Barometers Of Truth
Documentarians Luke Mazzaferro And Justin Krook Talk Process
When Luke Mazzaferro was 22 years old, he sat in a packed theatre and watched Al Gore compose himself in front of a simple projected screen, and lay out, with eerie accuracy, exactly how fucked we all were.
For Mazzaferro, who’s passion had been largely focused on dramas, An Inconvenient Truth –Gore’s acclaimed warning against the devastation of climate change — was early proof that narrative documentaries can be as engaging and impactful as fiction. He saw firsthand that the direct, unashamed presentation of a compelling story can have a profound impact in both “entertaining and moving an audience.”
It’s that ethos – simple stories, told well — that he has carried with him ever since. It’s also one shared by his frequent creative collaborator, Justin Krook — although Krook came to documentaries in a different way. “I come from the post [production] world,” Krook says over Zoom from his LA home.
“Documentaries are 70% editing. It’s really where you crack the story. So it was a natural fit for me. I can write, direct, edit. It was a natural next step.”
Together, Krook and Mazzaferro have made two much heralded documentaries — Machine, an investigation into both the threat and the possibility represented by the AI revolution, and A Fire Inside, a raw and sensitive investigation into Australia’s devastating 2019/2020 bushfire season and its aftermath. Though different in approach and tone — as Krook notes, Machine is a “science documentary” while A Fire Inside is a “social issue disaster doc” — they are both, broadly construed, investigations into the ways that culture is impacted and shaped by the thoroughly ordinary, thoroughly inspired people who make up that culture.
As such, key to their creative approach is finding those people: interesting, dynamic interview subjects who know the profound power of laying out their lives. When Krook Zooms in to speak, he is taking a breather after a day interviewing people from all over the world for a new project — this, he says, is where any documentary first comes to life.
“It’s a lot of fucking work,” he says, simply. The good people — the ones who speak intelligently, and with genuine insight — are rarely the first people you talk to. “And there are people who look great on paper, and then you get them on a Zoom call, and they’re just wooden,” he explains.
On A Fire Inside, finding the right people came with added weight. The film is carried by the stories of people like Nathan Barnden, a volunteer firefighter who lays out, with quiet, heartbreaking honesty, the night he drove into an inferno — more than once — to save the lives of total strangers, only to emerge from the flames to learn that two of his close family members had died defending their homes. The project wasn’t just about finding the right people, then. It was about assuring those people that their stories would be told respectfully, with sensitivity and integrity.
“These are people who felt like they’d been sort of used by mainstream media,” Mazzaferro explains. “[Journalists] were coming in with cameras, getting their thirty second soundbite, and then going out and never being seen again.” As such, Mazzaferro and Krook — assisted by their producer Casey Ventura and FINCH’s Francesca Walker — took the time to assure the residents of Cobargo, still suffering from the impact of the bushfires, that this wasn’t just going to be an in-and-out situation,
“We were reaching out to people within three months of the fire ending,” Mazzaferro continues. “So [Francesca] and Casey, who were leading the initial reach-outs, they actually went down to certain towns like Cobargo and hung out there for a few days, with no cameras, just meeting people, and building that trust.”
“I think a lot of these people end up getting burned, because the fires come through, and then someone’s shoving a camera in their face,” Krook agrees. “And granted, the local news only has 20 minutes to go talk to these people, so they don’t have a chance to build a relationship, spend time with them, build a story. But that’s kind of what you have to do to be respectful and tell the stories and earn the trust.”
And even with all that work, some Cobargo firefighters were still reticent. Clem Barnden, Nathan’s father, who embodies the quiet heroism and resilience that sits at the heart of A Fire Inside, wasn’t fully committed until the final hour. “When we rocked up on the day of filming, he was still having second thoughts about participating,” Mazzafferoo says.
After Krook and Mazzaferro have found those subjects — regardless of the project — the work shifts into a different gear. The creative process becomes one of a kind of narrative push and pull between the directors and the people they talk to – a nuanced art of telling other people’s stories without necessarily always agreeing with them.
That was particularly true in the editing and construction of Machine. The AI space is overcrowded with voices, filled with vastly different perspectives. How, Krook and Mazzaferro wanted to know, do you sift through those voices, and decide which ones are telling you something important?
“[Machine] was a hard one because you’ve got the smartest people in the world with 180 degree opposite views of what the technology was going to become,” Krook explains. “You’re never going to be as smart as these people. But you have to talk to enough of them that you can boil it down and actually be the barometers of truth.”
Such an approach means making decisions on behalf of the story, not just the people telling it. It’s a balancing act, a process of finding a kind of happy, productive tension between storyteller and subject. “That’s the hardest thing about making those sorts of movies,” Krook explains.
“When Luke and I are going into making these movies, it’s got to be compelling, it’s got to be provocative. In many cases, it’s got to be shocking. But that’s not necessarily compatible with a living human being who is sitting there, having gone through something quite traumatic.”
The right approach, the pair explain, is one of genuine connection — whether they’re talking to the eclectic group of inspired scientists in Machine, or the rattled yet resilient heroes of A Fire Inside. “When we’re conducting these interviews, we know what we need to get,” Krook says. “But I’m going to treat these people as though they’re not a subject, but a friend, someone I can see eye to eye with. Not someone I’m trying to get something from.”
How much the initial pitch of the project actually changes over the course of these interviews varies wildly. With Machine, Krook and Mazzaferro went into production with fewer parameters, eager to learn and to be shaped by the science. Comparatively, with A Fire Inside, the pair knew that there were things that they wanted to avoid — stories that they didn’t necessarily want to tell. The biggest self-produced imposition was a desire to avoid making this a tale of climate change. As far as Krook and Mazzaferro are concerned, the science is so thoroughly settled on that matter — the narrative so impeccably and insistently produced — that they didn’t want to add to a clamor of unproductive voices.
“Quite honestly, when I saw An Inconvenient Truth, that said everything that I needed to know about climate change,” Krook says. “Every single thing they said in that movie came true. I don’t know who else we’re going to get on the climate change train if you’re not there already.”
“We’re actually going to treat [climate change] like it’s a given,” Mazzaferro says. “We’re not going to try and do a whole piece where it’s convincing people. I don’t know what the unique spin on climate change is anymore. Because if you’re not convinced now…” He shrugs.
That means the expected reception to these documentaries from the subjects themselves varies from project to project. Krook explains that, given that he has made documentaries both about specific people — most notably, his portrait of DJ Steve Aoki, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead — and about urgent social issues, he expects different things from those who help him tell stories.
“If you’re making a movie about someone,” he explains, “you don’t necessarily want them to love it. If you’re making a movie about someone’s life, it should be pushing a few boundaries … Let’s be honest: if you make a doc about someone’s life, and it’s the exact thing they had pictured in their head, it’s probably going to be pretty boring.”
Machine and A Fire Inside are different. Collaboration between artist and subject is the foundation of documentary storytelling, always, but the projected audience — and how they take the final product — is a very different beast when the focus is broader than a single mind, and a single life. “If you’re making a movie about something, about AI, or about something as sensitive as the bushfires, the first people that you want to impress are the people who lived through it, or the people who study it,” Krook says. “That’s the barometer I accept for myself.”
That, indeed, is the defining feature of A Fire Inside. The film doesn’t hold its subjects — many of whom alternate fascinatingly between utter self-knowledge of their actions and a sometimes pained inability to describe why they put their life on the line, or why they suffered so much after they had — at an arm’s distance.
Structurally, the film spends its first third examining the fire from the ground. Then the rains come. For other filmmakers, that moment of relief might be the end of the story. But as Krook and Mazzaferro learned fast, the tortured, weighty act of trying to re-arrange your life in the aftermath of collective tragedy can only really begin when the fires are out. “I think the more interesting story to tell is not about the fires themselves, but what happened in these communities after these fires,” Krook says.
That means approaching the story with insight; with care. The back half of A Fire Inside is explicitly about PTSD and trauma, and the way we navigate the things that we are unable to leave behind. The fires are the starting point. But the story is broader than that. There is, in the heartbreaking, unashamed way that Nathan Barnden explains having to wake up every morning after the fires were done, and get to the sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful business of living his life, great hope.
“The takeaway from our film is that people should at least feel better about humanity at the end of it,” Mazzaferro says. ”In some instances, [they could be] compelled to see how they could volunteer themselves. Or how they could just, on the mental health aspect, reflect on themselves, and about reaching out for help, and see less stigma in reaching out for help. Or they could reach out to a friend who felt they weren’t coping.”
By that metric, A Fire Inside has had real success. “That is the feedback that we have had,” Mazzaferro says. “And I’m proud of that because I have seen people in my personal life that are struggling. And it destigmatizes it.”