Documentarian Marshall Curry’s first film Street Fight, about a mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey, earned universal raves from critics and won awards all over the world, including an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 2006. His follow-up, Racing Dreams, was released last year to the same critical response, and is being remade by DreamWorks as a narrative feature. Curry’s latest film If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front has been shortlisted for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, once again placing Curry in the middle of the Oscar race. If a Tree Falls tells the story of the uprising and disintegration of the Earth Liberation Front from 1996-2001, as seen from the eyes of Daniel McGowan. McGowan, who grew up in a middle-class suburban family, was radicalized into the movement and ending up being involved in several arsons, which found him being branded a terrorist after his arrest. His arrest happened several years after the arsons took place, when McGowan was arrested at his job in New York City, a non-profit run by Curry’s wife. Curry’s interest in the story began as a curiosity, but ended up with the documentarian being drawn deep into divergent realities on both sides of the law, where previously held perceptions are challenged and morality itself is tilted on its side. In honor of being shortlisted and the film’s recent DVD, Netflix Instant, and iTunes release, Curry and I talked for over an hour about the creation and development of If a Tree Falls. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Jackson Truax: After McGowan was arrested at your wife’s office, what was the process of realizing there was a movie there, and then setting out to make it?

Marshall Curry: I always have a bunch of themes that bang around in my head that interest me, but themes don’t necessarily make good movies.  They need a character and a conflict and a story.  So I’m always open to having a character or a conflict jump out… When [McGowan] was arrested out of my wife’s office, it just sort of presented itself in a way that seemed like  Sam Cullman [cinematographer] and I should take that opportunity… When you’re making a documentary, you really want to have a narrative arc. And ideally, it’s an arc that will work, no matter what the final result is. In the beginning, we didn’t know if [McGowan] had done it, and in fact he told us he hadn’t done it.  But, I thought, “This guy is now facing life in prison, no parole, for doing these huge acts of arson. Either he’s going to be found innocent, in which case it will be an interesting story about the government overreaching and targeting innocent activists. Or he did do it. And it’ll be an interesting story of ‘How could this guy have found himself in this position where he’s facing life in prison for terrorism?’” However the story ended up, I thought the result was going to be interesting. To me, it’s also nice when a film is driven by a question. In this case the question was, “What happened here? How did this guy find himself in this position?” That seemed to me to be rich material. It touched on terrorism. It touched on protest. It touched on environmentalism. It was kind-of fish-out-of water story—a guy from Queens getting involved in radical environmentalism in Oregon. There’s an investigation story. When you start into a film like this…you’re just looking for richness. Even when you don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out or exactly how it’s going to be structured.

JT: What was the process of getting McGowan to talk to you? Was it something he was conflicted about?

MC: He was willing to talk with us right from the beginning… When he was arrested, it took a month or two before he was processed. His sister put up everything she owned to get him out on bail, and so I actually pitched his sister before he even came home. She spoke to him and he said, “Okay. Let’s see how this goes…” But the process of making a film is a constant negotiation. So there were days where he didn’t want us to be around. There were things that he didn’t want to talk about. It was an emotional and exhausting time for him. He was depressed. He was facing life in prison. His whole world was falling apart, and that’s a tough thing to share with somebody with a camera. But ultimately, he let us do it.

JT: At what point in the process of filming did he tell you he was guilty?

MC: For a while he told us he didn’t do it, and there were a number of things that were off-limits to talk about. We began to suspect early that he actually had done it. But it wasn’t until he was really ready to enter a plea bargain that he was really able to tell us explicitly that he had done it. When we sat down to edit the movie, our first cut had a first act where the audience doesn’t know whether he’d done it or not.” But what we found was that that actually wasn’t what was interesting… What was interesting was why. So we just decided to cut that whole beginning and start the movie with him saying, “In 2001, I took part in these arsons. People say it’s crazy and that it’s terrorism. But it’s more complicated than you think.” And that’s the movie: “How is it more complicated than you think?”

JT: It’s remarkable how many people you got to talk to you on both sides of this issue, and how in-depth many of them went with you and the things they shared. As you interviewed McGowan, how did these names come up? What was the process from there?

MC: We spent a lot of time with [McGowan]. Sometimes we would just shoot as he was going through his daily life and sometimes we would do interviews. We talked to him about his political philosophy. We talked to him about his background. It wasn’t until after he had pled, that he was able to sit down and give us the details of the arsons: what it was like to go and drive there in the night and how it felt to set these devices. We probably shot a hundred hours with [McGowan]. He would sometimes tell stories about people that would make us say, “Okay. We should go find this guy. We should go find that woman and learn more about them.”

JT: Were you getting the rest of your interviews after you knew McGowan was guilty?

MC: In some cases, yes. In other cases, no. [Fellow arsonist] Suzanne [Savoie] we interviewed pretty early. She had pled, but she…hadn’t gone to prison yet. We had a quick window, so we just ran out to Oregon, went out to a park with her and just had a long conversation with her that becomes the substance of her scenes in the film. With [prosecuting US attorney] Kirk Engdall, that interview didn’t happen until after [McGowan] was in prison. So the case was basically done, and that freed him to have more candid conversations about it.

JT: Mill owner and arson victim Steve Swanson serves as the face of those affected by the arsons. Was he excited to talk to you?

MC: He originally was very reluctant to talk to us. At first he said, “Thank you. But I’m not really interested in participating.” But I tried to explain to him that we were interested in his point-of-view and that the film would be lacking something very important if it couldn’t capture what the experience was like for him of having his business that has been around for generations and a huge part of his identity burned to the ground. He told us that he got an alarm system put in his house because he didn’t know if they were going to come and attack his wife and children. In his mind, the fact that they felt fear qualified these actions as terrorism… People on [McGowan’s] side feel like that might be too loose of a definition. They argue that if you define terrorism as any crime that makes someone feel fear or intimidation, then mobsters who extort money from people are terrorists. Domestic violence situations are terrorism. At a certain point, the word starts to fall apart when it gets too broadly applied. [McGowan] and his people are quick to point out that nobody has actually been hurt in any of these fires. In their minds, these fires are more like the Boston Tea Party then they are like 9/11 or Timothy McVeigh’s bombing.

JT: As you’re approaching this whole collection of people, did you find that people were generally excited to talk to you, or did you meet a lot of static?

MC: The access was definitely the most challenging part of the production of the movie. The activists didn’t really trust us. They didn’t know who we were. We were this New York City film crew, and they figured we couldn’t possibly understand radical environmentalism. They thought that we would do what the media always does, which is paint them as hippie terrorists. Similarly, the law enforcement and the arson victims were a bit reluctant to talk to us because we were this New York City film crew and they thought we were probably liberal and would edit what they said out of context and maybe do something to try and make them look bad. It just took a lot of conversations with people, looking them in the eye or explaining to them on the telephone that I was actually interested in their point of view, and I was not going to edit what they said out of context. I told them the movie wouldn’t BE their point of view, but it would include their point of view. I wanted to take everyone’s strongest arguments and bang them against each other, rather than set-up straw men and knock them down.

JT: What’s the biggest challenge in that, of making a film with so many divergent viewpoints, and trying to be a fair to everyone as possible?

MC: When I’m shooting, it’s more about listening, and just trying to understand people. It’s really a research phase. We shot over 300 hours of footage in all for this movie and the movie was driven by questions. Honest questions… When we sat down to edit, I wanted to make a movie that illustrated the journey of trying to answer those questions. The film has a point of view, but it’s a complex point of view.  I think when a story is complex, and this is, that the film should reflect that complexity. There are some polemical films that I love, that make a strong argument, Super Size Me for instance, and I think there’s definitely a place for that kind of film… But this movie is intended to provoke questions about activism, about how the government responds to activism, about environmentalism, about terrorism, but not answer those questions.

JT: In the case of Engdall, I’m not sure what surprised me more. That he talked to you? How much he shared? Certain things he said? What was the process of getting him on board? Were you surprised by his interview?

MC: I was very surprised. It was one of the last interviews that we did, actually. We had done an interview with the other prosecutor, and [Engdall] had been in the hospital during that time, so we hadn’t been able to interview him. But finally we were able to arrange it. He had to get permission from the Department of Justice to do the interview. Once I sat down with him, it was really one of those amazing documentary film experiences. Because his recall of details was terrific. His ability to tell the stories was great. At the end of the interview, just before we took off the microphones, I said… “Have your feelings about this case changed over the five years that you’ve been working?” Because he had been working on the investigation before prosecuting it. He sat back, and thought for a minute, and then said that line that ends the movie, where he says, “In the beginning, I thought these people were just cold mug shots on a piece of paper. After spending time learning about their backgrounds and learning about their ideologies, I’m not excusing what they did, I still think they should go to prison, but it turns out that there’s human complexity here that’s different from how it might seem at first.” As soon as he finished that, I said to him, “That’s going to be the last line of the movie.” And sure enough, it was.

JT: How did If a Tree Falls evolve as you were filming it?

MC: I would say that each time we met somebody, they surprised us. Making this movie was one series of surprises after another. On both sides, people were more reflective and more articulate…then we expected. Serendipity played a huge role in the film.  For example, meeting Tim Lewis, the guy in the cabin who’s the activist filmmaker was completely by chance. We were actually looking for someone to shoot a couple of shots of people walking in-and-out of court and we didn’t want to go all the way to Oregon to do it. So we posted on Craigslist, looking for a shooter with a camera that could just go do that. He answered…and the next time we were out in Oregon, we got together with him and discovered that not only did he know all these people, he had a personal archive of footage of [central activist] Jake Ferguson at home playing guitar, of the very first protest when they’re up doing the blockade on the logging road that set-off a lot of these events. Of that first pepper-spraying event that radicalized a number of the people that became a part of the [Earth Liberation Front]. Of the [World Trade Organization] protest where [McGowan] was. So much personal archival footage. That was something we never could have predicted, that we would find a guy who was as amazing a storyteller as he is, and also had such an amazing archive of footage.

JT: A lot of that footage ended up really helping to drive the movie. How did you figure out what to include where?

MC: The editing was a huge process. Matt Hamachek and I edited the film and we just waded through the footage. We had boxes and boxes of archival tapes that [Lewis] sent us. We also did a huge amount of research from news stations – local news, national news. And we got lots of video clips from activists who had filmed stuff over the years just by posting on places on the internet. Then, all of our interviews. It was a huge, huge amount of footage. It took about a year-and-a-half to edit. and was one of the structurally trickier films that I’ve ever had to work on.

JT: The film has a really distinct score. It goes well with all the footage, Lewis’ in particular. How did you find the music and find where to place it?

MC: There’s a band called The National that has a number of songs in the movie. They also have a bunch of music in Racing Dreams… I’m a huge fan of their music, and also friends enough that they were willing to give us a deal on the music. I also worked with a really talented composer, James Baxter who did the music for Street Fight. Then there were other pieces of music. We just reached out to people whose music we thought worked well and said, “We don’t have a ton of money here but we are making a film that we think you will be proud to be a part of.” We’d show them clips and talk to them about the project, and they were all very generous.  The Black Keys, Rage Against the Machine, Caribou. Bands that normally would charge huge amounts of money for their music were great to us.

JT: Your decision to really not bring the present-day interview with Ferguson in until late in the film was interesting. How did you arrive at that? What was reaching out to and interviewing him like?

MC: We struggled a lot with the decision of at what point to show the modern [Ferguson]. Because time has not been kind to him During the earlier years, people described him as having this kind of pirate charisma. He’s good looking in this sexy rock star kind-of way. Now, though, he’s not in great shape. He’s tired. He’s worn by his addictions and by his experiences. We decided to not pierce the myth of [Ferguson] until late in the movie and to have it feel like a reveal when you finally get to see him in modern time… We reached out to him through his lawyer, and his lawyer agreed that it made sense for him to talk to us because we were making the film of record about this case. But before we were able to interview him  he did an interview with a TV station that aired. The backlash against that interview was really, really strong in Eugene, where his son and his son’s mother live. People were saying things and acting aggressively towards his son because of the thing [Ferguson] had done. The son’s mother and I spoke on the phone, and she said that she’d asked [Ferguson] not to do any more interviews. She just asked that everybody just sort of back off a little bit because she was worried about her son. So the interview that you see in the film is actually the outtake of the last interview that he did with this TV station. It’s not an interview that we shot ourselves.

JT: How recently had you tried to interview McGowan? Did you try and talk to him in prison?

MC: He’s in special terrorist prison now that’s called the Communication Management Unit, that’s the terrorist wing of a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana… There’s a second one in Marion, Illinois, which is where he was originally placed. We wanted to do a follow-up interview with him and wrote the Bureau of Prisons a formal request. They told us that for safety and security reasons that they couldn’t allow us to do this interview… Honestly, we spent a year-and-a-half with this guy. He’s not a physical threat to us or anybody else. I think they just don’t want him communicating with media generally.

JT: During McGowan’s wedding to Jenny at his sister’s apartment, you used video footage of everything except the ceremony, for which you used still photos. How did you decide which media to use when?

MC: That decision was somewhat made for us. They did not want anybody to film the ceremony itself. So all we had were photographs of them exchanging vows. But it turned out to kind of work well because it gave that wedding scene a scrapbook feel. And then when dialogue becomes important, when we’re talking to his sister outside the reception, we switch back to film.

JT: McGowan is up for parole in 2013. Is Jenny still waiting for him?

MC: She is. She visits him when she can, and she is involved in a case that [McGowan] and a number of other inmates at his prison have filed with the Center for Constitutional Rights, arguing that the existence of these terrorist prisons is unconstitutional. So there’s a case going on, not about the facts of his particular crime, but about his designation to a Communication Management Unit.  He’s got about another year, and they’re hopeful that he’ll be put into a halfway house at that point and serve out the rest of his time [there]… [Savoie] is out. We actually saw her last year. She had a tough time in prison as well. For three years, she was in a prison where she could not walk outside– there was no courtyard., no access to windows, no sunlight. Now she’s living completely off the grid in the wilderness of Oregon. [There’s a sort of a tragic ending to [Ferguson’s] story. About nine months ago, he was arrested for selling heroin and is now in prison. So after all he did to try and stay out of prison, there he is.

JT: I know you weren’t going to narrate Street Fight but fell into it. Was it an easy decision to narrate If a Tree Falls?

MC: No, it was not an easy decision. I knew it needed to be narrated in some way, because there’s so much information. There’s so much backstory, more than could fit on a few cards, and somebody needed to set that up. So then the question was, “Who should narrate it? Should we hire a Voice of God narrator or should it just be me?” The connection that I had with [McGowan], the fact that he was arrested at my wife’s office, and that I had met him before seemed like an important part of the set-up. We tested the film a couple of times without that in there, and people would ask, “Why is this guy the subject of your film?” He’s not the leader of the [Earth Liberation Front]. He didn’t do the most fires. Why him?” And just doing a quick set-up explaining how it is that we have access, why we selected him, put that question aside.

JT: Reenactments are a point of almost certain controversy in the documentary community. You included reenactments of the arsons, albeit animated ones. How did you decide to go that route?

MC: We knew early that we wanted there to be some kind of reenactment as people describe these moments that obviously, nobody caught on film. But we didn’t want to do it in a Court TV way. There are certain reenactment styles that I feel like we’ve seen a lot of times that have become clichéd and a little bit hackneyed. So we decided to try and to it in animated style. We decided to mock-up what those animations might look like.. One of the stylistic choices was to focus on details You don’t see full characters moving around very much. It’s hands doing things. It’s a shot of a rearview mirror as the car is driving. It’s fuel dripping out of the back of a truck. Those kinds of details. I think those gave it a little bit of a dreamy memory feel. Just in mocking up this idea, we came across plug-ins and graphic filters that we could apply to footage to give it that rotoscoped look. We were mostly doing that to be a guide for an animator. Then we just decided that we liked it exactly how it was. So we kept it that way.

JT: Another point of controversy in the documentary community is writing credits. You’ve given yourself one on every film. How did you come to do that, and what’s your writing process?

MC: I wrote the scripts for my earlier movies. In this one, Matt Hamachek and I share the writing credit. We would just sit and pound out scripts… It was a really collaborative process that took place during the editing. So we would edit scenes and say, “What’s the information that you need in order to set this scene up?” There were hundreds and hundreds of drafts.

JT: Why is it important that people seek out and see If a Tree Falls on Netflix or iTunes now and in the coming weeks?

MC: Even before the shortlist came out, there had been a real uptick in interest in the film, associated with the Occupy movement. When we released the film theatrically this summer, it was very interesting to hear responses from people, because the idea of a protest movement in the United States seemed like a quaint historical event. Nobody was talking about protest in the United States. Fast-forward three months, and you have police pepper-spraying protesters and scenes in the news that feel like they could have been lifted straight out of the movie. So the film has had a lot of attention and been a big part of the conversation in the Occupy movement, where DVDs are floating around. There was a screening scheduled for the Occupy Oakland site the night that they were evicted from the location where they were. I think in the movement, people are having discussions about what kind of actions and tactics activists should be engaging in. Is property destruction ever a part of that? The film is a cautionary tale that encourages people to think carefully about the kinds of tactics that are effective, that are ethical. What are the legal ramifications of different kinds of tactics that you might choose? The film is also being seen a cautionary tale by the law enforcement community, which is gratifying. The prosecutor in the film has been very supportive of having law enforcement see this film, because he feels that when police are battling protesters, there’s a dehumanization on both sides that sometimes happens, and sometimes leads people to do things like what happened at UC Davis recently, when these police just soaked non-violent protesters with pepper-spray. The law enforcement community needs to understand that there are certain kinds of reactions to protest that will radicalize people, and there are other reactions that will bring people into the democratic argument… We actually had a screening in Charlotte, North Carolina recently, and one of the DVDs made its way to one of the top cops who’s in charge of preparing for the Democratic convention, which is taking place there next year. A couple of days later the Charlotte Observer had a big newspaper story where the police had announced that they would not be using pepper-spray on non-violent activists at the Democratic convention. So if law enforcement is learning from the film the way that things like pepper-spray radicalize people, then that’s really great… And it’s also great if we as a society learn what can happen when people feel that their voices are not being heard. When someone feels like the democratic process doesn’t work, or their voices aren’t being heard, then they’ll step out of the democratic process and do something else.

2 Responses to “Marshall Curry on his Oscar short-listed doc “If a Tree Falls””

  1. Good interview, Jackson. Sounds like an intriguing doc. I didn’t really know anything about this one before this. Now I want to see it. Thanks!

  2. Thanks jennybee. There’s something really addictive about it, I’ve already seen it twice and am looking for an excuse to watch it again. Here’s hoping it gets the Oscae nomination it so richly deserves!

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