Lucy Walker: Documentary maker

Lucy Walker: Documentary maker

By Tim Burrows 19/05/11

Lucy Walker is one of the UK’s most celebrated documentary filmmakers. Waste Land, a film that follows the “catadores” that live and work on the world’s biggest rubbish dump in Brazil, was nominated for an Oscar this year. Her latest film, Countdown to Zero, explores nuclear arms. Lucy talks to Tim Burrows about how she started in filmmaking, and why it is so important to follow your gut...

When I won a scholarship to go and study at the New York Film Academy in the Nineties, I couldn’t believe it.

I was at Oxford and all set for a career in academia; I stood on the street corner in the Lower East Side thinking, “What am I doing here?” I was woefully prepared – I had no idea how cold it got in the winter so didn’t even take a coat with me!

It was an expansive, challenging time. I had a really good teacher who said I could make as many mistakes as I liked as this was the place to make them. I learned everything from acting to cinematography and lighting. I wanted to make sure that I was really confident with the technical side. Understanding the nuts and bolts of your craft lets you be much more innovative, and able to figure out how to do a better job.

I was surrounded by artists trying to find their own voices. Moby was a friend – we went to the same music shows. I became a DJ to support myself. I played all kinds of stuff – everything from hip-hop, to house music, to dub. It was very fun, and a good way to support myself as I made a lot of money in those two hours.

I am still quite hands on – I often do the sound for interviews myself: on Countdown to Zero, even if I was interviewing Jimmy Carter, General Musharraf or Tony Blair, I had my headphones on and my recorder on my lap!

It comes from being determined to do a good job – I’d rather have the money to do more interviews, than just spend it stupidly and run out of resources. The money goes quite quickly and even though the final film might look as though we had loads to spend, in actual fact we didn’t. It is quite expensive to fly around and do interviews, so you have to be really smart about where you spend your money.

I was very nervous before I started shooting Waste Land; I’d heard of a journalist who’d gone with a camera to another landfill in Brazil and been murdered. But the people there were great from the moment I scouted the place out.

It was sunny, which helped; sunny days with garbage are better than rainy days, I’ll tell you that. People were laughing and were very friendly – it was a community I felt really comfortable in.

As with Waste Land and Countdown to Zero, I have always just followed my interest when choosing a project. There’s that line “Follow your bliss” and I really believe that. People don’t trust their gut enough – you should try and work on what you are drawn to.

I have had the most success in life when I have worked with people I liked on projects that I’ve been passionate about, and asked questions that I wanted to know the answer to. Whenever I have stuck to those simple principles, I have gotten on well.

If you feel pressured into doing things you think you shouldn’t be doing to get ahead, it all gets weird and complicated. For young people, that is such a good rule of thumb. Trust yourself more.


Lucy Walker was talking to Tim Burrows.

Apply for Ideas Fund Green to win £5,000 of funding for your green creative project.

Images are from Countdown to Zero. Join the nationwide premiere of the film on Demand Zero Day, 21 June. For participating cinemas, go to

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