Filmmaker Lucy Walker

The two-time Oscar nominee discusses her latest project, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, and recounts her experience in Japan a few weeks after that country’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Lucy Walker is a celebrated documentary filmmaker, with credits that include Nickelodeon's Emmy-nominated Blue's Clues and the films Waste Land, which won an Oscar nod for feature documentary in 2011, and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, which received a best documentary short Academy Award nomination this year. Walker grew up in London, directed theater in high school and graduated from Oxford, where her plays won prestigious awards. She won a Fulbright Scholarship to NYU's Graduate Film Program, and, while there, moonlighted as a musician and DJ.


Tavis: Lucy Walker is now a two-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker who previously joined us for a terrific project, “Waste Land.” Her latest is once again up for an Academy Award this year. It’s called “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.” So here now, a scene from “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.”

[Preview of “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom”]

Tavis: So I was just asking you how soon you were there after the tsunami hit.

Lucy Walker: Yeah, just a couple weeks.

Tavis: Couple of weeks.

Walker: Yeah.

Tavis: So you saw.

Walker: It was very devastated, and I guess you imagine in a disaster zone there’ll be, like, a lot of people cleaning up a pretty small area, and after the tsunami last March in Japan it was a giant area that was affected.

Hundreds of miles of coastline and two miles inland, and because of the radiation and contamination it wasn’t as cleaned up as you’d think. It was sort of like being in a very strange horror movie kind of after the apocalypse situation, and just a few lonely people trying to get their belongings, or rescue workers.

But it was a very strange, eerie, empty landscape. Very few people around, compared to a very large area of very, very tragically devastated land.

Tavis: Obviously the persons who live there had to endure the hell of that tsunami when it came, and the aftermath. You didn’t have to go there. I’m glad you did now that I’ve seen your work. You didn’t have to go there.

But to your point about radiation and this radioactive air that people were breathing, you didn’t have any concern for your own health?

Walker: A lot of concern, and also we had a crew of three of us, and you feel very responsible for the crew. We took very calculated risks and we got a lot of information and we were in the – around the exclusion zone, around the Fukushima plant, for a very brief amount of time.

A lot of the exposure risk is actually about time, if you’re there for a long time. If you live there, you’re in really big trouble. But we were sort of on the edge of the zone very briefly and sort of upwind of the really tricky area, so we were careful. But it was scary.

Tavis: So unlike “Waste Land,” you could not have planned to do a documentary about a tsunami, much less a cherry blossom, because you didn’t know a tsunami was coming.

Walker: That’s right.

Tavis: So how did this project end up being?

Walker: I know. It’s sort of a classic story of real life created for your responding, I suppose, to real-life situations as they unfold. I’d originally been invited to Japan to promote my film, “Countdown to Zero,” about nuclear weapons, and was preparing for that trip when the tsunami hit on March 11th.

I was watching this news, horrified. I have lots of Japanese friends, I was planning this trip to go right then and feeling very move and wanting to encourage and support our Japanese friends that were having such a difficult time.

It was sort of like a triple whammy. You had this worth earthquake that had ever hit Japan, this terrible tsunami in which over 15,000 people were killed and lots more missing and displaced, and then you had this terrible nuclear disaster that was just so frightening.

I felt just like I wanted to help and I’d already been obsessed with cherry blossom. I’d always wanted to see the cherry blossoms in Japan and I’d been thinking when I was there promoting my film “Countdown to Zero” about nuclear weapons I could maybe shoot a little something about cherry blossoms to kind of almost cheer myself up.

Because the nuclear weapons, very sad story, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, I felt like I should go to Japan, but it was also difficult, sad work. So I wanted to see the cherry blossom and had been thinking about making a little film about cherry blossom when the tsunami hit.

Then they postponed the release of “Countdown to Zero.” I didn’t need to go to Japan anymore, but I had this trip planned and the idea kept going in my head – this is a time that Japan needs people to go there and listen to the people. What are they going through, what’s it like for them, what do they need?

Do they need encouragement? Do they need support? You want to show solidarity. You don’t want to kind of cancel your trip. The cherry blossom image, as well I knew cherry blossoms, is kind of a symbol of fleeting, fragile life. It’s very beautiful, but it blooms and dies all within a week.

The Japanese really celebrate that. They have hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties, which I’ve always wanted to go to, where you go out on a spring evening and look at the beautiful cherry blossom and kind of reflect on precious life.

I thought that was very beautiful, and I wondered, my goodness, what’s it going to be like there this year? Reflecting on precious life this year is going to be very raw and very tragic.

I kept thinking maybe this is a film that’s much more important than my original idea about maybe making something about cherry blossom. Maybe this is a story I really have a responsibility to tell because I’m sort of ready to tell.

So I sort of stepped up, and when I got there I wasn’t sure whether people were going to want to talk to me. I can’t speak Japanese. But people really wanted to share their story and were so happy that people were flying in, not flying away, and asking them how they were doing, and really touched.

You don’t need to force an image of a cherry blossom on Japanese people. When you say, “How are you doing?” and they’re standing in this destroyed landscape but poking up through the debris a beautiful cherry blossom just budding beautifully, when you just say, “How are you doing?” people will start looking at the cherry blossom, saying, “That is encouraging me. If the cherry blossom hasn’t drowned in that salt water, I’m not going to give up either.”

Tavis: So it ends up being about healing, then, in some ways.

Walker: It’s a poem about healing. It’s yeah, a film that’s very much about how do human beings carry on? If something tragic happens in your life, how do you get up the next day and clean up and carry on when you’ve got so much grief and loss in your heart?

Tavis: So let me just ask how then did you, did Lucy, process actually seeing the cherry blossoms?

Walker: Oh, my goodness. I love cherry blossoms, I think they’re so beautiful, and I wish the world would celebrate them a little bit more. I think it’s just a beautiful, beautiful tradition, and I find them such a gorgeous symbol.

They’re beautiful to photograph and they’re just here very briefly. But whenever I see them, and even in Los Angeles, we’re in Los Angeles today, went to the Oscar nominee luncheon and it’s very exciting, but there’s all these buds around and springtime’s coming – I love it.

Tavis: There are a number of cities in the world famous for their cherry blossoms

Walker: That’s right.

Tavis: Washington, D.C. has its – our nation’s capital has a big –

Walker: You know it’s the 100th anniversary this year of the gift of cherry blossoms from Japan to Washington, D.C.?

Tavis: This year?

Walker: This year.

Tavis: I did not know that.

Walker: I did not know that either until recently, and it’s very beautiful.

Tavis: I was about to ask, then, to your point now, which nice segue, whether or not there is something special and unique about watching cherry blossoms in Japan versus Washington or someplace else. I know at the time it was unique in Japan because of the aftermath of the tsunami.

Walker: Yeah, this year – last year was very somber and very emotional because so many people were grieving and worrying about the people that have lost loved ones, but I think a cherry blossom is a – for me it’s a really human symbol of hope and renewal and springtime kind of in our hearts./

The film is at once very specific about the people in that northeast Tohoku region of Japan, who were just so devastated by the tsunami last March, but it’s also very universal about we as human beings, kind of this flower somehow leads us into the future, just makes us keep marching on, and somehow spring and renewal and hope.

It’s a very optimistic film, even though it starts with this very tragic shot of a town literally being washed away by a tsunami – very shocking image.

Tavis: Now that you’ve been nominated two years in a row for an Academy Award as a documentarian, have you figured out what they are looking for?

Walker: No.

Tavis: Have you figured out what they like to honor? Have you figured out – I’m just trying to get a sense of what the process is, and I want to – let me clarify this. I’m not suggesting that you’re making documentaries to be Academy nominated.

Walker: Yeah.

Tavis: I know you love the work, this is what you do. But all of us want to be appreciated for the work that we do. But when you get nominated two years in a row, what have you figured out?

Walker: I know, my friends are not even congratulating me, because it seems like it’s too easy, but it’s not. It’s just all the stars have to align.

Tavis: So what have you figured out then, yeah?

Walker: I’m just lucky, and it was just a very amazing sort of responsibility I had with this film to tell this story this year, and I like to think that it’s good, old-fashioned filmmaking and I’ve made another film, “Blind Sight” in Tibet, that was shortlisted for the Oscar and didn’t get nominated.

So I definitely don’t always get lucky, but I think this one was very, very special and I think people watching it feel very connected with the people in Japan, and the people in Japan are very eloquent about their feelings.

The cherry blossoms are gorgeous, and we meet this cherry master who is a 16th generation cherry master, who his family has been tending this nursery full of cherry trees for 300 years, and he can talk about the amazing significance of the blossom.

It’s a symbol that’s both Shinto, which is all about the spirits and the natural world, and also Buddhist, which is about how life, we’re confronted with constant change and everything is very ephemeral.

So it’s a symbol that really talks a lot about how life is very precious and we’re only here for a very short time, and the natural world around us is very beautiful but very tragic also, this kind of creation and destruction in nature.

So I think the film is very powerful and just speaks about that, and the Academy I love to think recognizes proper, good movie making. So I just love to think that it’s a really properly, well-made movie, and we had amazing music by Moby, who did the music for “Waste Land.”

Tavis: Oh, yeah, your friend, yeah.

Walker: I had amazing editing by (unintelligible) a fantastic Japanese editor, amazing cinematography by Aaron Phillips. So really talented, talented filmmaking team.

Tavis: So how do you go about choosing the projects that you want to do? I know the back story on this one. Because your work is so disparate and you’ve done so many different things, whether it’s Tibet or cherry blossoms or “Waste Land,” what’s the process for –

Walker: Yeah, it’s a good question. I just feel like so lucky that the things I’m interested in –

Tavis: That’s a pretty eclectic list, though.

Walker: It is an eclectic list, but Tibet, I was interested in blind people, I was really wanting to make a film about what’s it like to be a blind person. Amish kids, I made a film about Amish kids, and I’ve always just been fascinated with the Amish and what’s it like to grow up Amish.

“Waste Land,” I just thought, my goodness, what happens when life gets you to the point where you’re picking through garbage? What does that feel like, and what is life like for us that some people are in that position and other people are on top of the world in the art world?

So I just sort of feel like I love about documentary filmmaking that you get an opportunity to walk in other people’s shoes and find out what’s it like to be a different person. Film is such a strong medium, because you feel so connected to the people on the big screen. You feel that you can walk in somebody’s shoes and really get a sense of what that life’s like.

If you can combine it with a good movie with a good story that’s really watchable and sucks you in, then you’re in the money, I think.

Tavis: Lucy Walker has a very fertile and imaginative mind, given all the things that fascinate her, and fortunately for us she actually takes a crew out with cameras and microphones and all that good stuff and captures it for us on film, and she does some good stuff – so much so that the Academy for two consecutive years has nominated her as a documentarian.

So congratulations again, and who knows, maybe around this time next year I’ll be seeing you here on the set again.

Walker: I’m going to go make another movie so I can get back here. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, come on back.

Walker: I’d love that.

Tavis: You have to hold a slot for Lucy, guys, next year.

Walker: Okay.

Tavis: Right around Oscar time, so Lucy can be back again.

Walker: I wish, I wish.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Walker: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Tavis: “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” is the project. That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm