The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Bring Your Own Brigade.
It was fascinating to learn that you had already been in the process of making a film about wildfires when the Camp and Woolsey fires occurred. Can you tell us about that?
Lucy Walker: That’s right. The reason I was able to really embed, and I knew what I was looking at and could just jump in, and start asking the right questions was because I’d actually been working on the film already for about a year at that point, when those fires came along. I had been mulling, for years, “why isn’t there a film about this wildfire thing that’s happening?” There are so many incredible filmmakers making incredible documentaries! I was kind of waiting for somebody else so I could understand what was going on, and really reflect on it. And it wasn’t for years until I thought, “oh, maybe that’s me.” I’m very interested in our environment and how we live. And I was living in California — I’d moved to California — and I saw the hillsides on fire, and I was very frightened and very curious. And I kind of think I sensed this kind of cognitive dissonance… I knew there was something off, I knew there was something I wasn’t getting about the picture. Why couldn’t we put the fires out? Why are we living right there, with the fires, and people are just driving down the freeway? I knew there was something that I knew I sort of wanted to make sense of that wasn’t making sense to me. And I think the film was that journey. When it really crystalized for me that I was going to make a film about this was when the biggest fire in California history came along, and that was the Thomas fire, which ignited in December 2017, and I thought, “OK, this is a contained story that I can use as just, you know, a way of focusing in on this big international problem.” I’m just going to focus on one fire, I thought I’d make a short film about it. And I befriended the firefighters and learned how to embed, and really got situated, and there was a terrible debris flow, and it was a terrible incident. And I filmed some good footage which I thought would make a good short film (I love making short films; this is by far my longest film, actually, I really don’t like making films longer than they need to be, and I think this needed to be this length). And I was making my film about the Thomas fire, the biggest fire ever in California history, when an even bigger one came along a few months later! And I thought, “oh my gosh, what is going on?” There’s an even bigger one already?! This is a worse problem than I thought. I can’t make a film about just one fire, I need to make a film about what is really going on in the big picture. So that’s when I really committed to getting to the bottom of this fire problem, which was a really really tall order, as I now know.
firefighting is not a magical robot computer world
How did your conceptions of wild fires change during the course of making this film?
LW: To be totally frank, it’s much easier as a filmmaker when you have a single story with an easy narrative. It’s much harder when you have a story that is nuanced and takes time to really do justice to. And yet, I was committed. I wasn’t going to reduce and simplify, even though the film budget and work hours and peace of mind all suffered because of it. I mean, it would have been easier… actually, it wouldn’t have provided peace of mind for me if I had simplified it, actually. The peace of mind has come now, knowing that we actually did follow the story all the way to the end, I think. But it would have been much easier if it was a simple, quick story. And it took a lot of support from producers and financiers to go down the road we chose. It was a long road, and I think everyone was sort of wishing there was a shortcut to this subject! But listen, if there was a shortcut to the subject we wouldn’t be in the problem that we’re in, and I feel like by actually following… I set out thinking I was going to make a “climate change film,” because I was looking up at the hillside, where I live, and I’m seeing climate change, and it’s come to our community. I don’t need to go to Bangladesh, or Brazil, to make a story about climate change. I can start right here in my own community. And I was really excited about that. I wanted to really look at my own environment, and think about the climate change that was at home. And then I got into it, and I thought, “oh…” It was really clear, when you get into it, that it’s not just climate change. And actually also our original investors were like, “wait… it’s not a climate change film, Lucy?” People are excited about your climate change film and then you give them the news that it’s actually not a climate change film any more… and that by going authentically and accurately into it, we’ve got to deal with the fact that it’s perhaps not how I originally pitched it. But you’ve got follow the truth— that’s actually the thing we’re all doing here. So then I think, because I had that mission to follow the truth about the story, for me it came back again to being a climate change film, because for me — obviously the climate is a huge factor driving these fires, and as the film says, it really is the “performance enhancer” — when I started to see in that town council meeting (which I did not expect to end up in the film; that was just us doing our due-diligence and homework, and learn everything and listen to everything and being really interested in which of our characters might show up at the town council meeting), we were king of rolling on it for those purposes. We didn’t expect in that moment to capture anything that would really end up in the finished movie; we were just doing our homework. And there we were on a Tuesday evening, with me sitting tiredly in the front row, and we accidentally caught this moment where you see the decision making process in Paradise. And you see how hard it is politically to align around making better decisions for the community. And I knew we witnessed something great, but it was really the more you reflected on it that you had the thought, “that is the story…” Even with what we’ve seen this town go through, even these people are finding it so hard to make change. And that became really fascinating, and I thought that it actually is a climate change film after all, because that’s an angle on climate change I hadn’t really considered, but it’s really important. How do you get people to agree, especially these rugged individualist Californians.
The first section of the film is nearly overwhelming, emotionally. Can you talk about your decision to put that difficult material at the beginning of the film?
LW: I felt like it was really important for people to understand how bad it was. And it’s hard, you know… right now I live in Venice Beach, so pretty close to Malibu. I could commute for those shoots, which is pretty rare for me! And so, it was just that thing with the disaster zone where, you know, there’s a roadblock, and on that side there’s a disaster zone, and on this side, it’s business as usual— the party goes on. And over there people are crying, and a tornado came, and their home is gone, and their business is gone… and you know, tragedy has struck. And it was so difficult to reconcile those two realities, I thought you’ve got to show people how bad it is. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be gratuitous with it. I felt really strongly that I didn’t want to make a powerful horror movie and show off my filmmaking skills just because that would be intense and affecting. I actually wrestled with whether to include such graphic footage at all, because I didn’t want to traumatize or trigger the audience. And yet, I felt like I was investigating it exactly because it’s that bad. What the firefighters go through, what the residents go through… it actually is “hell on earth.” And to not do it would mean you wouldn’t sit in that council meeting and have that kind of cognitive whiplash of thinking, “I could understand this if I hadn’t seen that. But I saw those things earlier, so now I don’t understand this.” And I think that, for me, was important. And also, the way that we edited it, I actually wanted people to see the clues. Every detail that we chose in there is meant to hopefully give people a solid first-principles grip on the situation. They themselves understand how difficult it is to get evacuation orders out, how confusing it is, how the firefighters and also the residents are making individual decisions that really will save themselves and their neighbors and their homes or not. All the details. I talked to hundreds more people than made the cut, and the details that are in there I feel like are clues. So each one of them is not just building the arc of the story, but each one is, rather, hopefully giving you as an audience member a really solid grasp of how things actually happened. Because I spoke to a lot of people who didn’t quite “get” the situation, and therefore had funny assumptions about what was possible as the fire was being fought and etc. I think if you ride along with a firefighter you realize very clearly that firefighting is not a magical robot computer world; it’s a bunch of tired people driving around doing their very best. Very good people with very good equipment, but a limited amount of it that the taxpayers have to pay for. And they’re trying to solve really overwhelming challenges moment by moment. And I think to really convey that, I had to really put the audience in it. And always with my work, I’m trying to convey what it’s actually like. And what it’s actually like is that it’s that intense. I mean, you hear me having a panic attack in the film! I’m a little less scared now, but not really. I find fire really frightening. It was really intimidating even in my case, when we weren’t very close to it and I found it really just absolutely petrifying. So I wanted the opening section of the film to reflect all of that accurately.