Artist to Artist: Documentary Filmmakers Marshall Curry & Penny Lane

Penny Lane and Marshall Curry

Penny Lane and Marshall Curry

As part of our “Artist to Artist” interview series, Marshall Curry (2008 Film/Video) and Penny Lane (2012 Film/Video) connected over the phone to talk about their past and current documentary film projects. The following is an edited excerpt from their conversation. You can listen online to the full podcast, or subscribe through iTunes.

Penny: Hello! Where are you calling from, Marshall?
Marshall: My office in Park Slope.
Penny: Oh, you’re in Brooklyn. Neat!
Marshall: Where are you?
Penny: I’m in Waterville, NY, which is about five hours north and west of where you are right now. I moved to central New York this past summer for a teaching job.
Marshall: Oh, you’re at Colgate [University], right?
Penny: Correct.
Marshall: Nice. Is that fun?
Penny: It is, it is. I’m just kind of working through the reality of being the only filmmaker for 300 miles around. I’m not sure, I haven’t done a complete survey, but I think that’s about right. There are some things about that that are good and there are some things about that are—you can probably guess this—kind of lonely or have the potential to be a little bit lonely.
Marshall: What are you teaching?
Penny: I teach video art. I’m in the Studio Art department and I teach video in that context. I went to art school, I didn’t go to film school.
Marshall: Where did you do that?
Penny: RPI, where they have this kooky electronic art MFA program. Most people there were doing robots that spraypaint! An interactive sound installation with LED sculptures! I was like, “I’m just making movies.” Did you go to film school?
Marshall: No, no. I studied Religion in college. I took a winding path to get here.
Penny: I’m not sure it really does that much for you to study film. I’m not sure…
Marshall: I go back and forth. My friends who went to film school have a foundational knowledge. Everything I know has been from reading books or talking to people or just spending months and months and months shooting and editing.
Penny: You feel like in some ways there could’ve been some shortcuts…
Marshall: Probably, although I also think, “OK, I could’ve spent two years doing that?” That seems like an awful long time, when, that’s what I spent making Street Fight, my first movie. Frankly, I spent 1,000 hours learning how to edit and hundreds of hours learning how to shoot instead of sitting in a room having somebody talk to me about the theory of negative space. So I go back and forth on it. Sometimes I think it was good to spent the money and time I would’ve spent just making something. And then sometimes I think it would’ve been fun to take a history of cinematography class.

VIDEO: Trailer for Marshall Curry’s first film Street Fight, which chronicles Cory Booker’s 2002 campaign for Mayor of Newark, NJ

Penny: When you were taking Street Fight around to film festivals that first year, did you feel like you were part of a cohort?
Marshall: It’s very funny because it’s sort of like your freshman year in college—
Penny: Absolutely!
Marshall: Eugene Hernandez was just starting IndieWire, so when I see him I think of him as the guy who was out at all the festivals trying to write stories for this little website he was doing. Just a bunch of people like that. Other filmmakers who I feel like I have a connection with. [2012 Film/Video Awardee] Yance Ford became a good friend then. I thought, oh, I’ll make this little thing and I’ll show it to my friends and we’ll get some pizza and a projector and I’ll show my friends this thing that I’ve been working on.
Penny: Yeah, so what happened? What was the point where it changed from this thing you were making that you were going to show to some friends and get some pizza, and then it became the movie it became? What was the biggest turning point, do you think?
Marshall: There was one week when it played at Tribeca and HotDocs—those two used to overlap—and it won the audience award at Tribeca and the audience and the jury prize at HotDocs. Both of those happened within 48 hours. I wasn’t going to the awards ceremony for Tribeca. They called me and said, “Oh, are you coming to the awards ceremony?” and I was like, “Well, I was going to go out to dinner. It’s just a bunch of people dressing up, it’s not really my scene.” “You really need to come to the awards ceremony.” So, that was really how I saw that stuff, and when that happened, that was when I thought, “Oh, well maybe this isn’t just an embarrassing little thing that I did by myself.”
Penny: Even when you got to the point where you got into those festivals, you were still like, “All right”—you had a certain vision of the future and it didn’t include what it really became.
Marshall: Right. Each thing that happened, I thought, “Well, that was the cherry on top.” Wow, I got into a festival, that’s awesome. “Oh, you won a prize at the festival!” And then somebody’s like, “You just qualified for an Oscar.” And I was like, “what are you even talking about?”
Penny: Right, totally, like that’s just crazy!
Marshall: I was like, “Oscars?! That’s that thing I see on TV.”
Penny: That’s that terrible show that I don’t watch.
Marshall: I halfway didn’t know that there were documentary Oscars. That’s how un-plugged into that whole world I was. And I think that’s part of the reason that you become so close with those people. Because all those people that like you, they just like you. And they like your movie because they just like your movie.

VIDEO: Trailer for Marshall Curry’s Creative Capital Project If A Tree Falls, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film in 2012.
Penny: It feels so genuine.
Marshall: I still think that’s the case. Now, it’s a little bit more of a hustle. Now people are networking with me and I’m networking with people—that can sort of take the shine off… Not that much, it’s definitely not like Hollywood or the fiction world. And when I go to a party and see people whose movies I really like or who I just like as people or people who I knew during that time, you can still feel that there are good people in this documentary community.
Penny: I feel like there are mostly good people in the documentary community.
Marshall: I think that’s right. Honestly, I think that’s because documentaries are so hard to make and there’s no money and there’s no glory and there’s no glamour. So, the only reason that anybody makes a documentary is because they really want to make a documentary, unlike fiction, that has all the glory and fame and money.
Penny: Your movies, you like making things where you go out into the world and you meet people. I keep making these historical things and archival things. I don’t even have to leave the house for the production part of it. It’s just like the part where you’re editing all the time…
Marshall: Right. Well, this new project I’m working in is mostly archival. It’s based around a single interview that I did—12 hours or 14 hours of interview with this guy—and intercut with his footage, so it has been much more of the archival thing that you’re talking about. There’s something to say for not having to schlep all around the world and stay in hotels and all that stuff, but also it’s a different challenge. Socially, I guess, to some extent it’s a challenge. And, well, you don’t get to shoot your own material.
Penny: Sure. I like that because I don’t really like shooting. I’d rather not be responsible—
Marshall: (laughs) Can I blame somebody else? Yeah.
Penny: “Sorry this person is not a good cinematographer, not my fault.” So, what has that difference been like for you? Is it nice to not have to schlep around.
Marshall: It is. I mean, I think the other really big difference between now and Street Fight is that I didn’t have kids then. Or, I just had a new baby. So, I was able to go to festivals much more and spend five days and run around. Now, I feel like most festivals I don’t even go to. When I do go, I go for the day of my screening and leave the next day, which means that you don’t get those really fun moments and you haven’t seen everybody else’s films. A lot of that community stuff, I think I miss out on just because I can’t go and do those things as much. Just the shooting requires you to be away, so you use up all your shifts then and it’s hard to say, “Oh, can I stay two extra days so that I can go to parties and watch movies?”
Penny: This is a different subject, but I actually don’t really know. How do you make a living? Do you do commercial work, too?
Marshall: No, I’ve just been going project to project. Street Fight, I spent my own money. I had done internet work for a bunch of years before. So, I saved up some money and said, “Well, I’m just going to take a leave of absence and make a documentary.” So that’s when I made Street Fight. I took a leave of absence, bought a camera, shot Street Fight. I cut a trailer and took it to every foundation—PBS and HBO and all those place—and nobody would give me any money, or nobody was interested, so I went back to the company, did one more project to—
Penny: Get more money?
Marshall: Yeah, and then left again and just edited Street Fight in my apartment.
Penny: You edited that yourself, right?
Marshall: Yeah. I shot it and edited it. And then, when I had a cut that was maybe 100 minutes long, I took it to PBS again, to POV [PBS’ documentary program], that had been tracking it—
Penny: I remember that point. They’re like, “We don’t know who you are, so why don’t you show this to us when you’re almost done?” Which I think is a perfectly reasonable point of view for them to have!
Marshall: I agree. I mean, at the time I thought this was so outrageous, but they’ve got a hundred proposals from people who’ve made films before, many films before, and it’s very hard to make a film.
Penny: And the chances of you making a good film were very small, which they realized and you probably didn’t realize. (laughter)
Marshall: But they came on board and PBS put in some money, and that was how I had the money to finish it. And then I actually brought in another editor who helped me tighten it down, and I was able to get archival material and a composer and color correct it, and all that. And that movie has continued to be a stream of funds because Cory Booker went on to become—
Penny: Cory Booker!
Marshall: Yeah. He’s been on Oprah a couple of times and she’ll license clips from Street Fight for a thousand dollars. The DVD’s are starting to dry up, but for years I would sell DVD’s and Cory would to talk at some lunch and they would buy a hundred DVD’s to give to everybody that came to the lunch. And every time he would be in the news, there would be a new trickle of DVD’s. I’ve sold it around the world. So, that’s continued to keep the money coming in. I do feel like I’m in a little bit of mid-life crisis where I’ve done this for a little while, and I’m happy—things have gone great, way better than I could have ever imagined when I first started—and yet I still feel this little bit of dissatisfaction with things. I feel like I know how to make documentaries and I could do that for the rest of my life, and I would love it creatively, but the business side of this stuff really is wearing me down.

Marshall: I’ve wished that I had another editor here who I could bounce ideas of off.
Penny: I’ve felt the same way about this movie I’m working on because I’m doing it myself. I’m hoping someday it won’t just be me, but I don’t know. People get the wrong idea when I complain about that, like I don’t want to do the work.  I actually think that I’m smarter in conversation than I am alone. When I’m alone, I’m not in conversation and I don’t think I’m making as good decisions. It’s slow and it’s less fun. It’s about having the energy be bigger than just me, because sometime I don’t have it. I always tell my students this: the tricky thing about making art is that it’s bad until it’s good. I mean, it also may never be good! But even if you make a good thing, it was once bad. So you have to sit there and stare at this thing in front of you that’s bad and you know it’s bad. And you have to somehow convince yourself that it’s not that bad! [laughter]

VIDEO: Penny Lane presents her Creative Capital Project NUTS! at the 2013 Creative Capital Retreat in Williamstown, MA
Marshall: And you also have to be able to judge it correctly. To not keep changing something that’s working, and also no to settle and say “Well, this is good enough.”  It’s tempting to convince yourself that something’s not that bad.
Penny: It’s also about how you interact with other people. You have your shitty rough-cut, and every rough cut is shitty and that’s the bottom line. But then say you take it to an investor. It’s a very tricky balance to exude confidence but also acknowledge that what they’re seeing is not that good yet. I don’t understand how to do that and my personality can lean towards too confident where they might think, “Oh, she thinks this is good.”
Marshall: I feel that too. And also my personality is very critical and very “what is wrong with it? What could go wrong?” I have this natural desire to share that with people. When I am pitching I have to say, “That is not your job right now.”

VIDEO: Trailer for Penny Lane & Brian Pera’s 2013 documentary Our Nixon
Penny: I completely relate to everything you’re saying. Maybe we’re in the same stage in the process where we’ve committed ourselves, we’re hopeful, and in my heart I feel like this could be a fantastically good film that people will respond to! But there are inherent flaws that come with it. These things have their own identities and you can’t put a different identity onto a non-fiction story. It is what it is. And you have to deal with the narrative issues you have. It’s very difficult to maintain enthusiasm. When you’re working, at what stages do you think about how other people will perceive something? At this point in your career have you developed a philosophy about who your audience is, and what you expect them to care about or know or think about? Do you have the same general idea about an audience for every project or do you not think that way?
Marshall: No, I totally think about the audience. This is communication for me; it’s not self-expression. No everybody needs to get everything; that’s OK with me. If there’s a shot that I know is long because I like it long, even if I know that half of the people who were raised on MTV will think “That’s weird that that shot was so long,” that’s OK with me. I want to know how everybody’s going to see it, and then I can decide whether I care enough about that or how I feel about it. I think a lot about “How does a conservative person see this? How does a liberal person see this? How does a doc person see this? How does my mom see this, who doesn’t really watch docs?” And then I test it to all those different people as much as I can. And I ask them to be harsh and really tell me, “What do you get? When are you bored? What do you not understand?” I know not that everybody will get it.
Listen online to the full conversation (47 Minutes)
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