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Directors find features no stranger than nonfiction

Storytelling skills and Hollywood's new open-mindedness help documentarians switch to scripted movies.

October 19, 2003|Juan Morales | Special to The Times

Amid the media fanfare surrounding the success of the recent documentaries "Capturing the Friedmans," "Spellbound" and "Winged Migration," little attention has been paid to another intriguing trend: More and more documentary filmmakers are making the transition to narrative features.

Although many directors have gone from nonfiction to fiction in the past -- including John Schlesinger, William Friedkin, Barbet Schroeder and Michael Apted -- the phenomenon has been less prevalent in recent years. But 2003 has already seen the release of several scripted features from filmmakers who got their start in documentaries, with more on the way.

"Hollywood feels a lot more democratic today than when we first moved here" in 1994, says Randy Barbato, who with longtime partner Fenton Bailey wrote and directed the recently released drama "Party Monster," about the 1980s New York club scene. "There just seem to be a lot more opportunities, so you aren't as likely to be pigeonholed and seen as only being able to do one thing."

This open-mindedness is a fairly recent development, however. For, despite having made such high-profile documentaries as "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and "Monica in Black and White" through their production company World of Wonder, it took years for Bailey and Barbato to raise money for "Party Monster," which they adapted from their award-winning 1998 documentary of the same name.

Husband-and-wife writing-directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini endured similar frustration on the way to making their debut feature, "American Splendor." The film, a biopic about underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, has earned widespread plaudits, including the top prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. But were it not for "Splendor" producer Ted Hope, who recognized an affinity for offbeat characters in Berman and Pulcini's first two films -- the documentaries "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's," about the closing of the famous Beverly Hills restaurant, and "The Young and the Dead," about the Hollywood Forever cemetery -- the duo might still be looking for its first break.

"It seems as if studios will take a risk with a music-video director or a commercial director," Pulcini says, "but something about documentary filmmakers scares them."

Ironically, despite lingering reservations about their skills, most documentary filmmakers contend that shooting a narrative feature is actually easier than shooting a documentary. "People think it's so difficult to make the transition," Berman says, "but with documentaries you usually have no money, no crew and you're working with people who are not actors and are terrified of being on camera. So on a feature, when you have all the tools to actually make the film, it's like, 'Whoa! This isn't so hard.' "

Fundamental skills

The fundamentals developed by a documentary filmmaker are readily applicable to scripted material, according to those who have made the leap.

"Documentaries were an excellent way to cut my teeth and learn narrative storytelling," notes George Hickenlooper, who drew praise for the 1991 documentary "Hearts of Darkness," about Francis Ford Coppola's tempestuous production of the Vietnam drama "Apocalypse Now," before going on to make such scripted features as "Big Brass Ring" and "The Man From Elysian Fields."

"I think making a documentary is a lot like the process of screenwriting, which involves taking various elements and shaping and sculpting a story. That's exactly what documentary filmmaking is. You're building a story using montage, as opposed to a fictional film, where you have a blueprint of what you're going to do. It's cinema in its purest form, I think."

Todd Phillips, director of the comedy "Old School," which opened in March, attributes his ability to work with actors directly to his documentary origins.

"When you're making documentaries you're basically manipulating people to do what you want," says Phillips, who went from the in-your-face documentaries "Hated," about punk rocker GG Allin, and "Frat House," about fraternity hazing, to the teen comedy "Road Trip" and the coming movie version of "Starsky and Hutch."

"Traditional documentary filmmakers would probably say that's the thing that's wrong with some of the movies I've made. But I always ask documentary filmmakers, 'What does a documentary director do if you're not manipulating people?' And I think feature filmmaking, to some extent, is also manipulation -- to get what you want, you have to direct actors. I realize 'manipulation' sounds like a negative term, but I mean it in a good way, as a means to achieve a goal."

Having it both ways

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