Lucy Walker On ‘The Lion’s Mouth Opens’ and Empathy as Her Wellspring for Activism and Filmmaking

By Jamie Maleszka

Lucy Walker (Director) Photo Credit: Charley Gallay/Courtesy of HBO

With The Lion’s Mouth Opens, director Lucy Walker has crafted a verité valentine to life’s most formidable moments. The documentary, at a potent 28 minutes, is an unremitting wallop of emotional intensity and grace. Since premiering to critical acclaim at Sundance 2014, the film has garnered a Cinema Eye Honor and was on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination.

Walker steadies her lens on the young filmmaker and actress Marianna Palka as she prepares to find out whether she inherited Huntington’s Disease. Labeled a cruel cross between Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by her close friend Jason Ritter, the incurable disorder claimed the life of Palka’s father when she was a young girl.

Through well-integrated interviews with Palka, her friends and her mother, as well as home movies from her childhood, we are privy to the moments before, during and after she gets the news. We are at the dinner table as she gathers with friends on the eve of her test results. And we hold our collective breath as she confronts — with dignity and a warrior-calm — — the 50/50 odds of her destiny.

I recently had a telephone chat with Walker, and we discussed the effects of the camera’s presence during daunting moments, the alchemy of her process, how her impulse as an activist influences her filmmaking and what she’s learned from Steve James.

Nonfics: What was the genesis of The Lion’s Mouth Opens?

Lucy Walker: Marianna called me up and asked me to do it. When I googled Huntington’s Disease, I felt so sad for her. I wanted to give her a sense of purpose that I thought she might find helpful in such a difficult time. I’d just pay for [the film] myself and wasn’t thinking that anyone would see it. Marianna wanted to do it for the Huntington’s Society of America. I did it really as a favor to her. I just wanted her to have that feeling that this was going to be helpful to somebody else.

It’s a privilege to bear witness to these hugely personal, emotional moments in someone’s life. Can you talk about the effects of the camera’s presence in those moments?

It’s different to different people. I think for Marianna, she’s an actor, so the camera makes her feel like she’s doing something. I mean, I have to be careful how I phrase that. The fact is she is incredible on camera. It wasn’t a shallow thing to have a camera in the room. It was an important thing. You’re going through something excruciating, but you can feel that you are taking it on and maybe you can help other people.

We just wanted to do it, frankly. It was very simple. It was just a few days. A small number of thousand dollars. It’s that plus a lifetime of training. At this point in my career, I’m so experienced that it doesn’t take much to be able to accomplish what she wanted but I had no expectation that it would be seen.

Marianna Palka Photo Credit: Moet Hashimoto/Courtesy of HBO

Marianna Palka Photo Credit: Moet Hashimoto/Courtesy of HBO

What was the key to achieving that level of intimacy and striking a tone inching towards claustrophobia?

I remember back in film school, I’d picked up on when you have no money and no crew, (laughing) you make it intimate. Had I decided to do something elaborate, I wouldn’t have done it, because I couldn’t afford it. So there is something practical, a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention aspect to it.

One of the things I do like is applying this Japanese design aesthetic called wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is the art of being a little bit simple, a little bit handmade. Sort of not perfect, sort of not glamorous. A little bit personal. A little bit modest or humbled. Practical. I like that you can feel the camera [while watching the film]. I don’t mind that you can see the boom. I think that it reminds you that it’s real and not fiction.

Marianna is such a soulful girl. A real poet. She’s a spirit, a soul, a poet. She’s not a veneer-type. She has no interest in that. I thought I just wanted to be sort of near that and let that shine through.

Marianna so eloquently states that she will serve this life, whichever way the results go. You have created a film that matches that. You too are serving the truth of the story.

That’s interesting. I bring the craft and I bring what I do, but it was all about serving Marianna, and we wanted her to lead every step of the way.

Was it a different type of experience, then, working with another filmmaker?

That’s an acute question. No one really picks up on that, but you know I think in her mind she does fiction and what I do is so different from that. I actually happen to think it’s not all that different, but that’s my perspective.

Also, one of the things I was really impressed with about her was she just let me do what I did. She trusted me completely. I think it was nice for her to just give that away and not worry about it because she’s carrying so much on her own. She is an amazing director, but she is also going through one of the most challenging things you can go through. She was just happy it was getting done and was incredibly generous to let me do it.

Jason Ritter, Bryce Dallas Howard, Seth Gabel, Marianna Palka Photo Credit: Nick Higgins/Courtesy of HBO

Jason Ritter, Bryce Dallas Howard, Seth Gabel, Marianna Palka Photo Credit: Nick Higgins/Courtesy of HBO

Can you talk about the decision to include Marianna in the interviews with her mother and with Jason Ritter?

We kept it really organic. The older I get and the more that I do, I feel like I have a lighter touch just letting things unfold. What Marianna and I decided to plan and what was a very conscious and deliberate choice was I said, “Let’s not just film after [receiving the results].” My experience tells me that what you need to capture is the before. That’s the thing that you won’t get back. That is going to change forever.

When your are talking about what to shoot, what to worry about getting in the can, especially when you can’t get everything at once and you have to decide what is the priority, I always look at the priority as what you can’t get back. So what’s going to change? What you will not get is [a subject] about to find something out or if they haven’t yet been to a place or haven’t met somebody. That kind of reaction, once it happens, nothing is the same. You can’t fake it. We have got to film before.

I had just finished The Crash Reel. Marianna had just seen it, as well. I felt that those dinner scenes in it were so incredible. We talked about having a dinner with [her] friends and they could give [her] something for this journey that [she’s] on. I knew that once we got everyone together we could do interviews and stuff like that. Of course, in that moment, it was so alive what was happening. That’s why directors just show up when things are actually going down, like that moment with her and Jason on the sofa.

I like interviews that don’t feel like interviews but feel more like moments in a story. They might be interviewed as things were unfolding. I always think about the scene in Hoop Dreams. It is not just the woman giving an interview about her son and about how proud she is that he’s turning 16. She’s making him a cake while she does it. It is just such a lovely activity and it doesn’t feel as dry. Working in documentary, you are trying to get this message across but not in a dry way. It can feel sort of reported and not in an alive way. People want to watch something alive.

Steve James once said that he makes a film with a subject, not on a subject. Does that ring true for you?

That is a great quote. I love that quote. I think that is exactly right. He was one of my real teachers. I wouldn’t meet him until years afterwards, but I had a few [teachers]. Stephanie Black, Barbara Kopple, they are all really revered. But, Steve James is a person I really studied and watched his films over and over again trying to understand how you could make something…not bad (laughing), which I wanted to do.

Do your roles as activist or advocate and filmmaker stem from the same place or are the impulses compartmentalized?

I think it does all stem from the same place. I think these documentaries are empathy machines. Through the amazingly powerful medium of film, you get to really know a person. If I’ve done a good job as a filmmaker, you’ll get to know a subject better than perhaps if even you’d met them in real life. It takes a while to distill an understanding of a person, and I feel like that is the work that I do. Even if you watch a 27-minute short with Marianna Palka, you get a lot of information thrown in there.

For me, that’s where my activism comes from. That is the wellspring of my activism. That feeling of what is it like to be someone else. When you are so rooted in their experience that you can’t tell the difference between them and you. You get over that Albert Einstein [notion of] optical delusion of consciousness that we [as people] are separate from one another.

A film overcomes that separation. If you’re strongly understanding somebody else’s experience through film and you are really with them, then you can’t help but want what they want and you can’t help but want to cheer for them and want them to be safe from chemical pollution or some environmental accident or whatever it is. My activism springs from that feeling of empathy and solidarity. Film is just my way of hopefully contributing to that.

The Lion’s Mouth Opens makes its television debut on HBO this Monday, June 1, 2015.

This interview was originally published on May 29, 2015.