"I Just Make Things That Move Me And Put Them Out Into The World, Hoping They Move Other People Too”

Abhishek Srivastava - 70 weeks ago

Marshall Curry’s documentary Racing Dreams, centering around three young racers, won top honours at Tribeca Film Festival in 2009. The Film Hashery tracked down the three-time Oscar nominated New York-based filmmaker to know more about its making and why it still resonates with people even after a decade.

It was while working at a New York based multimedia design firm, the thought of making a documentary struck Marshall Curry. The first footage which his camera captured was the Newark’s 2002 mayoral election which later became the subject of his debut documentary which later also fetched him his first Oscar nomination in 2005. He followed suit with his second documentary – If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front which again received an Oscar nod in 2008. His third documentary Racing Dreams was awarded the Jury Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015. Bad distribution marred its chances of getting an Oscar nomination and so peeved was Marshall with the distribution team that he had to take legal recourse to get back the rights to the documentary.

Racing Dreams remains an extraordinary documentary which follows the exploits of three young racers - Annabeth (11 years old), Josh (12) and Brandon (13) at the World Karting Association’s National Pavement Series or more popularly NASCAR. The documentary apart from being moving, is inspiring in equal measure. The Film Hashery tracked down the three time Oscar nominated filmmaker and spoke to him at length about his riveting piece of work.  

(Director Marshall Curry at the shooting location of Racing Dreams (Image courtesy - Marshall Curry's Facebook page)

How easy or difficult was it for you to give human touch to a story which has masculine words like machine, macho, racing cars etc. attached to it.

From the beginning, part of what made the world of Racing Dreams interesting to me as a film was the tension between the human elements - families, children, romance - and the noisy, dangerous side of racing. But I discovered that adolescence and racing weren't completely different; they both require young people to make quick decisions in emotionally perilous situations that are sometimes thrilling and sometimes heart-breaking.

It’s common knowledge now that before you jumped on to Racing Dreams, you had no knowledge of NASCAR. What were the things that actually motivated you to take on the subject head-on?

I knew that NASCAR is a huge sport in America but it's particularly popular among particular parts of the American population. People in New York City and California don't know much about it at all, and that seemed really weird to me. How could I be so ignorant about something that was such a big part of my own country's culture. I worry about the way that different aspects of America live in bubbles and don't understand each other, and I wanted to try to pop some of those bubbles and discover the human connections between us. I also thought there was something viscerally powerful about watching twelve-year-olds race vehicles that were so fast, and seeing them act so professionally - thanking their sponsors after each race, etc. - even though they were so small.

The three kids and their family are the soul of the film; how did you discover them?

When I first had the idea for the film, I went to a couple of races just to see it for myself. While I was scouting, I asked people if there were particular drivers who I should meet and it seemed like everyone I asked - other racers, the flagmen, the people at the concession booths - said, "You should meet Josh Hobson." I finally tracked him down just as he was finishing his fourth victory of the weekend, and when I spoke with him, I knew I wanted to make the film. He's so funny and smart and charismatic - like an adult in a child's body. A few months later I went to the awards ceremony for the previous year's championship and I met as many kids as I could. They were all good racers, but I wanted to find kids who were articulate and reflective too. So I'd ask them about racing, but I'd also ask them about whether they believed in God, and what their room looked like and what their parents did for a living - just to hear them talk. When I met Annabeth and Brandon, I knew they'd be perfect for the film.

Did you resort to any sort of preparation before shooting the race sequences?

I had seen races before but most of the crew hadn't. So we'd get to a race and they'd have a few hours of watching practice and time-trials to figure out the best way to film the races. We usually had one camera follow the race from the top of the bleachers or the top of an RV and then we'd have three other cameras following details of the race - a particular turn or the finish line, or the crowd's reaction. The races were cut together from all of those perspectives.

You shot some 50 hours of footage for the documentary. What was the need to acquire so much of footage?

I actually shot 500 hours of footage, not 50. Some of that was the result of shooting the races with four cameras - so every minute was actually four minutes of footage. But most of it was following the personal stories of the kids and their families. When you can't script a story, you don't really know where it is going to go, so you have to shoot a lot of story lines that fizzle out and don't become part of the final film. It's really hard to make a documentary feel like it is naturally unfolding like a Hollywood movie - you need a lot of footage to make that possible. It's also important to spend a lot of time with people to make them comfortable on camera. You need to develop a real relationship with them so they trust you, and that takes time.

(Dwayne Johnson, who was also EP on the documentary, with the cast and crew of Racing Dreams at its premier (Image courtesy - Marshall Curry's Facebook page)

Reviews from Rotten Tomatoes, Variety, NYT, The Washington Post, Hollywood Reporter for Racing Dreams were something which a director can only think of. The verdict was unanimous. How did it change your career?

It was great to get that kind of response from critics. One of the fun and surprising results was that Dreamworks optioned the documentary to develop a fiction movie based on it. I've recently just finished directing my first fiction film - a short that premiered at Tribeca this month - and I've really enjoyed getting to know the fiction side of filmmaking.

Between Street Fight, If a Tree Falls and Racing Dreams, which is closest to your heart and why?

It's hard to say - they are all my children and I love them for different reasons. Street Fight and If a Tree Falls were nominated for Oscars, and in a way that makes me feel a special fondness for Racing Dreams which I think didn't get quite as much attention as it deserved. The kids and families in it are so compelling, and critics and audiences loved it, but the distributor was heart-breakingly incompetent and corrupt and we ended up having to use lawyers to get the rights back from them. So I feel like that film never really got the chance to grow up like the other films did.

The three films in your repertoire are also sometimes referred to as American trilogy. Could you please elaborate?

They are about three completely different parts of American culture - inner-city politics, NASCAR fans, and radical environmentalism, but those three worlds overlap to capture what makes America such a dynamic and interesting place. They capture all of the wonderful things about America as well as the messy, dark side. A few years ago, I made another documentary, Point and Shoot, about a young guy from Baltimore who went to Libya to join the rebels fighting Gaddafi, and someone said that getting involved in Arab wars was another important side of America - so maybe it has to be updated to the American Tetralogy.

You have been nominated thrice for the Academy Awards and the most recent being this year for A Night at The Garden. Do you think The Neighbor’s Window – your next short subject, might just be that film to get you that coveted trophy?

Ha ha! I've been really fortunate to have directed films that have received attention from the Academy, but each time it has happened, it has been a huge surprise. I'd never make a film with any expectation of an Academy Award nomination. There are just too many good films made every year that it's impossible to predict. So I just make things that move me, and I put them out into the world and hope they move other people too. I'm really happy with The Neighbor's Window and the response it has gotten since the premiere at Tribeca. So we'll play it in festivals and see what happens.

You are an avid watcher of documentaries, could you please list and recommend three documentaries which you saw last year?

I loved a lot of films last year but here are three crowd-pleaser suggestions: the Mr Rogers documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor; Free Solo (which won the Oscar this year) and Minding the Gap.

Racing Dreams also won the Jury Award at Tribeca in 2009, can you recall the moment when your name was announced as the winner. Was it surreal or was it all expected?

I never really expect to win a big award, and I'm always a little surprised when other people like the things that I make. But I was really happy for the team that worked on that film with me - it was a gruelling few years of filming and editing. And I was also really happy for the families who were in it. They had come to Tribeca for our screenings and for most of them it was the first time they had been to New York City. Everyone was pretty thrilled.

You have certainly left an impression in the world of documentaries, when can we expect a full length feature film from you.

I have a few scripts that I'm developing, so hopefully it won't be TOO long! I'm excited to continue making both documentaries and fiction.

(Racing Dreams is currently playing on myNK)


Marshall Curry / Racing Dreams / Dwayne Johnson / Tribeca Film Festival / Grand Jury Prize / NASCAR / Academy Award / Three Time Oscar Nominee / A Night At The Garden / If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front / Street Fight / Point And Shoot

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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