It has taken a while—nearly two decades of toiling in the low-budget vineyards of documentary moviemaking—but writer-director Marshall Curry is finally going Hollywood.
The 49-year-old Curry, best known for such documentaries as 2005’s Oscar-nominated Street Fight, a gritty account of current presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker’s first (albeit unsuccessful) campaign to be mayor of Newark, N.J., and Point and Shoot, Curry’s unsettling profile of American videographer-turned-Libya freedom fighter Matthew van Dyke, recently signed with William Morris Endeavor in hopes of directing a fictional feature.
Judging by Curry’s maiden effort—a 20-minute short subject, The Neighbors’ Window, which is premiering with multiple screenings over the coming week at the Tribeca Film Festival—he won’t have to wait long.
It helps, of course, that Curry’s latest documentary, A Night at the Garden, which chillingly presents seven minutes of archival footage of the notorious February 1939 rally of 20,000 American Nazis at Madison Square Garden, was honored with an Academy Award nomination, Curry’s third, at this year’s Oscars.
Having mastered one craft, Curry was itching to try his hand at another, and to satisfy his itch as quickly as possible. With a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, and a knack for persuading a cast and crew of more than two dozen to work for four days of shooting more than a year ago at union minimums—while getting the residents of two different apartments to lend them for free—he was able to bring the movie in at under $100,000.
“That was sort of the reason I decided to make a short,” Curry told The Daily Beast about his first experience of directing actors, including young children, and sticking closely to a screenplay he wrote himself. “I know so many friends who spent years and years developing things and trying to raise money and having actors attached and drop out.
“I just thought, I just want to make something and see if I even like it—because maybe I won’t even like it, or maybe I’ll be terrible at it. And I’d rather know that now than know that in five years after I’ve done all these meetings and fundraising and played all this Hollywood nonsense.”
It turns out that Curry liked it and he wasn’t terrible. “I’m not embarrassed,” he said.
His fictional short (which was inspired by a true story told in a 2015 podcast, The Living Room, by San Francisco screenwriter Diane Weipert) packs a powerful emotional punch as it chronicles a married-with-children Brooklyn couple’s reactions—ranging from prurient voyeurism to frustrated envy to vicarious grief—to the young lovers who live in the apartment building across the way and don’t see the need for curtains.
“I cried. I really did,” Weipert told The Daily Beast about her response to Curry’s film—which (spoiler alert!) begins comically, with the older couple unable to resist obsessively watching their young neighbors having rowdy sex through their naked windows, and ultimately veers into the pointless cruelty and casual unfairness of life and fate.
“It was weird, but it stirred up a lot of emotions,” Weipert said about her reaction to the movie. “Believe it or not, it was a really painful experience. Obviously, I was on the outside so I can’t really claim to have any legitimate trauma. But it did make me incredibly sad and reminded me how sad I was.”
Curry’s screenplay closely follows Weipert’s true-to-life experiences until the final scene, which features a surprising dramatic payoff that Curry describes as “an O’Henry twist.” It’s a model of economical storytelling.
Actors Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller are at once convincing and untheatrical as the parents of three young children, burdened by responsibility and approaching middle-age ennui, as they spy on the neighbors with a pair of binoculars and idealize the young couple’s apparently carefree lives.
As a movie director, Curry, who attended public high school in Summit, N.J., drew on his experiences as a teenager acting in productions of Hair and Equus, among others, at the nearby private girls’ school. “In a weird way, my own high school acting enabled me to understand a little bit about what actors go through and are thinking about, and how to talk to them,” he said.
Although initially apprehensive about his foray into fiction, “my doc work let me know how to capture images that are interesting and can be edited. The grammar of editing a film is basically the same whether it’s a doc or fiction. It’s just that with a doc you’re sort of chasing stuff and with fiction you get to pick all those things,” Curry said.
“With a documentary, you’re constantly wrestling with reality that doesn’t want to be controlled,” he added. “You’re constantly working against chaos. Everything just wants to be a mess and you have to push it into a narrative arc, and you have to introduce characters in a way that feels like a movie.
“And with fiction, everything wants to be a cliché. When you’re making a documentary, you do your first pass and then you try to make it feel like a fiction film. With a fiction film, you do your first pass and then you try to make it feel more like a documentary. You want it to be surprising and organic and to feel realistic. Each of them is trying to become the other in some ways.”
The Neighbors’ Window arguably borrows a conceit from the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window, “but only peripherally,” Curry said, noting that it isn’t a thriller, and no character is a murder victim.
“It’s amazing to me how many New Yorkers, and frankly people in other cities as well, have told me, ‘Oh my gosh, let me tell you my window story’,” Curry said. “Because everybody has some neighbor or something that happened that they saw. It’s almost part of living in New York City that there’s this shared partial view that we get of our neighbors. We’re intimately connected to these strangers, and we have a view of their lives, but that view is incomplete.”
Marshall Curry will be on hand for the Tribeca Film Festival’s showings of The Neighbors’ Window: April 29 at 9:45 PM at Regal Cinemas Battery Park 11 (Theater 10); May 3 at 3:00 PM at Village East Cinema (Theater 3); and May 4 at 6:30 PM at Village East Cinema (Theater 7).