Interview: A Talk With The Filmmaker And Star Of ‘Lucky’ Documentary

Pictured above: Lucky Torres in a movie still.

There’s something communal about struggle. Regardless of a person’s background or lifestyle, when someone is struggling, you feel it. You understand it. You empathize with it. Most importantly, you learn from it. One journalist/filmmaker wants Lucky Torres’ life to be a tangible experience.

“Lucky has an uncomfortable life and it’s an uncomfortable story, but I want us to face that and feel that a little bit with her while we’re watching,” says Laura Checkoway, creator of the documentary, Lucky, which screened last month during the New York Documentary Festival.

What was born as a magazine feature five years ago evolved into the visual journey of a woman’s search for stability. For a significant chunk of her life, Lucky—née Waleska Torres Ruiz but nicknamed after surviving being hit by a NYC yellow cab—has juggled homelessness and unemployment, moving from girlfriend to girlfriend and shelter to shelter with her son, searching for success.

For Checkoway, Lucky’s rocky journey was worth more than just a few thousand words. “This is what happens when you decide this magazine story’s not enough,” she says. Here, VIBE chats with both Checkoway and Lucky about the documentary’s intent, mutual learning experiences and life after the cameras have turned off. —Stacy-Ann Ellis

VIBE: Congrats on your first full-length documentary, Laura. What made you pursue Lucky’s story in the first place? What drew you to her?
Laura Checkoway: When I started it, I didn’t know what publication it was for. Originally VIBE was interested. But VIBE thought it was more like hardcore lesbian gangs. It’s not. It’s a story of family and young women trying to be themselves. It’s not my sensibility what the editors at the time more so wanted it to be, so then I did it for The Fader and it was just a piece about Lucky. Then I started filming.

Was that weird? Switching from writing to filming it?
LC: For me, just having an audio recorder or taking notes as a journalist versus having a camera is such a different dynamic. People want to perform when they see a camera. They take a really long time to get to the place where everyone’s comfortable and comfortable that there’s a camera there rolling. Even people that love the camera still takes a long time for the camera to feel… you know?

Lucky, was it a weird transition from Laura just writing about you to recording your life?
Lucky Torres: I dunno, I guess not as weird as it would’ve felt for Laura being a writer and then all of a sudden filming this crazy woman’s life. She went from decent to wild within a couple of years. It probably kinda freaked her out, but to me it was just another person there, even when I got tired of the camera.

Laura, did it get wild for you?
LC: You know, I always felt comfortable because of Lucky. And having to cater to celebrities in interviews for so long was very good training for this.

Before the filming even started, can you describe your first encounter with each other?
LC: We were on the Christopher Street Pier in 2007 and Lucky was there. She had her son in a stroller, her sister was there, there were a whole bunch of girls. I remember Lucky came up to me, I was talking with different people, and she put her phone number in my hand and said, “You’re not paying enough attention to me, but you need to call me.” And that was how we met.

Wow, so strong an approach. So, Lucky, I’m assuming you were already comfortable and wanted your story to be told.
LT: It took a while. I didn’t get comfortable overnight, in a year, in two years. Laura filmed me for years, not two years. Whatever people don’t see that was edited out, it was a lot of hard times. Emotional, anger, violence, stuff like that. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy filming me. I always wanted to tell the truth about a person like me from the system to the shelter system to not having anyone. She was willing to share it, do it. It wasn’t planned. It just happened. Now that it’s being shared, maybe a lot of other people understand the type of people like me instead of stereotyping them and judging them.

What was your first reaction seeing the film played back to you?
LT: When I first watched the film, I didn’t like looking at myself on the film. I found something wrong in everything. It was good, her work was good the way she fixed it up, but I just didn’t like watching me. Watching back at it like it was… it’s like I was trying to take the dream out my head and put it in Laura’s hands, she did what she wanted with it. And me watching it is like being replaced. I don’t want it in my head anymore. I wanted to let it go.

LC: The first time Lucky saw the whole film was when were were in a huge theater. She was just massive up there, so I think that made it more overwhelming.

And Laura, what was it like seeing people receive your work?
LC: It’s absolutely amazing. People are having very powerful reactions to the film and the things that people are saying are really such a gift. The film and Lucky’s story are touching people in a way that I’d hoped that it would. Actually, what’s been really unexpected and most powerful is that something in it has sparked people to want to not just talk about the film, which I knew that they would and I wanted the film to spark dialogue, but that it sparks them to want to open up and share their stories and some of their own pain and the kind of stuff that people don’t normally talk about. Something abut Lucky sharing her own story seems, so far, to be inspiring people to share theirs and that is amazing.

For people who haven’t watched the film yet, give us a sample for what a day in the life of Lucky looks like.
LC: Wow, you never know [laughs]. Lucky, do you want to answer that?

LT: I don’t know. Everyday’s a different day, a different scene, a different mood, a different location. It depends, so I really can’t tell you what Lucky’s life would be, or in the film what it would’ve been from morning to night. Laura didn’t even know what was gonna happen when she was filming me.

LC: It makes for such an interesting film because Lucky’s moving from place to place, shelter to shelter, and trying to find stability. She also has such amazing expressive style, so she always has a different look almost every day. Cinematically that’s very interesting because you get to see her with wigs, mohawks, always a different style. She always outdoes herself. As a filmmaker and hopefully a film viewer, that’s really interesting. Not to be superficial. That’s just visually speaking. But on a deeper level, following somebody that is trying to find stability and doesn’t have it yet, yeah you never know. I would go and have the intention of what I thought we’d shoot that day, and sometimes that thing would happen, but there was always a whole lot else as well.

A “just go with it” experience, perhaps?
LC: To some extent, yes. But you have to be sharp with your vision as well.

Lucky, how has life changed for you and your family since the making of the film, if it has at all?
LT: The only thing that’s different in my life is I have a fiancee and moved to Detroit with her, somewhere I’ve never been. The relationship [between me and my sister, Fantasy] has changed. That’s the only major change. I’m still struggling and stuff but that’s life. Everybody has a struggle, right? But I’ll be getting married next summer with my fiancee. I’m excited. I’ll finally be with someone that’s comfortable with me. That’s the most amazing thing ever.

During all that time spent together during the making of this documentary, what have you learned from each other?
LT: What I’ve learned from Laura from her being in my life is her part of the world, because she was always so jolly, so friendly. Knowing that she was a journalist and had to be a writer and meet different people and things like that. See me, I stood just in a little world with a gay community –actually New York is big — but in our little world in one location. And I wasn’t that friendly. I was like the biggest bitch ever. I learned how to be more like Laura and Laura learned how to be a little more like me.

LC: I learned so much on so many levels. It’s too much. I learned a lot from Lucky’s resilience and strength and also being so willing to share her flaws and vulnerabilities at the same time. I’ve been thinking a lot about, not to sound corny, but trying to find a limitless heart and limitless love. That’s something that I’ve just been thinking about these past couple days.

What’s been the most memorable part of the experience?
LC: Everything is memorable. Our New York premiere showed to a packed house. There it is up on the big screen. Those are the moments that are supposed to be milestones or maybe the most memorable, but the whole process of this, because I was capturing Lucky’s life in the film, I mean it’s all very memorable. It’s just one of those cases that it’s what it takes to capture whatever the journey is [that’s] as important.

LT: I’m just as lost as Laura with that. There are so many memorable parts of our journey together, so I can’t call it. I just know that as much as she wanted to give up, she never did. As much as I pushed her away and cursed her out, she just held on. I don’t know why, but she did. And still is. Every part within the years of me and Laura, learning each others’ lives and being in one another’s lives was a memorable part, from the good to the bad.

So would you say this is the beginning to your film career or are you going to keep pen-to-paper as your main medium?
LC: I think this was a case where this story felt like it was a film. So I think I’ll just share stories in the medium that fits them best. But I love documentary filmmaking and I would love to make more documentaries.

Were there any major inspirations or guidelines while creating the film?
LC: I love music and art and I’m inspired by so much, but I haven’t studied film. It was really a learn as you go type of thing.

After all the film buzz goes away and you’ve both moved on with your lives, do you think you’ll keep in close contact?
LC: Yes!

LT: Duh! Me and Laura are gonna always have contact. This is not something everybody else does. This is different. See, everyone else that is in this life of filming, once they’re done, they look at is as a job and then that’s it. They move on to the next thing. See, me and Laura built a relationship. I wasn’t just a project to Laura. That’s the difference between a lot of people that are into this. Just into this for work or publicity. Or I guess to test the waters. You see, Laura did more than just film me. She put me in magazines, she wrote about me, she traveled with me. We shared more than just the film. Outside the film, while not filming, we shared a bond. Yes, we’re gonna stay in contact. And like I said on radio interviews, Laura ain’t going nowhere.