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How Lucy Walker and Marianna Palka Faced Fear as They Made ‘The Lion’s Mouth Opens’

How Lucy Walker and Marianna Palka Faced Fear as They Made 'The Lion's Mouth Opens'

Peripatetic L.A. filmmaker Lucy Walker likes to plant 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 shoot a must-see documentary. 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. 

Read: ‘Crash Reel’ Documentarian Lucy Walker Knows Where She’s Going 

Her latest, the moving and shocking short “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” debuted in 16-minute form at Sundance 2014, won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Short at Michael Moore’s 2014 Traverse City Film Festival as well as Cinema Eye Honors for best doc short, was short-listed for the Oscar, and will debut on HBO on June 1. 
Read: Sundance Review: Lucy Walker’s Powerful Doc ‘The Lion’s Mouth Opens’

Her 2013 feature, Sundance verite doc “The Crash Reel,” which followed snowboarder Kevin Pearce after he suffered a debilitating brain injury while training for the Olympics, played in theaters as well as HBO. And Walker has just landed the plum assignment of directing a sequel to Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder’s famed music doc, “The Buena Vista Social Club.”

Read: Lucy Walker to Direct ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ Sequel

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”). 

Walker was introduced to indie actress-filmmaker Marianna Palka (“The Good Dick”) by mutual friend Moby, but the busy women did not get together until two years ago, when Palka called Walker right after “The Crash Reel” premiere. Palka had a film proposal for Walker, who was busy; she planned to suggest another filmmaker. 

Palka filled her in on her fear of being diagnosed with the disease that had killed her father, Huntington’s. It runs in families, so family members have a 50/50 chance of inheriting it. Walker Googled the disease. “I saw how it looked like torture for the poor people who have it,” Walker told me in a telephone interview. “They have involuntary movements. It’s a Medieval curse, very strickening. Marianna had been so charming and lovable on the phone. I thought she’d be good on camera, she’s also an actor and wanted to make a film to help raise Huntington’s awareness, which it sorely needs.”

Walker also felt for Palka’s plight and wanted to help. “I noticed with ‘Crash Reel,’ that having the camera around in moments of suffering can lend people a sense of purpose that can be helpful,” she said. “You can’t salvage any upside for yourself personally, but making a film can be something really good to cling to: ‘Maybe this will help somebody else. I may not be able to be helped in an unremittingly challenging moment, but maybe there’s some silver lining to help someone in another place of suffering.'”

Timing is everything with docs. Palka was planning to get tested for the disease. “Marianna had the idea that we would the film doctor’s appointment,” said Walker. “The basic thing I’ve learned, is always get in there and capture things that you won’t get back. You will never not know again. I said, ‘let’s film you not knowing, let’s film you at the crossroads at this crucible moment and find out what life is like before knowing.’ We talked about how best to film that. I had some lovely dinner sequences in ‘Crash Reel,’ so we thought about having a lovely moment with her friends gathered around, to give her a gift before going on her journey. I brought the same cameraman, Nick Higgins, who can rack focus, looking and operating and pulling focus on [her boyfriend] Jason [Ritter] on the sofa as he looks at her.”

So Walker decided to jump in with both feet without waiting for funding. She’d figure out the future later as she filmed the present. “I called my usual posse of collaborators, rounded them up,” she said, “and made it in a very film school fashion as a passion project.” She was up for a Chicken & Egg grant for another film coming up, so she was banking on that. “I had no sense of where this would lead.”

Walker can wield a camera, and did shoot some of “Devil’s Playground,” but prefers to pay attention to the whole picture during filming. “I do have a lot to think about when shooting and when directing,” she said. “It’s not too much to do the sound recording and the directing. I can handle that much. I don’t think I have enough bandwidth to shoot and direct well at the same time. My sound recording isn’t the greatest but it’s fine for interviews in this film.”
She and her cameraman would squeeze into cars to shoot Palka as Walker was driving: “It was mom and pop like that. We benefit from that intimacy, you get the feelings. I’m freed up to concentrate on directing and asking questions, to bring things out, you have to do lot of thinking on the fly. It’s like a martial art, very intense, directing, having to understand what going on in the moment at the same time pointing the microphone in the right direction.”
One of the most moving moments in the film involves Palka reciting the Bob Dylan poem about Woody Guthrie (who had Huntington’s) that inspires the title. “That was organic—her friend urging her to do it,” said Walker. “It’s something her friends had seen her do before. When she was 19 with no money she busked on the subway with that poem.” This was one of the bits that Walker added to the film’s longer version.
The 16-minute Sundance film was “very intense,” said Walker. “We shot some more, talked to my editor. I had felt that we should keep it claustrophobic, as she was swept toward her fate. I didn’t want it to be leisurely. I wanted it to not let you go, with no music, so that it would be intense in a festival shorts program and make every other film seem indulgent and redundant. I wanted not a second to spare, so you’re really in it.”

After it played Sundance, HBO offered to broadcast the short, thus fulfilling the goal of raising awareness for the cause by airing during Huntington’s awareness month. In that sense, “HBO is the one and only broadcast destination in this country,” said Walker. HBO wanted her to make it longer so they could broadcast it in a half-hour slot.

Walker liked the way the short version played and didn’t want to make the film longer, she said: “I didn’t want to dilute it, I liked that tension.” But she decided to try lengthening and expanding with the poem, and also show more of what the disease looked like: “I honestly didn’t want to show such suffering gratuitously, and I wasn’t sure what to do. My instinct was not to show it. But people weren’t aware enough of what the disease was. One guy got killed, beat to a pulp by five cops because people don’t realize the movements are involuntary and get worse under stress. It’s a terrible misunderstood disease, fatal and incurable.”

So Walker found and licensed some contemporary footage taken by families of their loved ones, at home. “We felt like the family shooting their own family members was the most tender and personal and respectful way of doing it.” The movie wound up at 28 minutes. Check it out.

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