Matt Yoka on Bringing One of L.A.’s Most Fascinating Under the Radar Stories to Earth in “Whirlybird”

As Matt Yoka sifted through the thousands of hours of video footage that had been compiled by Zoey Tur (then known as Bob) and Marika Gerrard during the 1980s and 1990s for the L.A. News Service, their pioneering family business that took news gathering to the skies above Los Angeles, the filmmaker who originally set out to tell the story of the city he grew up in realized there might be an even more interesting story sitting in the helicopter itself than the stories the duo covered from it.

“I was in the storage unit looking through tapes and starting to see things where on one tape you would have a horrendous crime scene and then all of sudden, it would just cut to their child taking their first steps, so the use of the camera as a home video device as much as a news gathering device became more clear,” recalls Yoka. “That really informed the story and the types of questions I was going to ask.”

“Whirlybird,” the fruits of Yoka’s labor, ends up being not only one of the great Los Angeles films, but one of the great films period as the director tells of the remarkable rise of Tur and Gerrard, a couple brought together by a shared passion for getting the story, no matter what obstacles were in their way. Yet Tur’s drive could be seen as extreme even by the standards of one of the most ultracompetitive news markets in the world, quite literally pushing Gerrard out the door of their helicopter with camera in hand as they covered such events as the L.A. Riots aiming to get exclusives that others could not, and when they were often the first to draft history of a city so often at war with itself, the deterioration of their own marriage and Zoey’s recognition of testosterone as “asshole fuel,” leading her to transition from being a man to a woman, can be seen as a reflection of the metropolis they covered and as compelling a portrait as they come of a couple whose dangerously intertwined personal and professional lives were a source of both great pride and heartache.

For as much pain as there is in “Whirlybird,” it is also entirely exhilarating as Yoka uses Tur and Gerrard’s extraordinary reportage to place audiences as close to the action as they once were, convincingly showing the allure of staying in an industry and a partnership that was so detrimental to their well-being, and while he never inserts himself into the story, the director shows uncommon sensitivity in drawing out the now-divorced couple to share their complicated story, as well as their children Katy and Jamie. After premiering at Sundance in 2020, the thrilling doc is finally landing in theaters and on VOD this week and Yoka spoke about how he worked through so much archival material to create such a complex and fascinating film, having to navigate a situation himself where he would be objectively profiling the same people that were the main source of footage for the film.

From what I understand, this started as a film more generally about Los Angeles. How did the focus to Zoey and Marika?

I just started with the whole city, the geography and the culture, and I started to pick apart things that are of interest to me. I grew up in the ‘80s and ’90s and as a huge “Point Break” fan and “Heat” fan, I was thinking a lot about bank robberies and where the reality met fiction. When you get into studying bank robberies in L.A., what comes up often are high-speed pursuits, so from there then I started thinking about helicopter reporting because of how we’re able to witness high-speed pursuits and once I really started thinking about that, things evolved and that really brought me to Zoey and Marika because Zoey is the most accomplished helicopter reporter there is. Every major event in Los Angeles in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, she had covered it, so I just became really interested to meet her and when I got a chance to sit down and have a cup of coffee with her, I knew in that one moment that it was the person I wanted to make a film about.

Was their archive on the table from the beginning?

It’s a really good question because I realized that the archive was going to be able to tell this personal story about Zoey and Marika’s relationship, but I was very fixated still on the city and I was thinking of Zoey as my tour guide of Los Angeles. What I was naive about was usually, people who go out and gather news sell the rights to [that footage to] the networks, but Zoey had retained the rights and she held onto the majority of her tapes. Eventually Marika took me over to this public storage unit filled with these three quarter-inch beta tapes, about 3000 of them, so it was always on the table for me to use, but how I was going to be able to utilize it and what it was going to take really grew as time went on. The biggest undertaking was the digitization of it because only a fraction of their videos were digitized, so I was able to put all my resources to preserve that tape.

When they’re the owners of the archival material as well as your subjects, are the processes of finding your way through the footage and sitting down for interviews one and the same or separate?

One advantage of it taking almost six years to finally get the movie made was spending a lot of time with the both of them, and I did preliminary interviews, which gave me broad strokes of their life, and then I was able to get through what I felt like what was a big enough portion of the archive to then go do the interviews. Then after I did the interviews, we continued to mine the archive to try to piece together that story. As a technique, we then took the interviews that we did and we cut together about a two-and-a-half hour radio edit and I considered that our road map to telling the story and what I tried to do in the edit with my editors was I said, “Whenever we can remove their voices and tell their story with the archive, let’s do that,” so we’d only keep what I thought was the most essential and impactful moments of their interviews.

You manage to tell such a satisfying story, but I realized you can follow any traditional narrative beats when you have to introduce the end at the beginning for it to make sense. Was it difficult to structure?

When your life is dedicated to covering news events, your life becomes a collection of those news events and each one of those news events, you have had whole films made about – two examples being the riots and the O.J. [Simpson] pursuit, so the realization that I wanted to tell essentially a love story, a relationship story, a marriage story about Zoey and Marika, that really gave me a very clear direction on where I wanted the story to go and what I wanted to include. What I felt that this film could do differently is almost treat it like a fiction narrative [where] you don’t want to lead with the history, you want to lead with the characters and let the history surround them. I felt that provides maybe a nice alternative way to think about these moments in time [from] a very personal, singular view.

Now when it comes to how we start and end the film, that was something that we were experimenting with a lot. We knew where it was going to end, and I’d rather not give that away, but through a handful of screenings I did, it was suggested to start with where it ends and I remember editing that opening sequence [in which the L.A. News Service is reflecting on some of their most famous stories from the sky] and just really feeling this exhilaration that something was coming together [where it] basically tells you everything that’s going to happen. [Zoey] — Bob, at the time — who’s on camera says, “You didn’t get to see the whole story, but we’re going to show it to you now,” and that’s what happens. When it comes back, the feeling of being back in that helicopter is so heavy because now you have everything that they’ve carried and that scene can change emotionally from this fun, exciting, quirky thing to this really heavy profound and very sad climax.

Part of what makes that work so well is how the footage acts as if it’s fabric — there’s a literal zag under the helicopter that suggests the wild ride that’s about to happen, accentuated by a great piece of music from Ty Segall, and the quality of the video can alternately be seen as a bit warm and nostalgic or fuzzy and obscure depending on how it strikes you. What was it like to utilize?

I find myself using the word “texture” a lot, and I couldn’t get enough of how beautiful [this video] could actually be. It’s capable of capturing really beautiful images when the light and the colors are right, but it also has a grit and a seediness to it that helps create this extra emotional language that’s happening in the film. Like if you put a tape in and just press play, it always starts with some glitchy static that then cuts hard into this scene that plays out and then it cuts back into the static and some of the tapes have decayed a little bit, so the quality is now being scrubbed, almost like how some painters will take sandpaper to their paint. So I wanted to utilize it so it would have this emotional language, but also this feeling of just watching these tapes go by, so a glitch was always a little signal to remind an audience, “Hey, you’re watching these tapes – they’re tapes.”

To your point about the opening sequence, it came as a vision because I had seen a lot of times in their helicopter tapes once they moved to a gyrostabilizer, which has the camera at the bottom of the helicopter, and when they were just trying to move from one location to another, the camera would tilt up and create a frame that would have the bottom of the helicopter in the top of the frame and the skyline in the bottom half. I always liked that because you would have this static top part to the image and this moving underground and I liked the jerkiness of the camera, so it was this really fun way to start the scene by showing this sprawling L.A. scenery and use it in a way that I think audiences are often familiar with in aerial footage, and then I just wanted to punch up with this whip pan or whip tilt and say actually what you’re seeing is what our characters see and that’s who we’re going to think about. I just liked that jolt that it gives the audience.

What was it like working with Ty Segall on the score? There, in fact, is a little “Point Break” in there, among many other styles of music.

It was fun to do because I spent so much time editing it that by the time I got to do the score, it was this fresh approach to the steps of storytelling for me. Ty and I go back to college together and I made many music videos for him. Our collaboration [here] in a lot of ways was similar, [where] Ty would have some music and I was trying to get the right images to do that, but this was a moment where it flipped it and now I’m coming to him with these images and he didn’t hear any of the temp score. I stripped it all out and let him respond to the visuals. We talked though about things like “Point Break” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” to evoke those kinds of classic L.A. scores from the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I didn’t want it to sound like a throwback and we talked a lot about the types of instruments we wanted to use. I knew we wanted a saxophone — that’s a nod towards the L.A. noir sound, and we wanted to use synthesizers because I wanted to evoke an ‘80s and ‘90s experience, but also brought out a seediness in the nightcrawler experience.

But then I really wanted Ty to run loose with it, and I think one of the best things that came out of it was the O.J. pursuit, which I think feels in a lot of ways most like Ty because it’s mostly this drum insanity — it feels a little surfy and as well as edgy, and I wanted to recreate the feeling that the journalists had, [where] I wanted to take you into the adrenaline rush that was getting the biggest story in the world and what that must’ve felt like, flying in a helicopter, getting low to the story, getting in there. I wanted it to be drug-like in its experience, which is a narcotic-fueled high and the real low comedown [after]…

Which is brilliant when what’s driving it is the public’s addiction to watching these car chases as well…

Exactly. Addiction was a big theme that we were talking about when making it, so I wanted to take you on that full spectrum of addiction and with that comes these incredible highs and these incredible lows.

It was fascinating to watch the AFI Fest Q & A that happened with Katy and Marika because as much as everyone seems satisfied with how you’ve told the story, it appeared everyone continues to work out their emotions regarding the story itself. What was it like to first show it to the family?

Sharing the film with them was one of the most intense experiences of my life and I can’t imagine how intense it was for them. Zoey and Marika really brought an introspective openness to this filmmaking process and they really left it up to me to decide how I wanted to put the story together, so I’m really humbled and thankful to them for just being so vulnerable, but that’s not to say though that this was always a smooth process. It was very painful in a lot of ways, and I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but there were times in which it felt this was a form of reflection for them, a way to try to understand themselves and I think we shared a connection with us being from the same place, coming from a similar time – I’m the same age as their kids – and they saw someone in me who is early on in my career as a storyteller [to] enter into a very intimate relationship that allowed us to go very deep.

I wonder if people find the ending a little bit unsatisfying because these relationships are still very broken and to their credit, I like to think of this film as a major step in trying to heal and grow. Sometimes I envision that there could be a sequel to the film, but in a lot of ways, I really did want to keep it focused on their marriage years and their work as the L.A. News Service, so the story continues. There’s a lot more life to live for all of them, and I hope that the film was some sort of radical therapy that will allow them to continue to make sense of themselves and I’ll say it was a therapeutic experience for me as well. I went on such an emotional dive with them that I grew a lot and learned a lot, so I’m thankful to them for that.

“Whirlybird” opens on August 6th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center, New York at Cinema Village, San Francisco at the Roxie, Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Cleveland at the Cleveland Cinematheque, Columbus at the Gateway Film Center, Denver at the Sie Film Center and Seattle at the SIFF Cinema. It will also be available on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.