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Meet the Filmmaker: Marshall Curry--'Racing Dreams'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: Racing Dreams airs February 23 on PBS' 'POV. What follows is an interview we conducted with Marshall Curry in July 2009, when the film was featured as part of IDA's DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Shoawcase.

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Marshall Curry, director/producer/writer of Racing Dreams..

Synopsis: Racing Dreams is a vérité documentary film following the lives of three young racers as they compete in the World Karting Association's National Pavement Series. Clocking speeds up to 70 mph, Brandon Warren (13), Josh Hobson (12) and Annabeth Barnes (11) chase the National Champion title--and take one step closer toward their dream of someday racing in NASCAR.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Marshall Curry: I took a pretty zig-zagged route to becoming a filmmaker. After college I taught English in Mexico, worked in public radio, and oversaw the design of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website. But I really loved documentaries. I watched them and read about them obsessively, and for years I thought, "That's what I'd really like to do." Eventually I realized that if I wanted to make a documentary, I just needed to leap into the abyss and try. So I left the Internet company where I was working, bought a camera, and I spent about two years shooting and editing Street Fight, my first feature length doc. I thought of it as a little personal project--a labor of love--that no one beyond my friends would probably ever see. But it went on to be nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and I've been lucky enough to be working on docs full time ever since.

IDA: What inspired you to make Racing Dreams?  

MC: One of the things I love about making documentaries is that it lets me spend a year or two learning about things and people I don't know about.

Like a lot of New Yorkers, I didn't know anything about the world of NASCAR before making this movie, and, honestly, I didn't really understand the appeal. But NASCAR is the second biggest spectator sport in America after football--bigger than baseball or basketball. And I began to think about that: We New Yorkers think of ourselves as so worldly and broad-minded, but we don't know anything about a sport and culture that's a huge part of our own country. That sparked my curiosity.

And then one day I read about a series for 11- and 12-year-olds who race extreme karts that go 70 mph. It has become the unofficial Little League for NASCAR and has produced some of the sport's biggest drivers. 

I thought that sounded wild, so I went to a race to scout it out, and it was even better than I imagined. The racing was dramatic and dangerous, but more than that, the kids were amazing. They were very smart and very funny, and at that perfect age where they are young enough to be honest and open, but old enough to be interesting and insightful. So I put aside the project I had been working on and got started.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MC: When I first had the idea for the movie, I thought it would be a documentary about racing. But when I met the kids, I realized that racing was just the MacGuffin; it was really going to be about adolescence. The more we shot, the more it turned into a coming-of-age story about figuring out who you are and what you want to be--about discovering romance and stepping into the sometimes-rough world of adulthood.  

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

MC: One practical challenge I didn't foresee was how much the kids were going to change over the course of the shooting. Annabeth, one of the three racers in the film, grows her hair, gets braces, and literally changes on-screen from a little girl into a teenager. It was great for illustrating just how pivotal this period is in life, but it boxed us in while we were editing, and it forced us to stick pretty strictly to actual chronology of scenes.  

IDA:    As you've screened Racing Dreams--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MC: We premiered the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, and I was nervous about how New Yorkers would like it. Since it's about racing and racing fans, I wondered if New York audiences would be able to relate, but people reacted really well. There were eight sold-out screenings where people laughed at the funny parts and gasped at the emotional parts and cheered at the races. The film won the Jury Prize and was runner-up for the Audience Award, and audiences have been similarly positive everywhere we have shown it. 

Some people associate the term documentary with films that are explicitly political or about important current issues. But unlike Street Fight, which was about politics and race relations, Racing Dreams isn't overtly about an issue or a cause. I think, though, that more and more, audiences are starting to see documentaries as just nonfiction movies--stories that stretch us and move us that happen to be true. And I've been happily surprised to hear from audiences that there's something universal--even important--about these three adolescents and all of the humor and drama that go along with that time in their lives.

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MC: I've probably been most influenced by the vérité gang--the Maysles brothers, Pennebaker/Hegedus--those folks. But I'm definitely not a purist about one style. I love traditional interview/archival documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk. I love super-aesthetic, impressionistic films like Koyaanisqatsi. Ross McElwee's Sherman's March completely blew open my idea of what documentaries could be or do.

I think the most inspirational film for me when I was considering making my first doc was Hands on a Hardbody, about a contest in Texas where people compete for a brand new pickup. It's low budget and has some rough edges, but it is totally engaging and it taught me a lot about prioritizing story and character above all else. When I saw that film I had been trying to decide whether to quit my job and try to make a documentary, and it was like hearing a friendly voice say, "Come on in--the water's great!"

Racing Dreams will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

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To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.