Interview: Martha Shane on the Long and Twisty Road to “Narrowsburg”

Nearly a decade ago, Martha Shane did her first interview for what would become “Narrowsburg” with Zac Stuart-Pontier, an editor on such films as “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Simon Killer” who grew up in small upstate New York community of the title and had his first brush with the business when Richie and Jocelyn Castellano came to town. At the time, neither of them had been expecting to make their own version of “Boyhood.”

“He was younger at the time and it’s funny because when he watches it now, he’s like, “Wow, you can see the kid version of Zac in the archival footage, and then you could see Zac 10 years ago now in the interview,” laughs Shane, finally on the other side of finishing her wicked nonfiction mystery that was just released on demand. “His story was so compelling and he’s such a great storyteller that I really wanted to make it into something, but we needed more access of course and other elements to fall into place.”

Stuart-Pontier was never going to be the central character of “Narrowsburg,” but a crucial one in detailing the outrageous exploits of the Castellanos, who took the community of 400 by storm with the founding of a film festival in the area and plans to make a feature where locals had a chance to be part of the cast and crew, an alluring prospect after Richard had just appeared in supporting role in “Analyze This.” However, after buying into the Castellanos’ vision of “Sundance of the East” both financially and emotionally, the community got more than they bargained for, if not what they paid for, and as Shane learned, if you inspire people to make movies, they will be well-prepared to document when things go south, providing her with ample evidence of an elaborate con.

Still, it took Shane years to track a string of deception that extends well past the city limits of Narrowsburg, though the massively entertaining and poignant result is well worth it when she even gets the disgraced Castellanos separately to sit down for interviews and although it exposes a massive fraud, the film shows how willing people are to really invest themselves in the belief they are creating something bigger than themselves through cinema, whether it’s a sense of community or immortality and even if the Castallanos’ contributions to the screen are less than promised, “Narrowsburg” proves to be one for the history books. Eight years after first speaking about the project when it was known as “The Mystery of Marie Jocelyn” when it was first raising funds on Kickstarter, Shane was kind enough to talk about how the film changed direction on her, evolving as a filmmaker over the time it took to make the film, and bringing the film back to where the story began.

When we spoke in 2012, you had described a very different film you were in the middle of production on. What happened?

At the time we originally talked about it, it was very much focused on what we largely knew about Marie Jocelyne in Queens. She was an interesting character and the question driving me at that point was why would someone want to run a scammy film festival? What would someone get out of that? So we filmed with her, but we kept hearing about this guy Richie, [who] we were trying to get in touch with for a really long time. For years, we were trying to figure out where he was and how we could reach him because people were always after him for money or, according to him, people were often trying to kill him, so he was not easy to find. When we did finally find him, that obviously changed things and I just became more and more drawn to the story of what happened in Narrowsburg [because] all those themes were crystallized in that episode about the line between ambition and delusion and the power, and the allure of cinema.

Then it took a very long time to finish the film, in part because of all that upheaval from a creative standpoint, and also the reality that this was an independent film and it was very difficult to raise money for almost any film, but especially one that’s about con artists in the film industry. If you start talking about con artists in the film industry in a fundraising conversation, I think it always puts a little doubt in people’s minds, so ultimately we found amazing executive producers that helped us over the finish line, but it was definitely a struggle.

You must’ve been traveling around the world making “Picture Character” during some of this time as well. What place did the film have in your life?

I’m sure I’ll have more reflection on this as time passes, but it was almost like the movie was part of the fabric of my life. Someone I talk to talks about working on each film like the way you might practice meditation or piano and I think it almost became like that. I definitely thought that at various points that we would not be able to finish it because of the difficulty with fundraising and I kept thinking how the community had suffered because of what had happened to them with the Castellanos, and how I couldn’t do that to them, so I had to finish this film for the people of Narrowsburg. Then I would always imagine what if I didn’t finish this film and someone else came along and made a movie about me trying to finish this film and then someone else came along… and like oh my God, it could go on forever. Films about troubled film projects. [laughs]

Did the time have some benefits?

Yeah, time definitely had benefits, certainly in terms of building trust and having everyone get to know me more and seeing me as a more familiar presence, and to be totally honest, it I probably became a better filmmaker from when we first thought of this project to finishing it because so much time passed. Also the time to gather archival materials because it obviously is a film where it’s not like there’s a ton of news archival about it in the same way you might go about finding archival for certain documentaries where you contact all the major news stations in the area. This was more like who has something on VHS who had in their attic for 10 years and can dig it out? Gathering that stuff took years and we were still making major archival discoveries right up until the last minute.

Is there a find that you make that changes the ideas of what this could be?

The biggest find was really thanks to Zac Stuart-Pontier, who is in the film and found some tapes that he had shot back in Narrowsburg from the premiere of a film. I won’t get into all the details [to protect spoilers], but he had been filming at some key moments during this story, but he couldn’t find the tape. At one point, he found some tapes and we digitized them, but [the premiere footage] wasn’t on that and thankfully, his mom helped and we found VHS copies of those tapes. That was super helpful for one pivotal moment in the film, so I felt so lucky that that worked out.

The set-up for the interviews is also really interesting, involving projections of the people you speak to just behind them. How did that come into play?

My co-producer Dan Nuxoll runs a company called Rooftop Films, a film festival in New York and they have a lot of projectors, so in talking together, the idea arose of trying to use these live projectors and it’s just a really interesting visual. A lot of interviews are shot in a very traditional fashion in documentary, which is totally fine and appropriate for lots of projects, but I felt like on this project, we had the opportunity to do something else. Every interview set-up and [creative] choice you make is manipulating or shaping the audience’s view of the documentary subject, even if it’s kind of invisible, so we wanted to draw attention to our own role in manipulating the image.

Did you find that any of your own personal ideas about filmmaking, from production to distribution, were informing the shape the film took?

I think I certainly empathized more, as my project took longer and longer, with the challenges that my characters in the film faced with their project. From a film festival perspective, I’m not sure my ideas were changing, but I certainly became more aware over time — and I think there was more writing over the course of time we were making this about just the proliferation of scammy film festivals — how all film festivals exist on a spectrum from very legitimate to total scam. Also, just a lot of my ideas about people changed because I was working on it for so long. [laughs]

Have you gotten to share this with audiences in Narrowsburg yet?

Yeah, that was amazing. For about 10 years in Narrowsburg, you couldn’t say the words “film festival” in that town because people would gasp and be traumatized after what they had gone through. But some people at the great Delaware Valley Arts Alliance decided that it was time to try again, so they launched the Big Eddy Film Festival. We screened the film there last September, which I’m so grateful before screenings weren’t possible anymore, and it was such a wonderful experience to be there with everyone who was in the film. It was very cathartic and it meant a lot to me to hear how the community reacted and [have] people come up to me and say this feels like closure, so it was really a special treat to be able to do that.

“Narrowsburg” is now available on iTunes, Amazon and Vudu.