Friday, August 27, 2010

Documentary Directors Who Made the Transition to Feature Filmmaking

The Los Angeles Times takes a look at top documentary filmmakers who successfully made the leap to Hollywood moviemaking. It's not as natural a transition as you might expect, but what fascinates us is the qualities they bring with them -- which add up to exceptional visual storytelling abilities.

Documentary directors may be better equipped than most to deliver something that's frequently missing from narrative movies: emotional truthfulness. What's more, nonfiction storytellers directing narrative features are comfortable shooting in the increasingly popular verité style that mashes extemporaneous camera moves with scripted action and dialogue.
Michael Apted is a pioneering example, having produced the 7 Up series, and then giving us features such as Gorillas in the Mist (based on a true story), and now exploring terrain far removed from real life: the next Chronicles of Narnia film.

Paul Greengrass spent the first ten years of his career making documentaries, and his trademark handheld-camera technique ("To be perfectly honest, I couldn't afford tripods") has served him well with hit features such as United 93 (a 9/11 film based on real-life people and events) and two Bourne films.

Some other examples:

Nanette Burstein (pictured)
Documentaries: American Teen, The Kid Stays in the Picture
Feature: Going the Distance

Andrew Jarecki
Documentary: Capturing the Friedmans
Feature: All Good Things

Seth Gordon
Documentary: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,
Features: Four Christmases, Horrible Bosses (upcoming)

James Marsh
Documentary: Man on Wire (Oscar-winner)
Feature: Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980

Amir Bar-Lev
Documentary: The Tillman Story
Feature: Biopic of Jerry Garcia (upcoming)

Jose Padilha
Documentary: Bus 174
Features: Elite Squad 2, The Sigma Protocol (upcoming)

The documentarians-turned-dramatists say the two genres are unexpectedly comparable, and that their nonfiction backgrounds often helped them in critical ways. Even though a feature film may have a manufactured story, directors of documentaries and features are constantly looking for openness from the people in front of their cameras.

Padilha says directors with documentary training tend to be adept at telling stories, and shooting in a style that invites, rather than distances, the audience. "You don't have a script, so you have to focus on the narrative. You come up with a shooting plan based on what you decide the story is," Padilha says.

Documentary directors, Padilha adds, know how to use their cameras in service of that story. In a feature, "Instead of moving the camera by itself, you move the camera with the actors." In a documentary, he says, "The camera is always trying to find what matters in the action, so the audience can find what's relevant."
The documentary filmmakers interviewed for the Times story acknowledged that their hearts may be in non-fiction storytelling, but their wallets do better when they apply their talents to fiction -- especially considering that this year's excellent feature-length Oscar winner, "The Cove," grossed just $857,000 in the U.S.

As feature-length video distribution over the internet becomes more viable (as is already happening via Netflix, Hulu, et al), that financial picture is likely to improve considerably. Might feature filmmakers someday turn their lenses to nonfiction stories?

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