Since his debut in 2005 with Street Fight, documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry has remained one of the most acclaimed nonfiction directors working today. That first film, about the 2002 Newark mayoral race, went on to receive many major festival awards before snagging nominations for an Oscar, an Emmy and a Writers Guild award. His next doc, Racing Dreams, about young NASCAR hopefuls, won the Best Documentary honor when it premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. It also quickly attracted the attention of DreamWorks, which announced plans for a dramatic feature adaptation.
And now his third film, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which profiles a radical environmentalist, has followed the course of his first, winning major festival awards before garnering Curry his second Academy Award nomination in only seven years (it’s also been nominated by the Writers Guild and will likely get an Emmy nod later this year). It’s a remarkable achievement and already a remarkable career, but much deserved as he’s only churned out remarkable documentaries.
After the nominations were announced, I chatted with Curry about the honor, the new Oscar changes, what he looks for in a subject and why Hollywood is so interested in remaking nonfiction films.
Were you surprised by the Oscar nomination?
Yes. I was very surprised. It was a really good year for docs and kind of an odd one for the nomination. Some of the big movies didn’t get shortlisted and didn’t get nominated. But I was very pleasantly surprised.
Was it very different for you this time than when you were nominated for Street Fight?
Yes it was different, but it’s not something you get used to by any stretch. So it was still thrilling and surprising. With Street Fight it was my very first film and it was really just something I made in my apartment. I’d shot it and edited it. With this one we had a strong theatrical distributor and PBS was supporting it. But still, it’s definitely a huge surprise.
And honestly, the night before the [announcement] I looked at some of the lists of what people were predicting. A number of lists said, “here is what we think are the top five, and here are the three possible spoilers,” and we weren’t even on the list of possible spoilers. So I think other people were surprised too.
You’ve now received an Oscar nomination for two out of three of your films. Do you know the secret? Do you believe the Academy has a preference for issue-based films like If a Tree Falls?
People say that, and I guess if you look at all the films you’d see more issue films than not. But this year, Undefeated is a sports film. It touches on poverty and race and things like that, but it’s a coming of age story and a sports story. And Pina is up. That’s not an issue film. So I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about it. I think there are definitely some folks in the documentary community who are more moved by films that have a political bent or a political issue involved than not.
Do you have any thoughts on the Academy’s rules on the feature documentary category and the new changes to the voting process?
To be perfectly honest, I’m not a hundred-percent clear on how it’s going to work next year. But my understanding is that one of the big changes is that the entire branch will be picking the shortlist, as opposed to having the shortlist picked by smaller committees. I definitely understand why people wanted that to happen. To have hugely important films year after year not make it on the shortlist is a problem. This year with Senna and The Interrupters not making the list, it was pretty surprising to a lot of folks.
The downside, the trade-off that you get when you have the whole documentary branch pick the shortlist is that nobody in the documentary branch is going to watch every film that qualifies. So what they’ll be doing is comparing their memories of what films had the most buzz and which ones they liked the most during the year, as opposed to sitting down and comparing the experience of watching a film side by side, which is how the committees work. So it gave an opportunity for an outsider to make it into the running because it stacked up well against the other films that were being judged at that moment.
I can’t think of a perfect solution to the problem. It seems like there’s trade offs no matter what they do. But this way it seems like we’ll be seeing the more popular films shortlisted and nominated than in the past. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a problem at all.
Your three films have tackled very different subjects. What do you look for? Is there a greater interest in characters, causes, stories or some other thing that draws you to document a particular subject?
On the face of it, yeah, the three movies I’ve directed are very different. One’s about Newark politics, the other is about kids who want to become NASCAR drivers and the most recent is about radical environmentalists. Although somebody said to me not long ago that it’s kind of “the American trilogy.” Everything you need to know about America you can learn by studying radical environmentalism, NASCAR and inner city politics. Which I thought was pretty funny.
But I would say the things that I look for are character, above all, and some sort of narrative arc. With Street Fight it’s an election, two guys battling and one’s going to win in the end. With Racing Dreams the spine of the movie was a five-race series where kids are competing to be the national champion. And with If a Tree Falls, similarly, there is a spine which is Daniel McGowan facing life in prison and what’s going to happen there. That’s the first thing I look for. Do we have characters and do we have a conflict and an arc and a framework that will resolve itself in the movie?
And then I think I also look for some kind of…not issue meaning political issue but some topic that interests me. Ideally, two of them. Because if you just have one note in your film it’s easy to start feeling like it’s been well explored. But if you have two things that you’re looking at it gives that lift around 60 or 70 [minutes] to keep going, that twist.
For Street Fight, it starts out just as a film about urban politics and political corruption, but then it turns into a movie about race and how we define race and what does it mean to be authentically black or authentically white. With Racing Dreams, on the face it seems like it’s a movie about racing, but really racing is almost the MacGuffin. It’s a movie about adolescence, and it’s about being 11 and 12 and 13 and figuring out your relationships with your parents and who you are and making that transition from being a kid and starting to become an adult. Discovering romance for the first time, those sorts of things. And If a Tree Falls is a movie about environmentalism, it’s about activism and it’s about terrorism and the way that we define terrorism.
A lot of what I look for, too, is just…it’s hard to describe. I guess it’s just something that sparks my curiosity. I try not to make movies about things I want to say something about. Instead I make movies about things I want to learn something about. With all three movies, I didn’t know much about the inner workings of Newark politics or about NASCAR or about radical environmentalism, but I had a lot of questions about them. And the more I dug, the more interesting all three of those topics became.
Once you learn more about a subject, or an issue such as domestic terrorism or radical environmentalism, then do you end up wanting to say something about it?
Yes. All three movies have a point of view. What you decide to edit and how you decide to construct scenes and where you point the camera and who you talk to, all those things impose a point of view on the film. But with If a Tree Falls, it’s not a polemical film. It’s a film that reflects our point of view, and our point of view is that these are very complicated issues. There’s not a lot of black and white here.
I feel like it asks more questions than it answers, and somebody told me they thought it was a movie for people who like to chew their own food. I got a kick out of that. I think that’s right. We are perfectly content to let the audience walk out of the theater uncomfortable and unresolved and not really knowing the answers to the questions that we pose in the movie.
And answers don’t come in repeat viewings either. It remains very complicated. The first time I saw the movie I had definite feelings about Daniel and the issue all the way until the end, and then I changed my mind completely. But I just watched it again and I think my thinking returned to what it was originally. I might not have hated Daniel as much this time around, though. Sorry, that’s not really a question.
It’s an interesting point, though. When I was in college I studied comparative religion, and I really wanted to figure out if there was God and figure out how we should live our lives. When I graduated, one of my friends said to me, “I’m still confused, but just at a higher level.” And in a way that was the goal of this film, not to answer the questions, not to have Daniel come across as the hero at the end, or as the Hannibal Lecter. He’s just a guy who had opinions and made mistakes. I feel like there are some people who watch it and think he’s great, and there are some people who watch it and they really don’t like him at all.
To me, that says we did our job. Because there are people who if they met Daniel they would like him a lot, and there are other people who if they met Daniel they wouldn’t like him. And it’s not my job to either vilify Daniel or to campaign for him to be the student body president. My goal is to show him as he really is, and all the complexity and the mistakes and the moments of character and bravery that he also did have on occasion. It’s funny because there have definitely been some people who’ve watched the film and felt unsatisfied by our unwillingness to resolve it. But that was very intentional.
Well, this might not have been much of your doing, but in Street Fight there certainly ends up being a definite good guy and definite bad guy in the narrative.
What was very funny was that when Street Fight was out there were people who said, “I don’t like it because there’s a good guy and a bad guy. How come you’re not showing more bad about Cory Booker and more good about Sharpe James?” My answer then was sort of the same as it is now, which is, “this is who I saw.” These are the people as they truly appear to me. So the reason we don’t have Cory Booker accusing his opponent of not being really black or intimidating people is because he didn’t do that.
That’s not to say that I think Cory Booker is perfect or that Sharpe James has no redeeming qualities. I also did want people who watch the film to understand the things that people don’t like about Cory and the things people do like about Sharpe James. Sharpe James is a funny, charismatic guy who was a great booster for the city, who did a lot of development in the downtown, who did a lot to raise the spirits of people in Newark. And I think the movie shows that. Similarly, Cory Booker, as terrific as he is in many ways, there are people who feel like he can be a little bit too professorial and maybe he doesn’t listen to advisors in certain situations where he should, and people in Newark didn’t like him because he was an outsider. And I think the film shows those things as well. I guess my goal was in both cases to show the story as I saw it and let the cards fall where they may.
And then with Racing Dreams, was it hard not to follow the path some competition-based documentaries take in emphasizing favored or disfavored characters? Was that handled the same way?
I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to make it a classic kid competition film. Spellbound had come out perfectly. And Mad Hot Ballroom did a great job. And it just didn’t seem like we needed another one like that. I decided I’m not going to pick a lot of kids and do a profile of them. And I’m not going to over-emphasize the competition element. The racing is kind of the spine of the movie but it’s not most of the movie at all. Most of the movie is these kids’ relationships with their parents and each other and their coming of age stories, their struggle to make sense of growing up. Part of the reason for that, too, was because I knew it would be impossible to predict who was going to win and who was going to lose. I wanted to make a movie that would work just as well if the three kids in the movie came in 7th place and 11th place and 15th place as it would if they won.
I really looked more to Hoop Dreams than to Mad Hot Ballroom when I was trying to figure out the story that I wanted to tell. So I picked three kids who I just thought were extremely charismatic, who were very smart, very articulate, kind of quirky in their own ways. But in ways that were familiar and would remind audiences when they were 12 years old and on the phone with a girl that they liked, trying to get her to say who she likes and you trying to not let on that you like her. Some of those dynamics that get played out in the film are really universal. That was much more what I was going for than a movie about who the best go-kart racer in America is.
So far your first two films have seemed to continue on in their own ways. The series Brick City is in ways almost like a follow-up to Street Fight. And then Racing Dreams, is that still being adapted into a narrative feature?
Yep. They’re working on the second draft of the screenplay at DreamWorks right now. So it’s moving along.
There have been a lot of documentaries in recent years announced as being set for narrative remakes and not a lot of them actually come about. So I always wonder why Hollywood is so interested in the concept but then also why they have so much trouble getting them made. Do you have any insight on this, and what are your feelings about the idea in general?
My sense is that Hollywood’s constantly looking for new stories. So whether they are books or documentaries or ideas emerging from the heads of screenwriters, everybody’s desperate for a new really good story. And documentary filmmakers are telling stories. A lot of people who don’t make documentary films or know how documentary films are made imagine that the stories emerge from the film fully formed on their own and don’t realize that when you have 200 hours or 500 hours of footage, the decisions that go into structuring a film so that it plays in a dramtic and suspenseful way and a way that introduces characters in very particular ways and reveals information in very particular ways. All of that is really, really hard, and takes hundreds and hundreds of hours of people’s time to construct.
So I think when Hollywood sees that happen in a movie like Racing Dreams, which I feel of the three movies is on its face the most cinematic and obviously fictionalizable, if that’s a word, they say, “oh, this is a good story, so why don’t we do this with a huge budget and sell a hundred million dollars worth of tickets instead of whatever we can get a documentary to make at the box office.”
In some cases I think they make a mistake with that because one of the things that makes documentaries so amazing is that they’re true. And that the people in them aren’t acting. And the moments are magical because they are actually happening at that moment. When you have an actor and you have costumes and you have lights, there are lots of stories and lots of moments that don’t translate as well. But I think there are some stories that do lend themselves to fictional films and probably could be enhanced by a good fictional telling.
When we’re sitting in the edit room, we would often say, “if this were a fiction film what would happen here?” Not because we wanted to make up things that didn’t happen, but because asking that question would trigger…what we were doing was asking ourselves to listen to the story that wanted to be told, if that makes sense. And then trying to tell a story that followed some of those narrative conventions that have evolved for thousands of years as people have told stories to each other.
What’s next for you? Are you sticking with documentary or do you have interest in trying a narrative?
I am working on another doc right now. I have a couple different docs in development, which mostly means they’re banging around in my head and I’m trying to figure out exactly how to approach them. But I have one that I had started shooting already that is about Lennox Lewis, the former boxing heavyweight champion, who retired a few years ago and now is in his 40s looking ahead at hopefully another 40 years, but knowing that the thing that he stroved for his whole life is behind him, becoming the champ, and now trying to figure out what the next chapter is for himself.
I have been talking to some folks about fiction. I’m definitely not one of those people who thought of documentaries as a stepping stone to get into fiction. I love documentaries. But I have been interested recently in maybe directing something fictional. I’m trying to find just the right story, but it is something that I can imagine being involved in.
Many docs that get remade end up being directed by the same filmmakers who did the original. Were you given the option of directing the other Racing Dreams movie?
I think the budget that they’re thinking about at this point is not a budget that you would give to a first time fiction filmmaker. DreamWorks is not going to have a first time fiction filmmaker direct the movie that they’re envisioning.
To conclude, are there any new or old documentaries that you’d like to recommend to our readers, whether they’ve influenced you or not?
I think some of the films that have come out this year are really incredible. Hell and Back Again, the shooting and editing in that movie is spectacular. I loved Buck. Undefeated I saw recently and thought it’s really terrific. I think I saw all the movies that were up this year.
I’m one of those people who loves documentaries. That’s most of what I watch. I think two-thirds to three-quarters of the movies that I watch are documentaries. Sometimes I feel like I could watch a security camera for a while. With new technology in shooting and new technology in editing there are so many more voices being given the opportunity to tell stories for the first time that couldn’t have happened 25 or 30 years ago. I feel like it’s just an incredible time for watching documentaries.
Street Fight is available on DVD and for sale at the DOC Store.
Racing Dreams is also on DVD and will make its national broadcast premiere on PBS’ POV series February 23, 2012.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is now available on DVD and for sale at the DOC Store.