Lucy Walker on Fighting Fire with Fire in “Bring Your Own Brigade”

At one point in filming “Bring Your Own Brigade,” Lucy Walker stood in an area that had been leveled by raging wildfires in California as it was being being cleared and realized that while she could see for miles ahead, there was an equal opportunity to look deep as the conflagration exposed old mining shafts and logging equipment that had receded below the surface as one generation after another came into the community.

“What was incredible about going on this journey for me was how you see the story in the landscape and how history got us to this place,” says Walker. “The Europeans who came and didn’t understand the Native burning practices and banned their controlled burns [that they] didn’t recognize as great wisdom and they thought the landscape just happened to be like that rather than be managed really rather wisely and I thought that was really fascinating just to get to know the history of the state that I had moved to and realized that I was one in a long line of Europeans that moved to California and totally misunderstood the place and thought of it as kind of a badly behaved Europe rather than realize that it had a totally different ecosystem.”

The state has been fortunate to call Walker, among the world’s preeminent nonfiction filmmakers, one of its own in recent years, but her perspective as a current resident and relative outsider proves to be exactly the right mix to put together the definitive picture of the waves of wildfires, such as the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise and the Woolsey Fire that burned up parts of Ventura County, that appear to have no end in sight. Though “Bring Your Own Brigade” hardly lacks urgency, Walker wisely looks back in time rather than get caught up in this present crisis, exploring the underlying conditions both scientifically and sociopolitically that have led to blazes that are far bigger than they need to be. Epic in scope with both staggering ground-level footage of the fires overtaking towns shot from inside and a firm grasp of the centuries of disregard that have led to this moment, charting the influence of the logging industry and a depletion of resources to contain and combat such natural disasters, the film still never loses sight of the humans at the center of it as the director engages with all those managing as best they can in treacherously dry conditions, whether it’s the firefighters on the front lines or residents such as Brad Weldon, who have lost everything but their life or have come perilously close.

After its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, “Bring Your Own Brigade” is heading to theaters this week en route to being available on Paramount+ later this month and at a time when the film couldn’t be any more relevant as the Bootleg Fire continues to ravage the West Coast, Walker kindly took a moment to talk about how plans for a smaller-scale project quickly gave way to her biggest film to date, why it was important to broaden her focus to more than any one fire and the excitement of knowing when something she’s filming is going to make the cut.

This was originally intended to be a smaller-scale project. When it became obvious it was bigger, was it much of a decision to continue?

I sometimes think, “Why did I do that? That was a tough challenge I set for myself.” [laughs] What happened was originally, I had moved to Los Angeles and thought, “Somebody should make a film about these fires,” but my initial idea was to just make a film about the Thomas Fire, which was the worst ever in California history and started in 2017 and I thought that’d be a great thing to study for a short film – I like making short films as well as long films and I have a rule that the perfect length of a film is 15 seconds short of boring. This is by far, my longest film, by the way, and they’re all well under two hours — preferably like a nice 100 minutes max. But I’d just gotten going [on the short] when there was an even bigger fire and I thought well, making a film about the biggest fire in California history when it’s already been overtaken, maybe that’s not the smartest way to tackle the subject because there’s obviously a bigger problem and now I was really hooked.

That turned out to be a way more ambitious undertaking than I’d intended because I really thought we had these years with the hottest summers and the biggest fires all happening recently and I saw that pattern and I said climate change has got to be the reason, right? Wrong. And as I embedded with these firefighters who go on to the next fire and the next fire that came along, I also didn’t know we’d be really up close and personal with the most extreme cases and then in this dramatic same wind event in Northern and Southern California, [both] at the opposite ends of the state and of the political and economic spectrum that we could really follow through and really learn a lot about how this problem was really playing out. All these other places are being affected, not just in the Western United States but globally as we’ve seen with Australia or the Mediterranean and Africa or Asia or Northern Europe – even places that you think will never burn like the UK has had some wildfires, which I had never heard of and I grew up there, so filming with these fires, I thought “Oh my gosh, this story is so big and what’s going on with these firefighters and these residents is so dramatic, 30 minutes of a short film wasn’t really going to suffice.”

You’ve had experience before going into a disaster zone with “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” though that was somewhat at a remove. Was it informative for this or was it different being there as the crisis unfolded?

Yeah, that film started life [when] I was scheduled to go to Japan to make a film about the cherry blossom season that year when the tsunami happened, so that was a really amazing pivot and unexpected, but I had trusted that you could just go into this disaster zone and understand our relationship with our natural landscape. That film had very much been in that territory, so when I was thinking about should I make a film about firefighters or should I wait for some other filmmakers to come along — because there’s been a couple of fire films since, I thought you didn’t just [need to] be in the fire and grab the first answer, which is let’s rebuild. That is the first answer, but for me, it was going deeper and thinking, but what happens if we rebuild? [Because] the same thing’s going to happen again if we keep building the same way.

The Dixie Fire that’s burning right now in Butte County, it started exactly where the Camp Fire started on Camp Creek Road off of Highway 70 from the River Canyon, and it just went in a different direction than the Camp Fire, so we’re just going to be keeping on, exacerbating this problem until we do it a little bit differently, and I’m proud that the film was a a real undertaking that gets hopefully the whole picture of all the factors that are really significant to consider in what’s going on for people in these areas. Those [other] films worked really quickly and I think got pieces of the story, but I wanted to get the whole story and follow the money.

It’s such a complicated story, but you still manage to find your way in with such a compelling person in Brad. Did you know he could introduce this story?

With this kind of filming where you’re just kind of grabbing what you can, you’re running on guts – and sandwiches. [laughs] You’ve got your sandwiches, your flask of coffee and you’re driving around and you’re meeting people and trying to figure out on the spot if they’re worth filming with with the number of hours of daylight and batteries that you have with you that day. In retrospect, it might look like I had a sense of it, but I had no clue. I don’t have a researcher going in before. I don’t have story meetings with my producing partner to figure out which story to follow. I’m just blundering around, totally going in blind and feeling things out as I go along, but that’s the first conversation that you see on camera with Brad and I found it so moving. I met his mom and [when] she talked about the angels protecting them, you could’ve dropped a pin and heard it when we were filming.

There’s a feeling you sometimes get when you’re filming documentaries – and you live for this feeling because you have many days where you’re exhausted and you’re up at three in the morning and filming all day or flying to Mongolia and what you’re filming, you just know it’s not going to make the cut because you just know it’s not that interesting. It’s happening and it’s just a bunch of shoe leather. And then something happens like you meet Brad and you’re like, “Oh my gosh. All this could go in the cut. It’s really, really engaging material. We did something today that’s going to make it into the film when it’s finished.” [With] Brad, I didn’t know where that conversation was going and I didn’t know the shape of the film yet, I just was gathering material and thinking what’s gone on here is so dramatic and so important to understand.

There were all these conflicting theories, including from Brad actually, that turned out to be not true at all about the fire [response failure] — was it the lack of the old World War II air siren with the evacuation warnings or was it some sinister villain involved? That’s why I wanted as well to show what was going on in the film because when you actually understand how the fire unfolded and how quickly it went and how the communications were down and how the traffic got blocked up, you understand the nature of the incident much better. A lot of people got confused about what was important when they were considering what was a factor, so that was something we wanted to really look at.

Is it interesting to put out this film right now?

I actually wanted the film to be out a bit sooner, but it turned out to be a huge amount of work and also this film was quite tough to raise money for, so it was slower slog to get it done, but I’m really proud of where we landed and I’m proud of that crazy persistence and the rigor that we applied because I think that we got it right. When we show it to people, they really say, “Oh, this is really the first film that really reflects the experience.” But you sometimes worry, especially about things that are current events, you’re a bit slow and you’re going to be less relevant or less topical, but actually it’s turned out to be the opposite problem, which [is] you look at the news and we’re in this year that’s shaping up to be the worst drought and fire season and you think, “Gosh, that’s why I made the film, but I didn’t want to be proven right.” I’d be really happy right now if it was raining and all the firefighters were home with their kids. That would be nice. But the truth is I’m in touch with the firefighters in the film and they’re really having a tough summer, out back there trying to put these huge fires out. [One of the firefighters featured in the film] Maeve, for example, is on the Dixie Fire as we speak, away from home and that was also something I was really proud to get into was [to get] a really accurate glimpse of the real toll these fires are taking on our firefighters. A lot of people like me tend to hero worship the firefighters, but I think it’s also really important to ask them as human beings what they’re actually like and how it’s going.

“Bring Your Own Brigade” will open in theaters on August 6th, including the NoHo 7 in Los Angeles, and available on CBSN and Paramount+ on August 20th.