Five Questions for Director Marshall Curry About His Tribeca Short, The Neighbor’s Window (and Cory Booker)
Oscar-nominated documentary director Marshall Curry — and a 2005 Filmmaker 25 New Face — makes his dramatic fiction debut at Tribeca with the short film, The Neighbor’s Window. Starring Maria Dizzia, Juliana Canfield and Greg Keller it employs the urban Rear Window concept in order to tell a delicate tale in which envy bleeds into empathy. Dizzia and Keller are a married couple suffering through the relationship doldrums of early parenthood when a young, sexually adventurous couple move in directly across the way. Drawing the blinds isn’t something the younger couple even deigns to do, and the voyeuristic thrills they private the older couple soon turn into triggers for self-doubt and marital recrimination. The short’s denouement is unexpected and moving, showing Curry to be a director with a deft touch when it comes to performance and economical scene staging. Below, we talk about his transition from doc to narrative, the challenges of this story and, in a final answer, his current thoughts on New Jersey Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker, who he profiled in his breakthrough 2006 doc, Street Fight.
The Neighbor’s Window
Filmmaker: As an Oscar-nominated director of docs, what motivated you at this point in your career to make a dramatic short film?
Curry: I honestly just got an itch to try something new. I get creatively restless if I do the same thing for too long. Before making docs I had worked for years at an interactive design company doing touch-screen video museum exhibits and websites, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first website. It was a great job, but I wanted to try making a long form documentary, and so I left and shot Street Fight. My docs are all pretty different from the one before it — Street Fight is run-and-gun; Racing Dreams is verite but much better production values; Point and Shoot is mostly archival built around a single interview; A Night at the Garden is entirely archival footage with no interviews at all. And I’ve done a couple of short VR/360 films and some animated shorts. So it just felt like a new way of exploring cinematic storytelling. I wanted to see what it was like to have complete control over every detail — what people said, where they stood, how the room was decorated. And I thought it made sense to do a short to make sure that I really liked it before throwing all of the time and money into developing a feature. It turns out I did like it a lot.
Filmmaker: How did you prepare for this film in terms of thinking of narrative storytelling and landing on a visual approach?
Curry: I was lucky to have Wolfgang Held as a DP and creative partner on it. He is an amazing cinematographer who shoots docs and fiction, and we had worked together in the past, so we already had a visual and working shorthand. He knew what I liked and didn’t like, and he also knew what I would be familiar with and what would be strange to me, coming from documentaries. We spent a lot of time going though the script and breaking down every shot and camera set up. I actually had a member of the team animate the entire blocking on a floorplan of the set in After Effects with me reading all of the lines, so we could clearly visualize every camera set up and the timing of all of the movements. (That was super helpful and I’m actually surprised that it’s not a normal part of every narrative production planning, like say, storyboarding.)
I wanted the look of the film to be beautiful but understated and extremely realistic. I didn’t want a “fake doc” aesthetic with shaky camera or anything like that. But I wanted the acting and production design and lighting to feel as authentic as a documentary. I didn’t want the audience to think about the creative lighting or tricky camera movements. I wanted for the “filmmaking” to be transparent so the audience only experienced the story and the characters.
Filmmaker: The program notes state that The Neighbor’s Window is based on a true story. Can you tell us more about that? Was this a story you heard, or that happened to you?
Curry: A few years ago I heard an interview with Diane Weipert on Love and Radio in which she told about a young couple who moved in across the street from her apartment. It was funny and sad and really stayed with me, in part because all of us who live in New York have had experiences with strangers that are a little bit like this. We are pushed together so closely with people into intimate proximity, but in reality we don’t know the full stories about each other. It’s a little like how social media works too — we get intimate but incomplete glimpses into each other’s lives — and I was interested in the way that these glimpses make us feel about each other and about ourselves. So that podcast was the inspiration for the story, but the script is really a work of fiction and the ending is completely different.
Filmmaker: There were obvious decisions you had to make in terms of the way this story was shot and covered — for example, how much of the other apartment to show, and how to address — or not address — the passage of time. Could you discuss what challenges you had in the edit room with regards to the economy with which this story is told.
Curry: It was a production challenge to find two apartments that faced each other. I knew if we tried to cheat it, the audience would feel the falseness. So I looked and looked, and in the end we shot in a very generous friends’ apartment, and their neighbors also said okay.
I thought a lot about how much of the neighbors we should see. The movie is really about Alli (Maria Dizzia) and Jacob (Greg Heller) more than the people who they are watching, so I wanted to show just enough of the neighbors that you sense what is going on there. I also didn’t want to get into a predictable ping-pong rhythm where we keep seeing the neighbors doing something wild and then we cut to Alli and Jacob reacting. So there are shots where we don’t see the neighbors at all and just have to imagine what they are doing from the reactions. I also just thought it was funnier and more interesting to have the camera on Alli and Jacob as they said, “Wow, that’s a new one… She’s very flexible…” compared to showing the neighbors having graphic sex.
The passage of time is an important part of the story — how Alli’s obsession with the neighbors develops, and how the neighbors’ lives change over the course of 18 months. That’s tricky to squeeze into a film that’s not even 20 minutes long. So we had to build in clues that communicated the passage of time — weather changing, holiday decorations, infant appearing and growing, etc. It’s always a delicate balance between being too obvious and on-the-nose with those clues and being so subtle that people miss it altogether. When I was editing I would show people cuts and ask them at the end how much time they felt had passed. I’d add a few more clues or take a few away until I settled specific shots and specific durations in the final cut.
Filmmaker: Finally, to jump back to the beginning of your career and Street Fight, which arguably introduced Cory Booker to the national stage. As he gears up for his Presidential run, what thoughts do you have on the Booker you showed in that film and the Booker we are seeing on the stump today?
Curry: I’ve actually filmed Cory a little bit as he has been kicking off his presidential run. I was with him shooting at his home the morning that he tweeted his announcement that he was going to run. He’s obviously older and more experienced and has a bigger team around him now, but I’ve been really surprised by how similar he is to the 32 year old guy who ran for mayor in 2002. He has the same strengths and weaknesses — he’s still really earnest, energetic, smart, and sometimes wonky. And I’ve also been struck by how similar Donald Trump is to Sharpe James. They both will shamelessly tell a lie over and over until people can’t tell what is true and what is false. And they both skillfully use racial wedges and threats of “outsiders” coming to take over to stir up their constituents. And they both are beloved by their supporters as funny rascals who don’t play by the rules — they turn what is normally a weakness into a strength. It’s going to be an interesting election year, no doubt about that.