FIVE QUESTIONS WITH . . . Lynn True and David Usui
EVERYONE HAS A STORY
5 Questions for Lynn True and David Usui, co-directors of IN TRANSIT
by Anthony Kaufman, DOC10 Programmer
Working with a team of filmmakers, including Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui, and Ben Wu, legendary documentary pioneer Albert Maysles (Iris, Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) brings his trademark generosity of spirit to this enchanting portrait of passengers aboard Amtrak's Empire Builder, traveling en route from Chicago to Portland and Seattle. Unfolding in a series of vignettes, against a backdrop of changing American landscapes, the film observes a cross-section of people during moments of transition in their lives and speaking their own truths: college students prepare for their futures; a very pregnant woman seeks support from family elsewhere; and able-bodied men seek work in the oil fields of North Dakota. Below, co-directors Lynn True and David Usui talk about their working relationship with Maysles.
First off, In Transit is known as Albert Maysles' final film. But he also obviously had a number of other folks like yourselves helping him with the project. Can you talk about Al's involvement and your involvement, and about that collaboration?
Lynn: Albert had wanted to make a film on long-distance trains for decades. This film is truly the result of his original vision, but when funding and some other key pieces fell into place to allow for production to finally begin, he knew he needed filmmaking partners to help fully realize the project. Albert was a fan of Nelson and my previous films, which are made in a similar observational style so he asked us to collaborate with him, and then we brought our friends Ben and David on board to be part of the team, as well. Albert filmed with the crew on two of our four shooting trips and was always the guiding light in terms of keeping not only our crew but the passengers inspired by his dream of showing people from all walks of life coming together and potentially finding common ground.
Were there any specific words of advice that you remember from Al, which helped guide the making of the film?
David: At one point we had talked about possibly trying to cast some subjects before we hopped on the train. We had a relatively tight timeline and we were all worried that we might not find the right characters. Al nipped that idea in the bud right away and assured us that we'd find what we needed. "Everyone has a story," he'd always say. And sure enough, he was right.
The film captures so many fleeting, beautiful and very emotionally candid snapshots of everyday folks. One of the many that stands out is the conversation between the two African American men from Chicago––one younger, trying to figure things out; the other, a veteran of the civil rights struggle. You couldn't have scripted a more tender and meaningful encounter. Can you talk about how this scene was captured and conceived?
Lynn: This is an example of the kind of interaction we really hoped to capture on the train – strangers crossing paths and finding an unexpectedly intimate connection – but which was very difficult to find. Ben had been filming the older gentleman first and the younger guy happened to be nearby in the observation car and was clearly taken by what he was overhearing. The younger guy eventually approached the older gentleman and their conversation just flowed, so it was great that Ben was already rolling and could capture the whole interaction as it evolved.
The film has a fairly unconventional structure when compared to a lot of straightforward narrative-driven documentaries these days. Can you talk about how it was conceived in this tapestry-like way?
Lynn: We didn't have a structure in mind when we were shooting. We were really just going off of Albert's vision, which was to highlight personal stories and human interactions, so I selected the moments in our footage that I thought did this best. However, these selections didn't necessarily lend themselves to any obvious structure right off the bat, so it came from a lot of rough cutting to find a way to piece the puzzle together in a way that made sense. Eventually, I came up with a loose 3-act structure that mirrored the 3 days you would be on the train if you rode from one end of the line to the other. The first act includes the stories of people looking forward into the future with the excitement and anticipation of someone embarking on a trip; the 2nd act involves stories coming from passengers who have settled into the ride and now have time to reflect more on the past and where they're coming from; and the 3rd act uses stories that sort of anticipate the inevitability of having to de-train, face reality and return to normal life. I thought of it as a “future-past-present” structure.
Aside from being a film about people in transition, it seems like In Transit is also a document about the struggles of the working-class. I'm wondering how you dealt with this theme in editing the film. It's never obvious, which I think is great, but it's also very present throughout. How did you handle that balance?
Lynn: Again, we didn't pursue any specific type of character, but of course we were hoping for a certain level of diversity and balance. The priority was to find material that shared the most intimate, compelling stories that might lend insight into our shared thoughts and feelings as human beings, whatever those stories might be. That said, we did choose to film on the Empire Builder line in large part because it
passes near the Bakken Formation, which is a major destination for people seeking work or commuting to and from jobs in the oil fields. This was a big reason the theme of the American Dream comes up so frequently in our footage – it was what seemed to be on so many passengers' minds. But even besides the oil workers, the subject of work and family and seeking a better life came up so naturally in different ways from a range of passengers, so it was fairly easy to touch on this from different angles without having to foreground it in any obvious way.