AT: How do you convince the family to come in close? Who filmed those dinner scenes?
LW: Nick Higgins. I recorded sound. People think it's multicamera, but that was Nick moving around.
AT: The gift that you got on this film was David, the brother with Down syndrome. He was so articulate.
LW: He's obviously a super intelligent young man notwithstanding his Down syndrome. It's shocking to see someone who is self aware about his Down syndrome, who wants to talk about it in an emotional way. It's a great testament not just to his intelligence but also to his family. It's clear he couldn't be more functional as they couldn't be a more functional family.
That relationship between Kevin and David, one with a newly acquired brain injury and another with an intellectual disability from birth, is a very interesting dynamic. That final scene is one of my favorites. We actually finished the film, submitted to Sundance, got in, and we were racing to finish the film. The ending was great, but the rest of the film was monster-good, just so strong, and this wonderful executive producer Dan Cogan said the ending wasn't quite as strong.
It was before Thanksgiving and I thought, 'I have to go back.' Nick Higgins had to be with his family. I was scrambling around trying to find a DP in Vermont for Thanksgiving dinner and get on a plane to Vermont, losing my mind. I got there and I was so grateful I had gotten there because the scene that transpired – if you had given "The Crash Reel" minus that finale scene to any screenwriter in Hollywood to tie it all together, no one could have come up with this. Life is the best writer if you are observant enough. The way that the two brothers challenge one another to accept their disability and the palpable grace and joy and relief you feel when they embrace their situation rather than fight it, is such a shocking drama. And then of course Dave in general has this uncanny ability to say what everyone is thinking. It's not only this great emotional gift for the family that you see, but the best dramatic device. One should always write a Down syndrome brother who comes in and says what no one else will say because it works so well in the scene.
AT: I see on Facebook that you travel a lot for your work. Why are you based in Los Angeles?
LW: I've been to Korea, Myanmar, San Francisco, London, DC, Provincetown in the last three weeks. It has been the most fun, but I am happy to be home. I'm living in Venice Beach about four years. I like New York and London too; I didn't mean to leave London, it just worked out. I moved here for "Countdown" at the request of the producers. I like it here because there's a moment right now in LA where so many creative people are coming. I was at NYU in the 90s and that was the moment I felt like, having had my academic background, I had a creative awakening at my time at NYU with these artists. We were living in these gigantic lofts in Manhattan. It was an incredible period. I was a DJ. My friends, Moby in particular, who I didn't trouble for a third film in a row--he wrote the soundtrack to "Tsunami" and "Waste Land" and one track for this. The music is very much informed by my fun days in New York. That was really fun.
AT: How did you afford all those tracks?
LW: I have a brilliant music supervisor Matt Biffa and he and I reached out to artists who we know and got a really good deal in place. We could go to other artists and say Chemical Brothers and Moby are in on it. The artists were really kind. I also thank Pedro our editor, who also edited "Waste Land" and edited another short of mine, "Crooked Line." I first hired him simply because he spoke Portuguese and I didn’t want to go back to Brazil and wanted to be home for a bit, and was still finishing "Countdown." I said to the producer, "don’t worry I'll just get a Portuguese speaker in LA." I had a weekend to find a Portuguese speaking editor. One was available that Monday in LA and he had no credits as an editor really but he had worked with Frieda Lee Mock and Jessica Sanders who I revere. Pedro and I have the same cinematic sensibility and amibition. He also did music editing on "Tsunami" because, like me, he's a big music nut. It's fun to be so malleable with someone, it's really a sculpting of clay. You are manipulating the elements, in a heavy way. It's very craft-oriented and disciplined.
AT: "Waste Land," which is your most acclaimed film so far, is a remarkable mix of art and life.
LW: I am picky about material I want to work on. When I see something that is full of visual and cinematic and emotional potential, important and unique and moving, never before seen on film... I had this NYU professor Boris Frumin; he was a fantastic teacher and used to make us shoot video every week and show it to our fellow students. He would lambast us,"Bad! Boring! Generic! I've seen it before." The highest praise was "never before seen on film." I feel like that about these films. Is it strange, lyrical, never before seen on film or is it bad, boring, generic? I feel circumspect going in because with these films, I jump into the biggest hole I can find and then I have to dig my way out.
"Waste Land" began when Peter Martin introduced me to Vik Muniz. I didn't want to make a film that's a survey about an artist. It's tough, my favorite artists, Van Gogh, I want to look at his paintings but do I want to look at a film that's a survey? Doesn't work as a script. I'm looking for something I can turn into a narrative nonfiction story, a beautiful filmic piece, a work of cinema. A survey of pictures and talking doesn't work as cinema for me. I was very dubious that it was going to work out. When we met we really hit it off and I kept thinking about these paintings where he plays with scale, I thought that was really cinematic. It was days of chitchatting in London in his studio in New York before he asked, "have you ever worked in garbage?" It was a story and I wanted to meet those people and go to that place and I was completely terrified. I saw the whole thing with "Waste Land" and I think it was my best ever idea. It was a collaboration.
AT: How did you come to do "Blindsight"? Did you go up Everest?
LW: That story, I got approached by somebody who later was less involved in the project. Originally I got approached by Vanessa Artiego, distributor of my first film ["Devil's Playground"]. Erik Weihenmayer was going to Tibet and wanted to know was there a movie in it and I thought, "My god, yes, and here's how we should do it."
It was awful. I am never going up Everest again. I'm very athletic. I used to do triathalons but I've never done altitude before. The sexism of the mountaineers was the most challenging thing about it. Of all the challenges on all my films, the mountaineers took the cake. It's an interesting world. The drama on the mountain is amazing and the Sherpas are amazing people, they're not yaks, they die up there too. They're not immune to altitude, they are just motivated by paychecks and have a tradition of carrying stuff up there. Erik was already thinking about making a movie but there wasn't a script or a sense of what it could be, but like the Kevin story, it's, "how do you tell that story? What do you include and not include?"
AT: Why do you keep going back to shorts?
LW: Some stories work better as shorts. Partly they are short because I refuse to make them a moment longer. I didn't make "Tsunami" a feature because it doesn't have the sufficient narrative development to do that. The economics on shorts aren't great. They're fun, they keep you on your toes. I want to make myself a better filmmaker and the more I make and try stuff – sometimes you don't know what's going to work. With "Crooked Lines," we went to film different athletes around the world preparing for the Olympics. We discovered as we were filming, one of the athletes didn't show up because he was disqualified. All this fallout happened. So we caught this Olympic athlete meltdown which is not the story you normally get. This was the more interesting story and a little bit like that "I Know Where I'm Going" moment. It's fun to try stuff because you never know when things will take a different direction serendipitously without your own brilliance being applied.
I learned on "Blindsight" that the unexpected thing could be your friend. Terrible stuff happened and we didn't climb to the top of the mountain but it was a richer film because of it. The real problem is when people tell you, "stop filming." Unexpectedness is your friend. Lack of access is your real enemy. I've been lucky. I would recommend working in Brazil. No one will stop you.
AT: You showed up right after the tsunami in Japan.
LW: I was already planning to go. I was going to make a film about the cherry blossom. And then the tsunami happened and the release of "Countdown to Zero" got postponed and I had a gap in my schedule. Initially I thought, "it's going to be more interesting now than ever." The cherry blossoms are all about the transience and fragility of life and the tsunami has just demonstrated this in the Fuku region. My next thought was the terror, the nuclear contamination of Tokyo. I called up the DP, my friend Aaron: "what was I thinking? This was the worst idea ever." The night before he was supposed to fly in. This is a man with a wife and children. He said, "you always get cold feet, Lucy. Don't even worry about it. Let's go and see what happens." We were the only people flying into Tokyo. The immigration people looked at us like we were just bananas.
I feel happy to have told that story because no one else has ever done it. And I saw the devastation. The opening shot is the worst footage I've ever seen in my whole life, so we licensed the clips at the beginning of the film that talk about the tsunami. That was also not any ordinary licensing job because those people were witnesses to the tragedy. That was very difficult, sensitive stuff, but I am so proud. I feel good that we were able to tell those stories and the ambassador to Japan, who is this wonderful supporter of the film, is always sending me medals. It's a good feeling that we sometimes get a bad rap as documentary filmmakers--maybe because of reality tv, where you feel like you can go into a scene and interrupt and manipulate and make lots of money--but I feel instead you can be of service and tell stories that aren't otherwise told and really wake people up to other people's realities that they would never ordinarily think of. What's it like to be this person who is a world far away from them?
AT: As a woman do you bring more intuition to your skill set?
LW: I might be able to put up with more. And I'm more scrappy, I don't suffer the ego constraints: it has helped me that I have no seeming floor in terms of what I will do to get a shot. That's where being a woman comes in. I have no expectation that it should be easy. I don't know about the observant thing. I think there are men who are super observant and empathic.
AT: You have an androgynous quality. You're athletic, stylish, rigorous, feminine, fearless, sensitive, highly demanding of yourself and others, with a tough work ethic. That isn't something I think of as male or female but a combination of both.
LW: You have to be an all-arounder and I am. I am a bit academic and a bit athletic and a bit visual and a bit musical. At school I liked everything. And I was an achiever and I really enjoyed it. I was curious and wanted to know everything. With a good teacher, I was super interested in stuff.
AT: Were you competitive?
I wasn't competitive in the sense that I was happy when other people were doing well, but I always wanted my films to be good, I wanted them to be fabulous. I owe it to the film and the people who have entrusted me with their story to do the best I can, and to the collaborators. I gave credit on this last film to everybody involved. I feel you owe it to everybody, it's such an intense endeavor.
It annoys me when I see documentaries which aren't fully realized for one reason or another. I always want to max out what's possible. You come back to the audience, it's a lot to ask and you take people out of their world. There's a lot of beautiful films out there. I don't want to make a film unless there's something better they could be watching. It's easier to do bad work. I'm not very good at working quickly. I'm a bit of a slow coach. When it comes to writing I am awfully slow. There are sacrifices. There are so many perks, I can't complain. There are so many privileges. You get to introduce people to each other, you get to go on these epic adventures and people can say, "how was it?" and you can say, "watch the film!"
This is the best distillation of what I have just been through. It’s this moment in history where nonfiction is so thrilling. The other films look like a bunch of play actors acting out the neuroses of the screenwriters. We've got the ability now, using mounds of cheap data and good-looking portable affordable cameras, we are able to have this technology to engineer real life into a satisfying film. At NYU, you learn cinematography, sound recording, sound editing, acting, writing, directing, just every discipline and with documentary you get to wear all those hats. I've made so many mistakes that nobody even knows about because they were in the field or the editing room. I had this opportunity to learn so much and play and learn and make mistakes. It's been amazing.
AT: Then why do you want to do features?
LW: I still want to do feature films because I do think, 'God, give me a script and actors.' There's a chance when I do it I'll come running back to documentary where you have so much more freedom.