Midway through the second of my two cell phone chats last week with Lucy Walker, the director of Countdown to Zero momentarily stops discussing her documentary about the ever-increasing likelihood of nuclear obliteration to make an important announcement. Her Uber has just arrived at its LA destination, and the British-born Walker needs a minute to bid a proper farewell to her “lovely” driver—a Croatian-American man whose childhood friend, the ride has revealed, is Rajko Grlić, Walker’s most beloved professor at NYU film school.
For Walker, Armageddon can wait, and it makes sense. Just as any devoted documentarian will tell you that even a brilliant screenplay can’t hold a candle to the drama of real life, this impromptu moment serves more vividly than words on a page to illustrate what the filmmaker and I have been mulling over: that, with the exception of her relatively dry Countdown to Zero (a compromised “work for hire,” she explains), her movies emphatically favor the personal over the political.
“I want to visit you in Croatia!” she tells the driver before giving him a hug and then getting back to business.
Walker, who delightedly maintains that Uber and its ilk have “done more for community building than anything else in the history of Los Angeles,” is almost certainly the biggest fan of mobile app–based transportation networking to have been nominated for two Academy Awards. (Walker’s Waste Land and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom lost out to Inside Job and Saving Face in their respective years.)
So, too, it seems likely that Walker will elect to do some recreational Ubering in Minneapolis this week while she’s in town to sit with Scott Foundas for a dialogue at Walker Cinema this Wednesday about her work.
Ranging from tranquil Amish country in Indiana (Devil’s Playground) to the treacherously snowy hills of Park City, Utah (The Crash Reel), and from the north side of Mount Everest (Blindsight) to a landfill on the outskirts of Rio (Waste Land), the diverse locations of Walker’s films have shown she’ll go to any length to make a connection with people we need to know.
“I always think of myself as a ‘small-p political’ person,” she says. “The things that have the most impact on me are personal stories, stories of individuals. I believe that human beings mirror one another. We look to each other to relate to one another and learn. So in my movies I try to allow the audience to experience a world they’ve never seen through people they wouldn’t otherwise meet.”
In this, Walker’s most tender and revealing film to date might well be 2013’s The Crash Reel, which races far past the confines of an extreme sports video to focus on the miraculous reconciliation between two kinds of love: former pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s all-or-nothing devotion to daredevil acrobatics on the slopes and, even more brave, his family members’ inexhaustible affection for the aspiring Olympian—before and after the traumatic brain injury that Pearce initially refuses to accept as a career killer.
In shaping The Crash Reel, whose own spectacular feat is its unlikely balance between the pulse-quickening and the contemplative, Walker relished the feedback she received from test screenings attended by a diverse collection of viewers, including adrenaline-addicted teen athletes and young Jackass fans—the doc’s core audience and the targets of its cautionary tale. Where other filmmakers fear the effect of audience response cards on the final cut, Walker sees such workshopping as key to maintaining the all-important human element.
“I think a filmmaker has to be attentive to how a film plays,” she says. “When you’re making a documentary for a wide audience, you have to expect that in the theater there are going to be experts on your subject as well as novices and everything in between.
“The interesting thing about The Crash Reel is that when we showed our rough cut to young people, and they got to the moment of Kevin’s crash, they all burst out laughing. For us adults, of course, the scene is intensely horrifying, but for kids it’s something else. So that was unexpected, and we had to take it into account. In general, I think it’s a good sign when a film elicits very different and even opposing points of view. It usually means you’re getting to the truth of a situation in all its complexity.”
Since The Crash Reel, Walker’s quest for documentary realism has taken her into the realm of virtual reality, a medium intrinsically distinct from cinema, but one that Walker finds to be a “natural extension of what I do” in documentary.
In 2014, Walker made her first visit to Cuba to research what she thought would be another documentary film. But when she unexpectedly found herself with access to VR equipment, she decided to forge ahead into new territory. The result is A History of Cuban Dance, whose viewers at Walker Cinema last week donned cardboard goggles to experience the added dimension.
“In Cuba, I became fascinated with the ways one can see [the nation’s] history reflected in the dance moves as they evolved through time,” Walker says. “The VR technology, which the Cubans I was working with were very excited about, allowed us to feel like we were stepping into something brand new.”
In high-tech terms, though, what’s new today can become antiquated by sundown. “Our VR camera rig [on Cuban Dance] was literally smoking—that’s how new and how finicky and temperamental the technology was,” Walker says. “It felt like going back to film school in the sense of needing to work with screwdrivers and duct tape again. Somehow that made it all even more exciting.”
Despite her enthusiastic embrace of VR, Walker maintains a self-professed “contrarian” take on the medium. While she believes that virtual reality cameras have advanced significantly since 2014, and that their evolution in technological terms bids to pull the medium into a new space theoretically speaking, the revolution will not be televised for a while yet.
“The promise of VR—the untethered VR that we’re on the brink of—is much more radical than it was a few years ago when I made A History of Cuban Dance,” Walker says. “It’s getting closer to a ‘choose your own adventure’ proposition, where the audience member turns from a spectator into an active agent. It’s the promise of an experience that’s closer to real life. But in fact the technology is really not there yet, not at all.”
For the moment, Walker said she continues to feel struck less by the differences between VR and cinema than the similarities.
“Both mediums are immersive while still allowing the audience some degree of choice—to turn their heads and look at different things,” she said. “With VR, you don’t have a square screen, but what you’re sharing with the audience is still a finite space.
“Before I started making films, I was making theater [in the UK], including theater in the round, and that seems much like VR to me as well. As an artist, you design a world, but there’s always a lot going on in that world. You can try to point people in a certain direction, but in the end you can’t control what people are going to look at. And that’s really the beauty of it, isn’t it?”