Image from DevdogAZ via Wikimedia Commons
For more than five decades Frank Marshall has been at the forefront of a Hollywood revolution, quietly becoming a megaproducer comfortable with projects of enormous scope or quiet intimacy. From his early work with Bogdanovich and Scorsese, he played a major role in Spielberg’s ascendance as one of the great storytellers of our time. As a director he helmed true-to-life tales like Alive, brought to bear the Bourne films, and saw friendly competition between the box office race between his Jurassic World and his wife Kathleen Kennedy’s Star Wars film.
We spoke to Marshall about one of his latest productions under the Kennedy/Marshall banner, the extraordinary doc Finding Oscar. Tracing the story of a survivor of a massacre in the jungles of Guatemala unaware of his own past, the film traces a complex and emotionally rich story in a powerful yet accessible way. We discussed this impressive film, how non-fiction shapes the blockbusters he creates, and how his love of theatrical projection continues in a world slowly dominated by streaming services and home viewing.
How did you find Finding Oscar?
I have a childhood friend I went to high school with in Newport Beach, Scott Greathead, a human rights lawyer in New York. We stayed in touch over all the years and he continually tells me about the projects he's working on. He mentioned Oscar's story several years ago and I thought it was fascinating. I didn't really think of it as a movie until I actually met Oscar. We at the Kennedy/Marshall Company started making documentaries when Scott called me and said “hey I'm coming out to California and I'm going to bring Oscar with me.”
Meeting Oscar and seeing what a remarkable fellow he was, I felt that this was a really special story. I didn't know how to tell it yet, but I really wanted to try and tell it, and so I went home that night and I called Ryan and I said grab the camera, ride out to Riverside and just shoot. And that was our start.
And as you can do with documentaries, a lot of times you don't know what the story's going to tell you, but it turned out that we shot the end of the movie first. For two-and-a-half years we worked our way backwards to work out how to tell the story.
You've had an incredible career on the fiction side, but there are those who may not know your work on doc classics like The Last Waltz. What is the divide in your mind between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking, and why you saw the story requiring a documentary touch as opposed to simply buying the naming rights for his story and telling it as a fiction film?
It's just two different styles of storytelling. Obviously, with Sully, I like the real story told in a dramatic fashion. It really depends on what the story is and what footage you have and what characters you have. I fell in love with documentaries way back when I was in college. At UCLA and took a class in documentary filmmaking and Robert Flaherty was one of my heroes back then. I just loved the storytelling, real storytelling with real people and capturing the real world has always interested me.
I never really got to scratch that itch until Mike Tollin called me on the 30 For 30 project and I did one of their first on a Norwegian Olympic speed skater, Johann Olav Koss. I brought Ryan in to cut that for me.
My day job is so planned out - you have a script, you have a schedule, you pretty much know what shot you're going to do every hour. This is like a free form - let's just go shoot, and see where it takes us. That's what I really love about it. Is that it's completely different than what I do normally.
Flaherty's a really interesting person for you to attach to - Obviously, he's a documentarian, but some purists see in a negative light all the staged, cinematic manipulations of his work. Fundamentally he was interested telling a story using the power of truth behind it. That hybrid may work for Sully, but Oscar’s story has the extra responsibility of testimony, serving to document the truth of a situation which is being challenged by those who perpetrated the acts.
Yes, exactly. Sully was an entertainment story, whereas with Oscar it's really more in social conscience [film]. You'll never catch somebody who's as interesting as the real person.
How does this work in non-fiction shape, as you call it, your “day job”?
It's something I get to dabble in all the time now. We have several different projects going and it's really exciting and I find it a really satisfying, rewarding experience. When we had a premiere at Telluride and [we introduced] Oscar and Romero - I mean, what a thrill! That was quite a moment, because to meet the real guys the place went crazy. Just hugging and kissing and crying and you can imagine, so that was a thrill. And I'm really fortunate to have that opportunity now.
You're also bringing to life The Other Side Of The World, the last work of Orson Welles. I'm just wondering, are you currently at a stage, yes, you have these mega franchises that you're shepherding, but you're also able to bring some dream projects to life?
That's the great thing about being lucky enough to have the career that I've had. I can try to make these things that are a part of film history and stories that need to be told. We persevered on the Orson story and thank goodness for Netflix, because when we started this journey, there was no Netfilx! Now, not only are they going to help us finish the movie, but Orson's work will be seen in 96 countries and it's his dream come true. As you've probably been following, we just saw all of the negatives that are there from France this week and now we're getting the work print that we worked on with Showtime for a while many years ago. It's a big jigsaw puzzle and we're now going to start putting together the pieces so I really don't know what our plan is. It's kind of exciting.
We have incredible opportunities with VOD while cinemas are absolutely being dominated by blockbusters such as Jurassic World. Are you feeling that tear, and whether cinemas will soon be simply houses for spectacle?
I'm a true believer that movies will always be seen in theatres, and there are other formats to see films. Obviously people who can't get to the theatre get an opportunity to see movies, but I'm always going to make my films for the movie theatre.
No matter the scope.
I don't make them for your phone!
But I’m saying you make your documentaries for the theatre just as you make Indiana Jones V for the cinema.
Yes, exactly. I love the widescreen format, I love establishing shots, I love showing you where we are, it's a big screen experience and those are the kinds of stories I'm always going to tell.
When you're working on a documentary, do you find sometimes your fiction muscles kicking in and thinking oh, if only we had this shot, or if only we had that shot, you sort of want to reshoot real life.
Oh, absolutely. But that also kicks in to make you more creative. When you know the effect that you want, if you were actually planning it, you would have had that shot. So how do you get the same effect by doing something else when you don't have that shot? It flexes a muscle that I don't get to use often, and it's kind of exciting.
What happens a lot of times in documentaries is people say things and you wish you were on their face and you're not. But you have the audio, and I think that also sometimes creates another way of telling the story. If you look at the doc that Alex Gibney and I did [Sinatra: All Or Nothing], it's told really in Sinatra's words and we don't have an interview with him. So sometimes not having things creates a whole style or convention and a way of telling the story.
Going back a bit further to an earlier doc, you have any good Last Waltz tales?
I love the process of making movies and I love the challenge of solving whatever issues or challenges come up from a creative side. I've always worked in service to a director and want to help them out. I feel my job as a producer is to get their vision up on a screen, however wild it might be. Working in those days it was such a creative period for directors, and Marty [Scorsese] obviously one of the best around. He had this relationship with Robbie Robertson and The Band and he wanted to tell their story. I was much more involved in setting up the stage version than the concert and all of the interviews out of the Shangri-La, which was a challenge of its own.
Those were the days when you worked twenty hours a day and you went around and sort of did it for yourself. I had a lot of friends that worked with me and brought in a lot of people that I'd worked with before to support Marty in a documentary world rather than a feature world. It's that documentary scene where you don't know what happens. One member of the band would say something and Marty would go, oh, let's follow that story and we'd run into another room or outside or something to continue the story.
It was really electric and exciting and inspiring. So it was crazy, but I liked it, I like that challenge.
Finding Oscar is currently playing in NY and will open in LA on April 21