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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “If a Tree Falls” Director Marshall Curry

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "If a Tree Falls” Director Marshall Curry

Marshall Curry’s documentary tells a timely story of political action and environmental beliefs at loggerheads. His reconstruction of the recent history and unraveling of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is a fascinating exploration of a modern revolutionary movement and its efficacy. Fusing fervent concerns about ecological imbalance and capitalism run amok, ELF members and sleeper cells employed economic sabotage by destroying facilities involved in deforestation to remove the profit potential from companies wreaking environmental destruction.

Focusing on Oregon-based activist Daniel McGowan, Curry relates the tale of a mild-mannered, middle-class citizen driven to extremes and brought to trial on charges of terrorism for his participation in ELF-related arson plots. Detailing activists’ past disillusionment with public protest—and the police brutality and inertia that often followed—the film poses difficult questions about the possibility of effecting change from either within or without the system and examines the changed stakes for revolutionaries today in a world fixated on branding all dissenters as terrorists. [Description courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“If a Tree Falls”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Marshall Curry
Producer: Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman
Associate Producer: Bill Gallagher
Editor: Matthew Hamachek, Marshall Curry
Music: James Baxter
Photographer: Sam Cullman
Codirector: Sam Cullman

Responses courtesy of “If a Tree Falls” director Marshall Curry.

Telling stories

I think I’ve always just been curious about people, and being a documentary filmmaker gives me an excuse to poke around in people’s lives and learn about them.  I also love crafting stories that draw people in, and I think that came from my mom who grew up on a farm in South Carolina and comes from a brood of storytellers. You can learn a lot about filmmaking—pacing, picking the important details, twists– from just listening to good storytellers. 

How did you get the idea for a film like this?

This story just dropped in my lap.  My wife came home from work one day and said that four Federal agents had walked into her office that afternoon and arrested one of her employees.  He was accused of burning down two timber facilities in Oregon a few years earlier when he was part of the Earth Liberation Front.  And if found guilty he would go to prison for the rest of his life.  That seemed like a surprising sentence for a crime in which no one was hurt, and Daniel McGowan was definitely a surprising “eco-terrorist.” He’d grown up in Rockaway, Queens, was the son of a NY cop, and had been in business major in college. How did he go from there to being part of the radical environmental group that the FBI calls “the number one domestic terrorist group” in the country?  Sam Cullman (DP/co-director) and I decided to find out.  

Conceived as a short, expanded to a lengthy feature, compressed down to 84 minutes…

Generally Sam did the shooting, and I did sound and conducted the interviews.  I think when we started we thought it might be a short film, but things just got more and more interesting the more we dug in.  So we kept shooting—meeting new people, turning up new archival footage, following new beats in the story. After it was shot, Matt Hamachek – who I’d worked with on my last film, Racing Dreams– and I holed up in my Brooklyn office, and spent over a year, editing it down from hundreds of hours to about 84 minutes. 

Setting up multiple perspectives

Access was definitely the hardest part.  Our story focuses on people who were part of the Earth Liberation Front in the 1990s and were responsible for numerous arsons throughout the Northwest.  They had burned timber facilities, a wild horse slaughterhouse, and most famously, a multimillion dollar building at Vail to protest the ski resort’s expansion into National Forest. Because of the high stakes – many of them were facing life in prison as we were shooting – they were understandably skittish about going on camera. But we were able to get intimate access to our main character, and that opened doors.  We also wanted to get a variety of points of view—to talk with environmental activists who think the ELF is bad for the movement, the prosecutor, and the arson victims.  We had to convince people on both sides that we were going to represent them fairly which wasn’t always easy, but is something that I take seriously.  In the end I’m not interested in movies that just set up straw men to knock down.  I like letting strong arguments and powerful characters bang up against each other, and letting audience’s sympathies really shift around during the film—sometimes in a way that makes them uncomfortable. 

What can audiences expect from the film?

I hope that audiences will enjoy the film.  It’s a dramatic story—part cops-and-robbers thriller, part coming of age tale—that asks a lot of hard questions about environmentalism, activism and terrorism. I think that people expecting a polemic will be surprised by the lack of good-guys/bad-guys, but I think the uneasy unsure feeling that it leaves you with makes it a more interesting film. 

How do you prepare for your filmmaking projects?

I watch tons of documentaries and am constantly learning from them.  I’m not a purist at all and borrow ideas and inspiration from the verite folks, from Ross McElwee, from Errol Morris.  I also learn from fiction films.  In the edit room we often ask, “If this were a fiction film, what would come next?” as a way of keeping us focused on the storytelling.   

Future plans
I have a few ideas—one about a multiracial family who I am friends with, another that’s a doc/fiction hybrid. 

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