This weekend, filmmaker Arwen Curry’s labor of love, a documentary on the life of literary legend Ursula K. Le Guin, premieres at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the U.K. Curry is in talks with several film festivals to screen the work in the U.S. There’s no firm distribution schedule yet for a domestic release.
“We’re working on that now,” Curry said. “I don’t quite know a day to tell you. I know how important she was to the state, and to so many of Oregon’s writers and readers and citizens.”
Curry confirmed that the project will come to small screens through PBS’s “American Masters” series in 2019.
We talked to Arwen Curry just before she left to take the film to England.
Q&A with Arwen Curry
April Baer: At what point did you realize you needed to get Le Guin’s participation to make the project happen?
Arwen Curry: Oh, I thought that from the beginning. The whole point was to bring her into the room, in a physical way. Her books bring her close to us, in an intellectual sense, and in a creative sense but it still doesn’t give you that kind of intimacy watching a person move and listening to them talk. I didn’t have any filmmaking experience until I went into journalism school, thinking about this project. I sort of learned to make movies to be able to pursue this with the right credentials.
Baer: You also worked on an HBO film called “Regarding Susan Sontag.” I was thinking about these two women, both intellectual giants in their time. Which of them was more challenging to grapple with, in terms of their ideas and trying to synthesize huge bodies of extremely interesting work?
Curry: That was a wonderful film to work on. I was the associate producer and worked with the very talented director Nancy Kates. I would say they were profoundly different. Susan Sontag was very much in the world and responding to the contemporary world we live in at all times. She was interested in what was new, what was avant-garde and what’s changing. Le Guin was interested in something older and deeper — what endures, what it means to go out and come back home again. She’s a writer of balance and wisdom, and Sontag was out on the edge, leaning out there. The challenges were different. I was in an ongoing relationship and conversation with [Le Guin]. With Sontag, it was more of an excavation. With Le Guin it was more of a collaboration.
Baer: In your process of showing Le Guin’s life, we visit Steens Mountain, Portland and the Oregon coast in the film. Were there things you needed to show in the places she inhabited?
Curry: I wanted to show to come degree what she saw there. But there was no way I could do justice to how deeply she cared about those landscapes and those places — not just terms of beauty but their history, their people, their economic situation, their culture. Her understanding of most things, also of place, was multi-layered. I didn’t necessarily go there with all those places. The reason we chose these places is they were specifically inspirations for certain books. In the film, they are tied in with those novels. The islands you see off the coast of Cannon Beach are, in part, inspiration for “A Wizard of Earthsea.” The high desert at Steens Mountain is the place where “The Tombs of Atuan” came to here. She started with those places, then the people came.
Baer: When did you realize this would be, not a three- or four-year project, but a 10-year project?
Curry: I don’t think I ever knew it was going to be a 10-year project! [laughs] I think if I had I might have run screaming. It’s the same challenge all documentary filmmakers who don’t have a private source of income face: The funding is difficult to get. Having the time with her ended up being a beautiful thing. There were many times I wish it could have gone faster, and of course I very much wish I’d been able to complete it before she passed away.
Baer: Where were you when you heard she’d died?
Curry: I was in my little office, working on the film with my wonderful editor, Juli Vizza. We were carefully going over a scene, and I got an email from a reporter I’d worked with, saying “NPR wants to talk to you. We just heard Ursula has died.” I felt a wave of cold go over my body, and the strangest combination of disbelief, but also the inevitable had come. This was a risk that she might pass away at any time. I just didn’t believe that it would happen. She’s one of those people who, when you become friends with her, becomes so fundamental to how the world is, that you can’t really imagine the world going on without them, or the conversation stopping. There were always going be new ideas.