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Getting into the Story: A Master Class with Marshall Curry

Marshall Curry HeadshotDocumentarian Marshall Curry visited AU last week to screen his film, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, as part of the Center’s Human Rights Film Series. While on campus, Curry taught a Master Class to film students in the School of Communication.

The topic of Curry’s presentation was story, and he provided the class with plenty of personal anecdotes to highlight his points. For those unable to attend, here are five takeaways from the session:


1.)    When analyzing a documentary idea, look for three key things: a charismatic subject, a story arc and a complicated topic. Curry acknowledged that not all documentaries have all three, but these components are important to consider.  Simultaneously, consider if your story is absolutely a documentary, or if it could be better told as an article, an essay or something else entirely? What will the audience watch?

2.)    Resist the temptation to flood your audience with information up front. Instead, try to give them just what they need to know in order to get to the next scene. Being cognizant of this allows you to let your movie flow and keep the audience engaged.  Curry encouraged students to work with two objectives in mind – getting the audience to say “I didn’t know that” or “What happens next?”

3.)    Try to ‘suck people in’ by creating the questions before you answer them.  Don’t tell people things they didn’t already want to know.  A good way to do this may be to start on a detail (instead of a large establishing shot) and slowly reveal the bigger picture.  As you move away from the detail and reveal the bigger picture, you want each cut to create a new question for the audience.

4.)    Remember that too short is better than too long. Curry notes that many times filmmakers love their topic and let it go on for too long. He encourages filmmakers to be guarded against this and to ensure that no two scenes are the same. He mentioned that there is nothing worse than watching a film and feeling like you’d already seen this scene.

5.)    Avoid thinking that because you worked really hard, your film is good. The audience will not care how hard you worked; they’ll care about the final product. He encourages filmmakers to test their film over and over and listen to what the test audiences say. However, Curry also set some parameters on feedback from test audiences. He notes that filmmakers should ask audience members to simply state the problems they had -- not offer up solutions. Additionally, he told the students to keep in mind the maxim, “If three people tell you you’re drunk, sit down.” In other words, if multiple audience members have problems understanding something, it’s probably best to take their concerns seriously.

Curry’s visit was the first of several filmmaker visits the Center has lined up for the fall semester. To learn about other filmmaker visits, check out the schedule here. Additionally, a Pull Focus interview with Marshall Curry will be available later this month. Please check back.

(Photo courtesy of Marshall Curry Productions)