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Behind the Lens: Marshall Curry & If a Tree Falls

COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: Marshall Curry & If a Tree Falls
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Marshall Curry & If a Tree Falls -- Indie Film & Documentary Feature


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The Oscar-nominated If a Tree Falls, which aired on PBS's POV (Point of View), tells the story of the Earth Liberation Front - which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization -- through the story of a working-class kid from Queens who became an environmental arsonist. Director, producer, writer Marshall Curry also made the Emmy and Oscar nominated Street Fight, a documentary that chronicles the mayoral race in Newark, N.J. and also aired on POV. His most recent film, Racing Dreams, about kids competing in NASCAR's "little league" won Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca Film Festival and will air on POV this week (check www.POV.org for local listings). Curry is currently working on a documentary about Lennox Lewis, former heavyweight champion of the world.

I had a pretty zig-zaggy route towards becoming a filmmaker. I studied comparative religion, taught English in Mexico, worked at a public radio station, and taught government & politics to high schoolers in Washington D.C. for a while. Then I started working for "a multimedia company" back when people thought CD-ROMs were the future of media. I did touchscreen interactive exhibits for museums; then the Internet took off and I stayed with the company for several years. When I was turning 30, I realized what I had wanted to do was documentaries, but I felt intimidated by it. Nobody I knew made documentaries. It seemed like something other people got to do.

But I knew that the window on making a career change was going to close, so I decided to do it. I bought a Sony PD150 and made Street Fight. I was the cameraman, the sound guy, I drove the car, I got the releases signed. When I finished shooting, I tried to raise money to edit, but nobody would give me money. So I had to learn how to edit. I sat in my apartment for a couple of years editing, and there was a lot of trial and error to craft that story. Then PBS got involved when they saw a cut of it and I was able to bring another editor on board. When it started winning awards at festivals and was nominated for an Oscar, I was very surprised.

If a Tree Falls is my third film. I started shooting it the same time I started shooting Racing Dreams, which is about two boys and a girl who want to be NASCAR drivers. As soon as I finished Racing Dreams, I jumped on editing If a Tree Falls.

The story in If a Tree Falls really dropped in my lap. My wife was running a domestic violence organization and one day she said, "You'll never guess what happened at work today. Four FBI agents came in and arrested one of my co-workers, Daniel McGowan." He was charged with burning two timber facilities some years before when he was part of the Earth Liberation Front. The government considered the arsons to be terrorism, and if convicted, he would go to prison for the rest of his life. I had met Daniel a number of times before through her and he seemed very unlike my expectation of a radical environmentalist. He's a pretty mild-mannered guy from Queens who was a business major in college and his father is a cop: Not your typical radical environmentalist background. But whenever reality cuts against my expectations, that's interesting. When I think I know how the world works, and I'm wrong, that's interesting to me. I wanted to understand how this guy wound up in this position. What was the road that took this working class kid to facing life in prison, accused of terrorism. [Co-director] Sam Cullman and I said, let's figure this thing out.

I knew pretty early on that this would be an interesting and dramatic story although, honestly, I thought for a while it would be a short film, a 40-minute movie that would get into the back story a bit and follow his trial. As we started digging around, though, it became much more interesting than I expected, and the people we met contradicted my expectations again and again. They all showed a level of complexity and reflection that I didn't expect. I had imagined that when I interviewed people, it would be two polarized sides screaming at each other. But instead, everyone who had spent a lot of time thinking about this case had mixed feelings, whether it was Daniel and members of the E.L.F., the prosecutor or police or arson victims. Both sides were able - on some level - to understand the other side's feelings. That surprised me and made it a much, much richer story.


Protester. Credit: T. J. Watt
Protester. Photo by: T. J. Watt


At one point, we were looking for a cameraman in Oregon to film people walking into the courthouse for a hearing. We put an ad on Craigslist and Tim Lewis answered. We met him and he said, "You know I also have some archival footage that you might be interesting in" which turned out to be the understatement of the year. He had shot footage of Jake Ferguson, the first E.L.F. arsonist, playing guitar. He had footage of people smashing windows at the WTO protest in Seattle. He had footage of one of the very first E.L.F. actions -- a ranger station on fire -- after it happened, and footage of protesters in Eugene being pepper-sprayed. He had an incredible trove of material that added so much to the movie. And he turned out to be an amazing storyteller. So someone we stumbled onto became an important part of the film. Another great find was Greg Harvey, the police detective, who described the day he and his partners broke the case as "one of the best days I've ever had."

At the beginning, everyone was nervous to talk to us. The activists thought we wouldn't understand radical environmentalism and would depict them as crazy terrorists. The law enforcement and arson victims worried we'd have some liberal bias and edit them out of context to make them look bad. We spent a lot of time convincing everyone that we wanted to show their point of view and let the strongest arguments on both sides bang against each other. Eventually people took a chance with us, and they have all told us they're happy with how the movie came out, that it was fair and important for people to see.

We never did get to interview Jake Ferguson, who is the informant in the case. We did a lot of back and forth trying to get him involved. His lawyer was on board and tried to get him to talk to us. At one point, we even set up a conversation but he didn't show up. At one point he did an interview with a news station and people were so angry at him that he decided not to do any more interviews. So we got the outtakes from that interview and used them in the film. Fortunately, the person who had done the interview asked the same questions we wanted to ask so it worked out ok in the end.

He's definitely a mysterious guy and it's a big surprise for people when they finally see him later in the film in his present-day condition. We toyed with the idea of showing some of his interview bites early on in the film but decided it was more dramatic to hear about him but not see him. And finally when you see how he looks today -- he's not in good shape, he's obviously been through drug treatment -- he's kind of a ghost of how he was when he was at his most charismatic. It's usually very surprising for people to see how time changes somebody like him.


E.L.F Fire at Superior Lumber. Credit: Roy Milburn
E.L.F Fire at Superior Lumber. Credit: Roy Milburn


We shot the movie with a Panasonic DVX100. We started shooting six years ago in January 2006 and the smaller HD cameras hadn't come out yet. With Racing Dreams, we shot on a Panasonic HVX-200, a first-generation smallish HD camera that shot onto cards. We played with the idea of using that for If a Tree Falls, but when that came out we had already shot many hours of footage in standard definition. We felt that to go back and forth between SD and HD would be more distracting than just sticking with SD. People get used to it and at least we have a unified style. Or, as unified as possible: a good chunk of the movie uses archival footage that we got from a wide range of footage sources and was on all kinds of formats - Hi 8, VHS, mini-DV etc. It was less about a pristine picture and more about story and action.

Usually, Sam would shoot picture and I would do sound and ask the questions and interact with people. I like shooting a lot too, and sometimes we would switch. I like having a small footprint and I feel like a two-person team is ideal: one shooting, one doing sound. Once there is a third person, it starts to interfere with the intimacy of the moment.

We shot for four years and shooting went late into the edit. We were still doing pick-ups a year before we finished the movie. Some of the interviews would take months and months - even years - to set up. Kirk Engdall, the prosecutor, couldn't do his interview until the case was completely settled, so we had to wait until Daniel was in prison to schedule that. We didn't start editing full time until we'd been shooting for three or four years. We edited for a year and a half using Final Cut Pro 6. I like FCP and I don't have plans to change to another system [because of criticisms of their newest release]. I'll see if I can hold onto FCP 7 as long as I can. We'll see what Apple decides to do. Color correction was done at Final Frame in New York and the audio mix was done at C5 in New York. They do a lot of high-end Hollywood movies and also documentaries and they're terrific how they work with people with different budgets.

Intimacy with characters and story are the two things I care most about. I would much rather have a poorly lit, hard-to-make-sense-of moment shot by a surveillance camera if something amazing is happening than a beautifully lit, perfectly timed dolly shot of something without a soul.

I love cinéma vérité shooting a lot. I don't usually use lights. Occasionally in an interview I'll throw a light up, but I like things to feel natural instead of extremely produced. I like handheld shooting when that's possible. But I'm not a purist about any of it. Street Fight is almost exclusively verite and so is Racing Dreams. If a Tree Falls is heavily archival and includes a lot of interviews, with a good bit of vérité story showing Daniel on house arrest.

Daniel is still in prison built for terrorists and has between one and two more years. On one hand, being in this kind of prison is less scary physically; people aren't get stabbed and it's not like the prisons you see on TV. It's very, very controlled, so it's safe. But it's very frustrating for him to be considered a terrorist by the government. He can't sit in the room with his wife when she visits. There are very limited visits and phone access and that's hard for him.

The response I've gotten to the film is interesting. People on both sides have really rallied behind it. The police captain and prosecutor have said they think it is an accurate portrayal -- as has the activist community. Some people say we're too soft on the timber industry and the government and, on the other side, people saying we're too soft on the environmental activist community. But for the most part, people on both sides feel it's really fair and complex.

When the film came out in the summer, people saw it as a historical film about activism in the 1990s. Nobody thought the U.S. had an activist community any more. When the Occupy movement erupted a few months later, it was pretty amazing how many scenes in the film were so similar to what I was seeing on the nightly news whether it was police using pepper spray on nonviolent protesters, or protesters arguing about tactics to engage in. The film has suddenly become a very relevant story and not a historical thing at all. It's about the exact arguments people are having now. It's a cautionary tale for activists to carefully consider their tactics and think about which are ethical, effective and what the legal consequences might be. It's also a cautionary tale to the government to think about how they react to activism because some actions bring people into the democratic argument and others radicalize people.

Occupy Oakland and many other Occupy groups have screened the movie. The law enforcement community has also been watching the film. In Charlotte, one of the top officers in charge of the Democratic Convention saw it and a few days later, there was a piece in the Charlotte Observer that the police wanted to clarify that they will not use pepper spray on nonviolent protesters. So it's a message getting into the more general national conversation.






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