January 26, 2020
Sundance 2020

Amazing Helicopter Footage Tells the Story of Los Angeles

Whirlybird
Seeking LA in the 90s, filmmaker Matt Yoka uncovered a treasure chest of story and footage.

How do you a story about the largest city in the United States that takes place over the course of multiple decades? The short asnwer?

From the sky, of course. 

But before we get into the chopper, let's find out who's taking us there and why.

Matt Yoka is an Angeleno, and he had a deep desire to tell a story about the city. He found his tour guides in revolutionary news reporter team Zoey Tur and Marika Gerrard, they also became his mentors as he told the story of their relationship, and Los Angeles itself, through two tumultuous decades and thousands of hours of footage.

Whirlybird is a human journey through fires, earthquakes, riots, police chases, celebrity police chases, and family home videos. It's something unique to LA, unique to Zoey and Marika, and somehow... Matt captured it. 

Now it's at Sundance. I had a chance to see it and speak to Matt about how he got his first feature to this point.

Whirlybird poster

No Film School: Where did Whirlybird start? How did you get involved with the story? How did you come upon it? 

Matt Yoka: When I think back to the earliest inclination of me being interested in telling this story, it started with seeing Tom Henderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself. Have you seen it?

NFS: Yes.

Yoka: I was living in New York and I saw the movie. And it felt like seeing the city for the first time and what makes it so interesting. I was born and raised in Los Angeles as well. So it was my hometown and I was obsessed with trying to find some way to add to the conversation of understanding the city. So what I ended up doing was basically just kind of meandering through all sorts of different subject matters. I did find myself honing in on the '90s in particular. That was the era I grew up in.

NFS: Same.

Matt: All of those major events unfolded... And then I was thinking about some great LA '90s movies like Point Break or Heat. They sort of oozed the city and spoke to a little bit of the vibe that was going around, as stylized as those were.

As it turned out, Heat, and Point Break for that matter, were both really inspired by what was rampant bank robbery going on in the city. They used to call LA the bank robbery capital of the world back in the '90s.

NFS: I didn't know that. Fascinating.

Yoka: I had the statistic in my brain for years, but it's since drifted away. But there were more than 1000 banker robberies in LA per year in the early '90s. And so I was like, "Maybe bank robbery is kind of the angle." But it seemed too limited for me. And I wasn't exactly sure how to tackle it, but it got me thinking about the high-speed pursuit. That's when helicopter reporting really clicked. And as soon as that came into my mind, I realized so much of the way I'd experienced from a TV viewer, let alone living in the city was through... helicopter reporting.

And then that kind of sent me on the track to finding Zoey Tur.

Zoey Tur Whirlybird

"...the adventure you're about to go on with these people is a result of their own making." - Matt Yoka

NFS: With documentary filmmaking, it seems it is never the first thing. The trail always takes the filmmaker somewhere else. I also recognized Zoey Tur from OJ: Made in America. When you got to Zoey Tur and that part of the story, did it just take over and send you in this new direction? Tell me about how it unfolded from there?

Yoka: So I first met Zoey at the end of 2013. What I really found compelling about Zoey was that I would be able to tell a story about Los Angeles, but be able to do it through a single person. And by simply exploring Zoey's experience, it would take us through these historical events. And I hope it provides a unique perspective on those events. By actually going more specific, I wonder if it gives people an almost more human experience.

And I think that's the core of the film really. It's what grounds the film if you will, is I think the exploration of a person. Of course, I also need to mention Marika who became just as compelling to me as Zoey. And I felt that their story together told through their perspectives created a very unique tale of a relationship. 

NFS: Right and they have a family business. As you went through all of their footage, how did you put it all together, and find what you needed

Yoka: I could talk forever about the archive. That was always intended to be kind of the experience of the film. And so what I'll say goes back to the previous question when you asked me about how when making a documentary you start in one place and end up in another.

In the case of Whirlybird, I really started thinking of Zoey as kind of a tour guide of Los Angeles, and it would really be an experience. In talking with Zoey, it became clear that her personal life was not just interesting, but something that she was exploring herself. So I went on that journey with her.

When I met her was during a time of, I think, deep reflection for her about her past and who she was and who she is. All that said, I still was kind of leading with LA as the story, the story of the city. Then as I started to explore their archive, I saw that their home videos were completely intertwined with their reporting videos. 

And it kind of makes sense when you start thinking about it because... imagine you're a news stringer and you have a video camera and you're going out and shooting all these crime scenes. And then you come home after work and you bring your video camera home. Next thing you know, your kid is learning to walk for the first time. Of course, you're just going to pick up your video camera and film that.

So literally on the same tape, you could find a murder scene, and then suddenly it would cut to a kid's birthday party. And it was that kind of experience that I found so compelling within just reviewing the tapes themselves.

As I started finding these personal moments, I realized that I could tell a character story. That became much more compelling to me just because of the emotional journey I could take the audience on, and that personally I could go on as well. 

NFS: yeah that's amazing. And in that same respect, what was it like turning a camera on people who spent so much time turning the camera on others?

Yoka: Interviewing Zoey is interesting because she has so much experience interviewing people herself. And so she would often be coaching me or telling me I'm doing something wrong along the way.

And I think to give her credit, she was right.

In an interesting way, both Zoey and Marika were sort of mentors as I was making the film about them. So Zoey had a lot of opinions about the way I was going about doing things. But to her credit she also, at the end of the day, allowed me to make the movie that I wanted to make. I think both Marika and Zoey deserve a lot of credit for trusting me to go on that adventure. So it was an interesting dynamic, to say the least.

NFS: That's fascinating because these are people who know how to find the story in documentary/news style filmmaking already.

Yoka: I often say that there are so many stories in their[Zoey and Marika's] story.

Imagine much of your life was not just covering stories, but being in the center of some of these stories. I mean, they were in the LA riots as much as they were documenters of it. They really experienced it. There are so many things that they were in the middle of. The challenge in doing the interview was to try to get them to not tell me about the stories they covered but to tell me about their experience covering those stories. Do you know what I mean?

NFS: Yes, absolutely. There are absolutely moments where you can feel that they are talking about how much doing this work affected them, being a part of it and being in it emotionally.

Yoka: When I was interviewing them about the riot sequence, I made a point to NOT have them reference certain information that they've only come to learn about after the event. In other words, when talking Reginald Denny getting pulled from the truck, I had them start over and not say the name Reginald Denny, because at the time they didn't know it was Reginald Denny... They just saw this person getting pulled out of a truck.

I really wanted the audience to share in their experience, and I hope in a way empathize with the intense experience that it was. I wonder if that might make this film a little bit different than a historical film because the characters speak largely in realtime about the events, rather than bringing all of their perspective and collective knowledge that they've built since then.

NFS: There's a fascinating quality to that because of the idea of the observer effect in filmmaking. Once the filmmaker is a part of the story, that story changes. They were involved in that way that almost sort of like the real-life Nightcrawler, but less evil obviously. [Zoey] was helping people when they were in trouble. That's a part of the story. So what's fascinating is that there's a dynamic there where it's continuing like, then how'd they take it home with them?  

Yoka: Yeah, absolutely. I think when covering stories like the stories they covered, it's difficult to remove yourself from what's happening in front of the camera. I think that whether it's Zoey saving somebody or feeling tormented about what she's witnessed, that's part of the collective experience of being a news reporter, especially a breaking news reporter.

NFS: I wanted to also ask about the medium itself. I want to get a sense of how as an artist working with various types of video, how that became part of the story and how you used that in the palette. For starters, what did you shoot on and cut on? And what was the original news footage in the archive shot on?

Yoka: So we shot the interviews on ARRI Minis, and we used a Panavision 19 to 90 mm zoom lens. And we actually shot those interviews handheld. We used a rig so the camera was sort of hung by a string from the C stand.

My DP could talk more about it. He was amazing in rolling with me in this concept that I had.

I wanted there to be both an aesthetic and emotional relationship between the way we shot the interviews and the way that Zoey and Marika shot their reporting, and home videos. Which, is almost entirely all handheld and using a zoom lens. 

I wanted there to be a parallel between the two experiences. I also didn't want to lean too far into the nostalgia of the videotape 'look'. The interviews are intended to feel like modern-day. I wanted to set two different time periods that you're experiencing. Time was a big element in the film, obviously because of the archives that they have. I refer to the archive as I think probably the greatest personal time capsule of Los Angeles.

I don't know anybody who documented the city more than they did and actually owned the archive itself. And so on the note of the archive and the quality of it, I think it's worth noting that their home video at that time period is a higher quality looking home video than probably the majority of people ever shot of their kids.

So it is this kind of analog, grainy, scratchy videotape, but they were using the highest quality broadcast camera at that time. And so it's very unique. The colors are really interesting and they're really beautiful, and I think that's all a testament to the fact that Zoey has always been a cutting edge person. She had the nicest broadcast quality camera you could buy at the time. It was an Ikegami.

Initially, it was a 3/4" tape, and then they moved in Beta. When I first was taken into the storage unit, Marika took me into the storage unit. It was a public storage unit. Within one room is this unbelievable archive. Really historic stuff just sitting in this room on these tapes. So it became important to me to digitize all of it. Primarily because I felt that the only way to make sure I'm telling the story as fully as possible is to know what's on all of the tapes.

At the same time, the benefit to that is that we'd be preserving their archive, and as a result, a piece of Los Angeles history. 

NFS: Absolutely. Yeah. Its sort of like it was like a civic duty.

Yoka: I always thought if I totally failed in making the movie, at the least I will have done my service as an Angeleno. But the thing then that became important to me is that I wanted the audience to be aware that this isn't just B-roll that I got from some public archive. This is their personal archive. And so I wanted at the beginning of the film to show the tapes and decks to reinforce that the adventure you're about to go on with these people is a result of their own making.

NFS:  How did the personal element of the story come to the forefront? There's so much you're doing in this story. How did you balance their personal story with the big picture stuff that's happening in Los Angeles? In terms of how you as a filmmaker put it together in the desired runtime. 

Yoka: There are definitely a few things to talk about there. This kind of has to do with what you were talking about where the filmmaking started and where it ended up. After talking with Zoey and Marika, I realized that the biggest moments in their careers they documented together.

And it's not just some historic moment that they documented. It would be a huge moment in their lives that they shared with each other. In a way that was a storytelling gift. Because, for example, if Marika hadn't shot the riots, it would have been harder to talk about it from the perspective of their relationship. 

As it was, things were so intertwined. Work and family were so intertwined with them that the storytelling could move through those events and be driving their personal story I felt.

I think that Zoey was very candid in talking about the difficulty she had in balancing those two things when she was in the midst of that career. So I thought that the tension between trying to succeed in the work and also trying to be present in the family was something that Zoey really was concerned about. 

NFS: It sounds like that's kind of where you could hang the plot so to speak, on those kinds of points. Like, "Did they shoot this together?"

Yoka: Yes. Most of the stories, if they happened to not film them together, most likely I didn't include them in the film. But so much of what they did was together. So that helped. 

NFS: Was there anything that sort of felt like, "You know what? Let's not include this," either on their behalf or on your story opinion? 

Yoka: I think this would be the moment to really commend Zoey and Marika for giving me complete access to the archive. They did something that very few people are willing to do when telling their stories. They really enabled me to make what I think is a much more honest film than could have been made. 

NFS: Given how much you had complete access to how long did it take to put it all together?

Yoka: It was a six-year process making the movie. The development phase lasted for about four years. It was about a year and a half of intensive filmmaking. I had a desire to explore the city. And this gave me a greater opportunity than I could have ever hoped for.

Los Angeles Plays Itself was inspiring to me because Thom Anderson found a technique to explore the city. It was the way in which Los Angeles has been depicted through cinema. I thought that was such an ingenious approach to exploring a city. I think that with Zoey's story, I found my method of exploring the LA. I would say that was probably the strongest parallel to Los Angeles Plays Itself, is finding this access point. And Zoey's work as a breaking news journalist in Los Angeles provided me with a different kind of way of how the city had been depicted. Just to clarify that a little bit, because I know I also spent some time talking about the influence of Point Break and Heat.

NFS: You can always talk more about Point Break and Heat.

Yoka: I couldn't agree more, I couldn't agree more.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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