Filmmakers on Film: Marshall Curry

In order for us as humans to advance, we need to look to the past. This is something that we as a people have had trouble with, and it is astonishing how few film students have any knowledge of what came before, despite having a limitless amount of films at their fingertips. Thus, I reached out to notable industry members and asked them to recommend one film to film students and young filmmakers and explain their choice.

Marshall Curry is a filmmaker best known for Street Fight, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, and "A Night at the Garden" - all three of the aforementioned documentaries were nominated for Academy Awards. His award-winning narrative debut short, "The Neighbor's Window", is currently on the festival circuit.

The following is from Marshall Curry on his recommendation:

I have heard people talk about the moment they first heard the Beatles album, Sergeant Pepper’s, and everything they understood about rock and roll was swept away.

My own Sergeant Pepper’s moment came when a friend handed me a tape of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March twenty-something years ago. My friend started to explain it and then interrupted himself, “Just watch it.”

I went home, popped it into the VCR, and was immediately hooked by the irreverent setup: McElwee receives a grant to make a Civil War doc, but he gets distracted and starts filming his own wanderings through the South instead.

I remember thinking that McElwee was lucky he’d gotten the grant, because the “plot” of Sherman’s March would never have been green lit if he had pitched it honestly. There’s nothing dramatic or newsworthy or educational. It’s just girlfriends and family members and a former high school teacher talking about love and life and whether their butts are too fat. When McElwee tells his father that he’s been filming Dede as she washes her dog, his father is not impressed, “There, now. How is that going to be useful?”

And, of course, it’s not useful. But it was wonderful.

It reminded me of the Nobel Prize acceptance speech given by the physicist in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle: “Ladies and Gentlemen. I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school. Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn. I am a very happy man. Thank you.”

I was amazed at how unvarnished the film was. The narration was not the omniscient baritone “voice of God.” It was just a guy talking -- the “voice of man” – and he was confused and amused and opinionated. That style has been popularized in the years since Sherman’s March by storytellers like Michael Moore and Ira Glass. But it was revolutionary when I first heard it. When McElwee’s microphone failed while he was filming a scene, he didn’t edit out the mistake in post. He just framed the silent moment with a grin and a shrug, and transformed it into a surprisingly powerful and cinematic moment.

Up until that point, the documentaries I’d seen had all tried to be Productions, as smooth and silky and clean as possible. But Ross turned on the house lights and walked to the front of the stage and said, “Can we just be honest here for a minute?” He seemed to think that real life, with its splinters and mud, was more interesting—and I agreed. It was the difference between being lectured at by a teacher and having a friend whisper a secret to you on the playground.

It was probably the humorous parts of the film that surprised and influenced me most. In one of my favorite scenes in all of documentary, a minister, sitting next to a little girl in a restaurant, is talking about the Apocalypse. The girl notices something off-screen, and lights up, tugging at the minister’s sleeve. Most filmmakers shooting that scene probably would have thought, “I’m trying to shoot an Apocalypse scene, and this girl is ruining it.” And they would have tried to “fix” the shot by reframing the shot to crop out the distracting girl. But McElwee was flexible enough to let the action bend the scene he had intended to shoot. In the film, he follows the girl’s gaze and discovers that she’s looking at a man in an Easter bunny suit. And the scene suddenly becomes a very funny and sweet moment that comments on the great American mashing of religion and consumerism. The distraction didn’t ruin the scene; it made the scene.

It takes an enviable openness and cool sense of humor to catch those moments when they happen—a whimsical curiosity, a respect for the real.

And that approach is not just a smart guide for filmmaking, it’s a guide for living well, too.