POV: In the course of filming Street Fight, you documented several instances where police officers interrupted you and asked for ID or demanded that you leave the premises. Were they within their rights? Or was it all intimidation
Marshall Curry: I am not a lawyer, and the lawyers who I spoke with said that many First Amendment issues are rarely black-and-white, but here’s what I understand from them.
In the first case — at the Sharpe James announcement speech — I had explained what I was doing and had been given permission to be there by the James campaign’s spokesman and by the mayor’s press secretary. Whether they were within their rights to change their minds and kick me out hinges, I think, on whether a press conference in a tent on the grounds of a public housing development is a public or private event. In either case, kicking me out was clearly political; as the policeman explains, “You are hanging with Cory. He’s not our guy.” When the ACLU viewed the tapes, they told me that the police were not within their rights to demand my ID.
At the second event — the Sharpe James speech in the park when he tells me, “Next time we’ll take your camera” — I was unquestionably within my rights to film the mayor. He is a public figure and was at a public place.
In the third case — when we had just come out of a debate and were standing on the sidewalk, and I was roughed up by the policeman from the mayor’s security detail, I was again clearly within my rights.
POV: Did you feel that you had put yourself in danger while producing the film?
Curry: I did feel in danger at times. I never really had a clear sense of how much of the intimidation was bravado and how much had a real threat behind it. But when a policeman will break your camera in broad daylight on a city sidewalk with press around, it’s not really clear where the boundaries are. At one point in the film I ask a Booker aide whether this is just rough and tumble politics, which is what everybody was calling it, or whether there was something real behind it. He told me that the night before last his front door had been smashed in. And when I heard that, it made me realize that maybe I was a bit out of my league and in deeper than I had thought.
POV: What production set-up did you use?
Curry: Street Fight is sort of a run-and-gun style documentary. I didn’t have any crew, I just bought a little PD-150 camera the day before the first shoot. If you watch my 200 hours of footage you’ll see that the last 50 hours were a lot better shot than the first 50 hours! I thought that was an appropriate way of making this particular film. No lighting, no interviews, because it’s an urgent, gritty story and there’s something about a camera being wild that is appropriate for that type of story. I also filmed it that way because it was a necessity. I didn’t have money and had to jump in and out of cars, duck into the back of meetings, and try to be as inconspicuous as possible.
But one of the things I love about documentary, as opposed to feature film, is that in feature film if you don’t have a good script and great actors and the lighting’s not great and the sound’s not great, your movie’s not going to be great. And with documentary, you can have lousy audio, lousy lighting. You don’t have to be a great cameraperson, but if you point a camera at a compelling character who’s being honest, who’s being themselves, it’s going to be compelling and it’s going to be interesting.
POV: How did you deal with audio? What was on your mind during the “filming” of audio-only scenes?
Curry: There are a few sections in the film where we had to subtitle audio, but for the most part we got pretty good audio. I bought a wireless microphone that I would attach to whoever I guessed was going to be the main character of a particular scene. A lot of times that was Cory. And then I had a second shotgun, directional microphone that was mounted on the camera to get the audio in the rest of the room.
I bought those mics after shooting for a week or two and not being satisfied with the results. I didn’t have much money to make the film — at that point I was paying for everything myself, but I should have bought those microphones on day one. Again, over the course of 200 hours of shooting I bought more and more equipment, which I think helped a lot. I also bought a wide angle lens adaptor that I put on the camera for meetings and things like that. I wished I had put that money up out front.
In the scenes where I pretended to turn off the camera or where I put the camera in my bag but kept recording audio, I think I felt there was something going on in Newark that people needed to know about, that the mayor’s office was trying to keep people from knowing, and that the only way I was going to get that story was by pretending. At the time I didn’t know whether those scenes would become part of the movie, but I thought it was likely that important moments would come out of that.