Marshall Curry: A Crash course on manhood caught on camera
By Gary M. Kramer
Documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry’s latest film Point and Shoot is a fantastic portrait of Matthew VanDyke, a young man who left his life in Baltimore to become a freedom fighter in Libya during the Arab Spring. It’s a remarkable story, and Curry has made a remarkable film. In fact, Point and Shoot won the Best Documentary Feature prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
The film edits together home movies and footage VanDyke shot overseas with interviews between Curry and VanDyke, showing how this young man went from leading a comfortable life to being an active participant in a war halfway around the world. Moreover, Curry’s film shrewdly addresses the issue of citizen journalism, as VanDyke’s footage is not only a document of his experiences in the Libyan war and elsewhere, but also a comment on the culture of immediacy abetted by YouTube and other online media outlets.
Curry has helmed two Oscar-nominated documentaries: Street Fight, about Cory Booker challenging incumbent mayor Sharpe James in Newark, and If a Tree Falls, about the Earth Liberation Front. He also directed the terrific Racing Dreams, about a trio of kids who want to one day compete in NASCAR.
Gary M. Kramer Matthew VanDyke opens your film by announcing his name, age, and the weapons he’s carrying. Can you please do a similar introduction?
Marshall Curry (laughter) I am Marshall Curry. I’m forty-five. And I carry Final Cut Pro and an HPX 250 camera.
GMK How do you find the subjects for your documentaries? Or, what I really want to know is, what is it about the individuals you profile that makes you want to spend a year or more working on telling their story?
MC I wish it took a year! It usually takes three years. It’s important to find something complicated enough and rich enough that you won’t go crazy spending so much time with it. The films are about learning something. I’m driven by a question rather than a lesson I want to impart to the audience. And usually it’s a series of complicated questions. In If a Tree Falls, it is: How do we define terrorism? What are appropriate actions to take if you feel the environment is being destroyed? What is productive and counterproductive? What is ethical or unethical? With Street Fight, the questions are, When do hardball politics turn into corruption? What is racial authenticity?
In Point and Shoot, it is: How do we define manhood and adulthood, and what are the right ways to go about becoming an adult? There are questions of war and violence—should we get involved or not get involved? They are unanswered questions that I think sustain the three-year project of making a ninety-minute film.
GMK How did you get Matt to trust you to tell his story?
MC I didn’t really have to. He came to me first. He’d seen my films and emailed me to introduce himself. He said he had this footage that he thought would make a strong doc. I told him I was only interested if I could keep complete creative control and independence. He agreed to that. After that, we spent fifteen to twenty hours doing interviews over a couple days, and those formed the main spine of the movie.
He wanted someone to capture his story. In the end, the film is not the one he would have made, but it’s one that audiences and critics like, and it’s won awards, and I think he ultimately understands that the project turned out well, and it was worth taking that leap of faith. But I think it’s different from the film Matt would have made himself.
GMK Can you discuss what you mean by that?
MC It’s hard to have your life boiled down to eighty-five minutes. We talked for two and a half hours about his childhood, and I turned into a quick music montage. He wished we could have put more in the film, but it couldn’t be a ten-part Ken Burns series. I think that there were some aspects of his story that I found more interesting than he did. For instance, I was really interested in the relationship between him and the camera as a tool for sculpting his life. How does the process of filming yourself affect you? In years past, documentary filmmakers had to wrestle with the role of cameras in the lives of the people who they were documenting, but now that everyone has camera phone, these have become universal questions. For example, when you are on vacation, are you enjoying your vacation or are you looking for photo ops of yourself enjoying your vacation to post on Facebook?
GMK I think people post images like that because it validates them…
MC Salman Rushdie says that telling stories about your life helps you to shape it and gives one control over one’s life. Camera phones are the tools we use to tell those stories now.
GMK On that note, Matt filmed so much of Point and Shoot. Can you discuss how you structured the narrative of his experiences from all the footage?
MC I decided at the beginning … No wait, let me back up. Before the beginning, I was trying to decide whether to do the film, and Matt and his girlfriend Lauren came to New York, and my wife—who is a producer on the film—and I met with them for three or four hours. After they left, my wife and I couldn’t stop talking about the story. It raised so many fascinating questions about adulthood, and war, and the use of cameras in crafting your life. I decided I didn’t want to make an exhaustive biopic, or a 60 Minutes-style exposé, grilling him like Mike Wallace. I just wanted to capture the experience of spending eighty-five minutes with an extremely interesting person and let the audience argue about what they just saw. So that’s why the film is structured like a single interview cut with his footage.
GMK Your narrative really shows how Matt’s life developed exponentially as it became more extreme.
MC One of the things about the structure of the edit, which surprised me, was that the first cut of the film had the same plot beats at the final version, but it was surprisingly very boring. I didn’t understand why this film, which had so many incredible moments—gunfights, sneaking across borders, motorcycle accidents people getting punched out—was boring. I realized I had edited it as a series of events: “this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” The guys who make South Park use note cards for all the scenes in each episode, and they evaluate what connects each scene. Scenes should be connected by therefore or but, and never and then. This happens, therefore that, or but that. If it’s and then this happened, that’s a boring episode. I learned you need to carefully control the order of scenes and the way things are introduced. We needed forward momentum, and moments that gave us insights, not a series of interesting events.
GMK What can you say about the visuals in your film? In a particularly effective scene of Matt in a prison cell, you use animation. I like how that countered the realism of the rest of the film.
MC Joe Posner did the animation, and I am happy with how that turned out. When Matt was captured, the troops took his camera. But fortunately, a couple days earlier he had backed up his footage and stored it in Benghazi. When he got out, he bought another camera, and that’s how we have the rest of the footage. But when he was in prison, there was no footage. So what does the audience look at in this sequence? He had gone back to the prison after the war and filmed and photographed his cell. So I thought it would be interesting to build a 3D, photorealistic animation of the cell. The graffiti is the actual graffiti in that cell. Instead of having Matt as an animated character in that sequence, I thought it would be more effective to place the audience in Matt’s head, so it’s all point-of-view footage: he looks down and you see his feet, or his hand when he touches the wall. You never see his face. I thought that showing him could feel cartoonish, and I wanted the audiences to have the sensation of being trapped in a four by seven foot cell. I placed audiences in Matt’s eyes to show what that experience would be like. And being in his head also enables us to experience his hallucinations in this painterly, impressionistic style.
GMK What can you say about his home-movie footage and the film he shot in his travels and during wartime?
MC Using footage he shot and archival footage from Matt’s childhood was creatively exciting to be able to work with. There’s one spot where we call back the archival footage near the end of the film, when Matt is trying to shoot and kill a sniper. He had someone in the sight of his gun. Up to that point, he had been involved in big battles, spraying machine gun fire into the distance. But this is when he’s got someone in his sight. The moment he pulls the trigger, we go to black, and pull back and show him as a child again. The goal was to take the film full circle and show how far Matt has come since playing video games in his mother’s basement. Here he’s done the most dramatic thing in his life—trying to kill someone. There’s something about freezing that moment and reflecting on Matt the child that gives that moment some power and significance in his quest for manhood.
GMK What can you say about the tone of the film, which shifts over the course of Matt’s story?
MC What took effort was getting the modulation of the tone of the film right. There are moments that are funny, exciting and romantic, and some that are very dark and significant. I wanted to capture both of those. I wanted to capture his experiences setting out on a motorcycle expedition that is fun and feels like a movie. But there were real people killed in the war, and there were dark times for Matt. I didn’t want to turn those into exciting scenes in an action movie. I wanted audiences to remember there is not just romance, but heartbreaking human suffering in a war like this.
GMK Matt makes some critical decisions in the film. At one point, he says of his detractors, “People can think whatever they want.” What are you thoughts on this?
MC How people feel about the decisions Matt made is why the film feels complex and rich. It is what stays in people’s minds. If it were sewn up neatly, it wouldn’t be a splinter in their brain that works its way around for days and weeks after. After screenings, I’ve overheard people having heated arguments about the film, and I love that. That’s the reason I make films. I want people to engage deeply and passionately with important complex questions and characters.
GMK What were they arguing about?
MC There were lots of arguments. One is about how we define manhood. At the beginning of the film Matt says that he wanted to go on a “crash course in manhood.” When he said those words, it was wonderful and rich and evocative. So he goes off on a motorcycle and has raw-bone, badass adventures. He films a selfie, blood trickling down his forehead, and he’s got this huge grin on his face. The smile says so much about his view of manhood. But when the Arab Spring happens, it challenges his ideas. He sees people sacrificing themselves for important causes—to free their country from dictators—and he sees the allure of that and decides to get involved. His views change and under it all there’s a question: Can you go on a crash course on manhood?
GMK Do you think Matt was selfish or selfless in his actions?
MC When we see something happening in the world, should we get involved in it? Some folks think it’s noble and self-sacrificing, others think it’s reckless. It’s hard for me to judge—I mean, I watched that war on TV from the comfort of my sofa.
GMK Would you ever do anything so extreme?
MC I guess not, because I didn’t, right? After college I lived in Mexico and hitchhiked and rode motorcycles. I like travel and adventure, but I’m aware of my mortality in a way I don’t think Matt was when he was younger.
GMK Matt talks about how, as a filmmaker, he watched events unfold, but he later appreciates being a soldier, so he could shape the events that were happening. As a documentary filmmaker, can you discuss your point of view on this?
MC How we use cameras to craft our life stories is extremely interesting. When American soldiers are asking Matt in Iraq to film them kicking in doors, they want to be seen doing what they see soldiers do in action movies. There’s footage in the film of Libyan soldiers in a battle spraying machine gun fire as three others filmed them with cell phones. It’s not a uniquely American thing. All these guys in this Libyan war were doing incredibly dangerous, high-minded things to topple a dictator, but they also wanted to be seen as action heroes, to be in Hollywood movies that they could e-mail their girlfriends and put on Facebook.
GMK What do you think of participant journalism? Is this something to be encouraged in the digital age?
MC This film is clearly shot through Matt’s lens but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less honest than a CNN reporter getting some B-roll footage. A Libyan soldier filming it sees it differently than Matt, who sees it differently than a journalist covering that war would. We’ve had participant-journalism by Ernest Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War. I do think with VICE and people posting video on Youtube and Facebook, that voice of participants documenting what they are participating in has become part of the bigger conversation. If you go through the film you’ll see this question about the role of the camera everywhere: there are rebels taking selfies; or Matt being inspired by the proto-reality TV show from Australia; or Matt using his camera to deal with his OCD; or Matt playing a character Max Hunter on screen; or Matt playing at being Indiana Jones as a kid in home movies.
GMK Let’s talk about Max Hunter, the identity Matt assumes overseas.
MC Max Hunter was a character he wanted to play. He was a tougher braver version of Matt. In the beginning, Matt explains that he would try to project this image for the camera. But in his journey, he says, he grew into this character he had been projecting. That idea is everywhere in this film. The idea of using cameras to create who we are is ubiquitous.
GMK Do you think this ubiquity is a good thing?
MC I am probably one generation older than the deep Twitter and Facebook generation. I find social media embarrassing and uncomfortable. I’m a private person by nature, so I tweet from time to time and post on Facebook, but it’s not natural to me. It’s an effort. If it went away, I would not miss it. I’ll say I think people filming everything they do distracts them from the experience of life. It’s hard to be present in a moment and at the same time think about light and focus and framing. That’s been a documentary filmmaker’s challenge forever. That has encroached on life. You take a walk through the woods with your son, are you looking for a snapshot you can post on Facebook or are you present with your son? It can distract us in a way that is not necessarily good.
GMK Do you need to approve, or even be sympathetic to your subjects to tell their stories? Matt comes close to being unlikable on a few occasions. Does that change your thoughts about how you make the film?
MC I don’t think there’s a universal rule about how you feel about your subjects. I think people can make films about characters they don’t like. The point of a documentary is not to make a TV commercial to get them elected student council president. The goal is to explore interesting human beings. I do think there are some people who have trouble with that. If they watch a movie and don’t love the main character, the movie has failed in some way. But more and more, people have become sophisticated, and audiences understand that the point is not to create Hollywood action heroes, but to explore a complicated person.
I would not want to spend a year or three on someone I didn’t like at all. You shouldn’t constantly airbrush away the human flaws of your subject and in the case of Matt, I am happy when different people watch the film and have different opinions about the choices he made.
GMK Do you think Matt’s story is an inspirational tale, or a cautionary tale? Or both?
MC I’m reluctant to say what my interpretation of it is. I love that people interpret it different ways. The film is carefully designed to ask questions that can’t be answered. It’s for people who like to chew their own food. I even end the film asking a question that is not answered. I want the audience to engage in these questions on their own. I don’t want to force my or Matt’s opinion on them.