You do not need to brave the chilly weather of Salt Lake City, Utah to see the latest and greatest films. Just give it time and the best of Sundance will come to you. Marshall Curry, director of ‘If a Tree Falls; A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,’ recently came through San Francisco to talk about his film and how if felt to take home the Documentary Editing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, what it’s like to be an undercover vegetarian, and how justifying an issue can blow your cover.
‘If a Tree Falls; A Story of the Earth Liberation Front’ follows Daniel McGowan, a former member of the ELF as he faces the possibility of life in prison. While a member of ELF, McGowan took part in a number of arsons that the FBI has labeled acts of terrorism. Below is a bit of our conversation.
Diane Davis: I know you are an East Coast guy, but do you hang out in San Francisco, the Bay Area a lot?
Marshall Curry: Not too much, I should. It’s funny, I live in New York, but every time I come I think, why do I live in New York exactly? It is so beautiful here. One summer when I was in college I lived in Berkley and did construction that summer. We were building, a lot of the work I was doing was for the university, so I was working a mosquito lab. We were doing double, triple coats of screen mesh to be sure that none of these toxic mosquitoes could get out that they were working on. Then another one was up in the hills, there was a fish laboratory that they were building so we were there. It was a good 19 year old summer job.
DD: I read you are a vegetarian, is that still true?
MC: Where does it say that?
DD: I Googled your name and vegetarian and one little quote from you popped up.
MC: You’re blowing my cover! Nah, I’m joking.
DD: Well, Berkeley seems like a good place to be a vegetarian
MC: Yeah, it is.
DD: Were you vegetarian then? What made you go to that choice?
MC: Yeah, I was… since I was young, since I was in eighth grade. I just didn’t think people should kill animals to eat them. It just seemed like.. you know… people have pets and they love their pets and then they put pigs into factories and treat them terribly and it just didn’t make sense.
DD: Back to ‘If a Tree Falls,’ you came to the story through your wife? Bizarre story.
MC: It’s crazy, she just came home from work one day and said, ‘You’ll never guess what happened. Four federal agents walked into the office and arrested that guy Daniel McGowan.’ That kicked it all off.
DD: You had met him before?
MC: Yeah, a number of times. You know, when you see him in the movie he doesn’t seem like someone who would be facing life in prison for terrorism. So, actually in the very beginning he told us that he hadn’t done it. And I didn’t know whether to believe him or not but I sort of figured either this is going to be the story of an innocent guy whose going to get off or it’s going to be the story of an unlikely person who committed these very serious arsons and either one of those would be interesting. Over the course of the movie eventually we begin to piece together that yes he had done it and finally he tells us. When we edited originally there was a cut, the first act of the movie was going to be did he do it or didn’t he do it. This kind of back and forth question. I began to realize that actually whether he did it or not wasn’t very interesting. What was interesting was why. So we decided let’s just open the movie with him saying, ‘In 2001 I did these fires. People think we are just a bunch of young crazies with gas cans lighting everything on fire, but it’s more complicated than that.’ And that is the movie, how is it more complicated than that?
DD: So, if he started out saying he didn’t do it, did you eventually go to him and say I know you did let’s go from here?
MC: Officially he didn’t tell us on the record until he was ready to enter his plea bargain. Until he was ready to change his plea bargain. But there was a bit of an unspoken dance that had been happening up until that point where he sort of let us know that maybe he had done it. For me it was pretty clear from the beginning, well not too far along, that he had probably done it. He was arguing about how life in prison didn’t fit the crime of property destruction. I can tell you that if I were accused of something that I didn’t do I wouldn’t be saying this penalty doesn’t fir the crime, I would be saying I didn’t do this. I’m innocent, this is crazy and you guys have the wrong guy. So that was a clue. Also there was a lot of discussion in his community about snitches. People who were turning people in. To me a snitch is someone that tells on somebody for something that they did, not somebody who points their finger at a completely innocent person who had nothing to do with it. So there were a number of things like that that made me think that really the story here is going to be why did he do it, not whether he did it
DD: So, you took this baby to Sundance. Congratulations on the award. Were you expecting that kind of reception?
MC: No, it was a big surprise. There were a lot of really, really good movies there. We went there and sat in the back of the awards and were goofing off when they called it out.
DD: What is that my name?
MC: I know, I was surprised.
DD: Was that your first trip to Sundance?
MC: It is actually. The two films I did before that were both sort of Tribeca babies.
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