ExperTEAs: Filmmaker Lucy Walker


photo of Lucy Walker via lucywalkerfilm.com

NYWIFT is a launching a new series along the lines of our popular Power Player Breakfast, but with a smaller more intimate setting and not as early in the morning.

The series, ExperTEAs launches with the documentary powerhouse and award winning filmmaker Lucy Walker. Walker’s documentaries have won over 50 film awards, and she has twice been nominated for an Academy Award: first for Waste Land (2010), a documentary feature which won over 30 honors, including audience awards at both the Sundance and Berlin film festivals; and a year later for The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2011), about survivors of Japan’s 2011 tsunami, which also won the nonfiction jury prize at Sundance.

Her three previous feature documentaries are Devil’s Playground (2002), Blindsight (2006) and Countdown to Zero (2010). Blindsight, about blind Tibetan students climbing Everest, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and won prizes at Berlin and other festivals. Countdown to Zero, about nuclear weapons, premiered at Sundance and played as an Official Selection at Cannes. Devil’s Playground, about Amish teenagers, premiered at Sundance and was nominated for three Emmys (Best Documentary, Best Director, Best Editing) and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. She has also been nominated for two Emmys for Outstanding Directing for Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues.

I’ve seen Walker speak before and she is not only shares endless knowledge of her craft, but always provides personal insights into her process; letting us all peak inside her world in a truthful and meaningful way.  I’ll be at the ExperTEAs events, and I hope to see you there.

Walker graciously answered a few questions for NYWIFT Blog readers:

You seem to fluidly go back and forth between feature documentaries and short documentaries. What is the process on deciding if the film will be a short or feature? Do you know before going in, early in the process or only in the editing room?

Actually I also go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, it’s just that the fiction films have never gotten made! So that’s how I think of my work, is going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. In the nonfiction space I’ve made feature films almost exclusively – 5 at this point, but in the past couple of years I’ve made a few shorter films too. I also made shorts back at film school – narrative ones, and I thought I’d never make shorts again because the financing model makes features viable but not shorts. However in the past couple of years there’s been funding for a few short projects, so I’ve really enjoyed making them too. It’s always been 100% clear to me whether a film would be a short or a feature. I’ve never doubted for a moment whether a particular project would be one or the other. The key for me is that there needs to be a lot of story for a feature, serious twists and turns, so much richness and interest, so many beautiful shots and so many moving moments, all creating a compelling narrative that will suck viewers in and sustain and reward their attention for 90+ minutes. I love making the shorts too because they keep me sharp and allow me to tell shorter stories or explore subjects that are very powerful albeit without the narrative. For example my film The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom was incredibly important and compelling but in a much more poetic way, there’s a certain deep narrative structure that starts with the tsunami hitting on March 11th and ends with the cherry blossom season coming to the region a month later, and we meet lots of memorable characters with incredibly stories, but there just wasn’t enough narrative. Some people might have made it a feature but I’d much prefer to make a strong short than a diluted lengthier film. The answer to “what is the perfect length for a film?” is always “15 seconds short of boring”!

Do you remember the first moment you knew you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker?

I don’t think of myself as a documentary filmmaker I’m really a filmmaker in general whose fiction projects never get made, and whose documentary projects have all gotten made! I was lucky to study at NYU Graduate Film program at Tisch School of the Arts which was a four-year all-fiction program but for one year we had the legendary Barbara Kopple teaching a class, and so I learned a terrific amount from her in that one class, and then applied all the other skills and experiences from my theater-directing background and short fiction student films that I’d made to make my first documentary, Devil’s Playground.

The short of clip of The Crash Reel on the website is one of those “can’t look away but OMG” falls, are you a snowboarder yourself? Was there a different approach to this documentary since it covers extreme sports?

I’m not a snowboarder. I’m a filmmaker, so my approach was the same as I’ve approached all my films – how do I make the best possible film here.

Many filmmakers often discuss that the “press junket/circuit” that is needed after a film is completed is sometimes frustrating because they are antsy to start the next project.  Do you enjoy speaking at events and attending festival as much as you did when you started out or more? What advice do you give to first time documentary filmmakers about promoting their films that you’ve learned from years of experience?
I really enjoy the festival circuit and talking about my work and running around the world going to interesting places meeting fabulous people. I also love taking a break from working on films because it’s such hard work! The challenge is that you don’t get paid and you could spend years flying around not working when yes, at some point pretty quickly I want to be getting along and making another film, and indeed I need to get back to work as I’m not independently wealthy and more than anything I enjoy actually making films, even more than presenting them at film festivals. It’s a nice problem to have though, to have too many fun festival invitations, so I try to keep that in perspective as I mull the wonderful invitations:-))

Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM at Citibank, NA, 640 Fifth Ave at 52nd Street. Admission is $25. The event is for NYWIFT members only.

For more information on ExperTEAs with Lucy Walker or if you are a NYWIFT Member and would like to attend, please visit the NYWIFT WEBSITE.
Want to join NYWIFT? Apply here.




nywift New York Women in Film & Television supports women calling the shots in film, television and digital media.

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