Jeremy Workman was in Easter Island when he received word that his latest film, “The World Before Your Feet” had been accepted to SXSW. It was a well-deserved vacation after spending the past three years using every spare hour away from his day job making the documentary and though he thought it was ideal for the Austin festival, he submitted it and left the country by himself to get away from it all, surprised when he stopped by an internet cafe to find that one e-mail stood out amongst all the others that had accumulated in the time he was away.
“All of a sudden a million e-mails [flooded in] and one of them was from Janet [Pierson, SXSW’s Festival Director] and she said, “I just saw this movie and I can’t get it out of my mind,” Workman said recently. “It was such a thrill it was this very personal experience of going on vacation… not even vacation, just off the planet after working on this movie so hard for so long and getting that e-mail, I was very excited. I think it’s a neat movie that I think a certain audience will really respond to.”
In fact, Workman has devised something unique with “The World Before Your Feet,” crafting a remote getaway for audiences in a place that they may think they know already – New York City, where an urban explorer named Matt Green has made it his mission to walk every one of the city’s 8000 square miles, taking in its rich multicultural history and all its beautiful contradictions. Green, who once walked all the way from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon is a fascinating person in his own right, humbly subsisting on less than $15 a day for food and transportation while keeping up a blog “I’m Just Walkin'” that has grown from charting his adventures into a vivid and comprehensive resource for all the nooks and crannies of New York’s five boroughs. In simply keeping a few footsteps behind Green as he visits different parts of the city, keeping an eye out for barber shops that reflect the diversity of ethnicities that make New York such a glorious melting pot and the calm pockets of nature that spring up within the ultra-urban environment, the film offers up a view that you couldn’t even get atop the Empire State Building, with Green’s curiosity and affection for the people and places he comes across becoming infectious.
Before Workman makes his way to SXSW for the film’s world premiere, he spoke of the journey to get there, much of it on foot, and translating the walk Green goes on into a cinematic experience worthy of the big screen.
How did this come about?
I’ve known Matt for a good decade, before his walk across the country and even then, I was thinking, “Oh, I’d love to shoot [that].” But as you see in the film, Matt’s such his own person and he doesn’t have much of an ego that I always knew that it was going to be tough to convince him. It took a while. We continued to be very close friends and after bugging him so much, I think he broke down and said, “Alright, alright, you can do it.” But there were a number of little conditions he put on it, like not wanting there to be a big crew. I told him, “Look, it’ll just be me.” You’ve known me for a decade and I’ll walk with you and I won’t get in your way.” Reluctantly, he said, “Okay” and then after a while, he got into the rhythm of it and I felt one of my best jobs was just being able to be a fly on the wall in terms of what he was doing.
You see him interacting with a lot of people on the street. Is that actually just a part of who he is or did the camera wind up facilitating some of those conversations?
I’m sure people see cameras and they notice, especially when in this case we’re going into real areas that rarely get the media — parts of Eastern Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx [where] maybe they’ll have a quick “Law & Order” [shoot] or a quick shot of the ghetto, but they don’t normally have a camera crew. So for a lot of people, it [may have been] a curiosity, like “Wow, it’s a documentary.” However, it was startling to me when I went walking with Matt a couple times without my camera how much he engages with people even with the camera off. It’s just part of what he does and really within the first day I started filming him, I would notice how much he would interact with people would be immediately interested in what he was doing. It wouldn’t matter who it was. It was amazing.
The film joins Matt on day 1258 of his project – is that actually when you first turned the camera on?
It started a little earlier for me than that. That was the first time where I felt I really experienced a day of walking with him. But I remember when I started because it was 9/11 of 2014 and Matt had already been walking a couple of years before the camera started rolling, which was good because he had already started with his own rhythm, he understood what his walk had become for him and he wasn’t figuring that out with the camera rolling, so he was very comfortable when I started filming.
Since you probably couldn’t join him every day, what was it like figuring out the shooting schedule?
First of all, Matt doesn’t always walk every day. Sometimes he walks and other times he’s just on his computer working on his research and his blog. But my shooting schedule was probably about two or three times per week and I would juggle my day job doing it, so I’d meet Matt early sometimes 6, or 7 in the morning because that’s when Matt would start and I would shoot until around noon or 1 pm and then I would go to my job. I was just accumulating just so much footage. By the time I was done, I lost track of how much I had shot, but it was over 500 hours and it might’ve even hit 700 hours because I took this longitudinal approach where I thought I’m just going to get a lot of coverage since I knew we’re going to do this over a while.
How you structure this is fascinating because his walk, while methodical, has no real end point, so what was it like creating a narrative out of this?
It was certainly the big question for me. I’m an editor by profession, so I was thinking enormously about how the heck do you take something with hundreds of hours that doesn’t have a traditional story and find an experience for an audience? It was very, very hard, but my goal was to first try to have the audience to experience what it’s like to walk with Matt and once that’s established, then it becomes about starting to realize that what you may first think about New York City or the world or this walk or even this movie was starting to have more and more texture. The movie itself was this experience of just going deeper and uncovering and revealing, so that was a little bit of my goal.
I had confidence in doing this because I made a documentary called “Magical Universe” that came out a couple years ago that was about my friendship with a very unusual outsider artist who makes art out of Barbie dolls and I’m in it, so it’s a filmmaker first-person documentary. I realized with that movie, so many people were coming to it [thinking], “Oh, it’s about this crazy, weird artist,” that I said okay, [this] is [going to be] about subverting expectations a little bit, like maybe over the course of the movie, you’re getting more invested in this, not necessarily in terms of story or plot, but just in terms of what the experience is and it becomes more profound.
I knew there would be really interesting scenes with Matt talking about these really interesting things, but also that it was going to be tricky to get some people there. That they’d have to buy into the movie a little bit, so I really thought about how to do it and I’m hoping the audience has the reaction [where] maybe at the beginning of the movie, they’re like, “Oh, I’m not so sure about this. Are we going to just watch this guy walk the whole movie?” And then little by little, without even realizing it, it creeps up on you.
There are some recurring themes in Matt’s walk you can build around, whether it’s his interest in 9/11 memorials or barber shops around the city that reflect the different communities they’re in. Could you identify those during filming or were you more conscious of them during editing?
I feel a little of both. Certainly, if you go on his website, he’s interested in 9/11 memorials and the barber shops, and there’s a lot on his website about cemeteries, so I was always using his interests as a little bit of a guide. But he doesn’t organize so much — as even one of the interviewees said [in the film], “Matt’s approach is very random. He just walks and he sees something interesting and that’s what catches his interest and he doesn’t put any more value on the manhole cover than the Trump Tower.” So that certainly works for him and his blog, but that’s tricky when you’re making a movie because you’re trying to build that narrative structure. So I was certainly going to follow what Matt is doing, but I was going to try to create this more emotional experience to take you to a place that maybe deeper than you expected [because] that’s what his walk is for me — it’s so simple, yet its simplicity is what makes it so interesting. That was something that I always remembered when I was editing was don’t get away from the fact that it is about that simplicity. All you’ve got to do is walk outside and the same things can pop into view for anyone.
As a native New Yorker, was there anywhere you went that came as a great surprise?
My mind was blown all the time. I would say to Matt, “Where are we going today?” and he’d say, “Oh, up in the Bronx.” And I’d [ask], “Is it going to be safe?” And he’d give me a look, like “What?! Of course.” And we’d go from a subway station [to] up in the mountains and then we’d be in a forest and then there’d be a lake — everything is constantly getting subverted when you walk with Matt because you’re seeing places in this way that you’ve never really experienced. I’ve lived in New York most of my life, but I hadn’t been to a lot of these neighborhoods in Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx and they’re amazing. Of course, I’d been in Manhattan, but even in Manhattan, Matt can just hit a block and it’s suddenly like a new place that you’ve never seen. That’s what was so amazing was obviously, I’d just try to get my footage, hoping that there would be something great to shoot. But I just kept [thinking], “Wow, where am I?” Matt would casually say, [something] like “Oh, that’s the High Bridge. It was originally an aqueduct where they used to bring water and they just reopened it and back in the 1920s, they had people that walked [on] wires across it and one guy even walked wires across it and made pancakes.” He would tell me these insane, incredible stories wherever I was, so it was always a thrill. Just getting to walk with Matt was a real privilege.
“The World Before Your Feet” opens on November 21st in New York at the Quad Cinema and November 23rd in Los Angeles at the Nuart.