BPS 370: Changing the World with Your Documentary with Susan Kucera

In the stillness of a serene morning, the light of inspiration dawns upon us as we venture into the depths of human creativity and perseverance. On today’s episode, we welcome the visionary documentarian Susan Kucera, whose lens captures the intricate dance of life and the profound undercurrents of our existence.

Susan Kucera, a remarkable filmmaker, began her journey at a tender age, filming alongside her geologist father. From her early experiments with a Bolex camera on the Athabaskan glacier to her latest cinematic endeavors, Susan’s path has been one of relentless curiosity and artistic passion. In our conversation, she reveals the essence of her craft, the challenges she faced, and the evolution of her storytelling.

Susan’s latest documentary, “Living in the Future’s Past,” starring the legendary Jeff Bridges, is a masterful exploration of humanity’s journey through the lens of ecology, energy, and evolution. As Susan describes, “We wanted to look at the whole human meta-story where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going.” This film transcends traditional narratives, weaving together science, philosophy, and poetry to offer a holistic view of our place in the world.

In the making of this film, Susan collaborated closely with Jeff Bridges, who not only narrated but also appeared on screen, adding depth and authenticity to the narrative. Their partnership was serendipitous, sparked by a mutual interest in exploring the deeper questions of existence. “Jeff watched another film that I had done called ‘Breath of Life,’ and he liked it,” Susan recalls. This connection set the stage for a fruitful collaboration that would culminate in a thought-provoking documentary.

Susan’s approach to filmmaking is deeply organic, a testament to her years of experience and intuitive understanding of her subjects. She often works alone, capturing spontaneous moments that a large crew might miss. This method allows her to infuse her films with a sense of immediacy and authenticity. “It’s like capturing things that only exist in a split second and aren’t there again,” she says, reflecting on the fleeting beauty of her subjects.

One of the most compelling aspects of Susan’s work is her ability to intertwine art and science. Her films are not just documentaries; they are cinematic poems that challenge viewers to see the world through a different lens. As she puts it, “It’s not so much what we’re thinking about the world we live in; it’s how we’re thinking about the world we live in.” This shift in perspective is at the heart of her storytelling, encouraging audiences to question, reflect, and ultimately, understand their own roles in the grand tapestry of life.

In our discussion, Susan also delves into the practical aspects of documentary filmmaking, from the technical challenges of shooting with a RED Epic W camera to the intricate process of editing. Her insights are invaluable for aspiring filmmakers, offering a glimpse into the meticulous and often arduous journey of bringing a documentary to life. She emphasizes the importance of being hands-on, of knowing one’s material intimately, and of being open to the unexpected twists and turns of the creative process.

Enjoy my conversation with Susan Kucera.

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Alex Ferrari 3:02
Today's guest is Susan Kucera and she is a documentarian and the director of living in the futures pass starring the legendary Jeff Bridges. And I wanted to have Susan come on to talk about what the movie is about, but also her process. The importance of documentarians today, how she shoots and edits everything herself, and the kind of work that she's doing as a documentarian and kind of get inside the process of a world class documentary filmmaker. So without any further ado, please enjoy my conversation with Susan Kucera. I'd like to welcome the show Susan Kucera. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Susan Kucera 3:47
Thanks for having me.

Alex Ferrari 3:49
So can you first off tell us how you got into the business?

Susan Kucera 3:53
Oh, my goodness. Um, well, it's kind of a long story. I mean, I i've been filming since I was nine. I started on a bolex. You know, by my side of my father's side on Athabaskan glacier, he was a geologist and we did a lot of filming for botanika films. And then fast forward a long, long time I was getting a divorce. And I was thinking okay, what am I going to do now? And the only thing I really knew how to do really well with film and the red one camera had just come out. Actually, it hadn't even come out. I got on the list to get one

Alex Ferrari 4:34
Right! with that box that they showed at.

Susan Kucera 4:37
Okay, I thought I could handle this this takes good old fashioned filmmaking you can actually use cinematic lenses you it's it was a lot like an actual film camera, not a point and shoot camera. And so I got it. I made a documentary called dumb trading on thin air and I thought oh, you know, just see if I can do this. And, and it got picked up by Netflix. And so I thought, Okay, I think I think I can probably do this. And so this film that I just did with Jeff, it's my fifth documentary. One of the ones I did though, was nonprofit. So that that didn't circulate in a lot of places. But it's been it's been a wonderful experience to last, what, 10 1012 years now.

Alex Ferrari 5:27
Now, what made you get interested more into documentary filmmaking as opposed to narrative filmmaking?

Susan Kucera 5:34
Well, I, that's a good question. I have written screenplays and I know how difficult it is to get films made. And when you're making Oh, yeah. I know.

Alex Ferrari 5:49
You have a screenplay, what?!

Susan Kucera 5:54
It's so funny, all these little points that take you in these different areas. So that's why I ended up with an agent because that screenplay had gotten some interest and, and I was still a full time mom then but as I said, divorce kind of forces you to get with the program. And I, she was able to find a home for my first documentary, my my agent, and that I just took off from there, and I really enjoy it. It's, I have one camera, I can move around with one camera and much more easily than, than a giant crew. And I film all the time. I just love I love the act of filming. And it's like kind of thing, right? You you're capturing things that are only exist in a split second, and aren't there again. So like the Grizzlies in the film. You can't cue a grizzly right. So I happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Alex Ferrari 6:58
You could try to work real well for you.

Susan Kucera 7:01
That's right. That's right. And and it's just it's an interesting process. All all of us documentary filmmakers just add to the cultural narrative, the best we can. And so it's very gratifying that way.

Alex Ferrari 7:16
And now what are you shooting? So what are you shooting with? Now you shoot with a red epic, or

Susan Kucera 7:20
It's a Epic W

Alex Ferrari 7:22
I can't keep track of them. There's too many.

Susan Kucera 7:24
I know, I know. Isn't that crazy? All the

Alex Ferrari 7:27
Dragon and monstro? Whatever?

Susan Kucera 7:30
I know, I guess on the upside, we get to recycle our hard drives. So there's no physical film in that sense, correct? Correct. It is. It is difficult. You you end up on a on this sort of treadmill? Absolutely. I'm done. I think I have the camera that I'll just keep for the rest of my life. So

Alex Ferrari 7:53
You say that now?

Susan Kucera 7:55
I'm definitely done.

Alex Ferrari 7:59
As long as it keeps working, you'll be fired.

Susan Kucera 8:01
Yes, exactly. That's right.

Alex Ferrari 8:03
Now, do you also edit your own work?

Susan Kucera 8:05
I do.

Alex Ferrari 8:06
What do you what do you caught on? And how do you feel that helps you as a documentarian because I know a lot of documentarians that don't have that skill, as far as document, shooting or editing. How is it working in the kind of work that you're doing?

Susan Kucera 8:20
Well, my process is very organic. And so I, if I edit myself, which I do, and I'm still on Final Cut 10 Okay. I'm not I'm not in the forward realm of whatever they're using now all the fancy stuff.

Alex Ferrari 8:39
But I'm assuming Final Cut. Will you the latest version of Final Cut? 10? Yeah, the latest version of final? It's a very powerful piece of software. Don't Don't knock it, it's

Susan Kucera 8:48
Ohh no, I'm not knocking it. I'm just laughing because a lot of people's Oh, you know, why are you still using that, and I it works.

Alex Ferrari 8:55
They just don't know, they just don't understand.

Susan Kucera 8:59
And so I become Obviously, I'm very familiar with the imagery that I have that already I have quite a I've been filming for 10 years. So I have a lot of imagery that I that I can get to know at my fingertips. So if I'd handed all of that to somebody else, I think that would be very difficult for them to try to navigate. And the the interviews, I used to transcribe all the interviews and I found that to be a little bit difficult because what people say when you read it, it's different than when it's in person and and how they say it, etc, etc. And so, I kind of gave up doing that and I just become very, very familiar with what all of my subjects are saying. And I do my best trying to weave weave a story together and i and i have i mean living in the futures past it's it is more on the poetic side. Although it certainly has a An impact on people when they see it.

Alex Ferrari 10:02
Now let's talk about that your latest film in the in the living in the future and futures past? How did it come about? And what is it all about? For people who don't know?

Susan Kucera 10:12
Well, it's a film, as Jeff likes to say it's a film that takes a good look under the hood of humanity. And we, we, we had a great executive producer, his name is Jim Swift, and I'd worked with him before. And actually, he's sort of had the thought of, well, you know, why do we do what we do in the face of large environmental issues that we are, you know, have in front of us? And so, we wanted to work with Jeff, and

Alex Ferrari 10:43
And who's this Jeff, you speak of?

Susan Kucera 10:45
Oh, Jeff Bridges.

Alex Ferrari 10:47
Is he a new actor, I haven't heard of him before.

Susan Kucera 10:51
He's one of these fly by night. He is such an amazing human being what a What a great gift. He came on board. And we started from scratch. And we created this beautiful piece of work. And we we did actually watch a lot of other documentaries, Jeff was very involved, we, we didn't want to just contribute another kind of Doomsday or scary thing that gives you a lot of information, but doesn't sort of, you know, you don't know, you just want to crawl into your bed after you hear that. So we start, we decided to look at the whole human meta story where we've been, where we are, where we're going. And we in, we have emergence in there, and entropy, and ecology and evolution, all the ease right energy, we looked at the flows of energy, how that actually works in our society. So it's just a really different and usual film, that you keep you keep thinking about it days later.

Alex Ferrari 12:02
Now, how, how did you get Jeff Bridges? legend like Jeff Bridges to be involved in your movie?

Susan Kucera 12:09
Well, as I said, we wanted to work with someone who had a name. And so my agent, actually was Jim, Jim thought of Jeff actually first, which is kind of cool. And agent did reach out to Jeff and Jeff watched another film that I had done called breath of life. And he liked it. And so I got a call, I was walking up the road, and I got a call. And it said, Oh, hey, just hang tight. I've got jeff bridges on the other line, and I set out totally out of the blue. And we just kind of hit it off on the phone. And we just, we just created this thing. And we we collaborated through FaceTime, we took our time because Jeff was working on a number of films. And so he would kind of disappear for a while and I would do stuff and then he would come back and I would show him stuff. And, and we we just went back and forth like this. And then as the film narrowed down towards the end, he he lends himself to the film too. So he's in it, he's in it as well.

Alex Ferrari 13:24
Yeah, that always helps. It definitely helps. So he's just not a narrator. He's actually on screen kind of taking you through a little bit of the journey.

Susan Kucera 13:33
Right. And I should have given my crew credit, because he actually carried the tripod when I felt

Alex Ferrari 13:41
Jeff's been just been doing this for how many years? I mean, since he was a kid, I mean, he's been around doing this stuff. So I'm sure he didn't mind picking up.

Susan Kucera 13:52
No, no, he really gave his all and it shows and the film I think we're both very proud of

Alex Ferrari 14:01
What do you hope? What are you hoping for with the film? What is your end goal with, with people who watched the film?

Susan Kucera 14:08
Well, we decided to shake things up a bit. As I said, we approach this in a different way. And when you go to see this film, you'll actually learn a lot about yourself, and not in a blaming way or your Why are you a human kind of way, but actually how your brain thinks how interesting things like talking about capitalism in terms of optimal foraging theory, which people often don't think about. Like if you're, if you're a wolf, right, you and you're spending energy, you don't want to spend the same amount of energy getting a mouse if you could spend the same amount of energy getting a deer and so and we look at that in terms of the stock market and just kind of how our whole society functions. Not not whether it's good or bad, just, you know, this is it. And so so, you know, interesting concepts like that we are, we're always looking at ourselves, comparing ourselves to how animals operate. And so you just you just get it interesting idea of humanity this way. And it also allows people who are feeling vulnerable. These are we meet people where they're feeling vulnerable. And we kind of look at why things are the way they are. And as I, as I said, for me, the whole energy aspect of it really opened my eyes. And so now I'm thinking about my decisions differently. I'm, I'm looking at the world differently, a politics everything. So it's just, it's just it's kind of eye opening is, as I mentioned,

Alex Ferrari 15:51
And well, first of all, how important are documentarians in today's world? I mean, there's so much stuff going on. We live in a crazy time. And I think sometimes the news is so busy covering the show, that it's difficult for them to actually do a lot of the journalistic things that they used to do back in the day, which, which aren't as flashy. And I think documentarians have picked up a little bit, if not a lot of that slack. Would you agree?

Susan Kucera 16:26
Oh, I definitely agree. If you can spend an hour and a half, unpacking a thought, right? or different aspects of something, you're certainly obviously gonna learn a lot more. And if you just got 10 or 15 minutes to listen to a soundbite, here or there. And so yeah, I guess documentaries do I mean, it's whatever turns our brain on, right. And people are, unfortunately, we're also busy. Sometimes it's hard to get the bigger picture. But if one can spend the time, put in the time, new ideas emerge. And I think that's the role of documentarians to an art also, I mean, this is an artistic film to art can sometimes shake us up and and make us jolt us out of our sort of typical way of thinking. And so that's another thing that we tried to do.

Alex Ferrari 17:21
Now you you you did um, do you read the cinematographer? On the film as well? Yes, yes, images are gorgeous in this film. They really, really stunning. I mean, how did you learn who taught you? or How did you teach yourself to make these amazing images, which are for most of them for the most part with natural light? I know I well. Money. Money Did you did you pay this on? How did it?

Susan Kucera 17:47
I would have loved to have had a crew, right? Oh, lights, everything. You made everything perfect. But if you're making a documentary, and you're on a budget, you have to get really creative. And so the film, I didn't go to China, and I didn't go to Dubai, there's some shots, a little shots, here and there. And there's obviously a lot of archival footage in there, too. And some stuff from NASA. But the rest is just when, as I said when I see things and they're unusual, and I have my camera with me. And so I've been able to capture things that you would have a hard time putting together with a crew. Right? Because you quickly Yeah, I utilize my daughter. You know, there's I utilize two dancers so we could kind of whenever I was trying to just show humanity and different aspects. I don't know you just get creative and you ended it came out well. But I think just because I've been filming since I was nine, I just I guess I just have an I

Alex Ferrari 18:51
Got it. Got it. Now there's a lot of archival footage in the film. Can you talk a little bit about the process of getting archival footage if like for documentary, a documentary is listening to finding archival footage dealing with the legalities of it buying it the whole the whole process? Because I think it's a little mysterious for a lot of people.

Susan Kucera 19:10
Yeah, it's it's not so bad. If you get to the level where you're actually releasing a film like we did in the theater, it's out in theaters today. Then you have to pay a little extra, and that's for the license license. But a lot of that archival stuff. Oh, I hope they don't mind me plugging them. They're called critical paths. And a lot of their footage is from the US government. It's in the public domain. And you pay them they've done all the work finding all of this stuff and making sure that it's broadcast safe, because a lot of it's obviously very old. And so that's a very good resource.

Alex Ferrari 19:53
And what's the name of it critical past critical past okay.com Yes, I will definitely put that in the show. notes because it's, it's rough. It's rough looking for footage, especially archival stuff for document for documentarians. Did you ever see the movie atomic cafe?

Susan Kucera 20:10
No, I didn't. Have you ever heard of it? I have heard of it.

Alex Ferrari 20:13
It's it's I saw it in my videos or when I was working there. It is a movie completely made of. Billy Oh, my entire movie is made. They told a narrative story with archival footage of the bomb dropping. And it's kind of like a satire.

Susan Kucera 20:31
Oh, interesting. I'll have to check that out. Yeah, I know, I would go on their website. And sometimes I've just get lost watching stuff. Wow, this is fascinating.

Alex Ferrari 20:41
How long by the way? How long? Did it take you to shoot this? I put it all together?

Susan Kucera 20:45
Um, well, let's see from the beginning of working with Jeff. That was about two and a half years ago, maybe a little longer. I mean, the film came out in festivals in February. And it's been in festivals since February. It traveled all over the world. Not me. But the felt.

Alex Ferrari 21:06
I know, it would be nice. If they would, they would let you go.

Susan Kucera 21:09
And the so I get a little fuzzy on the time. So yeah, I would say about two and a half years, it probably took a year to edit. And in doing so as in during the process of editing, obviously, I didn't have all the footage that I needed. So I thought, Okay, I'm gonna have to get other stuff I need, I need something, you know, just just something just right. So I would I would do that. But, but again, I'm just lucky I since I've had this camera, or, you know, this type of game. For some time, just being able to dig into my own library was extremely helpful.

Alex Ferrari 21:49
Right. And, and what I find so fascinating about your story is, you know, to find someone like Jeff, who's obviously a legend, and an Oscar winner, and all this kind of stuff, to be a part of a movie like this. You literally just had your agent call them and call his agent go, Hey, this is a project. And you people never think of just calling up and saying, hey, I've got a project. Maybe they'll be interested.

Susan Kucera 22:13
Right? I yeah, I don't know. We'd have to ask her. I don't know what her secret. But she was great. Yeah. And then he, he again, he watched something that I had done. But he he was really turned on by this subject, obviously. And and the subject that we were interested in telling, which was a little more in depth than just here's all the bad news. You know, what or what crawl into your bed now.

Alex Ferrari 22:38
We've had we have, we've had plenty of those documentaries. I've watched many of them. I'm like Jesus.

Susan Kucera 22:44
No, I yeah, it doesn't feel very well. Of course, information is helpful that we need that. But also, I think there's a quote in the film, it isn't so much what we're thinking about the world we live in, it's how we're thinking about the world we live in. And there's all sorts of interesting philosophy through this film, about how to just see things slightly differently. But then it's that but there's also a hard core here. Here's the reality. And we're obviously stuck with myth. resources the way they are energy. It is. And so it's it's sobering, but it's also exciting.

Alex Ferrari 23:26
Very cool. Now, I want to ask you a few questions. I asked all of my guests. What advice would you give a filmmaker wanting to break into the business today?

Susan Kucera 23:36
Make a film. When I did, I invested in myself, I, I just decided I would. trading on thin air was my first film. And I didn't know if people would like it, but I gave it a try. And it was definitely low budget, but it worked out. Okay. So that's one option. Obviously, hooking up with interning with people who are are working in this field is really helpful. But getting out and doing it.

Alex Ferrari 24:08
Very good. Now, can you tell me what book had the biggest impact on your life or career?

Susan Kucera 24:14
Oh my gosh. Like I aside from the books that I've been reading lately, who are that are mostly from the people who are in the movie. Right? I don't know if I can even think back that far. Oh, my gosh,

Alex Ferrari 24:32
Any book that comes to mind that really had an impact.

Susan Kucera 24:34
I okay, so there's a there's a book by Timothy Morton that I actually read as I was sculpting this film. Man, I'd have to look up what it was. It's his latest book is called being ecological but there was before this one shoot, I don't have it handy in my mind. But he The reason it was so powerful his prose in there It really made you reach your you really had to think. And it was a challenge to get through and but when you come out the other end you have all these aha moments. So I yeah, I guess I just have to plug Timothy Morton's work. Okay. Very interesting. Yeah, philosophy.

Alex Ferrari 25:21
Now what lesson took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?

Susan Kucera 25:27
Oh, well, the moment I had my daughter, I realized that I really didn't know diddly squat.

Alex Ferrari 25:34
Kids have that effect on you.

Susan Kucera 25:38
And so, yeah, what she's 24 now she's working on her PhD. And I would say the process of watching another human being develop gives you some pause as to you? Well, gosh, it puts you in a vulnerable situation where you're having to reevaluate everything that you've learned everything in your life. And so I would say that that had a big impact on me.

Alex Ferrari 26:04
Where can people find out about the movie and more about your work?

Susan Kucera 26:08
Well, the movie is in theaters today. The next few days we had Trafalgar released it in at theaters. And then we are still in festivals after that. And then I believe it's out VOD, and everywhere you'll be where you see movies, typically in a month and a half or so from now.

Alex Ferrari 26:28
Okay, very cool. And anywhere people can find your work.

Susan Kucera 26:32
Yeah, breath of life is available. I think it's on Amazon and Hulu. I'm not sure all the places that it is, but it's easy to find. And trading on thin air was on Netflix came out in 2008. It was on Netflix for six years. And then I was asked if I wanted to report it out. And I didn't because it was my first work. And I thought the sound was okay, I don't really want people to but it was actually a good, fun, fun. good movie.

Alex Ferrari 27:04
Very good. Susan, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk. And thank you for making such a wonderful film. It's a very important film that needs to be done nowadays without question. But thank you for so much for sharing your your process with us.

Susan Kucera 27:16
Oh, no problem. Sorry for my my lack of memory in the moment here. But a wild ride with this theatrical. We're all just kind of fried.

Alex Ferrari 27:26
Not a problem at all. Thanks again.

Susan Kucera 27:28
All right, thanks.

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