Marshall Curry, Director, Racing Dreams
In 2005 filmmaker Marshall Curry was nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary Street Fight. He recalls his moment of television glory on the big night being when he was “almost hit in the head with a stuffed penguin as the March of the Penguins guys squeezed by on their way to the stage.” Now he’s back for another round with his new documentary Racing Dreams, currently screening at Tribeca Film Festival. Delving into the world of 11 to 13 year old World Karting Association auto racers (the prequel to NASCAR), the subject matter couldn’t be further from downtown New York. Recently the Brooklynite told us about the film, the Oscars, and having his hands on some works-in-progress by The National.
How did you end up a filmmaker?
After college I did a bunch of different jobs—taught English in Mexico, worked in public radio, worked for a web design company—but there was something about documentaries that really attracted me. I liked the idea of spending time finding out about worlds that I don’t know anything about, and I found that I really liked the craft of shooting and editing. So I did a few short films and then heard about an election that was shaping up in Newark, NJ that was going to be exciting and unlike any of the elections I’d ever seen in documentaries. I bought a camera and started shooting Street Fight.
Which filmmakers do you admire?
I like fiction films and documentaries, but I watch a lot more docs. I like the verite gang the best—Maysles, and Pennebaker/Hegedus, etc. It’s really hard to make a compelling, coherent verite, but when it works, it’s unbelievable—so powerful and direct. I also really like Ross McElwee—Sherman’s March completely shifted my idea of what documentaries could do or be. But I’m not a purist—I like films that are narrated and films that aren’t, films that are beautiful and films that are clumsy but heartfelt. Mostly I just like a good story and good characters.
Your second movie is so different from the first, where did you get the idea for this one?
Like most New Yorkers, I didn’t know anything about racing before starting this movie. But I’d heard that NASCAR was the #2 spectator sport in the country after football—bigger than baseball, bigger than basketball. And I thought that was interesting—that there could be something so huge in my own country that I don’t know anything about. Then I read an article about the World Karting Association which has a series for 11-13 year olds that’s sort of like the Little League for NASCAR. I went to a race to check it out and was blown away—12 year olds driving 70mph. I got home and showed some of the footage to Bristol Baughan who was producing for Reason Pictures/Good Inc, and she green lit it pretty much on the spot.
Do you see a connection between the two?
I think I’m drawn to people who dream big and both films have that. In Street Fight Cory Booker wants to become Mayor of Newark, and in Racing Dreams three kids want to become NASCAR drivers. Also, in both films I’ve tried not to lean on stereotypes. I think the media generally portrays African American culture as monolithic, when in fact there’s huge diversity within the community, and after Street Fight, a lot of people told me they were surprised to see that there could be an election that would pit Spike Lee against Al Sharpton. In Racing Dreams, I tried to show real, specific, and complex characters, who in some ways are very different from me, but in other ways are very similar.
What is one thing New Yorkers should know about the World Karting Association and NASCAR?
As a New Yorker, I think that a lot of New Yorkers are snobs about NASCAR. There’s a line I love in the movie where Annabeth’s mom says, “A lot of people don’t understand racing—they think it’s just cars going around in circles. But we don’t understand, like–baseball. It’s just a bunch of guys sitting out in a field hoping someone might hit him a ball.” It shows that pretty much everything is silly when you view it from the outside. But when you get inside and start to understand something—what makes a great pass in racing, or a great pitch in baseball—suddenly the world becomes a little richer. And one of the things that films should try to do is stretch us that way.
What were the Oscars like—did being nominated change your life at all?
It was pretty surreal. I’d shot the film myself and edited it on an old Mac in my apartment, and my wife and I had talked about maybe renting a projector and having some friends come over for pizza to see this project I’d been working on. So when it started winning awards at festivals, I was really surprised, and the Oscars took that to the next level. Of course 24 hours in LA knocked me back down again—there’s a real pecking order at the Oscars and the documentary filmmakers are just below the make up artists, I think.
What’s next for you?
I have another film that is shot which I will start editing as soon as Tribeca is over. It’s about a radical environmentalist who burned two timber facilities in Oregon and is now in prison. It’s a pretty fascinating story, and totally different from Street Fight or Racing Dreams.
Is there anything else screening at Tribeca you would suggest seeing?
I have been in the edit room for most of the past year, so I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t seen much at all. I saw some early material from Ian Olds’ The Fixer, and it’s really powerful stuff. Liz Mermin has a new doc Team Qatar. And there’s a lot of buzz around Kirby Dick’s Outrage.
Please share your strangest “only in New York ” story.
I was on the subway on my way to work one morning and a sleepy hipster across from me convulsed for a moment and then stopped. A moment later she jumped up and started ripping off her leather jacket and a giant cockroach jumped out.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
My wife runs a non-profit that gives legal information online to victims of domestic violence. It’s called WomensLaw.org, and she started it as a little side project in our apartment, begging help off of our friends who are designers and programmers. Now it is a huge online resource with a staff, and it has helped hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a great example of having a good idea and then pursuing it relentlessly.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
I’d put some mountains a little closer to it.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York?
Where I grew up, as a third grader, I could go ride my bike after school and be back for dinner. Or just go play in the woods for hours. I have two kids, and I wonder whether they should have that too. On the other hand, of course, I didn’t have the culture and food and activity and diversity around me that they have, and there’s huge value to that too. I go back and forth on that one.
Do you have a favorite New York celebrity sighting or encounter?
I was in the Corner Bistro on a Saturday afternoon and Norm from Cheers walked in. I thought everyone would say “Nooorm” but no one did.
What’s your current soundtrack?
The Racing Dreams soundtrack contains music by Joel Goodman and by The National. We also have songs by Ryan Adams, the Vines, Steve Earle, and the White Stripes.
My life soundtrack is somewhat similar. As we were working with The National, they gave me a bunch of works in progress, and I’ve been listening to that a lot recently.
Where’ s your favorite place to see a movie in the city?
Tribeca Film Festival of course.
Best cheap eat in the city.
Kuma Inn in the Lower East Side.
Best venue to hear music.
They have some great shows in Prospect Park in the summer which I’m looking forward to.
April 23, 2009 8:30 AM