Holly Morris is host of the PBS show Adventure Divas and a documentary filmmaker whose newest project is The Babushshkas of Chernobyl. Before participating in a discussion of the American art of risk-taking, she talked turning down moonshine in Chernobyl, fly fishing in Patagonia, and going to her secret happy place in the What It Means to Be American green room.
Q: Where do you go to be alone?
A: Literally, the mountains, whenever possible. In a wider sense, I go to what I call my secret happy place. When I’m traveling on the road and all is going to hell and shoots are a mess and the story’s getting away from me, I try to go inside my head, clear it, and go to my secret happy place where I can figure out what the next move should be.
Q: Where would you like to explore next?
A: Fly-fishing in Patagonia has been something I’ve always wanted to do. Even though I travel for a living and make my career an adventure of sorts, that’s what I’d want to do for a good time. Catch a really big fish. Let it go.
Q: What’s your favorite cliché?
A: No guts, no glory.
Q: Who’s the one person, living or dead, you’d most like to have a beer with?
A: Sojourner Truth. Eleanor Roosevelt. Virginia Woolf. But I’d make it tea instead of beer, probably.
Q: Did you pick up any new phrases during your time at Chernobyl?
A: One of the cardinal rules of Chernobyl is not to eat or drink things that are produced in the zone, especially by people who are residents there. So I did learn, “Nyet moonshine,” because there’s a lot of moonshine going around and a lot of hospitality. So, graciously saying no.
Q: What advice do you give to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
A: Go in with a realistic game plan about how long it will take. A big investigative documentary will take years—even with full funding, which you probably won’t have. I think a certain amount of pacing is advisable. But I don’t want to be too discouraging because I think nobody makes documentary films unless they’re driven by a passion to get stories told. And you can’t really put a timeline or a budget on something that is passion-driven.
Q: How did you get into trouble as a kid?
A: I missed school a lot to do things like fishing and horseback riding. My parents took me out of school for a full year in third grade to travel, so I got in trouble because I never learned fractions or cursive writing. I didn’t get in that much trouble. My antics were manageable. If you kind of keep it on the down low and stay quiet about whatever you’re doing, you can usually skate by.
Q: What’s your favorite condiment?
A: Salsa. Although the babushkas around Chernobyl had this amazing raw pig foot called salo, which I’d never had before. And at first blush I didn’t want to have any, but it was remarkably good with a little horseradish.
Q: What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
A: When I was 30, I quit my stable job and decided that I had to chase down my original spirit out there in the world, and basically that’s when I became a filmmaker and writer.
Q: What does it mean to be American?
A: Compared to what it feels like in the rest of the world, it feels kind of entrepreneurial, sometimes naïve, and kind of great to wake up in the morning and be like, “Let’s put on a play!” Which I think is this American bit of optimism.
*Photo by A.E. Landes.