The Crash Reel: Interview with Director Lucy Walker

Academy Award nominee Lucy Walker’s latest documentary, The Crash Reel, tells the story of Kevin Pearce, the Vermont snowboarder poised on the cusp of Olympic glory until a horrifying accident left him with a traumatic brain injury. Walker talks to us about how she captured both gloriously big and affectingly small moments, and making “strange, lyrical, never-before-seen-on-film movies.”

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With its deft mix of original footage, home videos, ESPN broadcasts and other archival material, the film is a firm condemnation of extreme sport and the wreckage it does to the human body; various montages of athlete interviews disclose catalogs of injury, a ruinous flip side to the dazzling exhilaration that spectators experience. They also reveal the troubling repetitiveness of the phenomenon – an addiction to the dangerous heights of snowboarding, skiing, motorsports, and so on that calls athletes like moths back to the very sports that destroy them. Beyond the film’s more overt message, though, is the quiet pleasure of watching the truly loving, unassuming Pearce family navigate their way through their trials, bending to the force of life’s currents with a noble dignity. Walker’s footage is startlingly intimate; her camera, with apparent uncanniness, captures conversations full of everyday momentousness.

This isn’t something one expects to say about a story that’s been as publicly visible as Kevin Pearce’s, but it speaks to Walker’s strengths – as a craftswoman of narrative, and of small moments full of delicate deep feeling – that we don’t want to give any more of her film away. Watch it in theaters tomorrow and read our (equally open) interview with Walker below (did you know she used to direct Blue’s Clues?); her recount of her experience as a student at Tisch is about as inspiring as her documentaries themselves.

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Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): At what moment do you know for sure that you need to make something into a film? Is it a gradual feeling, or a lightbulb moment?

Lucy Walker (LW): Simple – I want to make the best film possible, and so I am always, always, always, on the lookout for a story that will make the best film. Even when I am asleep and dreaming, I never take any time off. And when I get an idea I turn it over in my brain for a while, until it either gets more interesting the more I think about it, in which case I’ll pursue it; or else – more commonly – the opposite happens, and I realize that the story isn’t that interesting or important, or the access isn’t sufficient. If I don’t want to pursue making the film then I try to fold the hand as soon as possible in that case, and stay clear and ready to play a better hand when it will be dealt in the future.

MM: How do you retain some level of objectivity and let your stories unfold organically, instead of mentally nudging a theme or narrative in a certain direction in your telling of the story?

LW: At no point in my films have I felt that I could nudge them in a direction. They truly organically unfold. My job is to figure out what is happening and how best to film it in the exact same moment that it is happening. I don’t think I’d have the spare energy to think about nudging on top of that. Reality un-nudged is more interesting that anything I’d be nudging it to produce. Reality is the absolutely most fascinating thing, in my view, and the whole point is to observe and describe it as well as possible. Nudging doesn’t have a part in that.

MM: You managed to get extremely intimate footage of Pearce family dinners and other emotional, personal scenes. How did you achieve that level of openness with the Pearce family?

LW: Oh, I have tons of tips and tricks, such as working with a tiny crew – for example, in The Crash Reel I recorded the sound myself and the only other crew was the brilliant DP Nick Higgins. That was it. Just the two of us being as low-key as possible in order not to disturb what we had come to shoot. And I made sure to show up at the moments where things were really going down, and to get in there from the very beginning and to film the whole thing.

However, the most important tip by far is to work with these wonderful people who have the rare gift of being able to open up honestly and share their experiences courageously. The Pearce family let you into what is going on for them, and that’s what the audience loves most about the film, is how well they relate to Kevin and his family.

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MM: Talk us through how you developed the structure. There are some key pieces of information revealed at extremely effective points in the film; how did you make these choices?

LW: I’m always trying to make the choices that make for the strongest film. It is always fundamentally important figuring out when to reveal what information, so thank you for noticing! There are a few reveals and cuts in the film that I’m so proud of. If in doubt, try different versions out in the editing room and watch them back, and make other people watch them, and you will learn what works the best. By now I guess I generally have confident ideas pretty quickly and make quick calls about how to structure material, whereas with my first film I had to try things twenty different ways and watch them all back and worry about the options a lot before I figured out which choice to go with. Filmmaking is such a craft and I believe that the more you try to learn it the better you get.

MM: It seemed like the Pearces were a family who documented everything themselves with home videos. Did you have as much choice of home video footage as I imagine, and if so, how difficult was it to wade through it?

LW: We had a treasure trove of archival materials: 19 terabytes. 232 separate individuals or organizations gave us footage, the vast majority of which were not conventional archives and so took a lot of work to locate and wrangle. For example, somebody had filmed something but had lost the key to their ex-girlfreind’s storage locker – and even when they sent us the material it turned out to be their sex tapes instead of the snowboarding contests! Our budget prohibited us from using fancy archival researchers, so we developed a small and brilliant team in-house  of a couple of people who started as interns and wound up being entirely responsible for this Herculean task.

MM: What is your shooting style for the footage you shot yourself? Do you shoot on the fly, or prefer as much set-up as possible?

LW: I do all different kinds of filming for different scenes of different projects. Even when shooting on the fly, though, there is a lot of set-up. For example in the dinner scenes in the Pearce family home, Nick the DP and I pre-lit the entire ground floor of the house with brighter bulbs that looked natural yet gave us enough light to shoot any way we pleased.

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MM: Was there anything about the experience that you wish had gone another way?

LW: Honestly the worst thing about making the film was that I loved the family so much, and I loved our team so much, that I am now afraid I may not have such a happy experience every time. And that makes me sad. I can’t say enough good things about our incredible little team and I hope we get to keep working together.

MM: In terms of financing and budgets, has that process gotten easier for you as your career has progressed (especially with Academy Award nominations)? Or is it still something of a struggle?

LW: It’s still a struggle to find financing for docs, and I like to think of this as a good challenge, because when you are looking for financing the rejections help you to hone and develop your ideas about a project. When confronted by a setback I have one phrase that I like to keep telling myself, which is “Maybe this is happening to help me.” It’s a terrific trick; I recommend everybody plays with that idea that when something is seemingly going wrong. It may be the very best thing in disguise. Too many of the best things in my life were things that I fought against, and so I’ve been humbled so many times that I try to let go of getting attached to any notions of “struggle” and embrace absolutely everything.

MM: What piece of advice informs the way you make films today?

LW: When I first went to film school, I was younger and broker than everybody else in my class. I had moved to New York the day before, and knew nobody and had no resources in the whole city. I didn’t even have bed sheets yet, let alone a hot film project. I had never made a film before, I hadn’t even seen a film camera, and I discovered that everyone else in my class had made several films in order to get in, whereas I had submitted paintings and play scripts and storyboards.

Fortunately a professor named David Irving said, “Well, you are here to make mistakes, after all, because that’s the way you learn, and so you are well placed to make as many mistakes as possible”. The best advice ever. I pursued my own interests, didn’t worry about making mistakes, and experimented with anything I found interesting, including taking an undergrad animation class and a documentary class which my classmates felt was beneath them, and both those eccentricities wound up being transformative for me. The animation class helped get me my first job directing Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues. And that documentary class, taught by the legendary Barbara Kopple, turned out to be life-changing. I also had a phenomenal fiction directing teacher named Boris Frumin whose catchphrase was “Don’t make bad, boring, generic movies. Make strange, lyrical, never-before-seen-on-film movies” which is always in my head as I work. MM

The Crash Reel opens in theaters Friday, December 13, 2013.

All photographs by Adam Moran; Lucy Walker photograph by Charley Galley.

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