Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Interview with Lucy Walker, documentarian and director of "Waste Land" and "Countdown to Zero"


"Waste Land" won the World Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, was on the 2010 Academy Awards shortlist for Best Documentary, and is now playing across the country. Edit (January 26, 2011): the film is nominated for the 2010 Best Documentary Feature Oscar. "Countdown to Zero" premiered at Sundance, played at Cannes in a Special Screening, and had a theatrical run this summer.

Flick Pick Monster: First off, how did “Waste Land” come into being? Was it developed at the same time as “Countdown to Zero”?

Lucy Walker: It was developed before and how it came into being was [with a] very organic conversation between myself and Vik Muniz, the artist in the movie. We were just both really interested in each other’s work and we had a conversation about, if we were to make a movie together, what might that movie be. It was very open and in a way I didn’t really think it was going to go anywhere; in hindsight, of course, it was perfect, but at the time I didn’t know if it was really going anywhere. I was trying to think how to make a film about an artist and really show his process and I thought it would be really interesting to follow one project.

I also knew that Vik did these social projects; he really enjoyed working with people outside the art world. He was at this sort of mid-life crisis point in a way where he wasn’t sure what art meant or he was feeling quite constrained by the art world. Talking to him I really picked up on that and I thought that would be really interesting, to see him do a social project, maybe a social project that was so challenging that it might fail or might be really dramatic or he’d meet some really interesting people from the edges of society. I thought that that would be really wonderful.

And I guess I was also thinking about my movie “Blindsight,” because in a funny way it has a very similar structure to “Waste Land” in terms of this one, [privileged, successful] guy who goes on an adventure in collaboration with people who really had some rough luck. In the case of “Blindsight,” that was blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer collaborating with the blind students in Tibet and in the case of this it’s obviously Vik collaborating with the Catadores. But I sort of knew that that was maybe a good structure for a documentary and I was looking for really challenging project and I knew that that would make the most interesting film. And in the course of just [these] conversations with Vik, both in the UK and in New York, we realized we both were obsessed with garbage and I said, “Have you ever thought about working in a land fill, with all the garbage which you could work with as your materials?” and he said yes, that he actually wanted to do a project but he thought it would be too dangerous. And I said that would be really interesting; that would be a film.

I liked that project because I knew that waste and recycling were really, really important topics and that a landfill was a really fantastic location and that the Catadores would be really interesting people to meet. So as soon as we sort of had this idea, I just knew it was the one, and I insisted that if anything when we film it, if anything happens on this project, we should just film the whole thing from start to finish and that’s exactly what we did.

FPM: Your documentaries are so varied in subject matter, from nuclear weapons in “Countdown to Zero” to the Amish community in “Devil’s Playground”, to blind mountain climbers in “Blindsight.” What would you say is the “connecting thread” throughout your films, if there indeed is one?

LW: I could get more complicated but on a simple level, it’s exactly what I’m interested in in the world. It’s people I want to meet and places I want to go and subjects I want to think about, whether that’s Tibet or blindness or wealth and poverty and where the arts transform life or the work of Vik Muniz or going to Brazil or going to Amish country and [what it’s] like to grow up Amish, [or] nuclear weapons… These are just really interesting subjects that I like to think about and I found stories that were sort of [excuses] to sort of really challenge myself to immerse myself and really figure out what I think. [To] make a film is the sort of ultimate figuring out and expressing what is going on. And so I sort of feel like, on a deep level, [that] a very selfish way of answering that question would be these are just projects that I most of all have burning questions about and the films are sort of the answers to the questions that I’m most excited about thinking about.

FPM: “Countdown to Zero” is somewhat of an “activism doc,” in that it was created to bring awareness (like “The Cove,” “Food Inc.,” “An Inconvenient Truth”, and to a lesser extent “The Art of the Steal”). “Waste Land” and your other documentaries seem to be more in the interest bringing the audience’s attention to an interesting happening that doesn’t have a direct effect on their lives. Are you more interested in more prescient material, or do you find yourself more drawn to more off-the-beaten-track stories?

LW: I think in a way “Waste Land” is like my first two films. It really follows a group of people on a journey in an interesting world with a beginning, middle, and end, whether that’s Amish young people turning 16 and having to make the decision whether to go back or not, going through a grown-up period, or in the case of “Blindsight,” it’s about these blind people climbing a mountain which has a very clear narrative arc of, you know, here’s a mountain climber, beginning, middle, and end, do they get to the top?; it’s got a very clear structure and you meet some really amazing people in a really fascinating place which is Everest in Tibet.

And then with “Waste Land,” the same thing: you’ve got Vik and the Catadores [going] on a journey with both the art project and meeting each other, collaborating, going on this amazing journey, and through all this you get to know them. Whereas “Countdown” winds up being much more about the issue and the topic. I did actually try to shoot more people in “Countdown” and it really just became really hard, [as] there were no stories or journeys in a way that we could get access to, as it was such a sensitive subject and everything was so classified and even when we did try to film things it didn’t really work. So I could find a journey to follow in the same way apart from just really understanding the issue. So that wound up being a little bit of a different film.

I love them all and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I’ve got some different projects that fit different templates- some of them aren’t even documentaries, some are fiction films. I think of it [as] challenging to make a film about a topic. It is challenging to get people’s attention and I think, when you’ve got a 90-minute film, it makes it a lot easier when you’ve got a story to follow.

FPM: Are you interested in experimenting with the “form” of the documentary (as has been said of Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” or, a film that conceptually “Waste Land” reminds me of, Varda’s “The Gleaners and I”), or do you prefer “documentary-style” documentary filmmaking? Or both?

LW: I love “The Gleaners and I”; it was a film I thought about a lot. I sort of think of myself a filmmaker first and foremost and, for me, a filmmaker is someone who really uses all the possibilities of the craft. I don’t think that I’m like a journalist with a camera. I like to think of myself as really trying to find different ways.

Sometimes you can do small things- I really liked how with my film “Blindsight” I opened the film on an empty black screen with sound effects. I thought that was an interesting way of getting people to figure out what it was like not to see, to sort of color out the images. With “Waste Land,” there’s time lapse and different ways of using the montage and the editing—different ways you’re trying to tell the story using the different possibilities—great music, great cinematography.

I love the more experimental structures and experiments that people are bringing to documentaries like “The Gleaners and I” and I hope that with each project I can find the most interesting way of telling each story. Experimenting as much as possible with the form I think would be fantastic.

FPM: How was working with Moby on "Waste Land"?

LW: It was fantastic. He’s as generous as he is genius. I’m very fortunate that he’s been like a big brother to me—I’ve known him for 15 years--- and just a incredibly kind friend. I actually originally was going to use music on “Countdown” and the producers didn’t want that [laughs]. So, I suddenly, crazily thought about using it for “Waste Land” where I’d wanted to use Brazilian music but I couldn’t find any Brazilian music that seemed right. And then, when we weren’t using Moby’s music for “Countdown,” I was upset about that, but then I suddenly had the idea we could use it for “Waste Land.” That’s exactly how that happened and it turned out to be absolutely perfect. I found out that was really the perfect thing.

I think it universalizes the story because it’s set in Brazil but it’s not just about Brazil, it’s really about human nature, I think: it’s about art, it’s about spirit, and all kinds of things. It’s not really about just Brazil or Brazilians specifically. I just couldn’t find the right stuff. I really, really liked Moby’s music and I think it works really, really well as it’s really beautiful and emotional. Lots of people watching the film get really emotional and cry and have a sort of real heart-opening workout. (Moby even talks about the film as being a sort of heart-opening exercise.) I really like that and so I think that his music since it’s so beautiful and so emotional enables the audience to go there emotionally. That’s why I like it so much.

FPM: Who (and what films) has an influence on your filmmaking?

LW: There are so many. Agnes Varda is a good example, specifically with this film. Obviously I was lucky enough to be taught by Barbara Kopple, who I think is just such a powerhouse and just brilliant. She taught me so much about integrity---everything from integrity to sound recording [laughs]. She really taught me everything. I also, especially with my first film, and ever since, have been really inspired by a couple of films.

One is “Streetwise,” which is a 1984 film about Seattle street kids and it was made by Martin Bell and his wife who is an amazing documentary photographer. I just couldn’t believe the access. Martin managed to be in the room with some incredibly intimate scenes between these people and I couldn’t believe how he’d managed to pull that off. That was really inspiring to me [in that] he could get honest moments which were so incredibly compelling.

Another film was “Hoop Dreams.” I just think Steve James is a genius. His patience and persistence and sort of perceptiveness meant that he found these sort of twists and turns in ordinary life that just were amazing.

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