Racing Dreams

PBS Premiere: Feb. 23, 2012Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is Racing Dreams really about?

Marshall Curry: Racing Dreams is about NASCAR, on its face. It's about three kids who want to become NASCAR drivers and the effort that it takes to try to make it, to break into that world. But really, I think it's more about adolescence. It's about being 11, 12 and 13, trying to figure out who you are and who your parents are, what you want to be when you grow up, and what love feels like.

POV: Why NASCAR? How did you first get involved in this project?

Curry: I didn't know anything about NASCAR before making Racing Dreams. But I knew that it's the second biggest spectator sport in America. That was really interesting to me — there could be this huge part of my own country's culture that I didn't know anything about. My wife is from Charlotte, North Carolina. My parents are from the South. When I'd go down to visit, I would see how huge it is in some parts of the country, but in New York City, where I live it wasn't so popular. One of the great things about making documentary films is that you get to spend a year or two learning about something that you don't know anything about. And in this case, I was interested in NASCAR, the phenomenon. I'd written down NASCAR on a card and stuck it in a file that I keep of documentary ideas. And one day I read an article about this series, where 11, 12, 13 year-old kids drive go-karts that go 70 miles an hour in what's basically the "Little League" for NASCAR. That was really intriguing to me. So, I went to a few races to check it out and kind of fell in love.

POV: How did you find these three kids and their families? What was your relationship with them?

Curry: When I first had the idea, I decided to go to a couple of races to check them out and see what it looked like for kids to drive 70 miles an hour. I took a camera and shot some things just to see whether it really did look fast and whether it was interesting. I also didn't know a lot about 12 year-olds. I didn't know how interesting they might be or how articulate. When I would get to the races, I would always ask the concession people and the flag man, the parents and kids, "Are there any kids that you think I should talk to?" Over and over I kept hearing this one name. The people would say, "Have you met Josh Hobson? You might want to meet Josh Hobson." I finally tracked him down as he was coming off the track, having just won his, I think, third Grand National race of the weekend. He's an unbelievable racer. But much more than that, he's like an adult in a child's body. He's very articulate, he's very funny. He's amazing. And I talked to him for probably 20 minutes and I thought, there's a movie here, if I can find a couple other kids like this. So we went to the awards ceremony from the previous year. And it is right next to a huge karting convention that's the big national karting convention. I was there with a couple of other folks. We took cameras and we fanned out and probably met 50-75 other kids. We'd ask them really quickly, What does your room look like? What do your parents do for a living? What kind of books do you like to read? Do you believe in God? Any kind of question to get a sense of who they were and how their brains worked, and I met Annabeth. Actually the first scene where you meet her in the movie and she's signing autographs for a karting company was the very first conversation I'd ever had with her. That was the test footage that we shot of her. She's charming, funny, confident and smart — just an amazing kid. At the end of the night, I met Brandon and he was there with his grandfather. He had this kind of charisma that was hard to put your finger on, but he's kind of got a twinkle in his eye and he's really bright. But, maybe a little bit of a rascal in there too. Over the next year we spent a lot of time with them at home, at races, at school. We really came to love them and their families.

POV: Where did you fit into these kids' and these families' daily lives? Were you a friend, were you a nuisance? How did that play off?

Curry: As a filmmaker, I was in some ways a friend, in some a nuisance. There's a subject-filmmaker relationship. That's probably one of the hardest things to try to balance as a filmmaker, because when you spend time with people, and particularly people like all three of these families, it becomes hard to do things like film them when they're having tough times. There are some really tough times that happen in the film. People don't do well in the races. There are family struggles. There's something kind of inhuman, unnatural about pointing a camera at somebody when they're struggling that way. But I explained to them before, in the very beginning, that this was a part of the process. If you want to make films, you have to be able to do that. You can't put down the camera every time you want to put down the camera.

POV: Even with your description of how you were going to approach the film, do you think they knew what they were getting into?

Curry: I imagine that they didn't know exactly what they were getting into. None of the three of them had watched a lot of documentaries before. As much as you might explain to somebody what the process is, I think it's different when you're actually in it. I traveled around actually before showing the film to anyone else, as a courtesy to let all of the families see it. When I showed it to Brandon's family, in particular, I was nervous because it shows them at a time that was tough in their lives. Brandon's grandmother, when she finished watching it, was very sad by a lot of the emotions that it summoned and wiped tears away from her eyes and said, "You know it's really, really hard to watch, but it's true and I wouldn't change a thing." All three families were generous with their stories. There is also something empowering about telling your story and sharing your story with people. Fortunately all three of them were willing to do that.

POV: Each of your films, from Street Fight to Racing Dreams to If a Tree Falls is a different animal. Will you talk about the differences between the films in terms of your approach? And not only how are they different, but also how are they the same?

Curry: All three of the films that I've made so far are on, on their face, very different. Street Fight is about inner-city politics. Racing Dreams is about kids who want to become NASCAR drivers. And If a Tree Falls is about radical environmentalism. Somebody jokingly said to me the other day, "It's like the American trilogy. It captures everything you need to know about America: inner-city politics, NASCAR, and radical environmentalism." I don't think the subject matter overlaps very much, but I think there are some themes that are similar which was not a conscious decision, but maybe just reflect things that draw me. One of the themes is what happens when idealism meets up against reality? In Street Fight, Cory Booker, at that point a 32 year-old unknown city councilman, runs for mayor of Newark and he bangs into the political machine. It's much tougher than he thinks it's going to be. But at the end there's this twist that tells the viewer "you might not win, but you don't give up." Sure enough, four years later, he becomes the mayor of Newark. In If a Tree Falls, you've got a guy from New York City who falls in love with nature, becomes a very committed environmental activist and then takes his tactics across the line and commits arson to try to stop timber companies from cutting trees. He ends up facing life in prison for it and being considered a domestic terrorist. So again, you've kind of got this clash of idealism and the cold, hard reality. And in this film, you have kids who want to become NASCAR drivers. They're following their dreams. They discover over the course of the year that it's maybe not as easy as it seemed. Stylistically, I would say there is some overlap as well. Having intimate access with people and getting down below the what happened to the why and the how did it feel are the things that I shoot for when we're shooting. In the edit room I guess they, all three films, are edited to play like a movie, not a documentary. It's not about laying out information. It's about spinning an engaging story.

POV: We assume that at some point you got into the karts or maybe even a NASCAR car? Can you talk about that, that experience?

Curry: The kids had been goading us over the whole year as we'd been shooting. There was a lot of trash talking going back and forth. After the very last race, we took out the karts. It was pretty humiliating. I was one of the first ones out and I got all geared up. I took the thing out and was just flying. I mean I was sure that the bolts were going to shake out of the thing because I was taking the corners so intensely. When I pulled in I noticed that everybody was just laughing. The kids were telling me that I was going about as fast as the ten year-olds go. It was not my proudest moment. I won't be in the DVD extra I can tell you that.

POV: Have you learned anything from watching other documentaries about kids and competition, like Hoop Dreams or Spellbound that influenced the way you approached this film?

Curry: Number one, I watch tons of documentaries. I love documentaries and think a lot about how they're built and how they're shot, and steal ideas from movies that I like all the time. At the time when I was starting to make Racing Dreams, there'd been a number of these kid competition films that had come out. My feeling was that I didn't really want to make another kid competition film. Spellbound is perfect. Nobody needs to make that again. And so rather than looking at a large number of kids and profiling them over the course of the race, I really wanted it to be more of a character story about three particular kids. If they won, if they lost, whatever happened wasn't actually crucial to the telling of the story. So, maybe in some ways it's more like Hoop Dreams. But, I would never put my film in the same category with Hoop Dreams. But all of those films have a respect for the characters that is affectionate even when it's recognizing the adorable mistakes that kids make. That was probably the main thing that I tried to emulate from them.

POV: Like Hoop Dreams, in retrospect your selection of the racers, your subjects seem perfect.

Curry: It became more important to me to find kids and families that I thought were worthy of spending time with no matter how they placed in the races. As it turned out, it was amazing, but honestly if they had come in ninth and thirteenth and sixth place, we would have made a different movie, but I think it would have been just as engaging. The things that make this movie work in my mind are less the moments about who becomes national champion and more moments about Annabeth and Brandon on the telephone flirting in this unbelievable, classic way.

POV: So give us an update on Annabeth, Brandon and Josh.

Curry: When we shot the film they were 11, 12, and 13. Now they are juniors and seniors in high school. They've grown a lot physically. It's unbelievable just the difference between those kids and the teenagers that they are now. Josh and Annabeth are both racing full-size race cars. They've both been doing incredibly well, racing against adults — getting top five finishes in many of the races. At the end of Racing Dreams, Brandon realizes that he doesn't have enough money to be able to continue. So, he has not raced since then. But he's still a great kid. He's smart and he's doing well in school. Both of his parents, who wrestled with drugs earlier in his life and, and during the movie, have both cleaned up and, and spend a lot more time with him. His father told me when he watched the film, that it was really very difficult. For him, watching the film, it was like watching somebody else, to see who he was during that year. That's been great too, to see his family heal from a lot that they went through during that year.

POV: We know that the film has done great at festivals and in theaters. How do you think having the film seen by over a million people on public television is going to impact the kids? How do you think they're going to feel about it?

Curry: I think that they'll be happy when it's on POV. It's always a little bit awkward to have intimate parts of your lives exposed to the world. I'm sure that there will be some difficulty. But everybody who watches this movie comes away loving these kids and loving these families. So I assume that all of the response that they're going to get is going to be positive and affirming. I think it will be fun for them to revisit this. For people like us, we might have photo albums or home movies. Their photo albums and home movies from when they were 11 and 12 are going to be on television in front of a million people.