A woman and her microphone. Long Beach Port, 4AM.

A woman and her microphone. Long Beach Port, 4AM.

For the past few months, New York-based independent producer Lu Olkowski has been spending a LOT of time at the Los Angeles and Long Beach Ports. She’s busy reporting a six-part series for KCRW’s Independent Producer Project, set to premiere in 2014. Lu is actually the reason why KCRW GM Jennifer Ferro was inspired to create the IPP in the first place, so to say we’re excited about working with Lu is a BIT of an understatement.

During her most recent trip, Lu asked if I wanted to tag along with her on a reporting trip to the Long Beach Port. She was going to spend some time recording two port pilots, the guys who guide and ‘park’ the enormous cargo ships as they make their way into the Long Beach harbor from Shanghai or Dubai or Rotterdam or wherever.

I’ve often wondered, while listening to Lu’s work, like Women of Troy or As Black As We Wish To Be or anything else she’s done, how the hell did she make this? Finally I’d get to have a little glimpse into her process.

We agreed to meet at the Ports on Saturday. On Friday afternoon, I get this email from Lu:

Looks like we will need to be at pilot station in LB at 3A, so I will plan to leave hotel in SP at around 2:15/2:30A.

3A? As in… AM? Ooooookay…

A few short hours later, I met Lu in her hotel lobby. She was fully suited up, with her camera, two recorders, mics, extra batteries, a couple lav mics, a big dead cat (the microphone filter not the animal), and headphones.

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Eerie port in the middle of the night. We rode this tugboat out to meet the incoming cargo ship.

Everything at the Port works on a very tightly regimented schedule. In order for the ships to begin unloading at 8AM, they need to be parked and secured by 6AM. In order for that to happen, the pilots have to head out onto the water around 3:30AM. It takes a couple of hours to guide the enormous ships into the harbor, and that morning it was especially foggy.

When we got there, Lu set up all her equipment out in the parking lot, and walked into the pilot headquarters already recording. This was pretty eye-opening for me. I usually wait to ask permission. I’m afraid of making people uncomfortable. But Lu walks in like it’s no big deal. Pretty soon, all the guys in the office forgot they were being recorded. If one of them said something off mic, she’d turn to them and say ‘What?’ or ‘I couldn’t hear you.’ Ingenious! All this time, I’ve been asking people to repeat themselves ‘into the mic.’ Inevitably, they get self-conscious and repeat what they said, but more as a recitation. To Lu, they’re just talking.

The pilots arrived to take us out on the water. We were going to meet a cargo ship that was coming in from China. Before we left, Lu set up an additional recorder at the port pilot office to record the radio transmission back and forth between the ship and the shore.

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Lu monitoring the play by play at the pilot offices.

We got on a tug boat around 3:30AM in pitch black fog. We couldn’t see ten feet in front of us. Lu planted her feet firmly on the floor of the boat and talked to the pilots as we made our way out over the choppy black water. Her questions were surprisingly unpointed. ‘What’s happening now?’ ‘Who’s narrating?’ ‘How ya feeling?’ Once in a while, she’d set down the mic and snap some pictures, all the while trying not to slip and fall out the side of the boat. (I tried to take some too, but it was too dark.)

Suddenly, there it was. A ship that could be most accurately described as a horizontal skyscraper. We watched as the pilots climbed up a flimsy-looking rope ladder and disappeared inside. Unfortunately we couldn’t go with them, although it wasn’t for Lu’s lack of trying. She would have shimmied up there, mic and camera in tow, if they had let her.

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Scene from the Long Beach Port, around 4:30AM.

Once we were back at the docks, Lu spent the next couple of hours recording sounds outside – the horn signaling an incoming ship, waves gently bumping up against the rocks, a radio softly humming inside a workshop. It seemed like a tedious process, but I began to see that all of these sounds were potential pieces of a puzzle. She was leaving no audible stone left unturned.

Finally, around 6:30AM, our two pilots returned. Lu sat them down in a quiet room for an hour-long interview. The pilots were exhausted but amenable, and after a while, she got them to open up. At one point, she wanted more from a particular answer, and instead of re-phrasing the question, she simply coaxed it out of him using a ‘come on’ gesture with her hands. She’s really not afraid of awkward silences. I learned if you just keep the mic on somebody while they’re thinking, eventually they’re going to say something, and it might be great.

As we left the port around 8:30AM, semi trucks were already lined up for about a mile, waiting to pick up their load from the ship and drive it to wherever it needed to go. All in all, Lu got about 8-10 hours of tape, from two recorders. “I think it could make a nice little 3-4 minute piece,” she said in the car.