As Marshall Curry listened to Matthew VanDyke explain how he went from being a shy, introspective teenager from a privileged family in Baltimore to a fearless 29-year-old riding his motorcycle into Libya to fight with rebels aiming to bring down Muammar Gaddafi’s regime during the country’s civil war in 2011, the filmmaker was reminded of his own experience as a young man, not in any way related to the story VanDyke was telling him, but in the way he heard it — as if it was one of the strangers he met while hitchhiking as a youth.
“I like hearing people tell stories and hitchhiking has always been one way of doing that,” says Curry, who was contacted out of the blue by VanDyke via e-mail in 2013 after the latter had logged over 35,000 miles abroad and collected footage of himself as he went. “You’re just thrust into an intimate situation with a total stranger for hours and hours. You know that you’re going to probably walk away and neither of you will ever see each other again, so there’s this kind of confessional anonymity that’s there too. I guess that same curiosity is what made me want to make documentaries.”
That quality is what makes the resulting film “Point and Shoot” such a fascinating experience and a unique one for the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind such films as “Street Fight” and “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” who was essentially in the same shoes as the audience while making it since his work would largely be to understand and contextualize VanDyke’s journey from all the footage he shot. What emerges is not only a compelling portrait of a man who undergoes a great personal transformation but a larger-scale investigation of how identity in the physical world can be crafted in a culture saturated with the technological means to project a certain self-image in cyberspace.
After winning the prize for Best Documentary earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival where it premiered, the “Point and Shoot” is making its way around the country and shortly before its Los Angeles release, Curry spoke about the e-mail that led to his latest film, how people everywhere are dealing with questions that documentarians long have had, and his continuing interest in when passion collides with reality.
I get a lot of emails from people saying, “I have an idea for a film.” But rarely is it as incredible of a story as this one. Usually, it also doesn’t come with 100 hours of action-packed footage either, so that made it different.
Beyond Matthew’s story, was this compelling to you from a storytelling perspective? To receive footage you hadn’t shot and mold it?
Creatively, it was quite different. Usually, when I shoot I’m editing in my head at the same time so I know that I’m getting certain types of shots and I’m following the storyline I’m interested in. In this case, I’m working with somebody else’s footage who had their own idea when he was shooting, so it was a fun challenge.
When he first approached me, he suggested that we would co-direct it, so I had to just say at the very beginning, “I’m not interested in co-directing. It’s hard to make a movie and I would need to do it exactly the way that I would want to do it.” So we had that conversation and I said, “If you want to make a film yourself, then I’ll be happy to give you advice.” He actually went away for a month or two, and then came back and said, “Ok, I’ve been thinking about it and I want to do it.”
Was there something about the story that was particularly intriguing to you?
I thought it was incredible as a coming-of-age story, somebody starting off so sheltered and throwing himself over the cliff into adventure in order to find out what happens. Even the very first time that we met, I loved that he had done these extraordinary macho, brave things, but he also was willing to talk about this crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder that kept him at home. He had lived in his mother’s basement for years, would play video games for 12 hours at a time and the fact he was willing to share those things and the fears and the mistakes along the way were what made me say, “Oh this is a person I think I’d be interested in spending time with.” Then once I started seeing the footage I was grabbed by the insights into an Arab revolution.
The footage he shot is so different from what you see on CNN and I was really interested in that question of how we use cameras to shape our images. In the world of cell phone cameras and Twitter and Facebook, a lot of these issues that used to be documentary-filmmaker issues – how does a camera affect the people in the room or how is it possible to be fully present as a human being but at the same time capture our experiences on camera – have become questions for everybody.
The germ of the idea was right at the beginning. The very first time I met Matt, he told me that story that’s in the film where he gets jostled out of a Jeep in the middle of a gunfight. He suddenly realizes that he has his camera but he’s left his gun in the Jeep and he had this moment where he thought, “What am I? Am I a fighter or am I a filmmaker?” As a filmmaker, that story gripped me, then there were a few others like that. As I started watching the footage, I began to see it everywhere – there’s not three minutes in the film that don’t have something to do with this question. From his inspiration of watching this reality TV guy from Australia all the way to the end of the movie where you see these Libyan rebels shooting these gruesome selfies at the killing of Gaddafi, it was pretty clear to me early that it was going to be a theme.
At what point did you decide to shoot the master interview that serves as the spine of the film?
There was a little chicken-egg thing. The first time he e-mailed me, I said “Why don’t you come up to New York.” So he and his girlfriend Lauren, who is also in the film, came to New York and they met with my wife, who is a producer on the project, and me. We spent three or four hours just listening to him tell the story and we were totally captivated, so I thought, “Wow, if just hearing him tell the story is this captivating, imagine how captivating it will be when it’s intercut with the footage that he shot.” That gave me the overall framework of the movie. Then I asked him to send me his footage and we spent a couple of months going through it to try to create a list of interview questions. I would find things when I would say, “Wow what’s this?” or “What’s happening here?” or “Tell me about this?” And then we shot the interview and although it appears obviously like a 85-minute conversation, it’s actually it’s about 15 or 16 hours shot over two separate days. I took that back, edited for a number of months and did another audio-only follow-up interview, edited some more, one more interview and then finished the edit.
Given that he captured the footage, was this a different relationship than you usually have with one of your subjects?
Sure. The fact that he is the voice of the movie and also the cinematographer of most of the footage gave him a very significant presence in the way that the film was made. But after I did the interview, he didn’t really see anything until I had a cut of the film. He saw that cut – he probably saw about four cuts over the course of the movie – and he gave notes about them. Some of the things I thought were helpful and improvements and some of them I didn’t, so we battled it out.
There is an interesting point in the film where one might think he’s an unreliable narrator, though you realize it’s a means to an end creatively. How much did you want to either play with that in terms of the storytelling or want to verify his account of things, if possible?
I don’t think he’s unreliable in the sense of saying things that aren’t true, but I know what you’re getting at. And some people have said when I told them the story, “How could that be true?” I was able to watch his footage and see that, yes, in fact he is telling the truth about the events. But everybody has their own way of telling their story. Salman Rushdie has a great quote about the way that people tell stories to give us control over our lives and to craft who we are.
Now, we do that with telling stories but also with video cameras, cell phone cameras and Facebook. Matt’s no exception. He has a view of his own life that is a subjective view. And I feel like it’s okay for people to watch the film and draw different conclusions to the ones that he has or the ones that I have. After our premiere at Tribeca, I went across the street to have dinner and there were two separate tables in the restaurant where I could overhear people yelling at each other about the movie. I loved that. To have people so engaged and to see something so differently, it’s music to a filmmaker’s ears.
You mentioned before Lauren, Matthew’s girlfriend, and since Matthew’s described as a bit of a loner and spends so much time away from home, I wondered why we didn’t hear more of her story in the film, even though she’s interviewed. Was that something you wrestled with at all?
I wanted to include Lauren because I wanted to show that even though there was a loner aspect to Matt, he did have somebody who was important and it was important to show what was happening at home when he was captured and had just disappeared. That was the main reason for including her. But I talked to her for hours, so I certainly did ask her, “How in the world did you stay with this guy?” And her answer was that she is also fiercely independent. She knew that he was doing what he cared about and that he was growing, so she was proud on some level of him just doing what he was doing. We could’ve stopped the movie, so I could ask her those questions, but I’m not sure that the answer is surprising or illuminates the situation any more. So there was just something fundamental, like even if somebody explains it, you’re never going to understand it.
I guess what I really meant to ask there was how did you decide to limit your focus here? There are clearly many interesting tangents you could’ve gone down.
The very first time we met, I thought, “Well, should we go to Libya and find Nouri [Matthew’s friend who inspires him to join the fight]? Should we go see [Matthew’s] high school teachers? Should we find out about what he was like when he was in grad school?” And do a typical biopic. I decided not to do it because there are some movies that I really admire – “Kid Stays in the Picture” or “Fog of War” – that don’t try to tell the full story of somebody’s life in a journalistic way. Instead, there’s something very interesting and pleasurable about just meeting a person and hearing him tell his story. And we can walk away and think about that story and judge it or feel however we want to feel about it. I wanted it to feel like you sit down in a bar and you turn to the guy next to you and you’re like, “Hey, what’s your deal?” and 90 minutes later, you’ve just heard this unbelievable story and that you can’t stop thinking about.
It’s funny, when I first watched that footage of him going off on his motorcycle, there was something very stirring about it. I was thinking, “I’m a dad, living in Brooklyn, sitting in front of a computer for 14 hours a day trying to edit movies and somebody else is off having adventures all over the world.” [laughs]
When Matt first goes off to get involved in the war, there’s something romantic about that too. There’s something exciting about the idea of having something that you care passionately about and throwing yourself into it without caring about the consequences are. But all of my films have all been about when people who have passions bang into reality. With Cory Booker in [“Street Fight”], it’s this young guy who wants to be the mayor [of Newark] and he discovers how politics are really fought. With the kids in “Racing Dreams,” they imagine themselves as race-car drivers and they discover how hard that is. For “If a Tree Falls,” you’ve got this guy who’s a idealist putting himself out there but now suddenly facing life in prison for what he would probably admit were mistakes. And with Matt, it’s the same thing – this passion and excitement and then bang, suddenly he’s sitting in a prison cell in solitary confinement for five-and-a-half months thinking “What have I done?” Some people have described the movie as “Lawrence of Arabia” meets “Into the Wild” and there’s something to that, I think.
It’s interesting you think there’s a common theme there because now you’ve been doing this for a while, I wonder whether you’re still interested in the same things as a documentarian that you were when you first started of if they’ve changed.
I’d say they’re the same, honestly. If I hadn’t made “Street Fight,” I think I could make it right now. I don’t know. Maybe you just have these certain bones that you just keep gnawing on and one of those for me is that collision between passion and reality. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t have passion or there’s something bad about it, but that moment when those things collide has always been something that haunts and excites me at the same time.