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.”
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.”
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.”
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.