Federal agents arrested Daniel McGowan in 2005 in a sweep of activists involved with the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, a group the FBI called the country's No. 1 domestic terrorism threat. Filmmaker Marshall Curry, whose movies include Street Fight, which follows Cory Booker's first run for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and Racing Dreams, about two boys and a girl who dream of racing in Nascar, has made If a Tree Falls, chronicling McGowan's house arrest when he facing life in prison and the period from 1995 until early 2001 when environmentalists were clashing with timber companies and law enforcement.
The movie has been shortlisted for an Academy Award. We sat down with Curry before a screening in San Francisco to talk to him about how this movie overlaps with the Occupy movement; the link between Nascar, inner city politics, and radical environmentalism; and persuading timber company officials, cops, and members of the ELF that New York City filmmakers could tell the whole story fairly.
How did you find out about Daniel's story, and why did you think he would be a good topic for a movie?
Daniel was working for my wife when he was arrested. She came home from work one day and said, "You'll never guess what happened. Four federal agents walked into the office today and arrested that guy, Daniel McGowan." He was somebody I knew a little bit through her and on his face seems totally unlike somebody I would expect to be facing life in prison for terrorism. His demeanor, his background, it completely cut against my expectations. And for me, whenever reality cuts against expectations that's interesting. That was the question that drove me: How did this guy end up in this position? What was the evolution that led him to do that?
What made you think that he wasn't your idea of a terrorist?
He grew up in Rockaway, Queens. His dad's a cop. He went to Catholic school. He was a business major in college. When you talk to him, he seems very mild mannered.
You got both sides to talk to you -- the lawyers, police, and people in the timber industry as well as the members of Earth Liberation Front. Were you planning on that?
I thought it would be a short film. I did not know how complex it would turn out to be. We began by spending time with Daniel, and it led to more questions -- what was it like for the people whose buildings were burned? So we went out and were able to convince them to talk to us. What was it like for the other members of the Earth Liberation Front? What was it like for the detective who came into my wife's office to make the arrest? What was it like for the prosecutor who worked for years on this case? Each person we spoke to created a new set of questions and also stretched our point of view. When we edited the film, we wanted to build that same experience for the audience, this sense of connecting with somebody and then having somebody come in who pulls you left and right and leaves you mixed up.
What's an example of something that for you or for the audience will push them or leave them mixed up?
When you see some of these 500- or 700-year-old trees that are coming down, it can be pretty enraging, for people who care about 500-year-old trees. (laughs) But when we talked to the head of the timber company that had his building burned, you see there was a human cost to the fires as well. And he talks about what cutting timber is for him. It's something his family has been doing for generations. He considers himself to be a steward of the land who's providing wood and paper that everyone uses, including members of the Earth Liberation Front. He talks about having to get an alarm system put in his house because he was scared they were going to come after his family. That stretched me, and then to talk to the spokesman for the ELF, he kind of laid out the strategic reasons they were doing it. There was a fury that caused them to do it, but there were also tactics. Then talking to the detectives about battles between police and activists on the police side. The head of the Eugene, Ore., police department says, "You're standing on the line, and people are throwing rocks and bottles, and it does get personal and cops do get emotional." Our goal is not to excuse any of the actions that happened, but to understand the human element.
Was it hard to get people to talk? Other members of the ELF? The cops?
Yes, the access was the most difficult part of making the movie and probably the main reason it took five years to make. The activist groups thought we were this New York City filmmaking crew that couldn't possibly understand radical environmentalism, and we were no doubt going to do what the media always did, which was to paint them as terrorists and crazy hippies. The police and the arson victims thought we were this New York City film crew that was going to come out and impose our liberal bias. So it took a lot of time just explaining to people we were honestly interested in their point of view, and the film wasn't going to be their point of view but it would reflect their point of view. That we were interested in having the best arguments from different side bang against each other, rather than setting up straw men to knock down.
Your other movies are about Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, and kids wanting to become Nascar drivers. Those seem like fairly different subjects. What drives you to want to make a movie?
I did have somebody say it's the American trilogy. Everything you need to know about America you can learn though Nascar, inner city politics, and radical environmentalism. What ties those together is an interest in when idealism or dreams bang up against reality. With Cory Booker, he discovered politics wasn't like what he learned in civics class. With the kids who want to become Nascar drivers, they discover it's harder than they thought. In this case, you've got somebody who was driven by idealism but committed acts that had very serious ethical and legal ramifications. I think all the films respect the dream but want people to realize it's harder than it looks.
What have people's reactions been to If a Tree Falls?
It has overlapped with the emergence of the Occupy movement, and that has been very interesting. The pepper spray stuff you see on the news could have been lifted from the movie. The frustration with the system is something we're seeing now. I feel like the film is a cautionary tale for activists to think about the tactics they take and the ethics and effectiveness and legality of tactics. It's also a cautionary tale for law enforcement and the rest of society to think about how they respond to activism, because there are certain responses that radicalize people and push them out of the system and there are certain responses that bring people into the democratic argument. It's important that we not push people out of the system because bad things happen when people feel excluded.