Oscar nominee Marshall Curry discusses making this part coming-of-age, part cops-and-robbers thriller that asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism and terrorism.

Camera and editing: Ariane Wu
Interview: David Ritsher
Official Site: If a Tree Falls


Director Marshall Curry: I didn’t know a lot about the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) in the beginning. So, really the movie was driven by questions more than having an opinion that I wanted to say.

So the film has a few different threads that kind of interweave. The first thread is the story of Daniel (McGowan) in real time, from the time he was arrested until the time he goes to prison. Most of the movie is his personal backstory of becoming politically radicalized.

The third element that gets woven together is sort of a cops-and-robbers story.

Each time that we met somebody, our point of view was stretched, and things that we thought we understood were challenged.

One of the other big questions was about terrorism. How do we define terrorism? Daniel and his supporters thought it wasn’t terrorism at all.

When it was first released this summer, people widely saw it as a historical film. Just a few months after the film was released, the Occupy movement happened. And the film … suddenly, it was offered a framework for a lot of the most urgent issues that were being debated.  And we suddenly got requests from campuses, requests from Occupy groups to hold screenings, and we’ve also been showing the film to law enforcement folks as well.

It is a film that is a cautionary tale for activists today to think carefully about the ethics and the effectiveness and the legal consequences of different tactics. And it’s also a cautionary tale for the government to think about how they’re reacting to activists.

The movie very intentionally takes you in different directions, trying to just nudge you out of your comfort zone. I would call it an investigative film … spent five years, you know, asking why, why, why and how did this happen, how did this happen?

We are starting to lose in this country of digging in deeply into a story. Instead of just asking two sides for their sound bites and slapping them together and putting them into a newspaper or putting them on TV, it’s important to get below that. And so I sort of feel like our film is in the tradition of, you know, the investigative reporters that did that. 

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Ariane Wu is Series Producer, Multimedia for The Center for Investigative Reporting. She is passionate about discovering new ways of telling stories visually and through sound. She was previously a Fulbright scholar based in Beijing, as well as a new media fellow at the Asia Society. Ariane holds bachelor’s degrees in film studies and political science from UC Berkeley.

David Ritsher

David Ritsher is the senior editor for TV and documentaries for Reveal. He has produced and edited award-winning investigative documentaries for over 15 years, on subjects ranging from loose nukes in Russia to Latino gangs in Northern California. His work has appeared on FRONTLINE, PBS NewsHour, ABC News, National Geographic, Discovery, KQED and other national broadcast outlets. Before joining CIR, David was the coordinating producer for FRONTLINE/World for over six broadcast seasons and championed much of its experimentation with video on the web.