When is a story better on paper, and when is it better on film?
Journalist Laura Checkoway, who's written investigative features for Rolling Stone, was the former senior editor of Vibe, and co-authored My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep's Prodigy, knows the artistic dimension of the written word. But after spending nearly six years capturing her subject Lucky Torres, a tattoo-masked mother living on the streets of New York, on camera, she has now learned a lot about the intersection of storytelling across the two mediums. Having just released her award-winning documentary film, Lucky, Laura sat down with No Film School to explain the process of making this film and what she learned about the medium over the course of six years.
NFS: Your background is as a journalist. How did you get into filmmaking, and how does journalism inform your work as a filmmaker?
Laura Checkoway: I got into filmmaking through following a group of girls, including Lucky, for what was initially a print magazine story and soon turned into a documentary. As a journalist, I'd interviewed a lot of celebrities and had a knack for getting them to open up. Knack isn't really the right word, it's more so just letting people be themselves and having honest conversations. I also have lots of experience dipping deeply into people's lives, doing rigorous reporting, and crafting stories, so all of that was great training.
As a journalist, I'd interviewed a lot of celebrities and had a knack for getting them to open up...dipping deeply into people's lives, doing rigorous reporting, and crafting stories, so all of that was great training.
NFS: After that initial print story about Lucky, what made you realize she could be the subject for a feature documentary?
Laura: Lucky and I met on the street one night in 2007. She and her friends invited me to write a story about them because they wanted to be famous. After writing the article, there was so much more that I wanted to understand about Lucky's life and I wanted her to speak for herself so I started filming little clips. I actually filmed four girls for a few years and later decided that the film would focus on Lucky. Her story embodies a variety of issues including homelessness, foster care and abuse, and her resilience is really powerful.
When I first learned to edit in Final Cut, I realized that I was using the same storytelling skills, and that now my palette expanded to include footage and audio and editing software vs painting the picture with words on the page.
NFS: What would you say is the key difference creatively in writing a piece of journalism about someone versus making a documentary about them? What do you see as the relationship of journalism and documentary to each other today?
Laura: I see documentary as an extension of journalism. The camera is one big difference -- getting good shots, working with a crew -- that factors in as well. Reporting a written piece can be more intimate because it's just you and there's not all this gear. But ultimately it's about the connections you create with or without the camera. When I first learned to edit in Final Cut, I realized that I was using the same storytelling skills, and that now my palette expanded to include footage and audio and editing software vs. painting the picture with words on the page. That seems obvious, but it felt like a revelation at the time.
It was typically a team of two, a cinematographer and me, and through the years I wound up shooting a lot myself.
NFS: You followed Lucky Torres for about six years. What was that like? How often would you film and how would you decide what and when to film?
Laura: It was very rewarding although during those six years it required ongoing patience and faith. I stayed in close touch with Lucky and would film when it felt like something meaningful was happening -- as life goes, it was never quite what I expected.
As the film was showing on big screens at festivals across the world, it was crazy for me to think about how some of the scenes were shot with this little camera on auto focus.
NFS: What was the process of filming like over the course of six years?
Laura: It was bare bones; I'd take the subway to the Bronx with the gear on my back. It was typically a team of two, a cinematographer and me, and through the years I wound up shooting a lot myself. When I had a shooter with me, I'd operate the sound. Since Lucky was mostly in the streets, there wasn't much planning beyond capturing what was happening and our sensibility was to stay at eye-level with her. We shot most of it with the Canon XLH1 and also a small Canon Vixia which was easier for me to maneuver with. As the film was showing on big screens at festivals across the world, it was crazy for me to think about how some of the scenes were shot with this little camera on auto focus.
NFS: Give us some insight on the process that led to the final story. Did you know what you wanted from the beginning, or did it become more clear along the way?
Laura: The structure evolved as we edited and became more clear along the way. It took years and a handful of editors. I remember Fernanda Rossi, who helped us structure an early rough cut, saying that since we have such a slippery protagonist, the film's structure cannot be slippery. We were fortunate to receive incredible mentorship including the film's executive producer, Steve James, who came in toward the end and helped me edit and finally figure it out.
NFS: Do you have any advice for other filmmakers?
Laura: Keep going!
Thank you, Laura!
If you’d like to see the film, Lucky is now available for digital download via Vimeo On Demand, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play among others. Check out the official site for updates and more ways to see the film.