This Couple Changed LA News Via Helicopter In The '80s & '90s As Their Relationship Disintegrated
Helicopter news wasn't always the centerpiece of local TV news coverage that it's been in recent decades. The new documentary Whirlybird follows helicopter reporter Zoey Tur and her then-wife Marika Gerrard's work covering breaking news across the city — most notably as a helicopter pilot — while also telling the complex story of their relationship.
They ran a freelance news company, the Los Angeles News Service. The couple filmed historic events, including the 1992 beating of Reginald Denny during the unrest following the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King, and the famed O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase in 1994.
"I don't think that there's anybody who so thoroughly captured Los Angeles during the '80s and '90s as Zoey Tur and Marika Gerrard," Whirlybird Director Matt Yoka told us. "It's just unbelievable that two people could have captured as much as they did of the city."
While they'd covered news for years beforehand, Tur notes in the film that it often meant driving more than 100 miles per hour to be the first ones on the scene.
"If you understand Los Angeles, you understand why you can't get to news stories," Tur says.
So Tur fantasized about flying a helicopter to get to breaking news faster so she could beat out the competition for compelling visuals. She secretly managed to save $50,000, without telling her wife. She took that money to a helicopter company and used it to secure a half-million-dollar credit line and a helicopter.
"Flying a helicopter over the city of Los Angeles, you feel like an angel. You see things that few people ever get to see," Tur says.
One of the things Tur notes helped make L.A. such a great place to shoot helicopter news footage is the city's unique light, particularly the gold into red hues as the sun sets. You can see footage Tur shot of the city during her years as a helicopter pilot here, in this exclusive clip from Whirlybird:
Anything For The Story
That helicopter let them get to news events while they were still happening, but the documentary highlights some of the in-your-face coverage that this led to, including shooting Madonna and Sean Penn's private wedding ceremony — and Madonna flipping off the helicopter. In 1986, Tur became an on-air reporter for the first time when covering a commercial jet crash in Cerritos. While they weren't able to transmit live camera footage yet, Tur provided live reports on the radio.
Gerrard was afraid of heights, but Tur drafted her as the cameraperson while Tur piloted. One of the dark undercurrents of the film is how demanding Tur could be. She's heard screaming at Gerrard and berating her for not filming the way that Tur wanted her to — that included not leaning out of the helicopter far enough to get a better shot.
Another pilot hired by L.A. News Service, Larry Welk, notes in the documentary that he believed Tur had a hero complex. Tur would conduct rescues when she saw people in trouble. Once when she spotted someone who appeared to be at risk of drowning following a flooding, she forced Welk out of the helicopter to go rescue the person.
With Tur not seeing herself as traditional news media, she testified in the case against those charged with beating Reginald Denny.
Giving Birth To Live Car Chases
While remaining independent for years, Tur was eventually hired by KCOP channel 13 — and they outfitted her with a microwave transmitter that let her film breaking news live. She filmed a police chase, the first time a chase was ever covered live on television. That included filming the cops shooting and then killing a suspect. The live coverage delivered huge ratings, and helped to change the landscape of TV news coverage.
"I was thinking about the legacy of their work, and how it could have contributed to the deevolution of breaking news — the complicated nature of what it is they did," Yoka said. But he believes "they made a huge contribution to the city by going out day and night, filming everything that was happening."
Part of the work on the documentary included creating a digital archive of the numerous hours of footage shot by Tur and Gerrard. Yoka said he's incredibly proud of the archive as a historical document. It includes everything from shots of whales in the ocean to explicit film in the aftermath of murders.
"I think they were, in some ways, pretty agnostic about what it was they were capturing — as long as they thought that it was of interest," he said.
The film touches on growing public skepticism of the news media as Tur and Gerrard filmed more of the city’s violence.
Whirlybird also portrays Tur becoming increasingly agitated with her colleagues. Her daughter Katy Tur became a broadcast journalist for NBC and MSNBC, and she appears talking about Zoey.
"I don't remember a time when [Zoey] wasn't explosively angry," Katy says in the documentary.
Tur and Gerrard's son Jamie Tur notes that, as the novelty of the helicopter wore off, his parents' relationship became increasingly strained. After Zoey Tur had a heart attack at 35, she left her wife and kids behind as she went to Burning Man and started to reexamine herself.
The couple divorced in 2003 and Zoey later transitioned, blaming much of her previous behavior on her testosterone. But she also admits fault in the documentary for how she treated people.
The film ultimately shows Tur and her marriage to Gerrard from a variety of angles, as well as offering a unique look at the city of Los Angeles through their camera lenses.
You can see Whirlybird in a limited theatrical run starting this Friday, as well as via video on demand.