endeavor.
It annoys me when I see documentaries which aren’t fully realized for one reason or another. I always want to max out what’s possible. You come back to the audience, it’s a lot to ask and you take people out of their world. There’s a lot of beautiful films out there. I don’t want to make a film unless there’s something better they could be watching. It’s easier to do bad work. I’m not very good at working quickly. I’m a bit of a slow coach. When it comes to writing I am awfully slow. There are sacrifices. There are so many perks, I can’t complain. There are so many privileges. You get to introduce people to each other, you get to go on these epic adventures and people can say, “how was it?” and you can say, “watch the film!”
This is the best distillation of what I have just been through. It’s this moment in history where nonfiction is so thrilling. The other films look like a bunch of play actors acting out the neuroses of the screenwriters. We’ve got the ability now, using mounds of cheap data and good-looking portable affordable cameras, we are able to have this technology to engineer real life into a satisfying film. At NYU, you learn cinematography, sound recording, sound editing, acting, writing, directing, just every discipline and with documentary you get to wear all those hats. I’ve made so many mistakes that nobody even knows about because they were in the field or the editing room. I had this opportunity to learn so much and play and learn and make mistakes. It’s been amazing.
AT: Then why do you want to do features?
LW: I still want to do feature films because I do think, ‘God, give me a script and actors.’ There’s a chance when I do it I’ll come running back to documentary where you have so much more freedom.