One of the great documentaries to have its World Premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival is “The World Before Your Feet,” a feature-length film that also serves as a unique tour of New York City. We spoke to the film’s director/editor/cameraman Jeremy Workman and star Matt Green. It was plain to see that part of why the documentary turned out so well is the compatibility of its filmmakers, who are both kind and energetic.
Jeremy, how did you decide to cover this for a full-length documentary?
Jeremy: I had known Matt for a number of years, maybe I’ve now known him about a decade, and I’d always been really interested in what he was doing and really inspired by his walks. I kind of started to realize they were these really unique experiences that weren’t what I had imagined, and I would hear stories about it or I would follow his blog and just be really interested and sort of inspired by what he was doing – how he was doing this sort of simple thing, just walking around, but it would lead to all of this interesting and amazing and incredible stuff that he saw.
That kind of led me to be interested in what he was doing, and then he started his New York walk, and he had already been doing it about two or three years and then I reached out to him – you know, we had sort of been friends – so I reached out to him and asked if I could start shooting and came along with him. We started it sort of slow, without a lot of ambition; it was just me with a camera, not a crew. I just sort of followed along, very fly-on-the-wall, and then it started to grow from there. We started both looking at it and saying, “Wow, this is really interesting.” It sort of shows this different take of New York and different take of what Matt was even doing in his own way, so it just gelled from there.
Matt, you’d been covered in different reports – newspaper, TV,…
Matt: Police reports. (laughs)
How was being the subject of a documentary different for you? How much did it change your routine?
Matt: When a camera is on you, of course, especially when it’s the first time, you feel really self-aware and you’re worried about all these silly little things, like how stupid you look on camera. Eventually you just get over it because you realize that you’re stupid-looking in general, so you have to deal with it. Like everything in life, it’s weird at first and then you get used to it. By the time we were a couple months into it – out of the three-plus years we did it – it quickly got pretty regular and I was just able to tune out the fact that the camera was there, and just kind of be in my own world, and Jeremy would just pick up whatever was going on. So yeah, ultimately it didn’t change things, but at the beginning it was something difficult to get used to.
In the documentary, there are people that kind of confront you or seem mad about what you’re doing, and you were trekking around the city with a camera. Do you have any stories about obstacles you faced while filming?
Matt: I can’t think of any, can you?
Jeremy: Just, you know, technically it was ‘here’s this story about this guy walking around,’ so I thought that was going to be easy. It’s a walk in the park! You just put a mic on him, grab a camera, and I didn’t realize, first of all, how hard the walks are. It’s a lot of miles. We’re knocking out six or seven miles by 9 AM. Physically it was challenging, for me just to follow Matt. We kind of realized that the best way for us to do it was that there wouldn’t be a big crew, so it was just me filming, and I put a microphone on Matt, and that is what sort of guided our production. We felt that that was the best way for it to still have a lot of integrity of what Matt was doing, and not kind of create a big footprint of us in the city, and allow Matt to still have the freedom to do his thing. It was really just me behind him and it was a lot more physically challenging than I expected because I’m running behind him, I’m trying to get a lot of shots. He doesn’t wait for me. He’s doing his thing.
Matt: I have no compassion. (laughs)
Jeremy: Yeah, so I’m thinking also about getting the coverage and getting the sound, and “Oh, Matt just pointed out something awesome. We gotta get this, we gotta get this.”
Matt: After a little bit…the first couple times you came out with me, you were like, “I need something to stabilize the camera,” so he started having this pretty heavy monopod under the camera just to offer stability. There would be times when he’s shooting and I’m just like, “Oh, he’ll catch up,” and I turn around and he’s like running down the street with this giant, heavy pole and camera on his shoulder, and his backpack full of equipment. It’s funny because you watch the movie and, if anything, you’ll just think, “Oh, this guy walks a lot. That’s kind of crazy.” But the real craziness is happening behind the camera; this guy is lugging this stuff all over the city. If you just watch the movie thinking about how the camera is getting these shots, it’s pretty impressive.
In terms of the structure of the documentary, you had it split up into chapters and you used the Queens Museum model of the city as a map of the locations. How did you come up with those ideas?
Jeremy: Structure was definitely the biggest challenge in the making of the movie. I wanted it to sort of follow a little bit of what I was taking from Matt, you know? Matt is doing this really simple thing but it sort of unspools into all these really interesting things. You start from this simple idea and it just keeps getting deeper and deeper and deeper and that was something that really stuck with me about what was impactful about what Matt was doing. I wanted the movie to be structured that way; I wanted the movie to be something where it was sort of simple at the beginning, maybe even light or kind of fun – Matt is a funny, engaging person – and that it would…just start getting deeper and deeper as it goes. That was the structural idea.
There were a number of times when we said, “This is going to also confuse viewers. They need to know where they are.” We needed some maps and to just sort of help the viewer on the journey a little bit, and we thought a lot about how we could do that in a cool way. Matt has great tracking on his website, so that became a component in the film, and Matt talked in the film about this panorama at the Queens Museum and it seemed like a great idea to kind of show just how big New York was and how he’s just this small, little, tiny atom in this huge, huge place. They gave us permission to film in there and we filmed it with a Technocrane. We went in there and shot as if it were a helicopter flying over New York City and that became our map. In the way that you see some documentaries may have graphics and animated maps, ours was this physical map that was made for the World’s Fair.
It seemed like a lot of people were really interested in what you were doing, especially since there’s a stereotype about New Yorkers being rude and not talking to people, and the documentary kind of goes away from that idea. Would you say that you got a lot more inquiries when you had him following you around with a camera or was that a normal thing?
Matt: Sure, yeah. Obviously more people are interested in a camera walking down the street than just a guy. I mean, it’s the same type of things that would happen normally, but they’d happen more frequently, so Jeremy is kind of able to compress them into a scene. For me, it’s like a couple times a day.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned doing this is that any stereotype about anything is wrong. It doesn’t matter what it is, who it’s about, whatever. If you sat back for a second and just think about it, they’re all just preposterous on their face: ‘Ah yes, this collection of 8.5 million people from around the world, they do this one thing the same.’ So there’s plenty of rude people in New York; there’s plenty of not-rude people in New York. There’s plenty of people who want to talk to random strangers; there’s plenty of people who are too shy to do it. There’s people who are on their way to work and too busy, you know. You just immediately realize that you don’t know anything about these people except for the individual person you’re talking to. On a day when Jeremy’s not with me, it won’t happen as frequently, but I still meet these people every day who are like, “Wow, this is a unique person, a person I never would’ve guessed lived here.”
Jeremy: That was also a big inspiration for me, too, in making the movie, what Matt just said. I had preconceptions about New York, so I was just like, “Okay, well how can we do this where it follows that idea, that it’s not thinking about ‘New York is something?'” That we’re letting Matt show this side of New York and it’s going to be whatever happens and he’s going to be your tour guide in this place, but we’re not trying to make it fit into any kind of rules or boxes.
Matt, I saw that your blog is kind of backlogged right now with all the photos and reporting. Do you expect to be doing that for long after you actually finish the walk?
Matt: Yeah. So basically, the farther I go, the more – well, kind of what happens is I realize more and more ways to find information about places. So as I become aware of more information available to me, it means I can find out more about everything I see, which just takes exponentially more and more time. Basically the longer the walk goes, the farther behind I am going to get. There will be a point when I am presumably done with the walking and will still have years of blogging left to do. That’ll just keep going for who knows how long. I don’t think I could just do full-time blogging, but you know, we’ll see how much time I can spend doing it. I’ll finish it when it’s finished.
Jeremy: How far are you back now?
Matt: It’s like two and a half years now. It’s getting to the point now where it’s like, a day of photos could take me like, a month to post.
I have kind of a silly question for both of you: have either of you heard comparisons to Forrest Gump and the “I just felt like running” scene?
Matt: I have heard endless Forrest Gump comparisons, particularly on my walk across the U.S. Everyone’s just like, “Oh have you ever heard of Forrest Gump?” And you know, I was getting so sick of it, and do you remember the scene where the guy is trying to come up with a new t-shirt to sell, and the trucker goes by and all the mud gets on [Forrest Gump]? And he throws him the t-shirt and he wipes it off and it’s got the smiley face on it.
So I was in Pennsylvania on my walk across the country and I just got a container of hummus, and I was sitting down on the side of the road to eat it. People had just been saying this Forrest Gump thing all the time and I was just like, “Ugh, it’s so stupid.” And I opened up the hummus and on the lid of the hummus is a smiley face made out of hummus, that just perfectly formed on it. I was like, “Alright, fine.”
Jeremy: You took a photo of that!
Matt: Yeah, I took a photo. I was like, “Alright, they have a point.”
Jeremy, how does it feel to have the World Premiere of the film at SXSW?
Jeremy: It’s great. This was a festival that we were really thinking about. There was something about it where I started to feel, like, the ethos of the movie was connecting with, or had something to do with, South By. There was something that felt it would be a great fit and the audiences of South By might really respond to it.
Quite a while ago, much earlier than when you submit for the deadline, I kind of started connecting with South By. I said, “Look, I’m doing this movie and it’s about New York but it really feels like it could be a good fit here, and I think it might really connect here.” And it started this sort of long back-and-forth…so it was in our thoughts quite a bit. It was probably the place we most thought we wanted to premiere. We didn’t necessarily want it to be in New York; we thought the movie says more than just about a specific city, so we were thinking about it as a wider kind of demographic. It’s been great, we’ve seen the audience connect with it, and get excited by Matt’s story, so it’s been really awesome.
You guys worked with Jesse Eisenberg on the first film he’s ever produced, so what was that like?
Jeremy: Jesse’s been great. Jesse came onboard the movie sort of in our second half of our production. We reached out to him, and he had never really done anything quite like this and it was one of these things where I had some connections with Jesse, and sort of felt like he would really respond to this movie, to Matt. It really sort of fit into what he values. Most of the stuff he’s interested in happens to be political documentaries, so it was a step away for him to say, “Oh I’m going to get involved in a movie that’s not overtly political.” He came and he really started to respond to it in a very personal way. His family’s from New York and he showed it to his parents and they were really taken by Matt and Matt’s story, and he really wanted to be involved. And now he has become, like, the biggest cheerleader of the movie and really likes to mention how excited he is to be a part of something that isn’t something that he is one of the primary creative people involved – to be able to champion something is something that he hasn’t really had the opportunity to do, so he seems to be really enjoying it. It’s been great! He’s walked with Matt.
Matt: Yeah, he was awesome. I don’t know any movie stars other than him but he’s great. He’s a really down-to-earth guy. We had lunch with him for the first time and you get to the end of the lunch and you’re like, “Man, I’ve just been talking about me the whole time.” You don’t necessarily associate that with a Hollywood star, so he’s a really awesome guy.
Jeremy: Very down-to-earth, so it’s very funny – when we would walk down the street he would get accosted as like, a movie star by fans on the street. It was so not what we were used to.
Matt: Yeah, and just talking to him, he doesn’t come off that way, as anybody other than just a cool, regular guy.
Jeremy: He’s been great and really gone to bat for the movie, and just been an advocate in a way that sometimes you need. There’s a lot of movies out there and this is a story we’d like to share with people. We think it’s a worthy movie, so it’s been great to have someone like that to get behind it.
You’ve both talked about sort of changing the stereotype of New Yorkers, but is there anything specific other than that that you guys would like people to take away from the film?
Matt: A lot of stuff, gosh, I don’t know. I mean, I almost just don’t want to say it all that directly, because what’s powerful about the way that Jeremy kind of shaped the film is that a lot of these kind of big messages are woven into it, and I think that it’s effective because it doesn’t come out and tell you what you should do or what we think is important or anything; it just gives you the opportunity to kind of reflect on that for yourself. I found it to be really powerful. For me, it’s really hard to ever talk about those things I find important, because I’ll see what I said and then feel like it’s really preachy. I don’t know, Jeremy weaves a lot of important messages in there that are never spoken, so I don’t know that I want to just say, “You should get this out of the movie.”
Jeremy: Yeah, I think that is kind of the approach. It follows what Matt’s done for many years now on his blog and in his life, and the movie is trying to sort of present that in a way that’s not about taking a position. It’s about seeing the world a little differently, and sometimes that could sound cliche, but I think that’s what the movie is trying to do, the way that Matt is doing that in his own life. It’s trying to sort of say, “Hey, you could step outside. You could walk down your own block,” and there’s amazing stuff to see all around you. I think that’s sort of the goal of the movie a little bit, whether it’s about New York or whether it’s about this particular person, I think that’s a little bit of the takeaway: it’s like that old cliche to stop and smell the roses a little bit.
Featured photo credit: Michael Berman