The documentary IN TRANSIT takes place aboard the Empire Builder, America’s busiest long-distance train route. The film captures a series of intimate vignettes on the train as passengers share their disparate stories as the moving landscape of America shifts behind them on their journey. IN TRANSIT is legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles’ (GREY GARDENS) last film. Maysles died in March 2015.
We spoke to two of the documentary’s co-directors, Lynn True and Nelson Walker, about the film.
How did you learn about the topic of your film and what inspired you to make it?
LT & NW: Albert Maysles was the visionary of this film. Trains had been a huge inspiration for him for many years and Albert always remarked on how they engendered such amazing interactions and unique, unlikely relationships. For him, meeting strangers on a train and relating to people one may otherwise never know epitomized the power of human connection he so deeply believed in and sought to share as a filmmaker.
LT & NW: After many months of negotiating permission with Amtrak, our small crew was given full access to film on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route. We took three round trips from Chicago to Portland/Seattle and back, finding all of our subjects spontaneously on these trips. Our Story Producer Martha Wollner and an Associate Producer were tasked with canvassing the train as soon as we boarded, and they would begin meeting passengers and getting a sense of who might be interesting on camera or at least willing to participate. They would then pass along the passengers’ info and location to one of our four to five cinematographers who would also themselves meet passengers as they explored the train. Sometimes we’d be able to record several hours of someone’s story and sometimes we’d only have captured several minutes of footage before the passenger had to disembark at their stop.
Was there a particular obstacle you faced or an incredible subject you interviewed?
NW: With so many people coming and going on the train, we missed some amazing stories, which we’d call the “ones that got away.” There was an extraordinary woman returning to rural North Dakota for the first time in 13 years, after having run away from home. She was with her daughter, who was born in the mid-west, and was about to see her grandparents for the first time. They were both so open and full of nervous anticipation, but I met them shortly before they got off the train so was never able to fully connect.
LT: I studied Architecture in college but always knew I wanted to work in film. The process of designing and constructing a built space is so similar to filmmaking, especially documentary production. After graduation, I immediately began to assist on various documentary projects and eventually got to start collaborating on films of my own as an editor, producer and director.
NW: When I was young, I loved watching TV-documentaries but never considered filmmaking as a career. I always thought I would be a doctor, like my father. In college, as a diversion from my pre-med classes, I took an internship at a company that produced films for Discovery Channel, History Channel and NOVA. I had such a great experience there, that I began to think about filmmaking as a possibility, and became interested in the idea of making medical documentaries. The first couple films I made did focus on health-related issues (HIV and traumatic fistula), but since then I’ve broadened my perspective. My father is a small town doctor, and growing up I saw his job as one that enabled him to connect with people from all walks of life — which isn’t all that different from what I’m doing now.
Which documentary film or documentarian has been the most influential to you?
LT: Probably the most important figure has been Jem Cohen, with whom I was lucky enough to work when I was just starting out, during a very formative stage of my filmmaking life. Jem’s work ethic and personal relationship to his craft have always stayed with me and served as an enduring model of filmmaking as a way of life. Often, when I’d be assisting him, we wouldn’t even talk about film, but rather we’d be walking around New York discussing music or architecture or art and only later would I recognize bits of wisdom and insight from those talks that would directly affect films we were working on or projects I was dreaming about making.
NW: I wouldn’t be where I am today without Albert Maysles. He was an amazing friend, mentor and father-figure. There was a certain magic about the way he related to people, which came from his deep, genuine love for humanity. He taught me that filmmaking is more than just making movies or entertainment — it’s means of finding common ground with others and encouraging love and respect.
Why do you think Washington, DC is a valuable location to screen your film?
LT & NW: Amtrak’s headquarters are in Washington, DC and we are thrilled to be able to screen the film in a community that is so much a part of train culture.
What did you learn from making your film that you’d pass on to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
LT: Stay open minded and attentive to what you’re finding during the filmmaking process, as opposed to forcing a set plan or outcome in advance. There is an undeniable power and beauty in stories that are allowed to unfold on their own terms. NW: Trust in your subjects. Everybody has something special and worthwhile to share, and most people are willing to do so if you approach them with patience, respect, and a genuine desire to connect.
IN TRANSIT will screen at AFI DOCS on June 19 and 21, 2015. Watch the trailer below.