Pull Focus: Marshall Curry

Pull Focus: Marshall Curry

Lauren Donia & Katie Bieze

Marshall Curry

Marshall Curry got his start shooting, directing, and editing the documentary “Street Fight”, which followed Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, NJ. The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award and an Emmy. “Street Fight” won the Audience Awards at the Tribeca Film Festival, AFI/Discovery SilverDocs Festival, and Hot Docs Festival. It also received the Jury Prize for Best International Documentary at Hot Docs and was nominated for a Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) Award.

After “Street Fight”, Curry was the Director and Producer, as well as one of the Cinematographers and Editors of the feature documentary, “Racing Dreams”.”Racing Dreams” follows two boys and a girl who dream of one day racing in NASCAR, and the film won numerous awards. Dreamworks is currently adapting it for a fictional remake.

Curry’s newest documentary, “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”, tells the story of a radical environmentalist who faced life in prison for burning two Oregon timber facilities. It won the Sundance Film Festival award for Best Documentary Editing and was acquired by Oscilloscope Laboratories. In the summer of 2011 it was released to critical aclaim, called “an intriguing and important film” by Filmmaker Magazine, “a sterling example of journalistic documentary” by Salon.com, and “a wildly successful and engaging documentary” by New York Press. In the fall it will air on PBS’s documentary series POV.

(Headshot and biography via Marshall Curry Productions.)

Prior to making “Street Fight”, what was your film experience, if any?

I did not have a lot of experience before making “Street Fight”. It was my first film and I had done a bunch of different things after graduating from college, I’d lived in Mexico and taught English and I actually lived in DC and I taught high school students government and politics, and worked doing interactive documentaries for museums and ultimately websites and just loved documentaries and always kind of wanted to make a documentary. When I was about to turn thirty I thought, you know, “If I really want to do this I should do it” and so I saved up some money and took a leave of absence from the company where I was working and bought a camera and read the manual and started shooting.

What compelled you specifically to make “Street Fight”?

Well, I was looking for a story that would be about issues that I cared about and when I was in college I set up a literacy project in Newark and so I knew the city and I knew about Sharpe James although at that point, he was kind of this new mayor who was going to bring a renaissance to Newark at the point when I was in college. So I was surprised, over the course of making Street Fight to see how his kind of leadership style had changed. But there were a lot of things that drew me to it.

One was for a documentary, particularly for a first documentary, and election is kind of a tidy story. You’ve got two candidates who are both charismatic, really strong personalities going against each other. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. The arc was already built in. One of the big challenges I think, for a lot of people, is when you make a documentary, if you have to create the arc or you have to discover the arc, it’s a lot tougher. And there hadn’t been any documentaries made that I knew of about inner city politics. There’d been a few political films, you know “The War Room” and “Journeys with George” and “A Perfect Candidate” but they were all about national elections that were buying tv ads and spin doctoring and things like that and I was interested in how politics played out in sort of a more local and urban setting.

What lessons did you learn as a first time filmmaker that could benefit other soon-to-be first time filmmakers?

I learned a ton from just the process of making it and I actually went into it thinking of it as film school. I sort of thought “Alright, I’ve saved up some money, do I want to go to film school or do I want to just make a film?” and so I decided to make a film, and I knew that I would make a lot of mistakes and the goal was just to not make them twice. So I shot 200 hours of footage, and the first fifty are a lot worse than the last fifty. I would come home at night and I would look at the footage and see the mistakes I made about framing things or how long I held on shots. I also watched a ton of documentaries and would really sort of analyze them. I’d sort of watch them once for the pleasure of watching them and then watch them again and try to really try to figure out the way that different shots – wide shots and close ups fit together and the way that scenes were edited and the way that each scene fit together in the overall arc and really kind of tried to demystify it and then, during the editing, it was the same thing. I mean I just spent probably three times as long as a good editor would have spent editing that movie, because I was literally spending hours and hours of trial and error just “how long should this shot be with that shot?” or “can you cut from these types of shots together?” try it “no no that doesn’t look good, well what about this? No, no, oh yeah, that’s how it works!” So, just kind of whittling and playing, although to say playing makes it sound like it was probably more of a fun process than in fact it was most of the time because I would say the number one message for people who are starting to make a film is that it’s much much harder than you think. Working hard is…just kind of grinding day after day after day after day is the only way to get through it. And it’s also the most kind of creatively satisfying and intellectually satisfying work I’ve ever had but it’s not fun all the time.

How did you go about approaching Daniel McGown, about telling his story?

So, Daniel McGowan was working for my wife at a domestic violence organization when he was arrested and that was my introduction to him. When he was arrested, I actually spoke to his sister first, who was kind of putting up everything she had in order to get him out on bail – at that point he was still…he hadn’t been released on bail. I proposed the idea of making a film and she said she thought he would be interested. When he came home, back to NY, I went out to the airport and shot him kind of arriving and getting in the taxi, going to have the ankle bracelet put on him. Didn’t make it into the film. Then we just talked after that and I said “You know, here’s what I’m thinking about, is that something you’d be interested in?”And he was. I mean, I think from his perspective he felt like the situation that he was in didn’t make any sense. The idea of him being a terrorist and facing life in prison – that all of those things were things that needed attention, and so he was willing to give me the access. From my perspective, I was interested in those topics and also questions about, you know at that point, whether he had done it, and if he had done it, why? What was the back story of the movement and kind of the ethical and practical questions around it.

Can you tell us about the process of finding the archival footage you eventually used in the film?

Yeah. So, the archival was a huge job, there’s a lot of it in the movie and tons and tons that isn’t in the movie. One of our main sources was a character in the film Tim Lewis, who’s the guy who lives in the cabin and is wearing the cap. He was at a lot of the main events and he had a personal stash of footage that he had shot over the years. He also was somebody that people in the environmental movement knew of, and so, if somebody shot a protest, or something like that, a lot of times they would give him the tapes and he kind of became, in addition to having shot a lot himself, he was a repository for other people’s material. We went out there and we looked through a lot of his footage. He shot the footage of the people – the protest up in the trees. He shot that footage of Jake Ferguson playing guitar in the house. He shot the footage, he was at the WTO and shot some of the footage from that, he was one of the first people on site, at the first ELF arson and he shot footage of the smouldering remains of a forest service office. So he was just, kind of, everywhere. That was where we got a lot of his stuff. In addition we also did a lot of research, talking to news stations, national news stations but also local news stations. Steve Loring and Bill Gallagher were kind of driving this, but there were a number of other folks involved as well. They would call the fire chief in towns where there’d been arsons and say “By any chance, do you know anybody who might have footage of this thing?” and just tons of crazy phone calls and cold calls and turned out, yeah, one of the fire chiefs had taken a camera with him and had 20 photographs of Superior Lumber in flames that are just unbelievable shots. Just, shoe leather, I mean hours and hours and hours on the phone, is the short answer.

When you decided to tell the story with Daniel as the protagonist, and then wanted to approach the authorities in Eugene, how did you earn their trust?

I would say earning trust of everybody was the biggest challenge of making the film, because from the ELF people’s side, they thought that we were NYC filmmakers who couldn’t possibly understand radical environmentalism and no doubt we would come out and portray them the same way that the mainstream media always portrays them, which is terrorists, and you know, we would simplify the story and miss the nuances. Similarly, the arson victims or the law enforcement folks figured we were NYC filmmakers who are going to come and sand bag ‘em and cut what they said out of context and try to make the ELF seem like heros. And so, I had to spend a lot of time talking with everybody and saying “This film is not going to be your point of view. It’s going to include people who disagree with you, but it will include your point of view and it will include your point of view fairly. I’m not interested here, in setting up straw men to knock down or sand bagging people. I’m not going to cut what you said out of context and cut right before you say ‘but’ or anything like that. I’m actually interested in your point of view here. And, I think this movie will be strongest if it is people’s best arguments banging against each other. To me, this topic is complicated in a way that I think will be best served by having people’s strongest arguments rather than people’s weakest arguments.”

How did you go about ensuring you were not telling the viewer how to feel about Daniel McGowan’s situation?

I feel like the film actually does have a point of view. Every film, I think, has a point of view. Every piece of journalism has a point of view, but, it’s a complex point of view. So, there are times where we inject or allow, whether we’re injecting the emotion or whether we’re allowing the emotion of the scene to come out, I think that emotion is a big part of this story. It’s not just an analytical essay. I think that emotion was one of the reasons people got involved in the arsons. I think the emotions of the people who were attacked are important to consider and also, it’s a movie, and the kind of emotional and human experience of watching it is important. There are places where we use music to make things seem exciting or scary or sad or to hopefully help people contemplate things or but it was important to me to reflect the complexity of the situation. I think that probably came pretty early, but was reinforced by the experiences of making the film. Every time that we talked to people our expectations were shaken and our point of view was stretched and we found ourselves seeing different people’s sides of the story and there are different sides of this story. I think anybody who spends a lot of time on this case, whether it’s people who were involved in the arsons or the prosecutor who put them in prison – all of them, after spending a lot of time thinking about it see the complexity of it. Showing that complexity and not kind of answering the questions that we ask was a big part of the editing from very early.

How did you respond to the resistance you received from Sharpe James’ campaign while you were making “Street Fight”? How were you responding behind the scenes?

I was really shaken actually. I thought from the beginning that I would be allowed to spend time with Sharpe James. That I’d get to film his campaign. If you’d asked me on the very first day, I wouldn’t have expected that I’d get the same access from him that I got from Cory, because Cory’s office was, with one or two exceptions, completely open to me to shoot whatever I wanted. I didn’t expect that, but I did expect to spend a lot of time with Sharpe James, so when I started getting shut out and particularly the way that they were doing it, breaking the camera and harassing me, there were points where I thought maybe I shouldn’t be doing that, maybe I can’t make a movie here about one candidate, you can’t make a campaign film that just focuses on one candidate. I guess I resented the idea that someone could intimidate me out of telling a story, and of course, it turned out later, that those moments where the police were harassing me were actually very revealing of the way that politics worked in cities like Newark, so they helped me to tell an accurate story about what it’s like to be a shopkeeper, or somebody in public housing that’s afraid of losing their public housing, or, you know, all of the other people who felt intimidation during those years in Newark. It was one of those things where it was probably stubbornness that kept me going, but it turned out that this thing I thought was ruining the film was in fact one of its best, dramatic moments. Of course at the time it didn’t feel…now it’s kind of become an anecdote but at the time it was pretty scary.

I can imagine, this being your first film, you may just think ‘this is what making a documentary is’

I think also, if I had been there from PBS or if I had made three films before and was there, that probably I wouldn’t have gotten the same treatment. I think it was because I was, you know, I wasn’t part of the campaign, I didn’t have a crew, it was just me driving around with the camera and the clipboard and the camera bag and releases and batteries and car keys and that, I think, made me seem sort of weak and unthreatening, which, I was like the deer with the bad leg that the wolves go after or something, but again, I think it turned out to be better in the long run because of it.

So, if other filmmakers find themselves in the same situation, would your advice be to keep pushing, keep going?

Yeah, I think that..the single most important characteristic of a successful filmmaker is tenacity – maybe curiosity, curiosity’s incredibly important too, but tenacity, because there’s so many things that will keep you from making your film. Money problems, distribution problems , logistical problems – you’ll get places and people’ll say “OH! You should have been here five minutes ago, you just missed the greatest shot!” That will happen to you a hundred times, there’ll be times where you’re shooting and it turns out the microphone is messed up and the whole interview that you did is screwed up. Or, something’s about to happen and your battery’ll die or you’ll sit in the edit room and you can’t believe that you don’t have the establishing shot that you need to tell the scene. I mean, there’s so many things working against you finishing a film – that if you let them, there’s a hundred reasons not to finish. To me, when I was making  “Street Fight”, my only goal was to just finish, and I said, “I’m not going to assess this now, once I finish this film, then I’ll say ‘Was that fun? Do I want to do that again? Am I any good at this?’ But I’m not going to ask those questions now, because if I do, they I’ll find reasons to not finish.”

How did you decide to use a texture (for re-creations and documents) and how did you choose the texture you used?

So we came up with the recreation look relatively early actually, during the editing. We knew that we wanted to have some kind of re-creation because as people described what it was like to be in the backseat of the car driving to the arson, and there’s music playing and, you know, everybody’s kind of quiet and just thinking about what was going to happen. As people described those moments, you really wanted to see something and so the question was “How do you do that?” right? And one of the challenges is that there’ve been so many re-creations on Court TV and places like that, that are so schlocky. We didn’t want to do something that looked like that, the sort of like soft edge, sort of shaky camera POV shot of moving through. So we thought “Okay, here are a couple things we’ll try to do – #1 is we’ll focus it on details, so if we set the timing devices it’s like ‘tight shots of the timing devices’ or I’m in the car going, it’ll be a shot of the rearview mirror and you just sort of see trees going by, as opposed to kind of wide establishing shots that shot people in them. We wanted to do something that felt like an animation because it’s a memory , so it’s not supposed to be the exact thing, it’s just supposed to kind of conjure up the idea of the thing, so we played with a lot of different kind of line animation filters and things like that and then we thought , you know stripping out detail, so we stripped the detail out of the shots and turning it black and white, um gave it kind of a dreamy quality that there’s kind of like a starkness to it and a kind of dream memory quality to it that we really liked, and so we actually stumbled on that, then tried for months to top it – saying “are there different ways of doing it?” and ultimately decided that we liked it that way. Once that had been done, Joe Posner who did the animations of the maps and the documents – the wire transcript documents and things like that – he kind of carried that lo-fi kind of punk, gritty, black and white look over into those as well which I think he did a great job on.

How has funding changed for you since “Street Fight”? Do you have any advice, where funding is concerned, for filmmakers just starting out? 

Funding is one of the hardest things about documentary filmmaking. And I have come to feel like making documentary films is not a business, it is art. There is a business component to it, but it’s incredibly frustrating. So you…okay, here would be my advice, on your first film, I would say, in most cases try to get the money from something other than grants, because most, or at least from the typical grants that people are applying for funds from, until you have edited a lot of edited material. Because, there’s so many people competing for the same money, that unless you have some extraordinary access, that nobody else has, to a story that’s obviously, you know if you said “I got…Osama bin Laden’s gonna give me an interview or gave me an interview, and I have the footage of that interview” okay , then you’ll probably be able to raise money, but there’s so much competition and you can spend so much time applying for grants that you’re not going to get, that I almost feel like it’s worth trying to keep your production budget low and just making your film. You’re competing against people who have made five films, or ten films or 15 films. And if you’re on a panel and you’re trying to decide, and somebody who’s never made a film before sends you a proposal and says “this is gonna be the best film and it’s gonna be about this and it’s gonna do this…” well maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.

With “Street Fight”, I decided early that I was just going to shoot it, so I bought a camera, and I bought tapes and I did it. And, fortunately, cameras are cheap, now they’re even cheaper than they were then. You can shoot television quality, theatrical quality movie on a $2000 camera and it can be great. Then after that I cut a trailer and I tried sending the trailer around and nobody would give me money and I’d already shot it, I already knew what was going to happen. I had trailer material, it was dramatic, it was about race, it was about politics. All these things. And people just said, “uh…maybe…maybe not.” And I understand that, I was completely untested and it’s hard to finish a movie. And it wasn’t until I had a cut of the movie that I finally was able to get money and POV came in and was very great and supportive and ITVS put money in. But I find, even now, it’s very difficult to raise money. I mean, with “If a Tree Falls”, which, you know, “Street Fight” got a lot of awards, and was very well received, and “Racing Dreams” also won best documentary at Tribeca and a lot of awards and got incredible reviews everywhere and then, I’m applying for money for this third movie, that is mostly shot, that I’ve got a strong trailer, I’ve got five sample scenes you can watch, it’s about terrorism, it’s about environmentalism and I would just get rejected over and over and over from grants. I don’t know. There are different people who do it different ways. I’ve got some friends who make commercials and then they just use that to supplement the money to be able to make movies the way they want to make them. There is still the Sundance Fund and for “If a Tree Falls” ultimately we cobbled together money. We got money from the Sundance Fund; we got money from Tribeca Gucci; got money from creative capital; got an investor to put money in; got money from BBC, ultimately put money in; POV and ITVS put money in, but for every time that we got money, we got rejected five times. So if it were my first film, I think the best advice is: keep your costs low and keep yourself independent. Don’t get bogged down in writing too many grants or trying to fundraise, particularly early. You can shoot and edit a film for not that much money, most of the money comes near the end of the process when you have to license archival footage and pay a composer and do color correcting and do audio mixing, all of that stuff is where the real expenses start. But you can make a rough cut on Final Cut Pro for nothing, except your time. You can shoot a film for almost nothing, except the cost of some hard drives and your time. Once you have that rough cut, then you can take it around to people and show it to them and raise money. I also think it’s a good idea to try to raise money from the non-traditional documentary slots. So if you have a movie that’s about an issue, I would go to foundations that fund that issue, rather than going to foundations that fund documentaries, because there, at least you’re not competing with a thousand other documentary filmmakers, who are all going to the same pot.

What are any other big challenges you’ve faced as a filmmaker, perhaps things we haven’t touched on already, and how would you advise aspiring filmmakers dealing with those issues?

I don’t know. I guess, you know, the biggest challenges are, the business side is a big challenge. There are a lot of people making documentaries now, which is great, but it also just means there’s a lot more competition for very limited resources and limited time on television and limited spaces in theaters, so that’s one of the big challenges. And then creatively, every film is new and offers new creative challenges. I remember talking to a writer that came to our college and he said that – somebody asked him, he’d written 30 books or something and somebody asked him if it was easier and he said that the difference between an art and a craft is that the craft becomes easier, but art never becomes easier, art is always hard. And so there are elements of filmmaking, just like writing books, that are craft – How do you put scenes together? Sometimes that’s easier but the challenges that each film creates are unique and can only be gotten through by just pounding your head against the wall til one of ‘em cracks, hopefully the wall.