Interview: Academy Award-Nominee Marshall Curry

5/23/2010 Posted by Admin


Academy Award-Nominee Marshall Curry

By our guest blogger, Joel Crabtree

After taking on the Newark, N.J. political system in his Academy Award-nominated "Street Fight," documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry has done a 180-degree subject change with his new movie "Racing Dreams."

The documentary follows three kids, Annabeth Barnes, 11; Josh Hobson, 12; and Brandon Warren, 13 — all of whom have aspirations to one day drive in NASCAR — as they compete for the World Karting Association Series championship.

Living up to Curry's debut feature "Street Fight," "Racing Dreams" already has taken top documentary honors at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Jacksonville Film Festival, as well as the Silver Hugo Award at the Chicago Film Festival among many others.

Curry took some time to discuss expectations, the process of filming "Racing Dreams," and his experience behind the wheel of a kart through e-mail with

Joel Crabtree: Where did you find the inspiration for "Racing Dreams"? How did the project come about?

Marshall Curry: I live in New York, and like a lot of New Yorkers, I didn't know much about racing before making this film. But I knew that NASCAR is the second most popular spectator sport in the country--bigger than baseball, bigger than basketball. I thought it was interesting that there could be a huge part of my own country's culture that I didn’t know anything about, and one of the great things about making documentaries is that you get to spend a couple years learning about things that you don't know much about.

Then one day I read about the World Karting Association's series for 11 and 12 year olds who race karts that go 70 mph. It has become the unofficial Little League for NASCAR, producing some of the sport’s biggest drivers. I thought it sounded pretty amazing, so I went to a race to scout it out, and it was better than I imagined. And the kids were smart and funny and perceptive. I found one of the racers in the movie-- Josh-- that first day. After I got home and showed the footage to people, it became clear that this was a film I had to make.

JC: In general, how do you pick your topics?

MC: I don't know, exactly-- something just sparks my curiosity. When you know you are going to be working on something for [two to three years], it needs to have complexity, shading. I never want to go into a project with something to say--I go in with something to learn. It's the process of learning, and then editing it into a coherent, engaging story to take people on the same journey (in 90 minutes) that I went on -- that is what I love about filmmaking. I also am attracted to strong characters--people with charisma and intelligence and hopefully opinions that are different from my own.

JC: Did you have some preconceived notions or ideas about racing before you started filming? How did your opinions change throughout the filming?

MC:  I'd never watched a race before making the film--I didn't really understand the appeal. But by the time I was done, I had learned what to look for and who the characters are, and I really feel the excitement of a good race and a close finish now. There's a line I love in the movie when Annabeth's mom says, "Some people think racing is just cars going around in circles, but that's what we think about, say, baseball--just a bunch of guys out in a field hoping someone will hit 'em a ball and they might not even hit it to you." It's a great line because it reminds me that everything that we don't understand seems silly when viewed from the outside--racing, baseball, jazz, modern art, whatever. But when you begin to learn about things--when you stretch yourself to put aside preconceived notions and try to understand the things that other people care about, the world sort of opens up and becomes more fun and interesting.

JC:  How did your preparation for "Racing Dreams" differ from that of your previous film, "Street Fight"?

MC:  "Street Fight" was mostly a one-man show. I was out there shooting, getting sound, carrying a clipboard of releases, driving the car, with pockets full of batteries and tapes. I had a friend help me from time to time, but most days it was just me. With "Racing Dreams," we had a little money, and so I was able to work with some really talented people. I would do sound with a shooter or I would shoot with a sound person. We had better equipment and were able to shoot on HD, which was really appropriate for the colors and speed and spectacle of the sport.

JC: "Street Fight" raised a lot of questions about the political system. Do you feel "Racing Dreams" works on a similar level, or are you aiming for something entirely different?

MC: "Racing Dreams" is a lot less political on its surface--it was intended to be more of a novel about adolescence than anything else. I wanted it to be a universal story of the awkward step from childhood into adulthood with all of the humor and drama that goes along with that. But people have told me that they have been interested in it as a political story too. "NASCAR dads" are considered by pollsters to be an important voting block and I think that Republicans and Democrats alike would do well to know some of them better--to get past the stereotypes and see the complex humans beneath the surface.

JC:  You faced a lot of opposition from certain parties in "Street Fight." Did you run into that at all with "Racing Dreams"?

MC:  No.  With "Street Fight," I got roughed up a bit by members of the Newark, NJ political machine, but there was nothing like that when we were shooting "Racing Dreams." There were a couple of crashes which were pretty scary, though, and one flying kart barely missed our camera-person, Hope Hall.

JC:  What kind of relationship do you develop with your subjects? Is it something you try to avoid as a documentarian?

MC:  I think the kind of relationship has to depend a bit on the subject matter. With a film like "Street Fight," I grew to like the candidate I was following, but I pushed myself to maintain a bit of distance. And in the end, the portrait of him that emerges from the film is not 100% flattering--there are scenes that he doesn't really like, and that independence is important. With a film like "Racing Dreams." which is not about public political figures, I think it's appropriate on occasion to protect the characters--especially kids. So, if someone asked me to stop filming a private moment, I would.  Or if they asked me to delete something that was really embarrassing, I would consider doing that. I'd try to talk them out of it, though. Fortunately, with "Racing Dreams," we didn't have any requests like that when the characters saw the film. To me, the key is not to airbrush the characters or stories, but to contextualize them. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has faults. And I want an audience to relate so that they and the characters are all elevated by the film. When we were editing, our guiding principle was this:  "We want the audience to laugh a lot but never sneer."

JC:  "Street Fight," of course, was nominated for an Academy Award and received several prominent honors. Did you feel any pressure while working on "Racing Dreams"?

MC:  I felt pressure to do a good job, but it was more about spending 2.5 years on a project--and so wanting it to be perfect-- than about competition with "Street Fight." I knew that "Racing Dreams" was going to be a different kind of film and some people would like it more and some people would like it less. It's impossible to guess who is going to get awards or what appeals to reviewers, so I try not to use up too much energy on that. But internally, I'm pretty obsessive--I went over every single music cue, every frame, every detail of both movies again and again--and I got a lot of really smart and talented people to work with me.

JC:  Have you followed up with Cory Booker and Sharpe James after "Street Fight" was released? Do you plan on following up with Annabeth, Josh and Brandon from "Racing Dreams?"

MC:  I stay in touch a bit with Cory Booker--he was recently re-elected as mayor of Newark. Sharpe James just got out of prison, where he had been for corruption. And I stay in touch with the families from "Racing Dreams." We just had our theatrical premiere in Charlotte at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and they were all there to celebrate. It was really fun--a number of NASCAR drivers came everyone had a great time.

JC:  I'm really curious if you got behind the wheel of a race car during filming?

MC:  After our last shoot, the kids let our crew take out their karts. When I went out, I felt like I was really blazing--setting track records. But when I got back and took off my helmet, the kids were all laughing, saying I had been going as fast as the 7-year-olds drive.

JC:  What projects are you working on for the future?

MC:  I have another film that I was shooting at the same time as "Racing Dreams" about a radical environmentalist who burned two timber facilities in Oregon and is now in prison. It is for PBS and the BBC, and will be finished this summer.

JC:  Is there anything else you'd like to add?

MC:  Thanks for the interview!

"Racing Dreams" is now playing in select cities. For more information on the film, visit or

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