Courtesy of Marshall Curry

October 20, 2015

On Documentaries and Life: A Chat With Marshall Curry

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This week, Cornell Cinema is hosting the two-time academy award nominated film director, Marshall Curry. He is presenting two of his more socially focused documentaries; Street Fight screened on Tuesday and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front will play on Wednesday. While different in their subject matter, each film addresses current political and social themes in the United States. The screening of If a Tree Falls is at 7:15 p.m. and is free of charge. In preparation for his time on campus, The Sun was able to ask a few background questions about the path Curry has taken as a filmmaker and some of his future plans.

Courtesy of Marshall Curry

Courtesy of Marshall Curry

The Sun: How did you get into film directing? You studied comparative religion in your undergraduate years at Swarthmore College, how did this play into your career path?
Marshall Curry: I took a pretty zig-zaggy career path, teaching high schoolers in Washington, D.C., working at a public radio station in Philadelphia, and producing websites at a New York design company for a number of years. I loved documentaries, though, and when I turned 30 I realized I didn’t want to look back on my life as an old man and regret never having even tried to make one. So I took a leave of absence from the Internet company and shot and edited my first film, Street Fight, about a rough and tumble, racially charged election in Newark, New Jersey. It went on to be nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and I’ve been lucky enough to make films ever since. Majoring in comparative religion was actually pretty good preparation for making documentaries, because studying religion is all about trying to understand why people do what they do and why they believe what they believe. It also prepares you to hold contradictory ideas in your head at the same time without feeling a need to perfectly resolve them, which I think comes in handy when making films about complex people, issues and situations.

Sun: Why are you drawn to documentary as a medium?
M.C.: I like to be able to poke around into worlds that I don’t understand and to try to get some insight into the lives of other people. We are an extremely interesting species and making documentaries gives me a license to indulge my curiosity. I also love the process of turning hundreds of hours or raw footage into what feels like a movie, with drama, excitement, emotion and humor.

Sun: Which directors have had a significant influence on your work?
M.C.: I love — and steal from — a lot of directors. The most influential ones were probably the Maysles brothers, D.A. Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus and Ross McElwee. But I have a big tent view on documentaries — I love all different styles: observational docs, polemical docs, impressionistic docs, journalistic docs. Duke Ellington said of music, “If it sounds good, it is good,” and I think I have a similar feeling about documentaries.

Sun: How do you see yourself as a storyteller? How do you make the ultimate decisions on how to frame the story?
M.C.: I guess I try to make the films that I would like to see, so I want stories that are complex but not confusing, and are dramatic but not melodramatic. My mom grew up on a farm in South Carolina and is an amazing storyteller. I grew up hearing her tell these stories about her life, and also about things that she noticed or people who she met every day, and I try to model my films on that.

Sun: Your films are quite varied in their subject matter, how do you decide a film idea is worth pursuing? What inspires you to make a film?
M.C.: It’s hard to describe what attracts me, but usually I just find a story or a situation that interests me. I generally make films not because I have something I want to say, but because I have something I want to find out about. I know it is going to take a long time to make a film — often two or three years — so it has to be a pretty rich vein and a complex story to hold my attention that long. I look for stories with compelling characters, which does not mean that they are all “likable” — just provocative. And if possible I look for stories with a built in narrative arc — a beginning, middle and an end — for example an election or a trial or a racing series. I want the audience to constantly ask, “What is going to happen next?” I find that’s a lot easier when you have a narrative arc that you are following.

Sun: Your films are also quite varied in their tone, from the more light hearted animated short to the more grave film on eco-terrorism. How do you adjust your methods to adapt for the different styles?
M.C.: I think humor is an important part of filmmaking, so even If a Tree Falls, my film about environmental arsonists, has moments that get audible laughs from the audience. Finding the right tone is a matter of editing, of music and of visual style. My short film on the debt and the deficit was extremely light hearted in an effort to get over the inherent boringness that people associate with the topic. I figured the only way to get someone to watch something as dry as that was by using funny animation.

Sun: Is there a story that you wish you could have developed into a film but never did?
M.C.: I have dozens of film ideas that I’d love to make, but each one takes such a long time, so I can’t do them all. I’ve been thinking recently about doing one on factory farms — trying to come at that from a slightly different angle than other documentaries have.

Sun: What do you see for the future of documentary? As viewers are getting more engaged and playing a larger role through social media, how do you see the practice developing or shifting?
M.C.: I think that with the advent of online streaming of video, it is a great time to make and share documentaries. People watch more [documentaries] on Netflix and iTunes and Amazon than ever before, and I love that. I think people are also starting to understand that documentaries don’t have to be dry lectures, but instead can just be non-fiction movies, with all of the drama and power that draws us to fiction movies — even more often.