An Interview with Marshall Curry, Oscar-nominee for "The Neighbors' Window"

In honor of the recent Oscar nominations, Screen and Stage is going to feature a few interviews with filmmakers behind the lesser-known nominated films.

This interview (conducted via email) is with Marshall Curry, writer/director of the Oscar-nominated live action short, "The Neighbors' Window", a tragicomic piece about voyeurism in New York City that's among the best of this year's shorts in any category. Mr. Curry has previously been nominated for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for "A Night at the Garden" as well as Best Documentary (Feature) for STREET FIGHT and IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT.

The short is available to watch here.

JH: What compelled you to make this your first narrative?

MC: I love documentaries, but I just wanted to stretch myself and try a different form of filmmaking where I gave up a bit of serendipity and gained a bit more control – over the story and dialogue and performances and camera-work. It just seemed like a creative challenge, and I really loved it.

JH: When did you know that you had the screenplay in good shape to shoot?

MC: I never really KNEW, but I shared it with a bunch of friends who gave me feedback, and eventually I realized that I needed to just go for it. It’s easy to tweak writing forever, and at some point you have to just take a leap and make the thing. The night before we shot our final scene, though, I was still fine-tuning the script. And I was, in effect, changing the script during the edit when I discovered that some lines that I loved weren’t actually necessary. Our actors were able to convey complex ideas with a look – so I was cutting dialogue down to the very end.

JH: Did your years interviewing subjects for documentaries help when directing actors? If so, how?

MC: I think my documentary work definitely helped me work with actors. When you are making a doc, you try to create a setting where people are comfortable and can present their vulnerable, natural, real selves. When working with actors, there’s a similar goal. Once you have worked out the thoughts and feelings of the character with the actors, the challenge is just helping them get into a place where those thoughts and feelings can show themselves naturally. I also think that documentarians have very good senses of what feels real and what isn’t. We spend a lot of time weeding out from our footage moments that feel “performed,” and that was really useful. Of course it was the actors themselves who had to do the hard work – I was just trying to create the best environment for them to do that.

JH: The film feels like a non-murderous version of REAR WINDOW in the best possible way - what films were influences for you, and how did REAR WINDOW influence you? 

MC: I love REAR WINDOW, and the film shares a lot with it in terms of the basic concept, but the tone and style are pretty different. It’s much more stylized – almost theatrical – and our film tried to be more naturalistic and almost documentary-ish. A few months ago, the Nitehawk Theater in Brooklyn did a “double feature” screening of "The Neighbors’ Window" and REAR WINDOW, and I got to watch them back-to-back which was really fun.

JH: The cinematography is gorgeous - how did you and Wolfgang Held approach the visual aspect of production? Was it similar or different to when you worked on RACING DREAMS?

MC: I couldn’t have asked for a better partner than Wolfgang who taught me so much during the process of making the film. We had worked together on documentaries and it was nice because we had a shared sense of style and an appreciation of naturalism and simplicity. His shooting and lighting has some fun flourishes – for instance there’s a scene where the main character goes off screen for ten seconds as the camera just waits, shooting down an empty hall – but everything is in the service of the characters and the story. There’s nothing in the film just because it “looks cool.” Of course shooting a fiction film is a lot different from shooting vérité documentary. In a doc you are making decisions in real-time, following an improvised blocking and story. With "The Neighbors' Window", we spent a ton of time prepping everything – mapping out all of the blocking and every camera set-up before the first day. Once we got on set we had to tweak our plans – on our second day for instance, we had an unexpected blizzard – and our experience shooting chaotic documentaries together made it easier to roll with those situations together.

JH: Maria Dizzia's performance is radiant. Tell me about working with her to find the right characterization.

MC: Someone told me that 90% of directing is casting, and when Greg and Maria sat down together to shoot the first scene, I knew that it was true. All of our actors were terrific. Maria and I talked a lot about her character – what she was thinking and feeling and why – and it was such a pleasure to see her internalize those conversations and then just radiate that thought or emotion without “acting.”

JH: When you decide to direct another documentary, what will you take from shooting a narrative short to the next doc?

MC: I have been considering a couple of new projects that have a lot of stylized recreations in them, and I can imagine using some of the things I learned in making this film as I direct those scenes.

JH: And, what's next?

MC: There are a couple of doc projects and a couple of fiction projects in early stages. And I’d love to continue doing both. I love the adventure and sense of discovery of documentary making, and I also love the sense of specificity and control that comes with fiction.