Interview: Jeremy Workman and Matt Green on the making and meaning of The World Before Your Feet

There are very few documentaries out there that can offer the very of-the-now perspective The World Before Your Feet can. The latest film from Jeremy Workman focuses on subject Matt Green and his endlessly interesting, definitely obsessive, and slightly odd “project”. Anyone who follows his blog would already know; Green has taken it upon himself to walk every street in New York City. He has been walking for over 2,000 days now, and somehow Workman has managed to capture just a fraction (though conceptually a huge piece) of this journey over the past few years.

The documentary, which was one of the selections at this year’s recent SXSW Film Festival, is an inspiring look at living in the moment, told in a way that can easily resonate with a large range of people. For a bit more insight into the inspiring journey The Iris sat down with both Jeremy and Matt in the plush lobby of historic Driskill Hotel to chat about the film, Matt’s journey, and what it can teach us about the value of being more fascinated by and appreciative of everyday life. With FOMO and smartphone-addiction being very real, very modern issues amongst an increasingly anxious generation, it seems like the documentary may be one of the most important things you can watch this year. See below for the full transcript of the chat.

Jeremy, what was it like when you first approached Matt about making this documentary. And Matt, you say that you still haven’t really figured out your motivations for what you’re doing; what made you jump into it?

Jeremy: Well I had known Matt for several years even before we started filming. We had been friends for a good several years, and I had always been really interested in what he was doing. I always followed his blogs closely. I’ve always just really…for myself I always went to his blog page, and it was a way for me to chill and wind down, to have a different rhythm. I’ve always just loved it.

When he told me he was doing the New York walk, I was instantly fascinated. I was just glued to his blog really closely. There was a good year or two where he was doing the walk and I was just a fan; we would meet to have dinner and he would tell me these amazing stories that weren’t about the normal things you’d hear on New York, or see. It really took you to a different place.

I had just finished another movie and it was going to be released. I just had a lot of time on my hands at that point, I kind of was at a place where I wasn’t looking for a new film, I just had a lot of time. So then I reached out to Matt and said “hey I have some time, shouldn’t I be filming your walk?”. It was something I had always dreamed of doing at some point. Somehow I convinced him and we just kind of started slow and it developed from there. It wasn’t ever intended to be this big documentary, we just started with baby steps of just seeing what would come when we filmed.

Matt: A couple of people previously proposed the same idea and I wasn’t really comfortable with it. It’s such an intimate way of being out in the city and the idea of introducing an observer or sorts to it kind of throws things off a little bit. But at the same time, this was more than two and a half years into the walk and by that point I became aware that there was stuff happening while I was walking that I was unable to capture myself.

My blog is just one lens on what I’m doing, and it’s very tedious and detail-oriented, like “what I saw, what I found out about it”. It doesn’t really tell any kind of human side of what’s going on. I was just becoming aware that there was a side of things that I’m not capable of telling myself. And that’s fine – not everyone has to know every aspect of everything you’re doing – but when Jeremy proposed the idea to me I just felt comfortable doing it with him, being that we were already friends. I just felt like we were going to be on the same page, as opposed to a stranger where I don’t know what their angle is.

And also, his previous film [Magical Universe] that he just finished editing was also a very personal film about this very eccentric, obsessive artist who was doing this thing where if you just saw his work, you wouldn’t understand him in any way. And Jeremy kind of saw that there was this other really profound story to be told about this guy, and despite the fact that what the guy was doing was so eccentric, it was a really deep human story that could relate to a lot of people. So I thought that he could bring something out of this that maybe is an important thing to learn, that I can’t [bring out myself].

It does make you hesitant having a camera around with you, just since that would change things, both how you act yourself and how other people act. But we just started little by little and it wasn’t ever a thing that was like “let’s make a movie” it was more “this might add a cool dimension to it, let’s give it a shot”.

Jeremy: And also, one of the ways that we did it was that there was no crew. I said to Matt, “we’re not going to have a sound guy, we’re not going to have P.A’s, we’re just going to put a mic on you”. And that was it. That quote unquote footprint of the production was really small, it was more “I’m going to hang behind you and what we get is what we get”.

So what you’re doing is I guess, instead of “humans of New York”, it’s just “New York”.

Jeremy: Yeah, it’s more about the journey and seeing…it could be about any city. I think what we started realising is that this was going to be a story that could be anywhere, it could be any city in the world. If we suddenly had filmed this in a different city, it would be a similar movie. Well, New York was a huge aspect obviously because it’s the most populated city of the United States, but what Matt was experiencing was something that could really be anywhere

Matt, I guess the empathy you have with New York is very unique, especially since no one has done this before. Just in general, what are your favourite things about New York and what are your favourite places?

Matt: I always say that my favourite place or block is the next one I walk. There’s no favourite, that’s kind of the whole nature of the walk really. It democratises the city, it puts every single place on equal footing. In kind of anywhere I’ve lived, there’s always places that are more important, because there are places where your house is, where you work, where you hang out, where your friends live, etc. If you looked at a map tracing where you go you’d see these certain corridors that are heavily travelled, and those are the important geographical parts of your life. So the whole idea of this walk, in a way, is getting away from that idea, and just saying “it doesn’t matter how exciting or not exciting this place is, or who is there, or what type of people are there, each of these places is a place where it’s my job to go there and be there, and then I go to the next one”…it kind of evens things out.

Like Jeremy said, I think we could have shot this anywhere. It would have obviously looked different, depending on where we were, but the heart of it would come out anywhere. I’ve experienced a lot of the same things walking in the middle of the country. But I think a great part of New York is that it just kind of happens faster; there are more people there and more different types of people there, a lot of different types of landscapes and cityscapes – it’s an accelerated way to see a lot of stuff. And that’s a great thing movie wise that comes out of it of course; the visuals hit you really hard. There are so many shots in the film that you just can’t believe it’s only New York City.

Jeremy: That was really important for my education too while making the movie, that Matt sort of forced me to go out of my comfort zone quite a bit. I was thinking we were going to get some amazing stuff of Carnegie Hall, Rockerfeller Centre, Lincoln Centre etc. But it was very apparent almost immediately that this was about a city and all the corners that cameras don’t usually go. And every place was just as interesting in it’s own way, it just wasn’t what we see in the media or the usual experience with New York.

Matt: Watching a cut of the movie later on in the process, it just kind of occurred to me that Jeremy may very well have fit more parts of New York in this movie than has ever been in a movie before. It’s hard to imagine a movie that would have captured as much, and so many different corners of the city.

Not all movies are patient enough.

Matt: Very true. That was really a virtue of this.

Jeremy: Definitely. Not everyone has had the opportunity to do this over several years. It allowed me to walk with Matt many, many miles on this, so it was a very unique situation.

And how has watching your journey unfold on screen helped you, Matt, and maybe effected your perspective on your own journey?

Matt: I’m sure it has effected my perspective, but I’m not sure how. It feels to me the same when I’m out doing things but it is very interesting to see someone else’s take on what you’re doing. We’re just at the very start of this process of showing this film to people, but it will be very interesting to see what messages come out of it that resonate with people. There will inevitably be feelings that people have in common when they watch the film that I’m not conscious of yet. I think that’s maybe when the perspective will shift a little more for me. When I see what of other people’s lives they are seeing in this film.

Jeremy: Did you realise you’d be seen as funny? Matt’s real funny in this, people laugh. Was that something you..

Matt: Oh I’m a riot [laughs]. But actually the real thing I notice is the stuff that I do over and over that I’m not aware of. Some of it’s in the film but some of it’s also on the cutting room floor now. Like for example, you see me walk by people all the time and I’m like “how’s it goin’ man?”, I didn’t really know, I just say that to every person I pass by. There are funny things like that you don’t really do on a conscious level.

When I did my walk across the country it was so easy to tell people what I was doing. “I’m walking across the U.S” – they get it, it’s a concept you understand. Heading west across the country. In New York it is so hard to explain this. To say you’re walking every block of the city, that doesn’t mean something clear to people. I’ve done my best approximation of getting that across quickly, and I’ve found out that I say the same thing all the time even though I don’t need to: “I’m doing this big project…” That seems to be the most effective way of saying it but I hate calling it a project. It’s funny seeing how repetitive I am in all these things.

I blow my nose a lot in a handkerchief too. Jeremy said he can have like a five minute scene of me just blowing my nose in different parts of the city. I may have blown the most snot in the most areas of anyone in New York.

New York is one of the most dynamic city in the world. It’s always changing and it offers so much. Is that a challenge for you?

Matt: It’s not necessarily a challenge for me because there’s nothing about what I’m doing that is challenged by a city that is changing. All that I’m doing is just being in a place, so for me it doesn’t really matter what kind of place it is. I think if I felt it was my job to capture the city and describe it, then that would be very challenging to me. But I don’t feel like that’s possible to begin with, so I don’t really feel threatened.

Jeremy: It was challenging for me. Just the amount of people, the action, the noise, the cars. It was challenging to shoot it all. Matt was just doing his thing but it created a lot of challenges production wise, just the amount of stuff going on.

And how has Matt’s journey changed you as a person, Jeremy?

Jeremy: It’s changed me quite a bit. It’s really taken me to a deeper understanding of just everything, not just in the city where I live but in the world that I’m a part of. Matt really conveys this sort of commonality of people, that commonality of humanity is something that was very powerful to me, and it’s something I wanted the movie to really show. That’s what really changed me: going out with Matt and experiencing that first hand and seeing how this very simple act of just walking around and embracing your world – what that can do to your mindset; it’s about your connection to the world and to people, that was something that was very, very powerful and it was something that I really working hard so the movie would show it. That’s what really changed me.

I guess the timing is very powerful too. You have this issue of everyone glued to their smartphones, and not immersed in their environment. Also technology creates connection but ironically a lot of people feel more isolated than ever before. These are important messages for people to hear, what’s in the film.

Jeremy: I think so, not for egotistical reasons, but just because I think that stepping away from those things and really slowing down and embracing your world and the people around you is really important. Whether or not it’s in this film, or the messages are found in other ways, it’s just really important.

Matt, the way I travel, and the way my friends travel, is often very different. A lot of my friends are like “you have to see this, you have to see this, you have to see this”, it feels like box-ticking to me. That you’re not actually seeing anything if you’re trying to see everything. That’s why I hate spending only two or three days anywhere. At any point, where you ever a traveller like that?

Matt: Absolutely. The thing that got me away from it was my cross country walk. It was exactly as you said. I remember walking across the country and everyone would be like “you gotta see this, and you gotta see this, and you gotta see this”. It was this list of all these “gotta see” things, and obviously I couldn’t see all of them in a line across the country because it’d be some crazy zig-zag that’d take a million years. So basically all of a sudden I had this situation where there was a million cool things, and I had to decide what not to see. And that’s not a great feeling. So I just kind of threw that whole list out the window, just because it was overwhelming. Then I just got walking directions from the internet – from this place to this place.

Almost out of I guess laziness I was just like “just tell me where to go, I don’t want to figure this out”. That’s what did it for me, that really opened up my eyes to the power of not having destinations, of not having “cool things” to see. When you don’t have a cool thing to see, you have to make what’s around you cool. And it turns out that is just really easy to do, because everything is cool.

We just have such an ingrained idea in this society that we’re wasting our time if we’re looking at silly stuff, and we’re not being productive or efficient; that time is so precious that we’ve gotta be making money and getting stuff done all the time. That’s a pretty prevalent idea, and that goes over into travelling. It’s like “you’re here for a week and you’ve got to see this, you’re a fool if you don’t see that”. That sounds like a sensible thing to say, but when you look outside of that you realise the incredible wealth of what you’re missing when you do that.

What advice would you give to people who kind of want to push away from that nine to five and, not fully commit like you, but be more immersed in their environment?

It’s really simple. I think the only real transition you have to make is going to the belief that everything is interesting. I said that to someone once and they told me that their grandmother had this great line: “the only people who can get bored are boring people”. Once you can commit fully to the belief that “wherever I am there’s something fascinating there, because there’s people there, animals there, nature there”…wherever you are there is really complex stuff going on, and it’s 100% on you to just look at it and just dig into it, and as soon as you can accept that idea then you are set; you’ll never be bored again, and you’ll never feel like there is anything you “have” to see again, because whatever is around you will be great.

The World Before Your Feet premiered as part of the SXSW Film Festival 2018. You can find out more about the film HERE..