Posted on Monday, June 27, 2011 by Lindsey Westbrook
Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs win the best documentary feature award for Inside Job (photo: Mark Ralston, Getty Images)
From the mosh pits of Olympia, Washington, to collecting an Oscar on stage at the Staples Center. From indie music scenester to hit documentary maker. (With a stop along the way in CCA's Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice.)
Audrey Marrs -- former punk rock musician, Ladyfest cofounder, and CCA alumna -- won the 2011 Academy Award for best documentary feature for producing Inside Job, the story of the 2008 financial crisis. The statuette was handed over to Marrs and her artistic partner, the director Charles Ferguson, by none other than Oprah Winfrey. Marrs and Ferguson had been nominated in 2008 for their documentary No End in Sight about the American occupation of Iraq.
The two began working together in 2003. Ferguson posted a job listing on Craigslist for an "assistant to a writer/investor," and three (grueling) interviews later, Marrs got the gig.
Fast forward a bit. Marrs really likes her assistant job but wants more out of life. She applies to and enters CCA's Curatorial Practice Program, but continues working for Ferguson, and they begin making No End in Sight.
Fast forward again. Six months prior to her thesis deadline, she and Ferguson realize that she has actually been producing No End in Sight since the beginning. "We were so naive about the process of filmmaking," she says, "that we didn't realize that 'producer' was the function I'd been performing all along!" The film was received to great acclaim and led naturally to the next documentary project, Inside Job.
Marrs's rule-breaking punk background, plus her extensive toolbox of skills in dealing with artists of all genres and stripes, has proved infinitely useful in her film career. "Let's face it, not that many people go to see documentaries in the theater. Instead they opt for movies that are easier to digest and allow an escape. I'm guilty of this myself. So the question is, how do you make people want to pay money to go see your movie, and once they're there, how do you keep them interested, especially about a subject as potentially dull as the financial crisis?"
And the classic, eternal DIY question: How do you make something aesthetically exciting on a limited budget?
"When making a film, similar to curating an art exhibition, a lot of the groundwork involves identifying who your audience is and communicating with them accordingly. With Inside Job we also realized that presenting this body of information in an aesthetically exciting way was going to be a major challenge. Early on we chose a few aesthetic themes to serve as 'punctuation'; for instance, aerial cinematography, which was costly but we felt worth it, because it would allow the audience moments of pause that would be crucial to the pacing and prevent them from feeling overwhelmed by all the information we were presenting. We didn't want to dumb down the content, but instead to ask the audience to step up just a little bit. So we incorporated certain elements that would keep the film entertaining and motivate the audience to want to keep paying attention."
Marrs says that her Curatorial Practice coursework was a lot more than just an incidental detour along her path from musician to filmmaker. Turning words into pictures is not easy, and knowing how to make exhibitions helped infinitely in learning how to make films. Understanding the director's vision and figuring out how to make it manifest in a tangible form is a big part of a producer's job.
Marrs cites her CCA classes, and Julian Myers's art history and theory courses in particular, as indispensable in the building of her professional rapport with Ferguson. "From Julian we learned to look at and talk about art from an extremely sophisticated perspective. His course material was so unbelievably well curated. It turned out that he and I had gone to some of the same punk shows in the 1990s, and in class he would present us with so many interesting artists and works relating to the punk genre but also reveal traces of those same ideas in other historical art periods, long before punk was invented. From Julian, and also from Renny Pritikin, I learned how to look at and talk about art, which definitely helped me work more effectively with Charles."
Myers praises Marrs in the highest terms as well. "Audrey came from the same DIY and punk culture that made such a mark on me. She's one of the most resourceful, organized, independent, and dignified people I've worked with. I think this is what led her to curatorial practice -- the desire not to receive culture as if handed down from on high, but, in the absence of compelling mainstream culture and discourse, to produce it yourself, on your own terms."
Marrs's involvement in the music business began when she was living in Olympia. She worked for the legendary independent label Kill Rock Stars and played with Mocket, Gene Defcon, and Bratmobile. She curated some art shows during that time, too. Olympia is a community, she says, where anyone feels like they can do anything; there are none of the conventional barriers to breaking into something new. She and five friends started Ladyfest (now a major global event), and at the first one in 2001 she was the art curator. "I didn't know what I was doing -- none of us did, and I remember there being a lot of arguing and crying during Ladyfest Olympia week -- but we all made it through and loved one another in the end. And I somehow curated two art shows!"
These days Marrs spends most of her time on the phone, doing research for her next project with Ferguson. "We want to evolve into features. We're not just documentarians; we're in film because we really care about film. Right now we're working on a feature film about WikiLeaks for HBO and the BBC. Making a feature narrative (with actors) is like learning how to make a film for the first time all over again."
Fact: Audrey Marrs's mother did the set decoration on Inside Job. Read more about her at www.namionline.net/mariko.html
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