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Rick Smolan Lived Inside ‘Tracks,’ Photographed In Living Color

Rick Smolan Lived Inside 'Tracks,' Photographed In Living Color

It was upcoming for 36 years. What took so long? Well, this was the kind of saga that did not really translate to a Joe Roth movie starring Julia Roberts. She was going to star in a plot line about falling for a fashion photographer during a shoot in the outback. Sidney Lumet and Helen Hunt also flirted with the material. “Robyn was against the movie for a long time,” Smolan tells me over coffee. “As we get older we get more practical.” 

Movies tend to get made when they’re ready. In this case, the producers of “The Kings Speech” and director John Curran took the film over the finish line with homegrown actress Mia Wasikowska as Davidson and Adam Driver as Smolan. In truth, Smolan fell “madly in love” with the blunt-spoken Davidson, who distrusted journalists, and managed to convince her that taking pictures of Aborigines might build awareness of their bad treatment. He spent months with her, although the movie diminishes the romance to focus on her dangerous and heroic journey. “She and Mia Wasikowska look so much alike, it’s eerie,” he says. “When you see Mia on-screen with the camels she looks so comfortable, there’s so much subtlety in how she conveyed all the emotions.”

Smolan considers himself to be “the luckiest person on earth” for being in the right place at the right time to do this shoot. “Robyn was so interesting. Most people I’ve met are afraid of the things that frighten. She has a good survival instinct, but she’s the only person I’ve ever met who is attracted to the things that frighten. She thinks people spend their lives avoiding things they don’t want to happen, never finding out if they’re worth being scared of. She shines a flashlight and most of the time it’s not worth being scared. Each time I walked away from her I was so terrified that she was going to die out there.” 
The other possibility is that all the naysayers were right–despite rave reviews and support from the Weinstein Company, which picked up the film out of the fall festivals last year, and does plan to mount an Oscar campaign for the actress, as they should, the film has moved around various opening dates and finally settled on an LA/NY platform opening on September 19–to modest ticket sales. They will roll it out to ten cities on October 3. 

Hopefully upbeat word of mouth will spread–but many seem to wonder what’s so cinematic about a solo walk in the desert. Plenty! And the Weinsteins postponed the release in order to spend some $300,000 on re-editing a tighter movie with Curran. “And then I discovered, as with any journey, it’s not what you carry but what you leave behind,” narrates Wasikowska as Davidson over the film’s new ending. 

What’s left behind is not only Davidson’s memoir but 10,000 of Smolan’s photographs that didn’t make the 1978 Nat Geo spread. He’s been putting together an exhibition of his photos (which shows at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles October 2) as well as a meticulously organized follow-up to his first volume about Davidson’s adventure, 1991’s “From Alice to Ocean.”

“Inside Tracks” (Sterling Books, October 22) offers stunning large-scale prints (heavy matt paper, 30 inches wide when open, six-color printing, spot varnish on every image) of his original photos–which he could brighten up with digital technology–as well as comparisons of his pictures with set stills by Matt Nettheim as well as screen grabs off the negative of the 35 mm movie (access rarely granted) which you can see exactingly used his materials as visual references.

There’s a smartphone app (HP’s Aurasma) that you can use to hover over a photo and it will take you to a clip of a scene from the movie (more details here). This “labor of love” was expensive to mount–even Smolan’s usual corporate backers and sponsors (Apple, Facebook, Adobe, Fedex, Google) on such projects as “The Human Face of Big Data” did not help him out on this one–so he footed the bill himself. 

And he’s mounted a Kickstarter campaign which raised $25,000 in 10 days “which explains,” he writes, “why this book is unlike almost any other book ever produced about a film and why anyone who sees ‘Tracks’ would be fascinated to see the real Robyn and the extraordinary way Mia channeled her in the film”:

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