Oscars 2012: Marshall Curry on “If A Tree Falls”

Second-time Oscar nominee Marshall Curry talks to realscreen about his eco-terrorism doc, If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (pictured), a film he calls his most challenging to date.
February 21, 2012

One of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries is director Marshall Curry’s If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (pictured), a film that started its life as a cautionary historical piece about radical activism that has since found a new life as a focal point for the Occupy protest movement.

In 2005, Curry’s wife came home from work and announced that one of her employees, Daniel McGowan, had been arrested by FBI agents and charged with being a member of radical environmental group the Earth Liberation Front,  once considered by the FBI as the United States’ “number one domestic terrorism threat.”

The group perpetrated several arson attacks on ski resorts, car dealerships, rangers stations and slaughterhouses but had since fallen off the public’s radar. Curry decided to follow McGowan, who faced life in prison if convicted, intrigued by how someone so seemingly mundane might be driven to violence.

As he began interviewing characters on both sides of the story, he uncovered disturbing, never-before seen activist footage. The filmmaker found himself piecing together the most complex film of his career to date.

If A Tree Falls premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 where it won an editing prize. It was picked up by Oscilloscope for an American theatrical run and aired on the PBS documentary strand ‘POV’ in November.

This is Curry’s second Oscar nomination. He was previously up for a statuette in 2005 for his debut feature Street Fight and is in the midst of assisting Dreamworks in a remake of his second film Racing Dreams, a doc about tween NASCAR hopefuls (due to air on ‘POV’ on February 23), as a scripted Hollywood feature. He’ll executive produce and creative consult on the film and is also shopping around the remake rights for If A Tree Falls.

“There is definitely a place for fictionalizing documentaries,” he says. “But sometimes Hollywood makes the mistake of thinking that documentaries are just rough drafts for fiction films, which isn’t the case.

“There are moments that are magical in documentaries because they’re real and once they’re fictionalized, they lose that magic. Racing Dreams is one that’s particularly well suited for being fictionalized and honestly, If A Tree Falls would be a good choice for a fiction remake.”

In the meantime, Curry is preparing for the Oscar ceremony on February 26 and working on a new documentary feature about retired heavyweight boxer Lennox Lewis, while If A Tree Falls has been screened for Occupy activists and law enforcement authorities alike. Realscreen recently caught up with the docmaker to chat about all of the above.

Do you have an Oscar speech prepared?

[Laughs] The first time I was nominated, March of the Penguins was also nominated and that had made more money at the box office than any movie that was up for best picture that year so I didn’t bother preparing a speech. This year I’ll probably jot some notes just in case but it’s a strong year. There are a lot of really good movies.

What attracted you to make a documentary about eco-terrorism?

The story itself just dropped in my lap. My wife came home from work one day and said, ‘You’ll never guess what happened at work today: four federal agents came in and arrested Daniel McGowan.’ He had been working for my wife and was somebody I knew a little bit. The idea of him facing life in prison for domestic terrorism seemed amazing to me.

On the surface I would’ve never guessed that he had been involved in a group like this at all. That was the initial hook: how could a guy from Rockaway, Queens, whose dad is a New York cop, [and] was a business major in college become a radical environmentalist and face life in prison for arson? All of the other questions grew out of the attempts to answer that question.

When did you realize you had characters that could sustain a feature film?

As we began to uncover archival footage that nobody’s ever seen before. There is news footage in there but much of the activist footage, like the footage of people being pepper sprayed [by police], was shot by activists. Tim Lewis, the character who lives in the cabin and gives the back story, had shot a lot of that and collected it over the years… All of that stuff made me realize that it was going to be a much more complex story than I imagined.

What were the most difficult scenes to shoot?

Getting access to a number of people was very difficult – some of the activists and the law enforcement folks. Both sides didn’t trust us. They’d both been screwed over in the past and I had to explain to them that the movie wasn’t going to be their point of view, but it was going to include their point of view and it would do it fairly. I was interested in having people’s best arguments banging against each other, not setting up straw men and knocking out their knees.

Who was the most difficult interview?

We spent most of the time with Daniel – obviously he’s our main subject, but he was going through an incredibly difficult time. He’s facing life in prison [at the time of filming], he’s under house arrest, he’s not exercising, he’s depressed. He probably was the most difficult because of the emotional stress that he was under. There were days where he really just didn’t want us around. [Currently, McGowan is in a special prison known as a "Communication Management Unit" in Terre Haute, Indiana]

The film won an editing prize at Sundance last year. When did you start thinking about your approach in the edit room?

From the very beginning. There was always a hypothesis of how we would tell this story and it changed many times as we discovered new things that cried out to be included in the film and other things we thought would be interesting and turned out not to be. Matt Hamachek, an editor I worked with on my previous film Racing Dreams, and I had two editing systems hooked up to all the footage and a big wall of cork board with the different scenes. We started putting together scenes and slowly peeling them away and cutting them down to the bare bones.

The biggest challenge was weaving together so many different timelines. It’s something that, hopefully, people aren’t conscious of but I can tell you from lots of trial and error that it wasn’t easy. The movie has the vérité story of Daniel under house arrest, it’s got Daniel’s back story, it’s got the back story of this radical wing of the environmental movement and then it’s got this “cops and robbers” story of the police investigation. Figuring out how to weave between all these timelines without it feeling abrupt or losing momentum was one of the big challenges.

What ways did you incorporate to do that?

Well, it was a lot of trying to figure out positions between scenes: what scenes could serve as transitions to different timelines? Are there ways we can hit to characters that are going to come about later? One example is a scene where the protestors blockade a road and build an F Troop-looking wall that Forest Service knocks down. We ended that scene with Tim Lewis saying, ‘People got really upset and things began to escalate,’ and at that point the mug shot of [ELF activist] Jake Ferguson appears along with his name.

It’s a very strange way of introducing a character and when we first had the idea to do it that way, we were very nervous about it because the idea came to us very late in the process. I like to test ideas a lot. I drag in a lot of friends, either filmmaker friends or friends who know nothing about filmmaking, to try and understand whether scenes are communicating what I want them to communicate and this was an idea that we had after it was too late to test it. That’s a small example of a quirky way to introduce a character and transition from a historical beat to different point in time.

How did you push yourself in new ways creatively with this film?

My first film, Street Fight, was mostly a vérité film, though it had a couple of moments of back story. My second film, Racing Dreams, was exclusively vérité and this was my first film that had significant archival footage and lots of interviews. That was new for me and it was challenging to find ways of making that feel like a movie. I think the rap on talking head archival movies is they can sometimes feel more like lectures than movies and I really wanted this one to feel like a movie.

What impact has the Occupy movement had on If A Tree Falls?

When it first was released over the summer it was widely seen as a historical film and in the United States critics and audiences thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that quaint? There was a time when there used to be a protest movement here some 10 years ago.’  Then the Occupy Movement started but it really didn’t break into the mainstream until police in New York pepper sprayed activists… It’s been very interesting since then to see how the movie has become part of that conversation. Occupy groups have screened it, law enforcement groups have screened it and I think for both they’re seeing it as a way of understanding the dynamics of what’s happening today.

For activists it’s a cautionary tale to think carefully about the ethics and the effectiveness and the legal consequences of certain tactics that people are considering and for law enforcement it’s a cautionary tale to think about the way that they’re reacting to activists. In the Nineties they reacted in ways that radicalized people and there are other reactions that bring people into the democratic argument. Hopefully they can learn from the mistakes of the past.

What’s your next feature?

I just started shooting one project about Lennox Lewis, the former heavyweight boxing champion, who retired about six years ago. He’s the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and is now in this position of still being young – he’s only around 47 – but he’s achieved the thing that he worked so hard to achieve and he’s figuring out what’s next. I have a couple of other projects that are in the pre-production stage.

What’s the challenge in telling that story?

To make it not feel like just another boxing documentary. There are some terrific boxing documentaries that have already been made: When We Were Kings, Barbara Kopple’s amazing Mike Tyson documentary [Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson] and the documentary Tyson as well. I need to find ways of exploring his life and the sport in ways that are not just retreads of great boxing movies of the past.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.