Even when filming history in the making, life can still be stranger behind the camera.
Matt Yoka knows as much. The documentarian’s debut film, Whirlybird, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to strong reviews and dumbfounded viewers. The film tells the story of Zoey Tur, who earned a reputation as one of the best photojournalists in the business in the 1980s and 90s. As a helicopter pilot, Tur and her then-wife Marika recorded some of Los Angeles’ most historic events from wildfires to earthquakes. She also filmed the iconic footage of the Los Angeles riots in 1994 and also was the first helicopter to spot fugitive OJ Simpson trying to flee the city in his Bronco.
In private life, Tur maintained a family with Marika, and accrued a thriving business thanks to her work as a journalist. But years of job stress, adrenaline addiction and gender dysphoria began to take their toll. Zoey became abusive to Marika, which led to the dissolution of her marriage, her seeking psychological help, and eventually to her coming out as transgender. Now happy and healthy, Zoey allowed Yoka to document her life, sitting down for candid interviews and providing him with hundreds of hours of footage. World of Wonder founders/famed documentarians Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey also stepped in to produce.
We meet Yoka next to a roaring fireplace at the Park City Doubletree during the Sundance Film Festival the morning after the Whirlybird premiere. We both giggle as a man with a guitar begins crooning Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” without warning. The laugher helps Yoka relax; like many first-time directors, he’s a bastion of raw nerves and excitement, as he hopes to land a distribution deal during the festival.
Whirlybird is currently seeking distribution.
So how did Zoey’s story come to you?
She’d only started transitioning a few months before I learned about her career. It was so early that even her name, Zoey, wasn’t the majority of her online presence. Right around the time I found out about [her name change] to Zoey Tur, she’d done an interview with someone at an NPR station in LA. So I reached out to that show and asked if I could get her contact information. They provided it. I emailed Zoey, and she said “Let’s get lunch.” The next thing I knew I was asking whether I could make a documentary about her.
So when was that, exactly?
That was November of 2013.
So this has been a process, as they say.
It’s funny. Two years ago I thought I was almost done with it. I reached out to someone I know to say I was almost done, and they said “Yeah, you’re about 80% done.” Anyway, it was a long road. The time it took to make it allowed me to think deeper and deeper about the story, and to tell it the way I thought it needed to be told.
How did you get hooked up with Fenton & Randy?
Zoey actually introduced me to Fenton & Randy. She did that, I think, because they had expressed interest in Zoey’s story. Zoey, being amazing as she is, said “I have this person who never made a film before that’s going to do it.” But she introduced us. So we all went to the World of Wonder office, and I found Fenton & Randy to be great on all sorts of levels. They’re such warm people. They’re fun, intelligent. They have tons of experience with telling stories. I felt a real connection with them. What made it even more incredible was that they had known Zoey since 1993, when they were two young filmmakers out of New York that had come to LA to make docs.
They had profiled Zoey and Marika after the LA riots as part of LA Stories or something. So they had their own archive of the Turs from 1993. They also encouraged Zoey to do more home video. So that material provided crucial moments in the film—material shot by Fenton & Randy. So I like to say they were sent back from the future to shoot the moments for the documentary. I like to imagine a World of Wonder time machine…
Operated by drag queens, no doubt.
Yeah. All aboard!
The first thing I admire about Zoey is her tenacity. I completely relate to her need to get the story, to have an adventure and never back down. I have a feeling you relate to that too.
What was it in Zoey’s story that drew you so far in that you were willing to risk your filmmaking career before it even began on this subject?
I used to ask myself what kind of movie I wanted to make, what I wanted to be my first movie. You realize when you start making your first movie that you don’t really have a choice. It kind of consumes you and you become obsessed with it. If I were to pinpoint those obsessions, I would say it was a combination of Zoey & Marika’s ability to talk about their lives and their archive that always continues to blow my mind. Just as an example: I threw a party here at Sundance and wanted to put together some aerial b-roll video that they’d shot of LA. So I was skimming these massive projects and saw this one shot of a close-up where they’d zoomed in on a house window. I realized for the first time that it was OJ [Simpson]’s house.
Oh my lord.
Then they zoom out and you see the whole house and the lawn next to it. There’s a dog on the lawn. Then they zoom in on the dog, and it’s in the middle of taking a sh*t.
So I have no idea what to do with that kind of material, but it’s just so odd and historically adjacent and irrelevant and fascinating. You can’t look away.
I like that you call it “historically adjacent.” In a way, that describes Zoey’s life. This is the woman that found OJ Simpson in his white Bronco and shot the Rodney King LA Riots and fires…all this iconic LA footage came from the same person. That’s extraordinary.
It’s also hard to overstate the danger of her chosen profession as a helicopter cameraperson. We sit here now less than 24 hours after the death of Kobe Bryant, which is so tragic, and another LA story.
In many ways, the film is the story of her marriage to Marika, who comes off marvelously in the film. That relationship goes from very loving and affectionate to something quite ugly. What’s the turning point? Do you think that was the stress of being in the closet? The nature of the job? The adrenaline addiction of her profession?
You list a lot of different aspects of what made this story unravel. I personally don’t know, and I don’t feel comfortable pinpointing any one thing that turned their relationship or was the cause of the troubles that surfaced in their relationship. I don’t want to dodge that question, but as is often the case in reality, it isn’t one thing.
We’re quick to package something in a clean and tidy way. Unfortunately in my perspective in life, so many factors swirl around together that lead to our actions and the way our lives unfold. Sometimes we feel like we’re in charge of it, sometimes not. I wanted to reflect that in the film in a way that might be unique. We’re not trying to draw conclusions. We’re trying to reflect what life is like, which is: we’re just trying to get through it. Along the way, we can make mistakes, we can fall in love. And we’re just trying to make sense of it.
It’s not cut and dry.
No, and life sucks sometimes. People can love each other and come apart. And even when a relationship isn’t working, there are parts of each other that we still love and believe in. Marika talks about that. I don’t want to give it away, but that relates to the last lines of the film.
On that subject, this film has one of the most terrifying lines I’ve ever heard in movie. Zoey says to Markia—I don’t want to spoil it here, but it relates to domestic violence. And it is horrifying. How, when you are looking at archive footage like that, do you not turn on your subject? How does that affect your directorial choices?
When I first met Zoe and Marika, I found them both very candid about what they did as journalists, and who they are, and how they feel about their lives. I did preliminary interviews with them both, and I was still in the zone of these are my tour guides. I hadn’t even decided their relationship would be the core of the film at that point. What I found was that they both wanted to talk about their relationship. They’re both reflecting on who they are, and who they were. I think what makes this a unique film is that it’s them telling the story of what they did, and their mistakes. I think there’s autonomy to that. I felt like it was just my job to help guide them along that process.
So I felt I needed to help them explore these aspects, but I also felt it was necessary because I found two people willing to really deep-dive into who they are. By doing that, I hope it allows people to also reflect on their own lives. I wanted the story to be relatable.
When you’re dealing with a line that is that stark, do you worry about losing your audience? That they might turn on Zoey?
I think there are moments in storytelling where you don’t always feel that you have a choice. The process tells you what you need to do. So, to me, as we went in deeper, I realized my obligation was to give them a time to talk about it. When it comes to isolating audiences, obviously I want the film to resonate with people. I hope people find it relatable. Will everyone be ready for it? I don’t know, probably not. But I believe in the audience, in the audience’s desire for complex characters. It’s my hope that by telling these stories, we can use the medium of filmmaking to expand our consciousness. So for me to soften the story does a disservice to the audience.
And I think Zoey and Marika felt the same way.
It sounds like they were just incredibly willing to talk about all these really intimate details of their relationship.
I hope people do identify that. My goal is to contextualize people’s lives and create, hopefully, more empathy for everybody. More empathy all around will help us grow a bit. I want to invite the audience to do that. So we use a lot of techniques that might be more familiar in a narrative film: music, scene building, the plot as almost an action-adventure. I sort of think of it as a family melodrama wrapped in an action-adventure.
I love that.
I want people to have a good time watching it, and at the same time, walk away with substance.
What is Zoey’s relationship with Marika and the kids like today?
You know, part of me doesn’t want to evaluate their relationship. But I’ll say that I think the film was a method for both of them, particularly Zoey, to communicate with her family. She wanted this film as a way to express herself. Can I elaborate on that?
I think that a lot of people make mistakes in life. Very few people have a documentary made about them that showcases their highs and lows. For that, Zoey does deserve some recognition about doing something that is grim.
What’s the state of her life today?
Zoey’s actually developing a new media company. She’s always been cutting edge. So the earliest footage you see in the film was shot by the most advanced video camera available at the time. That’s why the footage is so unique: it was shot with this incredible broadcast-quality video camera that she bought. When she wanted a helicopter, she bought the most state-of-the-art helicopter she could find. She is always looking for the newest technology. The irony is I love old stuff, so her interest in new technology in 1982 is like my interest now.
So I’m looking backward, she’s looking forward. What she’s interested in now is the advancement of live-feed video, and how compact the cameras are becoming. So she’s building a new live media company. And she still licesnes her archive footage. She’s always active, and I think she’s happiest working.
Making a film is a ridiculous undertaking under any circumstances. Making your first film is even bigger. What do you think you learned about yourself making this film?
I guess I learned I’m pretty stubborn. When you’re making a film for the first time, and don’t have many resources to do it, it takes a lot of effort to try to get the resources you need. Zoey, I think, would also cite me as being a little stubborn. I haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I wonder when that moment will come. We’re talking 24-hours after the first time I’ve shown it to the public, so I’m trying to process that. The funny thing is that [making a movie] is a method of self-discovery. I think that in knowing Zoey and telling her story, I explored my childhood in Los Angeles.
I’m a child of the 80s and 90s. I have deep roots in the city. I think that, starting out, I was trying to tell a story that explored the city where I was from. As I got further in, the story became more personal, more focused on Zoey’s family. It became a story about family dynamics, and what goes into building a company and providing for a family and maintaining a relationship. I think I have done a lot of reflecting on that, and how challenging life can be. That’s where I think I spent a lot of time growing as a person.
The final moments of the film are very ambiguous as to the state of Zoey’s life and how she feels about her mistakes. The movie left me wondering, so I’ll ask you: did she ruin her life?
I don’t think so. I didn’t want to do what I think a lot of films do which is to go very raw and human, and then be insecure about leaving an audience with bad feelings. I feel like the film works to nestle itself into the core struggle of what it means to be human, and I want people to sit with that and stay in that zone.
So I don’t think she ruined her life. I think that Zoey, in fact, is exploring herself far more than many people will do in their lives. Think about what she’s doing in this film, the things she’s talking about, and the self-reflection she’s involved in. I think, for that alone, she’s more successful than some people will ever be. That’s how I evaluate success in life: can you understand who you are. She seems to be really trying to figure that out. I hope with that comes a lot of peace. But I’ll leave it for other people to decide.
Whirlybird is currently seeking distribution.