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6 Must-Read Documentary Tips from Academy Award-Nominated Filmmaker Marshall Curry

6 Must-Read Documentary Tips from Academy Award-Nominated Filmmaker Marshall Curry

Curry, whose latest film, “Point and Shoot,” also screened during the bucolic festival’s four-day run (you can read Indiewire’s review of the film from Tribeca here), spent two hours detailing his techniques to a packed house during a masterclass. Here are some of the highlights:

1. If you want to call yourself a filmmaker, you need to make a film.

Although he interned with Maysles Films right out of college, Curry found himself drifting into what was then called “new media” in the 1990s, a job that involved building a new website for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with a designer named Matt Berninger, now the lead singer for The National. Quitting that job and starting to make what became “Street Fight” was, Curry said, “a leap I took more out of fear than a sense of bravery — the fear that I was going to be 90 years old and I would look back on my life and I would never have tried to make a documentary film.”

READ MORE: 9 Tips On How to Make Your First Documentary

Teaching himself how to make a documentary was an arduous process that included transcribing 200 hours of footage by himself, but it started simply: “I bought a camera, I read the manual, and I started shooting.” Learning how to edit followed a similar path: “I bought a secondhand Mac and a copy of Final Cut Pro and took a weekend class, and then I just sat in my apartment.” (He later brought in veteran cutter Mary Manhardt to help shape the film into its final form.)

Curry hit it out of the park on his first at-bat: In the same week, “Street Fight” won the audience award at Tribeca and the audience and jury prizes at Hot Docs, and was later nominated for an Oscar. But his initial goals were far more modest. “I thought that this would be a project that I would work really hard on, and I’d have my friends over, and we’d set up a projector and get some pizzas and that’s who would see this thing,” he said.

There was one more goal, one that involved only Curry himself: “To me, the point of making the film was just to see if I liked making films, and if it was something that I could someday actually do. The one thing that I told myself as I was editing was, ‘All you have to do is just finish it, because if you walk away from this project without finishing an edit, then stop talking about being a documentary filmmaker. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be on TV, it doesn’t have to win awards, but you have to finish it.’ At that point, you can look around and say: ‘Now I know what the process is. Did I like that? Was that what I expected it to be? Does this mesh with what what I think my talents are?’ You can’t ask these questions until you’re done.”

2. The best way to study films is by breaking their spell.

When he’s starting a new project, Curry picks out great movies with similar themes — for “Racing Dreams,” which is about teenage NASCAR racers, it was “Spellbound,” “Hoop Dreams” and “Mad Hot Ballroom” — and takes them apart. He jots down what’s happening on screen every two minutes, so that he doesn’t slip from studying the movies into simply watching them:

“The first time you watch a movie that you like, all of the magic works on you. It’s an experience of having a world unfold in front of you. But if you watch it again, you start to see where the seams are. The discipline of having to write pulls you out of the experience of being in that world, and it makes you understand the structure of the movie that you like. That’s how I’ve learned about the pace of editing. Often, there would be a conversation that if you asked me at the end how long it was, I would say six or seven minutes, and it was 90 seconds. When it’s edited properly, the scenes feel much bigger than they are.”

3. You need one topic. You should have at least two.

In addition to an interesting topic and compelling characters, Curry says you need to make sure your story has enough “narrative tentpoles” to sustain a feature length (unless, that is, it turns out you’re not making a feature). “By minute 40 or 50, people get a sense of where you’re going, and it’s very important you anticipate that” and complicate your story. That’s when “Street Fight,” which covers the political battle between two African-American candidates for the Newark mayor’s office, goes from being a movie about political corruption to a debate about racial authenticity; it’s when “Racing Dreams” becomes a movie about not just racing cars but coming of age.

4. Never turn off the camera off…

“A lot of filmmaking is an endurance contest between you and the people you’re filming,” Curry said. “Every time that you relax, I promise you, something interesting will happen.” Curry subscribes to Albert Maysles’ view that people can only pretend to be other than they are for so long, and if you never put the camera down, they’ll stop trying. (When he uses a boom mic to record sound, Curry points it up towards the speaker from below rather than holding it over their head; the sound may be compromised, but his subjects are much more relaxed.) If you’re not shooting all the time, subjects become self-conscious the instant you pick up the camera: One of the three young drivers in “Racing Dreams'” was later the subject of a reality TV show, and because she and her family knew in advance when the crew was going to arrive and when they would leave, they were ready to put on an act. “When we were shooting,” Curry recalled, “it was around 9 o’clock at night, on hour 15 of shooting, that we would get those magic moments.”

5. That goes even for formal interviews.

“When you are interviewing someone, never let your cameraperson turn off the camera,” Curry said. “The second you turn off the camera, they’ll say the magic thing that you’d been looking for the whole interview. People want to relax after the performance is done. Don’t be afraid of awkward silence. That is your friend. Sometimes I’ll even count to five in my head. People will often restate something or clarify something or add something, and it’s often better than what they said in the first place.”

6. … unless your subjects want you to.

The rules are different for public figures like “Street Fight’s” political candidates, but as a rule, Curry said, “I only make movies about people who want to have a movie made about them. Even if they want a movie made about them, they’re going to hate you at some point.” Curry tells his subjects, “There will be times when you want me to stop shooting, and if you really want me to, I will.”

Of course, if your subjects tell you to turn off the camera every time things get interesting, you don’t have a movie. So Curry has conversations in advance about how he’s going to shoot difficult moments. “I tell them, ‘These tough moments are going to be important. I promise you, when I’m shooting them, I’m not enjoying it, but they will be important parts of the story.’ Explaining that in advance makes it a tiny bit less awkward when you’re standing there looking at someone who’s crying and thinking, ‘Is this framed properly? Is there light?’ You don’t want to be thinking about this when someone you love is crying, but you have to. It’s the part of the job I hate most. That, and fundraising.”

Marshall Curry’s “Point and Shoot” will be released at The Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan on October 31.

READ MORE: Advice from the Masters on Finding Your Documentary Voice

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