A fight to the finish, but it really paid off
If there are any filmmakers who really mean it when they say it’s a thrill just to be nominated, that would be Marshall Curry, the producer, director, cinematographer and editor of the Oscar underdog “Street Fight,” and his executive producers Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy.
The documentary, which describes the politically and even physically brutal 2002 mayoral race in Newark, N.J., was Curry’s first feature film, shot almost all on his own and with his own money. It took him five weeks just to watch the 200 hours of footage, a year and a half to edit it into a movie.
“So much of making the film was slogging through it,” Curry said. “That’s why the Oscar nomination is so exciting. Suddenly people are interested in this film that required so much blood, sweat and tears to get on the screen,” Curry said.
Curry, a novice, and his seven-minute trailer were passed over by every contact he had scrounged up -- until he took it to Mark Bailey, an old friend who is married to Kennedy (“American Hollow,” “Indian Point”). Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, and Garbus, her partner in the small Brooklyn-based Moxiefirecracker Films, saw in the clip the seeds of a potentially powerful piece about race, the state of the Democratic party, political aggression and corruption.
Curry’s three-year labor of love became the producers’ leap of faith.”You never know when you see a seven-minute trailer if that’s the absolutely best seven minutes,” said Kennedy, who gets two or three requests a week from filmmakers for help. “He assured us there was a film there. He was able to find that through a lot of editing and came out on the other side with a powerful and important film.”
When the film came out last May, it immediately began winning awards. “I was amazed when we got into our first couple of festivals,” said Curry, 36, in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn. In one week, the film won an award from the TriBeCa Film Festival and received the Hot Docs Festival jury prize.
“I thought, ‘This is unbelievable, everything after this will be icing on the cake.’ The icing is now 2-feet thick,” he said.
None of them expects their little indie feature will have a chance against this year’s popular front runner, “March of the Penguins.” The other contenders are also strong: “Murderball,” “Darwin’s Nightmare” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”
“It’s not a huge-budget project, by any means. That always lowers your expectations,” Kennedy said. In the end, “Street Fight” cost about $250,000. The estimated budget for “March of the Penguins” is $8 million.
Still, as with feature films, a nomination alone means more tickets will be sold. After touring the festival circuit, an airing on PBS and a brief qualifying run in theaters last year, “Street Fight” reopened in Los Angeles and New York last week, and will roll out to about 10 other cities in the next few weeks. Unlike feature filmmakers, documentarians are not allowed to send out DVDs of their projects to expose academy voters to their film. To cast a vote, members must see each film nominated in the documentary category, and see it in a theater.
But documentaries aren’t about making money at the box office, Garbus said.
“It’s a question of elevating issues in the film and provoking more of a national dialogue about the issues it raises. In this film, it’s a question of the health of our democracy,” she said.
“The level of corruption and aggression displayed in the film, a lot of people would feel is typical in this country,” Kennedy said. It also offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a contest between two Democrats, both African Americans, one from the pre- and one from the post-civil rights generation.
One reason Curry said he wanted to make the film was to compare leadership styles between blacks with Jim Crow experiences and those raised after the civil rights movement, with Ivy League educations and other opportunities. “Whether it’s Barack Obama or Cory Booker, or Kwame Kilpatrick or Harold Ford, a number of folks are coming into power and having a different set of ideas,” he said.
The film doesn’t answer the questions it raises; neither does it purport to present the future of black politics in the U.S., as some have said, Kennedy said. “It’s a small insight into what’s happening,” she said.
Curry captured shots of on-duty policemen, serving as security for the scrappy four-term incumbent Sharpe James, shoving Curry, demanding his film and breaking his camera. In contrast, the young challenger, Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate Cory Booker let Curry partly inside his campaign. Though he appeared to be the more ethical candidate, he lost the election by a fairly substantial 6% of the vote. The film details Sharpe’s superior street-level politics, from dancing at neighborhood parties, to blatant lies and threats, torn down signs, and paid “volunteers.”
Curry said he was shocked at some of James’ allegations against his fellow African American Democrat, that Booker was white, and Jewish. “He injected just enough questions to eke out a victory,” he said.
“I care a lot about social issues, but I also know that people are not interested in being lectured to. Even though I liked Cory Booker, I did not want to make an advocacy film -- partly because I thought the story was more complicated than that,” Curry said.
“I wanted to make sure people who watched the film saw why [James] won. He’s incredibly charismatic, very funny. He’s a booster for the city. You get the feeling he’s just a regular guy. People loved that.”
Booker, he said, was “very young and very inexperienced compared to Sharpe, whose people knew exactly how to get out the vote.”
Booker and James may be paired for a rematch later this year for the same post.
Though he had never made a feature-length film, Curry had worked for museums making interactive documentaries. By studying other documentaries, he said he taught himself about story arcs, “little arcs within big arcs, when you need to create tension, release it and create it again.” He spent about $40,000 of his own money, he said, shooting and editing the film.
By the time he took his trailer to Bailey, Curry was exhausted and demoralized. “So many people would say, ‘Nobody’s interested in Newark, N.J.,’ ” so he felt “alternately extremely driven and confident, and wondering if I was deluding myself.... “
In addition to helping him hook up to the institutional juice, broadcasters and distributors, Kennedy and Garbus offered notes and what they called “good old-fashioned advice.”
“One of the key things our involvement did was renew his belief in the material,” Garbus said. “Even in the dark of the editing room, a lot of times, I’d come in, and he’d be, ‘Do I have anything here? Or is it a total flop?’ When you’re shooting and editing your own film, it happens. It’s good to have partners who can come in and say, ‘No, no, It’s great! You have to keep going.’ ”
Eventually, the partners found financing through ITVS, a grant-giving organization associated with PBS, and ultimately POV, a strand on PBS that aired the film. Now he’s deciding what to do next: Either a film about a family with six grown children of different ethnicities, or the misunderstandings that ensue between people with red state and blue state mentalities.
Garbus and Kennedy will be joining Curry on the red carpet on Sunday, but insist the credit goes to the first-time filmmaker. “He deserves all the credit for the film; we were just happy to help,” Kennedy said.
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