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Tribeca ’09 Interview: “Racing Dreams” Director Marshall Curry

Tribeca '09 Interview: "Racing Dreams" Director Marshall Curry

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

“Racing Dreams”
(World Documentary Feature Competition)
Director: Marshall Curry
Synopsis: “Racing is an addiction, and we’ve got it bad,” says the mother of one of the country’s top go-kart racers. Annabeth, Josh, and Brandon, ranging in age from 11 to 13, all compete for the World Karting Association’s national championship, a huge stepping stone to auto racing’s big show—NASCAR. None of them can legally drive on a city street, but they each masterfully zip around a course at nearly 80 mph. Yet driving fast may be the easiest challenge facing these ambitious kids. Throughout the course of an entire WKA season, they each encounter not just the trials of adolescence but also the realities of a sport requiring great amounts of money to even compete. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival]

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Marshall Curry. I live in Brooklyn, and have had a pretty zig zagged career that has included teaching English in Mexico, working at a public radio station, and producing the website for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A few years ago I made a film called “Street Fight” that was nominated for an Oscar but got crushed by the “March of the Penguins.”

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

After college I tried out a number of jobs, but in the back of my mind I always thought that making documentaries sounded like the best job anyone could have. I got hired to work on an interactive documentary for a museum about Native American history. But it was 1994, and soon the Internet took off, and the company where I was working started focusing on web design. I stayed there for a few years but knew deep inside that I really wanted to make films. One day I heard about a really interesting election that was shaping up in Newark, NJ, so I decided to take a leap. I bought a camera and started filming “Street Fight.”

What prompted the idea for your film and what excited you to make you undertake it?

Before I started making Racing Dreams, I didn’t really know anything about NASCAR, and I didn’t understand the appeal. I’d say that attitude is pretty typical in New York, but I knew it isn’t typical for the country as a whole. NASCAR is the second biggest spectator sport in the country after football—bigger than baseball or basketball.

I began to think about that: New Yorkers think of ourselves as so worldy and broad minded, but we don’t know anything about a sport that’s a huge part of our own country’s culture. So I wanted to learn a little about it.

And then one day I read about the World Karting Association’s series for 11 and 12 year olds who race karts that go 70 mph. It has become the unofficial Little League for NASCAR, producing some of the sport’s biggest drivers.

I thought that sounded pretty amazing, and one of the things I love about making documentaries is that it lets me spend a year or two learning about things I don’t know about. So I went to a race to scout it out, and it was better than I imagined. The racing was fast and noisy and dangerous. The kids were smart and funny, and at that perfect age where they are young enough to be honest and open, but old enough to be interesting and insightful. So I put aside the project I was working on and got started.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

I think that one of the most important things in making a documentary is earning the trust of people that allow them to reveal themselves to you. I take that trust seriously and think it’s important to show people fairly and respectfully. That doesn’t mean hiding conflicts or warts, but it means showing those things with context and humanity and sense of humor – because we all have conflicts and warts. I think that’s a big part of what ultimately connects audiences with characters in a film.

I also think it’s important to spend a lot of time with the characters, and to keep a small footprint. We didn’t set up lights, and most shoots had just a camera person and sound recorder (I’d do one or the other, depending on what kind of scene we were shooting.)

We finished production with 500 hours of footage, which is a huge—almost absurd—amount of material. It took us almost three months just to screen, and then we spent about 16 months editing. 90% of it, of course, is junk, but when you are shooting, you never know which 90% it will be. There are details that seem irrelevant out in the field, but then become important later, and you are really glad you got them when they happened.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

I thought it might be hard to sell the idea of a documentary about kids who want to be NASCAR drivers to potential funders. Most doc people aren’t exactly racing fans, and there’s an attitude in a lot of circles that a documentary has to be about a social or political issue on its’ face. But Bristol Baughan, who was working for Reason Pictures/Good, saw that racing was our McGuffin. The movie was really about an under explored part of our culture and about being 11 or 12 —figuring out who we are, how we relate to our parents, what romance feels like, and what we want to do. She saw some scouting footage I had shot and jumped right in as my funder and producer.

One practical challenge I didn’t foresee was how much the kids were going to change over the course of the shooting. Annabeth, most dramatically, grows her hair out, gets braces half way through, and really goes from being a little girl to a teenager. It was great for illustrating just how pivotal this period was in their lives, but it really created some challenges in editing.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I make documentaries mostly because I’m curious. They give me an opportunity to throw myself into new and different worlds and really get to know them—different people, different stories, different cultures– whether that’s an indigenous group in the Amazon or local street politics in inner city Newark, or the world of NASCAR in rural North Carolina. And as long as I can keep feeding that curiosity I’ll feel successful.

But I also make films to communicate with and challenge and move other people too. So when I see audiences laugh or gasp or shake their heads at something that makes me pretty happy too.

What are your future projects?

I am just about to start editing a film about a member of the Earth Liberation Front who burned two timber facilities in Oregon and is now in prison. It’s a pretty amazing story. We’re raising finishing funds for that one and are planning to complete it this year.

I have another film in preproduction about a family with ten kids, half of which are adopted and are all different races. It’s a really interesting story about when idealism meets reality.

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