A Night In The Garden’: Special Oscar-Week Interview With Marshall Curry
Documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry discusses the many decisions that went into getting his Oscar-nominated short film from archived footage to final edit.
In 1939, an event in American history happened that had mostly been forgotten about…until documentarian Marshall Curry found archived footage, edited it together and re-introduced it to the world. This event happened in the iconic Madison Square Garden. Over 20,000 Americans came together to celebrate the rise of Nazism, all in the name of American ideals. They sang the National Anthem, had a banner of George Washington and performed all the same rituals most would associate with freedom, diversity and hope. How could things have gotten so twisted? Why do most of us not know about this night? In less than 10 minutes, Curry truly exemplifies the impact a “short” documentary can have.
We talk to Marshall about what he did (and didn’t do) to preserve the horror of what happened, his responsibility as a documentary filmmaker and the importance of awards season for short filmmakers.
Miniflix Interviewer: Do you have any idea who (could be several) filmed this New York City rally and how the footage managed to be saved and preserved, at least in part?
Marshall Curry: The provenance of much of the footage is a little unclear, but it’s my understanding that the material from inside the rally was shot by the Bund — the Nazi group that was organizing the event. They were presumably hoping to shoot a propaganda film that would show how wonderful the group was — like Triumph of the Will. Much of it was saved in newsreels but other parts were lost — either destroyed or are sitting in a basement somewhere waiting to be discovered. The footage outside was shot by newsreel companies covering the event.
Miniflix: Even though you ultimately decided to strip the film of its voiceover or any other conventional guiding techniques, you did choose to include music and a montage to set the scene. What was the process like creating the score for this film? Did you know what you wanted it to feel like, or did you rely on James Baxter to create that eerie, haunting soundscape?
Marshall: I wanted the sound and music to be really strong because we were counting on it to editorialize the voice and perspective of the film. If the Bund had made this film they would have scored it with upbeat martial music, which is what was playing as they entered the room. But I wanted to cast a critical eye on that and to emphasize how dark the footage was. I have worked with James on most of my other films so we speak a similar musical language. In the moment when the protester Isadore Greenbaum is being beaten up and thrown off stage I really wanted to make sure that the audience was connecting with Greenbaum and sharing his horror, rather than with the people who were beating him up. So the music and soundscape become darker and darker, with instruments playing backwards and discordant noises.
Miniflix: During the slow-motion sequence of the Jewish man being taken off the stage and away from the crowd, you play up the crowd cheers. Were all the sounds (besides the music) from the footage you had, or did you have to supplement any scenes with other existing ambient or crowd sounds?
Marshall: Unfortunately, all of that cheering and laughing were from the original audio of the rally. None of it was added. To me, that was the scariest part of the whole thing — the cavalier reaction of the crowd. We see thousands of Americans in their suits and hats and ties and dresses — people who would be my neighbors in Brooklyn — and it’s chilling to see them laugh and cheer as their leader dehumanizes people who would be murdered by the millions in the next few years.
Miniflix: This short really shows us the kind of support for Nazism that existed across disciplines. There’s an orchestra, there’s drummer boys, there’s a woman to sing the National Anthem. It reminds us that art can be used for ill and for dangerous purposes. I think this idea reinforces the need for documentaries such as yours, that shed light on these often-forgotten histories. Do you see your work as a documentarian to be in any way similar to that of a social activist? What sort of difference do you feel documentaries have the capability of making?
Marshall: I like all kinds of documentaries — talking head historical films, vérité films, experimental films. And some of my films are very political — for example If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, about radical environmentalists who the government considers to be terrorists. But I have also made films like Racing Dreams which follows two boys and a girl who want to become NASCAR drivers when they grow up. It’s not really political at all — someone described it as a cross between Talledega Nights and Catcher in the Rye. So I think there’s an opportunity for documentaries to help nudge along political change, but I also love documentaries that feel more like novels and simply tell good stories about the human condition.
Miniflix: Because the film is seven or so minutes long, it really opens up the opportunity for teachers across the country to play this in class and hopefully shed light on a piece of history that’s been mostly forgotten. Are you thinking of any other possible ways to promote the film post-Oscars, or ways for schools or other education centers to realize they can use it as a resource?
Marshall: The film is also airing on PBS stations around the country on the documentary series POV. They are working on developing a curriculum that teachers can use to help contextualize the footage for students and lead discussions about the issues that it raises. We have reached out to organizations like the Holocaust Museum in DC, The Museum of Tolerance in LA, and the New York Historical Society which are scheduling screenings and discussions around the film. I’m eager for this story to become a well known part of our shared history, so that we can make sure that we never let it happen again.
Miniflix: With this being your third Oscar nomination, you probably feel like a veteran at this whole process. What about the nomination process do you enjoy the most? What part of it is maybe getting a bit tired?
Marshall: Getting nominated for an Oscar is not something that you get used to. It’s really great to be able to use the attention to bring more of an audience to your films. Short films in particular have so little money for advertising and marketing, and the Oscar spotlight makes a big difference. My favorite part is the nominees luncheon where all of the nominees — from docs to make up to best actor and director — all get together and have lunch.
Miniflix: You have some history with VR/360° films in the past couple of years with your work on the band “The National” and the decommissioning of planes. What, if anything, about shooting for VR do you think has made you a better filmmaker? It could be something about the production, post-production process, about the experience on the viewer’s end of things, or something entirely different. Also, what do you see the future potential to be of VR? What about potential shortcomings that we need to be careful about, or wary of?
Marshall: Directing a documentary in VR is similar to directing a regular documentary but also different. It’s sort of like the relationship between Spanish and Italian. In VR it’s much harder to direct someone’s experience because you never know exactly what they are looking at, but like a regular documentary you have to think about story and character. I thought that VR movies were going to catch on more quickly because they are so intense and all enveloping. But I think the technology has still not caught up with the potential. The headsets are glitchy and often uncomfortable, but it’s just a matter of time. It seems a little bit like the Internet in the 90s when everything was coming in over a dial-up modem. You had to wait a minute for a single picture to come in and it was pretty frustrating but it was obvious even then that things were going to change in a huge way. I think in five or 10 years VR experiences will be ubiquitous And I think they are frighteningly intense.
Miniflix: The Cinema Eye Honors has been such an important indicator of the best in documentary filmmaking, and I am really curious to learn more about the work you do for this group, and what goes on there year-round, not just during awards season. Also, what is the process for selecting and honoring new work each year?
Marshall: I am co-chair but it is largely a ceremonial role. The films that are selected for Cinema Eye Honors are picked by committees of film professionals — festival programmers, distributors, critics, etc. I don’t have anything to do with picking the films. Cinema Eye tries to build the community of documentary filmmakers with events leading up to the awards night. One thing that the co chairs get to do is help pick the legacy award winner each year which is one of my favorite parts of the week. We screen a classic influential documentary and have a QA conversation with the filmmaker(s). That always energizes and inspires me.
You can watch the entire film (and get more background information) here.
The 2019 Oscar ceremony is Sunday night, 2/24/19. Watch it to see if Marshall Curry will be called up to the stage.