By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 11, 2013 at 12:50PM
Los Angeles-based peripatetic filmmaker Lucy Walker plants 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 make a film. 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.
Her latest, the moving and shocking verite doc "The Crash Reel," which will play DOC NYC and follows snowboarder Kevin Pearce after he suffers a debilitating brain injury while training for the Olympics, screened well at Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, LAFF and at the Academy. It opened July 5th for a one-week Oscar qualifying run at Laemmle's Monica Theatre; it debuted on HBO this summer and reopens in theaters this month.
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").
Anne Thompson: Why did you go to grad school at NYU?
Lucy Walker: I needed to forget everything I just studied [at Oxford]. I had never made a film before. I got there and realized everyone else had made several films. It was quite a mystery that I got in and I had a lot to learn. Sneaking down to the sixth floor watching films, there was a British professor teaching British cinema: Bill Everson. The last film he screened was [Michael Powell's] "I Know Where I'm Going." It's so fun and so dramatic. I love this idea that I know where I'm going. I've always been a fiction filmmaker and I've been heading in the direction of fiction filmmaking, doing documentaries along the way.
AT: Isn't documentary the most interesting area right now in filmmaking? Aren't you able to be more entrepreneurial?
LW: I love my work, apart from when it's driving me crazy. But I get to be interested in stuff and think like a filmmaker as I'm buzzing about the world and then see an opportunity to make a film, and then make it happen.
AT: How did 'The Crash Reel' come about?
LW: I met Kevin Pearce. I had agreed to mentor an event and he was there. I was instantly drawn to him because he has this superstar charisma. He reminds me of River Phoenix. He is this beautiful, humble, hardworking, talented kid and your heart goes out to him and I wanted to help him. Initially I didn't think it was a film for me; I thought I could introduce him to a different filmmaker. But I thought to myself, "it's an incredible story: Olympic hopeful turns to brain injury survivor after a spell in a coma having to learn to walk or talk again."
It was a two-act story that wasn't finished that I didn't have footage for. But as I observed him at this retreat, I realized the story wasn’t over at all, that he was determined to go back to the sport. Yet I heard if he hit his head again he would die and so it was this great setup. He wants to go back to a sport that involves a lot of hitting. It's like an Ovid "Metamorphosis" story. The sword that never misses and the shield that never gives out. We can all relate. We all have to dig deep and reinvent ourselves when our dreams don't work out.
This kid is doing it overnight at 25 with a brain injury. You wonder if his judgment is impaired. You get to this twilight zone of brain injury… how much is his brain giving him the information about how injured he is? It's not like a broken leg. This is your brain protecting itself, possibly, but not sharing with you what's actually going on. As he says now, he was far gone. He didn't know how far gone he was. That's very dramatic and troubling to observe.
AT: You weave together several strands: Kevin Pearce as a snowboard star, safety in extreme sports, and the closeknit family that helps him to recover. Did you pull back from making it more of an agit prop documentary about the politics?
LW: It's Kevin's story, and Kevin is very passionate about the sport. And I was going to make a story about Kevin. I always wanted to observe and make verite films. I like character, plot, scene, drama. That's my milieu and it was an important project. What I like to do is let the audience understand for themselves and get as much complexity and richness as they can. And also because it was my collaboration with Kevin and he wanted to raise awareness about what he's been through and that's a powerful journey, that raises questions about the safety of the sport.
But it would have been unfair of me to make a film that was a call to end action sports. I do think the conversation about safety should be keeping pace. There should be more responsibility. Insurance coverage should be mandatory. There are a lot of interventions you can get. And a robust conversation about the safety is inherent in the story. We have a separate campaign and Kevin has his foundation, but the film itself is verite first and foremost. I wanted to mine the story in all its food for thought and lay that out as a feast for the audience to enjoy.
AT: You're a filmmaker who is thoughtful and skilled but aware of the need to entertain and keep things accessible.
LW: You don't know where it's going: it's emotional, it's intense, it's well-wrought. That's what I am proud of, the craft.
AT: Why did Pearce's sponsors stay with him after he was injured?
LW: Kevin is really a superstar and he's so beloved, with a brilliant agent to boot. It would have been cheesy – harsh – had he been dropped immediately on his accident. I know how much the sponsors love and regard him and they wouldn't have wanted to do it, it would have been horrible PR for them. He needed support more than ever. His agent managed to persuade them that he's now an advocate for the sport so the sponsors continue to support him. They all love him. But they haven't rushed to help the film. None of them have stepped up in any way. So we'll see as the film goes onto HBO and into theaters whether they choose to support it. We hope that they will step up and will play a leadership role. I think that would be really appropriate.
AT: When marketing a specific topic like this, don't docs lend themselves to a niche approach to finding audiences?
LW: I had a tricky time financing this one. It's not a snowboarding film. It's enjoyable for audiences even if you've never thought about snowboarding in your whole life. It's very scary. A lot of folks like us aren't even aware of quite how acrobatic and extreme some of these sports are. If it's in the Olympics, it's extremely dangerous. It's not like gymnastics with a soft mat. It is akin to Formula 1 racing and Kevin's dad in the movie has a great point when he makes that comparison and says that the similar dilemma there regarding safety is that they had to limit the size of the engines because the drivers were killing themselves. The athletes just want to win. The story "Senna" is on top of the minds of the documentary community.
AT: Did "Senna" inspire you to cut together archival footage? You used 232 different sources, five alone to recreate Pearce's crash?
LW: Yes, "Senna" was terrific. Also "Capturing the Friedmans" was another example of a film that used a trove of wonderful footage, and there are so many brilliant archival films that have inspired me. Even "Central Park Five" used this to great effect. I am so picky about what films I get myself into because it's such an explosion of energy and commitment once you get in there, you destroy your life until you deliver these films. I never want to be in the position of making films that won't be a great use of 90 minutes of someone's life.
My main trick is to work with amazing people. It's a long and twisty journey and you need people that really are amazing and have this rare gift of honesty and courage and really open up. That's what's great about "Crash Reel." The family had the philosophy that if you have a disability, you shouldn't be ashamed of it, you should share it. That is an honor and a duty. They have that ability and that's why the film works so stunningly, because the audience can really relate because it's so raw and so intimate. That's my main trick.
And then show up when stuff is really going down. They had a real problem that first Thanksgiving, they needed to do an intervention. You need to make sure you're there. By the time people meet the sparks will fly. You show up when stuff's gonna go down. People won't mind about the camera because people are so consumed with what's going down.