Numerous documentaries have attempted to create a diverse portrait of the United States of America, but none has ever achieved this solely by boarding our country’s busiest long-distance train, the Empire Builder. In the documentary “In Transit,” filmmakers Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu and David Usui take the ride to hear stories from the train’s various passengers and learn about the dreams and desires that are universal among us, regardless of where we come from or where we’re going.
What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?
“In Transit” is a portrait of America told through the stories of passengers aboard the Empire Builder, our nation’s busiest long-distance train route.
Now what’s it REALLY about?
“In Transit” is about finding common ground with our fellow passengers, and recognizing that we share many of the same hopes, fears and dreams, regardless of where we’ve come from or where we’re going.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
Lynn and Nelson are New York based documentary filmmakers and founders of True Walker Productions. Their work has spanned subjects in South Africa, Congo, Tibet and the U.S., and has earned many accolades including a Peabody Award and nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards and IFP Gotham Awards. “In Transit” is their fourth feature documentary together.
Ben Wu is a two time Student Academy Award winner for his short films “Unhitched” (2006) and “Cross Your Eyes, Keep Them Wide” (2007). Ben is a graduate of UC San Diego and received his MA in Documentary Film and Video from Stanford University.
David Usui began his career producing television for NBC, the Discovery Channel and MTV. As a filmmaker, he has contributed work to The New York Times, the Atlantic and VICE. David studied philosophy and environmental studies at Western Washington University.
Biggest challenge in completing this film?
Nelson: There were many challenges in completing IN TRANSIT. Shooting on the train was surprisingly difficult, especially trying to get to know our subjects in such a short amount of time. Under normal circumstances, it can take quite a while for people to reveal themselves, but on the train you don’t really have that luxury. You only have one chance to be with your subject and you have to connect in that exact moment.
Lynn: The edit was also a challenge. When one thinks of a train trip, there is the implicit assumption of a linear journey. But as we began to assemble our footage, we realized that the natural order of our stories didn’t line up with geography or directionality. And on top of that, we were attempting to craft a film that follows no single issue, no single story, and has no main character. Each moment in the film is held in delicate balance by the others around it.
David: One of the biggest challenges was the sheer amount of footage we captured. Lynn did an amazing job culling through all of it and found the universal themes that connected the stories and created a patchwork quilt of themes and stories that… became greater than the sum of its parts.
What do you want the Tribeca audience to take away from your film?
Albert had a love for people that pervaded all of his films. He always said that he wanted us to capture the moments when strangers become friends. We hope people walk away feeling that everyone has a story and that it feeds our curiosity to learn who people really are.
We hope that the audience will walk away from the film feeling as if they were on a journey of their own, having shared a sense of kinship with their fellow passengers along the way. The space of the train offers a unique atmosphere for personal reflection and finding common ground with others, and we’d like to think that “In Transit” will encourage an appreciation for these things in our everyday lives, no matter where we might be.
Any films inspire you?
Lynn: There are too many to name, but I’ll admit being totally inspired by “The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller,” which I saw when I was about 7 years old when I probably didn’t even know what a documentary was.
Nelson: It’s sort of cheating, but I’d have to say Albert’s films have been my biggest inspiration.
We shot primarily with the Sony PMW-200 and the Canon C300
Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?
We got production support early on and then were fortunate to get finishing funds from the Sundance Institute.
Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.