Photojournalist Rick Smolan was a 28-year-old National Geographic contributor in 1977 when he met Robyn Davidson, a Australian woman who was training camels in preparation for making a solo trip 1,7000 miles across the outback. Smolan and Davidson became close, and Smolan ended up shooting tens of thousands of photographs of her desert journey, dozens of which were published in a legendary National Geographic cover story.
On the heels of Smolan's article, Davidson wrote Tracks, an autobiographical tale of her travels. Her story was made into a movie this fall, starring Mia Wasikowska as Davidson and Adam Driver as Smolan.
Now comes Inside Tracks, a new 224-page smartphone-enabled coffee-table book from Smolan. The first half showcases Davidson's epic outback adventure with stunning, never-before-published photos. The second half details the making of the movie, including screenplay excerpts and behind-the-scenes pictures.
We spoke to Smolan about his work, his inextricable link to Davidson, and how it feels to be portrayed by Girls' heartthrob hipster Adam Driver.
What is Inside Tracks about?
Inside Tracks is the story of what happens when you discover that the most dangerous terrain is not external but internal. It's also the story of how I came to know a young woman whom I admired more than anyone I'd ever met. Unlike most people, whose instincts tell them to run when frightened, this woman's inner voice urged her to challenge and confront her fears head on. She was willing to risk her life and her sanity for something she felt compelled to do.
Has Robyn ever told you why she made this trip?
It's the one question that Robyn has never felt the need to answer. Perhaps allowing each person to reach his or her own conclusion is what makes her unlikely journey so compelling. To me, what matters is that Robyn permitted herself to listen to the little voice inside that so many of us ignore.
What memories or conversations stand out most clearly from your assignment photographing Davidson as she crossed the dangerous desert?
Robyn once made an observation that Americans treat friendship like Valium. She said that every time she saw Americans together they were comforting each other: "Don't worry. Everything will be fine." She said that in Australia, if someone is your friend, if you really care about them, then you risk your friendship by being brutally honest and hitting them over the head with a two-by-four if they are doing something stupid. You don't allow your friends to keep making the same mistake, marrying the wrong person, sticking with an abusive boss, and so on.
It sounds like Robyn was ahead of her time with her mindfulness and ability to live in the moment.
Absolutely. On my third visit, Robyn hadn't seen anyone for several weeks, and as we sat by the campfire she suddenly demanded: "When are you going to get here?" I remember wondering if she was losing her mind and said: "I'm sitting here across from you." She stared at me and said: "No, you’re not. You are worrying about where you are going to drop your car in two weeks when you leave me, and whether your photo is going to be on the cover of Time next week. You show up out here and then you are everywhere else but here. If you’re going to come, then be here with me and not lost in your head the whole time!" She was right. While I was always filtering it, she allowed herself to actually experience every moment of the trip, the pain and the wonder.
What was it like to see the movie Tracks for the first time?
Before Tracks was released, producer Emile Sherman and director John Curran graciously set up a private screening for me in Los Angeles. I was excited and looking forward to a trip down memory lane. Instead, a few minutes into the film I found myself gripping the arms of my seat, breaking out into a sweat, my heart pounding, experiencing a full-blown anxiety attack. Sitting alone in that darkened theater, I was flooded with a sense of dread, suddenly remembering that every time I drove away from Robyn during her journey I would look in my rearview mirror and wonder if that would be my last memory of her, if she would die out there.
Wow! Did you stay for the whole screening?
I did, but that rush of forgotten memories made it impossible for me to enjoy. It wasn’t until I saw the film again at the Toronto Film Festival with 800 other moviegoers, heard them hold their breath when Robyn was attacked by wild camels, heard them laugh in unison at Adam Driver's fish-out-of-water aspects, and cry when Robyn lost her best friend that I was able to properly experience Tracks for the first time.
How accurate is the film, compared to what actually happened?
Obviously the Robyn and Rick in the film are fictionalized versions of us and many of the events have been tailored and altered to fit into the movie's 90-minute narrative arc. And, in many ways, even Robyn and I were on different journeys, and we each remember parts of the trip very differently. Ironically, the thing we both fear now is that the movie version of events may begin to replace our memories of the real events.
What do you want readers to take away from your new book, Inside Tracks?
My deepest hope is that Robyn's journey will inspire you to look inside and find your own journey, your own personal "camel trip."
Use the code BOOKDEAL25 to get Inside Tracks for only $20 (regularly $45) at Amazon.com.