When Marshall Curry took a break from his job working for a Web design company so that he could make films, he had not been to film school nor had he received any formal film training; he went out, bought a camera and started shooting. Curry’s first film, Street Fight, documented the 2002 battle between Cory Booker and Sharpe James for the position of mayor of Newark, NJ. His second, Racing Dreams, follows three children trying to win the National Championship of the World Karting Association, a.k.a. the Little League of NASCAR. On the surface, it looks as though the films could not be more different, but both documentaries skillfully tell the stories of people who work hard to achieve their dreams.
It’s safe to say that since that initial first leap, Curry has been successful in his career as a documentary moviemaker—Street Fight was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar in 2006 and Racing Dreams was named Best Documentary at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Curry took time to answer some of MovieMaker’s questions about wearing multiple hats as a moviemaker, NASCAR and what’s coming next.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): On Street Fight, your first feature-length film, not only were you the director, but you edited, shot and produced the film as well. Which of these jobs did you enjoy the most? Or did you enjoy doing everything and having more control over the final outcome?
Marshall Curry (MC): I like shooting and editing a lot. They are so different—shooting requires you to push yourself out of your comfort zone, to dig into people’s lives or to climb up on that rooftop over there to see if you can get a better angle on something. It is physically demanding—we always work long hours and the food is generally lousy. There’s a constant anxiety that you are missing something, but the flip side is an electric hope that something amazing is just about to happen. I imagine it’s what a fisherman feels—you go out all day and every time you throw your hook in you see a fish hopping somewhere else across the lake; some days you spend all day and get nothing. But every once in a while, you pull out a whopper and it’s pretty thrilling. I never want to take breaks, because you know that the moment you put down the camera and everyone relaxes, a great moment will happen. The only way to get those moments is to have more stamina than your subjects.
Editing is the opposite. It is all internal—turning a story over and over in your head until pieces fall away and other pieces start to stick together. It’s grueling, too, but different—you are sitting in front of a computer in a windowless room for months and months. What has happened has happened, so there’s no hope that a whopper fish is going to appear. You just have to make it into a story. But I love it. There’s a great feeling of satisfaction when you build a scene out of hours of raw footage, and it pops. Or when you solve a tricky problem that you’ve been banging your head against. You just want to watch it over and over. That’s the test for me. Sometimes I think I’ve edited a scene well enough, but then I ask myself, ‘Do you want to watch this again and again?’ and if the answer is no, then I know it’s not really good yet.
With Street Fight I did most of the shooting myself but with Racing Dreams there was a great team. I shot and edited, but I also worked with amazing shooters and editors.
Working with other shooters took some getting used to because I know exactly what I want when I’m shooting myself. If I know, for example, that a moment of a conversation isn’t going to be in the film, I can use that opportunity to grab cutaways. But another shooter doesn’t know exactly what I find interesting or important, and he might make a different decision. So that’s the downside. But there’s also a huge upside. The shooters I worked with were great. They have amazing eyes and steady hands and have been shooting every day for years and years. And you can see that in their work.
Editing is similar; there were scenes that I couldn’t figure out and it was great to be able to hand them over to Mary Manhardt or Matt Hamachek—the editors who I worked with—and have them bring a fresh eye and sharp skills and crack it.
MM: The audience can see some of the problems you encountered while shooting Street Fight, particularly when the security team of Newark’s incumbent mayor Sharpe James tries to get you to stop filming at one of his rallies. It was addressed in the film that people were afraid to speak up against James. Did you have trouble getting people to speak to you on camera? What other difficulties did you have in shooting the film?
MC: There were definitely people who were intimidated by the political machine in Newark and were afraid to be on camera. They’d tell me, “You don’t understand politics here—if you say something bad about the mayor you can lose your public housing or lose your job or have code enforcement shut down your business.” In the movie you see a Newark resident who is accused by the mayor of being a terrorist and shaken down by the police—all because he supported the mayor’s opponent. So that posed a challenge. But there were also a lot of brave people—people who were fed up and willing to say what they thought. That conflict ultimately made the story more compelling.
Being a one-man band was also really hard. I was shooting and doing sound and driving the car and getting releases, so I was pretty ragged by the end of each day. Raising money was impossible too. I shot the film on my own—just bought a camera and a bunch of tapes and started shooting. And afterward, I cut a trailer, but no one would give me money because it was my first film—and who wants to take a chance on that? So I bought a Mac and learned Final Cut Pro and just cut it myself. That was pretty brutal, and there were a lot of days when I’d be in my apartment editing, wondering what I was doing. Did I have any idea how to make a documentary? When I had about a 110-minute cut, ITVS [Independent Television Service] and “POV” [a documentary program on PBS] came on board and gave me money to hire another editor to finish it up with me—and that was a life saver.
MM: In Racing Dreams you follow three children as they race to win the National Championship of the World Karting Association—the Little League of NASCAR. It is a different film in tone from Street Fight. How did your experience in making the two films differ? Did you have to take a different approach to the subject matter in Racing Dreams than in Street Fight?
MC: The style of Racing Dreams is in some ways very different from Street Fight. I narrate Street Fight but Racing Dreams has no narration. Street Fight was shot in a very “run-and-gun” style—intimate but sometimes rough—which seemed appropriate for the subject. For Racing Dreams, I wanted to capture the colors and spectacle of racing and so we shot it in HD with brilliant shooters and the production values are pretty high.
On the face, the subject matter seems very different too: One is about a gritty political campaign in Newark, NJ, the other is about pre-adolescents who dream of racing for NASCAR. Both movies, though, are fundamentally about people with dreams—Cory Booker wanted to be Mayor of Newark, and the three kids in Racing Dreams want to win the National Championship, which will bring them a step closer to becoming NASCAR drivers. In both cases I valued the story and intimacy with the characters above everything else. I am constantly chasing these moments of realness that cut through the clutter of media that barrages us every day—stuff like when Brandon [one of the Racing Dreams subjects] is on the phone, talking with Annabeth for the first time. People love that scene because they have all been on that phone call themselves, talking to a girl or boy who you like and trying to suss out whether they like you too. To get those things, I think it’s really important to make yourself very small while shooting. With Street Fight is was just me, and with Racing Dreams it was two people: Me shooting with a sound person, or a DP shooting with me running sound.
There are some people who associate the term “documentary” with films that are political or are about important current issues. Unlike Street Fight, which looked at political corruption and race relations, Racing Dreams isn’t overtly about an issue or a cause. I think, though, that more and more audiences are starting to see documentaries simply as non-fiction movies—stories that stretch us and move us and happen to be true. I’ve been happy to hear from audiences that there’s something universal about these three adolescents and all of the humor and drama that go along with that time in their lives. And it might not be politically important, but it is important in the same way that, say, The Catcher in the Rye is important.
MM: NASCAR racing is a hugely popular sport in much of the United States. In other parts, though—like New York City—many people don’t understand its appeal. What drew you to the subject? What are your feelings toward racing now that you have finished Racing Dreams?
MC: Like a lot of New Yorkers, I didn’t know anything about the world of NASCAR before making this movie, and, honestly, I didn’t really understand the appeal. But NASCAR is the second biggest spectator sport in America after football—bigger than baseball or basketball. And I began to think about that: We New Yorkers think of ourselves as so worldly and broad-minded, but we don’t know anything about a sport and culture that’s a huge part of our own country. That sparked my curiosity.
In some ways, racing is the MacGuffin of the movie, though. It’s really about kids’ dreams and figuring out romance and parental relationships. And that age—11, 12, 13—is a really important time, but it seems under-examined and under-appreciated to me.
The more I learned about racing, the more interesting it became to me. There’s a scene in the film I like where Annabeth’s mom says, “A lot of people don’t understand racing—they think it’s just cars going around in circles. But we don’t understand, like, baseball. It’s just a bunch of guys sitting out in a field hoping someone might hit him a ball.” It shows that pretty much everything is silly when you view it from the outside. But when you get inside and start to understand something—what makes a great pass in racing or a great pitch in baseball—suddenly the world becomes a little richer. And one of the things that films should try to do is stretch us that way.
MM: You’ve learned about documentary moviemaking by actually going out and making films, seeing what works and what doesn’t. What are some of the first things you learned about how best to make a documentary film?
MC: There is a lot of filmmaking that is craft and I had to learn that on the job: Getting exposure right and gathering the right combination of shots to make a scene editable—establishing wide shots, closeups, cutaways. I found the best way to learn that stuff was just to go out and shoot a lot and then come home and try to edit your material. When something is bad, you see it and you think, “Man, I’m never going to do that again.”
In shooting, one of the main things that I learned is how to balance preparedness and flexibility. When you are first starting out there’s a temptation to just go into a situation and shoot a lot and hope that the editor will figure it out. But that doesn’t work of course. You need to constantly anticipate what might happen in this scene and what are the elements you need to get to make this scene make sense. And, on a more macro level, how will this scene play in the arc of the movie and what scenes you need for the whole thing to make sense and be compelling.
On the other hand, you can’t be rigid. Often the best things that happen will come out of nowhere. So you have to be flexible enough to let them happen and follow them when they do. I think watching [the documentary] Sherman’s March taught me a good lesson in that. There’s a great scene where a minister is describing the apocalypse and a little girl starts reacting to something off screen. A lesser filmmaker would have said, “I’m trying to get the Apocalypse scene and this girl is ruining it so I’m going to crop her out of the shot.” But [Sherman’s March director] Ross McElwee was flexible enough to bend the scene to include what she was looking at—which turns out to be a man in an Easter bunny suit. So the scene becomes very funny and sweet and a comment on that great American mashing of religion and consumerism.
MM: What will you be working on next?
MC: I have a new film about a radical environmentalist who was part of the Earth Liberation Front and burned two timber facilities in Oregon. He’s now in prison and the film looks at his story and all of the issues flying around it. I’m hoping to be done with the editing next spring.