Lucy Walker is a filmmaker who doesn't shy away from challenging environments. She’s filmed in a Tsunami zone (The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom) and a garbage dump (Waste Land). Through her authentic character journeys and elevated visual style, she tells us stories of how we interact with our surroundings. Her latest landscape, the record-setting California wildfires, is the most shocking to date.

When she moved to California in 2018, Walker found herself in the middle of a really bad fire season. So she set out to get to the bottom of the question, Why are these terrible fires getting worse?

The result is her film Bring Your Own Brigade. No Film School caught up with Walker after the premiere of the film at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Below we go in-depth on how to take the exhilarating journey of creating this kind of movie.

50641943991_cec41e014d_kA still from 'Bring Your Own Brigade' by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lucy Walker

Asking the right questions of yourself before you start

Lucy Walker happened to be filming about wildfires before two deadly fire events, but how did she get to this point? She had thoroughly committed to the story before she began.

Lucy Walker: There are two questions. First, you ask, “There hasn't been a film about that, has there?" And you ask everyone.

Then, if there hasn’t, you turn it over and over in your head. You try to evaluate, is this a film that would be good? Is this a film that I can make instead of someone else? Is this a film that I really, really want to make?

You have to devote such a huge chunk of your life that you're not going to be at the beach or with your friends or home, so you've got to really want it. Otherwise, you couldn't make it through the months of slog and being in all places that are uncomfortable that you’ll find yourself in.

How Bring Your Own Brigade started by being in the right place and the right time (just not the right funding)

After Walker decided on the film, she needed to secure funding, as she’s not independently wealthy! When she was able to raise money for just a short film, she ran with it.

Walker: Before the November 8th events, we had money in the bank to make a short film. I spent it shooting. I knew this was so important. We happened to be standing in the field when the lightning storm comes and we're holding a bottle already. I knew we better capture as much as we can, and these people I was meeting, and these stories I was hearing, and these things I was observing, I knew it was really precious material.

Although you hear me freak out a couple of times [in the film] and you hear me be astonished on top of the hill about the landscape that we were in. I think that that's a very authentic reaction. I would say that's one of my warm-ups, I try to be really authentic.

50885338093_2b8c557c39_kA still from 'Bring Your Own Brigade' by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Maeve Juarez

Your film depends on the character journey, so set it up right

Walker’s signature character building starts with creating the right space for people to be themselves.

Walker:  You want to really let people talk as much as possible. You don't want to be interrupting and treading on their lines.  You want them to have the complete thought.

It's very obtrusive and nerve-wracking having a camera in your face. So everything I'm doing is about trying to make people feel comfortable. The best material comes when people are comfortable enough to let it all hang out. When we're all buttoned up and being polite, nothing interesting is happening. People are going to say that they are fine, when they're absolutely not.

So everything is about me trying to be goofy and human and relatable and relaxed, to give them permission and support in sharing their story. It is a big deal. Films are only as good as the people in them are willing to share.

Why the secret weapon is… a nice crew

Forget rigid hierarchies, family-style filmmaking is where it is at!

Walker: It's not just you, it's your crew. I don't shoot for myself; I did in my first film. But fortunately these days we do have a little more money and I can afford a camera person, which is great. And sometimes even a sound person. So there's usually there are only two or three of us.

I always like to keep it so that we can fit in one vehicle with all the equipment. That way the production doesn't get complicated, and you can have a little road trip with your friends while you're shooting. No catering, no call sheets. The more people, the more your problems multiply.

I work with some of the sweetest people on my crew. My secret weapon is having nice people around. If you've got some kind of diva or scary, intimidating person, or any person that's got an odd vibe, people pick up on that and you just won't get that authentic thing.

50886059321_394f0653fa_kA still from 'Bring Your Own Brigade' by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Briana Conrad

Don’t worry about being weird, just find the people in the story

Sometimes Walker would email, call, or Facebook message people. She went through official channels for the firefighters. But after the fires hit, she rolled with it.

Walker: Sometimes we’d be driving down and be like, "Stop the car, let's talk to that person. Or, wait, I see a sheriff over there. Let's go talk to them." And you roll up and say, "Hi, do you have a minute?" And try to explain what you're doing. "We're making a movie about what's going on here and we'd love to chat to you for a minute. Do you have a second? Or we could come back later?" You can’t be afraid to be a bit weird.

Sometimes people don't want to participate. But they do more times than you'd think.

In situations where there is a story, I find people will sense that something's happened that's important for other humans to know about. And there's a kind of human instinct that kicks in almost where people are willing to have their experience recorded to help other people.

 And in the case of the fire, there was a limited window of time where people were really open to chatting and had time for you. And I think, in the aftermath of a disaster people are quite open and quite human, and not busy with their regular lives. I think there was a kind of limited time window that felt very precious.

We had a combination of driving around the disaster zone and finding people and sometimes actually don't even shoot, you just wind up giving them a ride or giving them your granola bars.

You've got to be really mindful that, first of all, you're in a disaster situation.

So I'm texting and trying to connect with all these people. Phone lines were down or people's phones had burned up. Or I get 88 texts and I don't know who they're from, someone is saying, "Hi, you want to meet me at the corner?" "Okay, which town you in? What corner?" Sometimes the messages were two days old anyway, because there was no reception as we were in a proper disaster zone.

50641945301_c8bd2fc453_cA still from 'Bring Your Own Brigade' by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

How to steer the story without being a jerk

Spending time in the small town of Paradise, Walker wanted to elevate the visuals and find the story, but not at the expense of being a decent human being.

Walker: You're really trying to kind of gently steer people towards what you think's going to be good on film. That comes from my judgment and professionalism. And yet also be open because sometimes people have better ideas.

Sometimes people don't want to go where you want them to go. And you're going to have to come up with a new plan pretty quick.

So for example, an exterior shot with someone. I'll be direct and try to explain. I'll say, "It'll be pretty good if you stand in front of your house, or even the ash where your house used to be, because people will see you and then they'll also see the space that we're talking about in one picture, and then that'll help them get it." I'm not afraid to tell people stuff like that.

I’ll say, "It's great if you speak in complete sentences because I don't want to use my voice in the movie.” Although now I'm kind of busted because if anyone watches Bring Your Own Brigade, they'll know that sometimes I cheat.

There's a lot of things running around in my head about what's going to read on camera and what's a good use of time. But you also have to be polite. If you've realized someone's boring, you can’t just interrupt them and say, "Oh my gosh, you're so boring. I'm sure somebody else is going to be more interesting." You have to be a human being first and foremost.

At the same time, you’re being a filmmaker and thinking, is this a scene? Is this a shot? What shots do I need? Is any chance of getting them? Sometimes there isn't. And you get what you can and figure it out later. You’re thinking on your feet.

50642019697_df2c1da397_kA still from 'Bring Your Own Brigade' by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lucy Walker

Why the "right" tools do not mean the "biggest and best" tools

Walker: For Bring Your Own Brigade, we had a Sony Fs7 kit, and were shooting mostly with Fs7s. That’s an example of a camera that's got a really good workflow. And so sometimes people are like, "Oh, I love the RED." Yeah? And you want to be working with that when you're downloading the media in the car yourself while driving on bumpy roads in the dark, with no street lights because the power lines are down? You'll run out of media in five seconds flat, and also go nuts.

With documentary, I think it's all about thinking about the situation that you're in. I like to roll in. I like to do long interviews, and let the camera roll, and just see where the conversation goes. I might have a list of questions, but I'm still trying different conversations out. Especially when I’ve just met a person. I don't know anything about their story. I'm shooting in the dark.

That’s why you have to have a crew that doesn’t mind getting up and shooting first light, rolling for four hours if an interview turns out to be good, or tromping around in drizzle for a day. I like working with people who think it's actually the fun way to work rather than a total nightmare. I find it exhilarating. It's very raw filmmaking.

Thank you, Lucy!

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.