The making of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front was a series of surprises.
The first surprise hit on a cold December afternoon about five years ago, when my wife came home from her job at a public relations firm and told me that four federal agents had entered her office and arrested one of her employees — Daniel McGowan — for “eco-terrorism.” He was being charged with arson against two Oregon timber companies.
We were shocked. I had met McGowan through my wife, and he did not fit my expectation of what an “eco-terrorist” would be like. He had grown up in Rockaway, Queens, was the son of a New York cop and had been a business major in college. He didn’t look or talk like a revolutionary, and to me he seemed less like Che Guevara or Malcolm X than a typical “boy next door.” Whenever reality cuts against a stereotype, and I discover that the world doesn’t work the way I thought it did, I become curious.
How had someone like McGowan taken part in setting these fires and found himself facing life in prison for terrorism? What could lead someone to decide that arson was a reasonable response to environmental problems? How had this shadowy group to which he belonged — the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) — been formed, and how had the investigators cracked it? Sam Cullman (cinematographer/co-director) and I decided to find out.
At first, we thought we’d make a short film, but the more we dug in, the more interesting it became. There’s a saying that the deeper you go, the muddier the water gets, and I think that was true for us.
Everywhere we looked, our expectations were challenged. People said the opposite of what we anticipated. Those we assumed would be fanatical — on one side or the other — turned out to be thoughtful and conflicted. Things we expected to be clear-cut were actually quite complex. And there were no easily identified heroes or villains. There were flashes of unanticipated drama, and we discovered archival footage that amazed us.
When I began editing the film with Matt Hamachek, we tried to build those moments of surprise into the film and give the audience a similar experience to ours — we aimed to create for viewers an unsettling ride that shifts their sympathies and leaves them with a more nuanced view of the world.
Right after McGowan’s arrest, when we were first considering making a film on the ELF, we were surprised to discover that no one had ever made a film on the subject. But once we began working on our project, we discovered one reason why — getting access was an enormous challenge. Many of the subjects were facing life in prison as we were shooting, and the high stakes made people understandably skittish about going on camera. They had also seen the way that media sensationalized their crimes and branded them terrorists, and they didn’t want to risk that happening again. The prosecutor, the detective and the arson victims were also reluctant to talk with us at first. They didn’t want to get sandbagged by a filmmaker with an agenda who would edit their words out of context.
But we were patient (we spent four years shooting the film), persistent and honest with people, and eventually we won their trust.
I’m not that interested in movies that just set up straw men to knock them down. It seems more interesting to let strong personalities and arguments bang up against each other and see what happens. And I like allowing viewers’ sympathy to shift around during the film — sometimes in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
If a Tree Falls is a film that asks questions more than it answers. And by the end of it, I think the audience is left not with a single, easily directed feeling of outrage — though there is plenty in the story to inspire outrage — but with an uneasy sense that things are more complicated than they seem on the surface.
— Marshall Curry, Director/Producer/Editor/Writer