Tracks: Rick Smolan
Interview by Holly Grigg-Spall
Images of Robyn's Journey by Rick Smolan
Images of Film by Matt Nettheim
“So many people avoid the things that frighten them
and they never find out if it’s worth being
—Rick Smolan all that frightened.” — Rick Smolan
“Tracks” is a movie based on the real-life story of Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who, in 1977, walked 1,700 miles alone across the Australian outback. Her story was documented by National Geographic magazine photographer Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver).The movie is directed by John Curran.
John Curran is an American writer and director known for his work on “The Painted Veil” and “The Killer Inside Me.”
Rick Smolan is a Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer and creator of the “Day in the Life” photography book series. His photographs of Robyn Davidson’s journey were a National Geographic cover story and became a book, titled “From Alice to Ocean.”
Robyn Davidson is an Australian writer who walked 1,700 miles alone in the Australian outback in 1977. Her memoir, “Tracks,” details her journey. She has spent much time documenting nomadic peoples around the world.
Mia Wasikowska is an Australian actress. She is best known for her starring roles in “The Kids Are All Right” and “Alice In Wonderland.” In addition to “Tracks,” she also stars in the soon to be released David Cronenberg movie “Maps To The Stars.”
Adam Driver is an American actor who first appeared on the scene in HBO series “Girls.” He has since starred in “Frances Ha” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” He also has a role in the upcoming J.J.Abrams’ “Star Wars” sequel.
“Tracks” tells the incredible story of Robyn Davidson, a 27 year-old writer who, in 1977, crossed the Australian outback alone save the company of her dog and a train of camels. She later wrote a memoir detailing her journey. The trip was partly sponsored by National Geographic, requiring that a photographer, Rick Smolan, visit the otherwise determinedly solitary Robyn a few times during the trip to capture her experience. John Curran directs this beautiful feature, with Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver as Robyn and Rick.
We talked with Rick Smolan about the story behind the movie.
HGS: How did you meet Robyn? I know it’s not quite the same story as in the movie.
RICK SMOLAN: I was shooting a cover story for a magazine and when I walked out of the hotel she was washing the windows. I was 28, she was beautiful, and so I took her picture. She was angry and she asked me if I was just another “parasitic journalist” trying to take photos of the Aborigines, like many did at that time. I tried to tell her that my photos might expose what the government had done to these people, but she wasn’t that interested in hearing it.
I was working alongside some social workers with the Aborigines and they asked me for dinner. I turned up at this abandoned house in the middle of nowhere for the party and who opened the door? Robyn. She wasn’t pleased to see me again with my cameras.
She had the camels in the backyard. I asked one of the social workers I knew what was wrong with her friend Robyn. She said she could be lovely once you got to know her. They would bring her food and keep her company. They didn’t know why she had this crazy idea to walk across the desert and they were worried about her.
A few weeks later I was told that Robyn wanted to ask me a favor, but because she had been so unfriendly she didn’t know how. I figured she wanted copies of my photos, but it was that she had written to National Geographic a year earlier, not heard back, and she wanted to use my name to contact the editor again. I had met the editor, but to actually work for National Geographic was my dream. I flew back to the States and got a call from the editor the next week. They wanted to know if Robyn was crazy, a nutcase, if she was for real. I said I’d met her and told them a bit, and they wanted me to accompany her.
“As she says in the movie,
she likes to think an ordinary person
is capable of anything.”
— Rick Smolan
HGS: What did you think when you first heard from the team making this movie?
RS: Well, Mia is so brilliant in it and John treats the audience like intelligent human beings.
But it was really eerie seeing the movie – and seeing what parts were true to what happened and what was more about filling in the windows that existed to be able to tell this complex story. I don’t think Robyn knows herself why she did this trip. So many people avoid the things that frighten them and they never find out if it’s worth being all that frightened about them. Robyn goes into those dark places to see if they deserve to be a negative center of gravity in her life. As she says in the movie, she likes to think an ordinary person is capable of anything. That’s different when most movies are about heroes, about people that are cast as very different to us.
Castaway starred Tom Hanks as a FedEx employee stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. It was directed and produced by Robert Zemeckis and released in 2000.
I first got a call from Hollywood about making this film when Julia Roberts was doing it. I spent the afternoon talking to Julia Roberts about Robyn. Then it was Nicole Kidman. It was fun and interesting, but it was like crying wolf in the end, we didn’t think it was ever going to happen. It seemed too hard for them to figure out. It’s kind of like “Castaway” – what do you do with someone on their own for a whole movie? But John is great, he has a tone-poem quality to his movies. What you’re seeing on screen is like another character in the movie.
HGS: Why do you think people have remained so fascinated by Robyn’s reasons for making the trip?
RS: I think that the hardest part of doing anything is getting started. Not letting all the doubters and all of the people who are skeptical dissuade you. The point for Robyn, as she would say, wasn’t the camels, but she couldn’t afford a four-wheel drive. She would have just driven out there, but she didn’t have the money.
I think it’s about seeing what you are capable of without your whole support structure. It’s so hard today to do to be able to do that – to unplug from everyone and everything. Plus, Robyn didn’t want to be famous, she didn’t want to write a book, she didn’t want the photographs. She would ask me – why do you have to turn everything into a product? Why can’t I just live it, experience it, as it is? She didn’t like having to think about something while it was happening.
The level of detail in her book is as if she was writing it in real time. I asked her how she managed to capture that detail and she explained that while I was taking pictures she was really there, she was experiencing every moment.
Robyn loves the movie, she’s really happy with it. If there’s anything I would have liked to have seen that isn’t represented, it’s that Robyn is very funny in person. She has a wicked sense of humor. I could see, for the movie, it was hard to reconcile her being so intense with being so funny. I often wondered if she had multiple personalities actually – she would be soft and feminine, then tough and very masculine. She was also introspective. She had such a mixture of personalities. The film, I think, shows the right one of those personalities for the purpose.
“Robyn was very
confrontational, in a
good way. It was my
year of growing up.”
— Rick Smolan
HGS: How was that first screening of the movie for you?
RS: I went to LA for a private screening and I was with just two other people that I did not know. I thought I had a general idea of what the film would be like from clips. Within five minutes, it started to feel really hot in there, to me. I was having an anxiety attack I suppose, I’d never had one before. I realized that every time I left Robyn I had felt she was going to die out there. All of that sense of dread came back to me.
I couldn’t talk to the other people afterwards. I walked across the street and drank six flasks of sake. The next time I saw it with Robyn and my niece at the Toronto Film Festival and I loved it. In real life, I was madly in love with Robyn and I was terrified she was going to die. In the film I am presented as more laid back, I am the foil to Robyn.
HGS: How was that, to be so in love with someone and then be leaving them out in the middle of nowhere alone just when you’d rather spend all of your time with them?
RS: Robyn and I have remained very close friends all these years. At that time, I felt I was 19 years-old emotionally. She was 27 and I was 28. If anything got complicated with a relationship, I’d take an assignment and leave. Robyn was very confrontational, in a good way. It was my year of growing up. She told me to go start my own publishing company. She’d ask me if I was going to be a prostitute all my life, working for other people. She asked – why are you waiting for someone to tell you what to take pictures of? She encouraged me to change a situation, rather than just document it.
She was wise beyond her years, she’d been here before. She was full of insights. Once she told me that Americans treat friendship like Valium, that we coddle each other, whereas in Australia you hit your friend over the head with a two-by-four if you think they’re making a mistake. Americans won’t risk a friendship to actually be a friend. I guess I wish they could have included her wisdom and wit in the movie more so. She had so many interesting things to say. It was a very intense year for me.
Original images courtesy of Rick Smolan, ©2014 Rick Smolan/All Rights Reserved
“Tracks” film images courtesy of John Curran ©2014 Matt Nettheim/See-Saw Films
Images of both Robyn and Mia holding “Diggity” courtesy of Rick Smolan ©2014 Rick Smolan/All Rights Reserved