Tasha Robinson is at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, talking to filmmakers about their projects shortly after their premières. The Tribeca 10 interview series addresses some key ideas in these brand-new releases in 10 minutes or less.
When Albert Maysles died in March 2015, documentary cinema lost one of its most notable voices, an endlessly curious and patient observer of the world. But just days before his death, he got a chance to watch the completed cut of his latest project, In Transit, co-directed with four young up-and-comers in a clear passing of the torch. The film, shot by Maysles, Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu, and David Usui over the course of three cross-country trips on Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, noses into the lives of a variety of people on epic journeys. Some of them talk to the filmmakers about who they are and why they’re there; others converse among themselves, with the camera as a passive third party in the mix. The film finds a lot of lives in transition—a boy who quit his job with no notice to move west on a whim, a pregnant woman who’s three days overdue and off to reunite with family, a drunk young man who dropped everything to run to the estranged girl he loves, and more. In Transit is currently seeking a U.S. distributor. It made its world première at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, April 16.
The Dissolve: Talking to people on a train, you’re going to get a lot of stories about physical and emotional journeys. But even within that subset, it seems like In Transit features a lot of people whose lives are in major upheaval, and seeking resolution. Did you prioritize those stories in editing? Was there a philosophy in terms of what you were looking for while shooting?
Lynn True: There wasn’t a set plan from the very beginning. Although I will say that we all sort of had in our minds the idea that this train does capture so many stories of the American Dream. That was definitely on our minds at the time. We weren’t pursuing that deliberately, so much as trying to be open to the possibilities of stories that played into that theme. When we came across those stories, we were really excited. But then at the same time, we were surprised at a lot of the other themes and stories that emerged from the different people that we met.
The Dissolve: Did you have any particular philosophy in terms of like what you were looking for as you were asking questions of people?
Nelson Walker: It was different for everybody. We were always interested in why people were traveling, and where they were coming from, and where they were going, generally what was on their minds, and happening in their lives. We would periodically ask about train travel—why they liked riding the train, what was important about train travel. And often, we were curious about people’s dreams—the bigger things happening in their lives, whether it was related to the train or not. The train is a space where it’s just natural to dream, to look out the window, to think about things. When we would come in to speak to people, we would have access to those dreams. And I think some of them come out on screen.
The Dissolve: How was the final edit managed with all the footage?
True: I was editing as we were shooting. I worked with a wonderful assistant editor, David Osit, who actually has two other films at the Tribeca Film Festival. [Thank You For Playing and Live From New York! Osit was the editor on both. —ed.] And he worked with me for the first two months, and we had a very extensive system of logging and note-taking and making sure we organized everything enough so that we could find something three months later that might have felt like a throwaway on first viewing, but later ended up being a really important transition in terms of themes that had been developing. It really wasn’t rocket science.
I was spending 14-, 15-hour days the first nine months, sifting through everything, finding the stories and characters I thought had the most potential, pulling them together into some semblance of a rough cut, and then working more directly with Nelson, my filmmaking partner, and showing Ben and David and Albert rough cuts along the way. But it really was a long process of whittling things down and continuing to rearrange the parts, tweaking, and just coming up with a structure that made sense, given that we didn’t want it to be a film that forced you to track literally in terms of directionality or region. We really wanted the stories to carry the film. It ended up sort of being a three-act structure in terms of the three days it takes you to get from end to end.
Walker: Lynn is really the mastermind behind the edit, but we were all involved in the editing process. Lynn was the one who was actually making the cuts, but it was an active process for us of looking at cuts, providing feedback. We could all filter through material and kind of cull it down to give to her. But again, we all have different parts of the process. And I think that’s what makes this film so special as a film by five people. We all really respected each other’s opinions and spaces in the film, and I think the film came out so much better through that.
The Dissolve: Were you personally shooting?
True: I wasn’t shooting. I was on the train with the guys, but it was Ben, David, Nelson, and Albert doing most of the shooting.
The Dissolve: Nelson, what was your favorite thing you shot, whether it ended up in the film or not? For instance, you mentioned in the Q&A that you loved one subject who duct-taped beer to the outside of the train to keep it cold in transit, and to hide it from train staff, but he isn’t in the film.
Walker: He was a character we actually didn’t film, because he was really cagey. He loved talking to us. He was almost flirting with us. Because he knew we wanted to film with him, and he was just not letting us do it. Albert loved people very easily and very deeply, and I hope that sort of comes across in the film. Pretty much everybody I filmed with, especially those who make it in the film, I felt like I had a very intimate relationship with. There’s a trust that takes place. You know, when you’re just meeting somebody, for them to be generous with their stories and their lives in just a moment, you just kind of form this bond. I’m just so grateful to all the people who are in the film. So to say I had a favorite, it’s hard to say. We have kept in touch with Joel the photographer, for example, and have actually become friends outside of the film, which is wonderful. He’s someone who will be in our lives for a long time to come.
The Dissolve: Was there anything besides the cagey beer-taper that you were just unhappy that you couldn’t capture on film?
Walker: There are actually too many to name. I can give a story of another person who was great, but who we did film with. There was a couple I saw on the train. The man had on a pinstriped suit and a hat, and was wearing women’s blue suede high heels, and he was snuggling with a woman. And I approached them, and found out they had just been married for the second time. They were divorced 30 years earlier—they actually had a child, then got divorced. And during that 30 years, the man had had a stroke and it made one of his legs go up like this [indicates sharply angled foot] so in order to walk regularly, he had to wear high heels to balance out the other leg. And he decided, “If I’m going to be wearing high heels, I might as well do it as bold and loud as possible.” His ex-wife, her second husband had a stroke also, and they re-connected over that. And now they were going out to see their daughter and their grandchild together for the first time ever, after 30 years.
The Dissolve: I can understand getting people to be candid in interviews, in telling you that kind of life story. But when you’re just observing two people who know each other, having a conversation, how did your group get those people to be so relaxed and intimate and in the moment?
True: You know, honestly, I think those particular moments and scenes were a lot of luck. And just kind of an effect of circumstances of good friends traveling together. Maybe they hadn’t seen each other for a while. It was a rare instance of them getting to spend that 10 hours together, going on a trip together. And their interactions ended up being really tender and intimate, just because the space of the train does allow the rest of the world to fall away for that bit. You have that suspended moment in time where you’re not so wrapped up in your everyday struggles, concerns, issues. And you are kind of hovering in this train space. You have this forward motion, but you’re able to sit back, relax, and reflect on whatever else is going on with you.
I think those kind of overheard moments that we have in the film were really lucky. We just found a lot of pairs of friends or groupings of people who were already in those intimate conversations before we arrived. And when we asked if we might film them across the aisle for a little bit, we were finding them mid-conversation. They weren’t having to restart and feel awkward about it. But I will add that as much as we did capture a lot of intimate and great conversations, both in interviews and sort of overheard, I wouldn’t want to romanticize it and imply that that happened all over the place, because it didn’t. We filmed 400 hours, and hundreds of those hours were unusable. They were not intimate, they were not interesting, and they weren’t really going anywhere. We definitely had enough to construct the film, but it was a challenge to find those things and carve them out and place them.
The Dissolve: Once you were looking at those 400 hours of footage, how did you conceive the story you wanted to build out of it?
True: It really came from this abstract idea Albert has always had, about how people should be able to connect. They can connect if you just relax for a moment and open your mind to the possibility of how you might relate to the person sitting in that seat next to you, or two cars down. We really were hoping to capture examples of that idea, that concept. Albert’s lived in New York for so many years. I’m from New York. To me, this film is sort of a microcosm of that idea of community, where the train is this kind of interesting container. If you were to throw down four walls around any section of New York City, or any town in America, and you kind of forced all the people to meet each other or spend 10 hours together they might not otherwise, we did truly believe you would find someone you related to, and had something in common with that you might not have considered if you were just walking down the street. Again, this container of the train really sort of forced travelers to look at people in different ways, and consider themselves in a way they might not have otherwise in everyday normal life.
The Dissolve: How did you personally get involved with this project?
True: Nelson and I have known Albert and his family for many, many years. And Nelson and I have made many films together in a kind of Maysles-ey style—an observational direct-cinema style. Albert was been a fan of our work. And so when it became clear that we were going to get funding for this film and access from Amtrak, he asked Nelson and me to come onboard to co-direct with him, because it’s just a challenging film to make. We had to be very mobile. Albert’s a great filmmaker, but at the time we started filming, he was 87. I think one thing people don’t recognize enough is that all of Albert and his brother David’s films have been collaborations with dedicated producers, editors, and other filmmakers along the way. That’s something he’s always really embraced, as much as films are mostly associated with him and his brother. He really appreciates and relies on dedicated collaborators to work with him on realizing those visions.
The Dissolve: You guys were a filmmaking team before this project. Was it difficult to integrate other people into the mix?
Walker: No. Collaboration has always been a real critical part of the work that we’ve done together. The film we made prior to this [Summer Pasture], we made in Tibet with a nomad family. And we collaborated with a Tibetan filmmaker. And our project before that was a four-director film. I’m really excited about collaboration. I feel like it doesn’t happen enough in films, especially in documentary. In some way, having this multiplicity of voices and a lot of people putting everything they have into what comes up onscreen, it maybe comes a little closer to the reality, which is not just a single person’s take on the world. It’s a composite of a whole bunch of different people.
Tomorrow: Benni Diez, of Stung