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Word of Mouth: Documentaries are proving grounds for feature film directors

Nanette Burstein, Michael Apted, Andrew Jarecki and Seth Gordon are part of that group.

August 26, 2010|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

The last two films Nanette Burstein directed focused on similar themes — heartbreak, passion, ambition, peer pressure and yearning. Yet as comparable as the subject matter might have been, Burstein was working in considerably different forms: Her 2008 film "American Teen" was a documentary about Midwestern high school seniors, while Sept. 3's "Going the Distance" is a fictional feature about bicoastal thirtysomethings.

Hollywood is constantly looking in unusual directions for fresh filmmaking talent. Paramount Pictures has hired animation star Brad Bird ("The Incredibles," "Ratatouille") to direct the next live-action "Mission: Impossible" film. Visual effects artists Greg and Colin Strause ("Avatar," "2012") made 2007's "AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator — Requiem" and Relativity Media's forthcoming sci-fi invasion thriller "Skyline." And MGM's "Red Dawn" remake was directed by stunt coordinator Dan Bradley ("The Bourne Ultimatum," " Spider-Man 3").

Every filmmaker stepping up from a different background brings unique skills, but 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. It's no coincidence that Paul Greengrass, one of the most kinetic directors going ("United 93," the last two "Bourne" films), started in documentaries.

Documentary filmmakers have been graduating into features for years. Michael Apted, for one, moved from his "28 Up" nonfiction series to "Gorillas in the Mist" and "The World Is Not Enough" decades ago, and he's now wrapping up the next "Chronicles of Narnia" film. There are many other documentarians joining him and Burstein in the make-believe world.

Andrew Jarecki, the director of 2003's acclaimed "Capturing the Friedmans," recently completed his first dramatic film, "All Good Things," due later this year. Seth Gordon, the man behind 2007's cult doc "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," is following his 2008 romantic comedy "Four Christmases" with next year's "Horrible Bosses." James Marsh, who won the Oscar for 2008's " Man on Wire," directed 2009's British crime thriller "Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980."

Amir Bar-Lev, whose "The Tillman Story" just premiered, has been picked to direct a fictionalized biography of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. And Jose Padilha, the filmmaker of the Brazilian documentary "Bus 174," is nearly finished with his second feature, " Elite Squad 2" and is developing the new Robert Ludlum thriller "The Sigma Protocol."

At first glance, the two schools of filmmaking seem largely dissimilar beyond the most basic parallels: shoot some footage of people talking, cut it together and hope it tells a story. But the documentarians-turned-dramatists say the two genres are unexpectedly comparable, and that their nonfiction backgrounds often helped them in critical ways.

"The most fundamental difference in a documentary is that you are capturing reality as it exists," Burstein says. "In a narrative film, you are creating a reality."

Yet even though a feature film may have a manufactured story — "Going the Distance" is a romantic comedy about an on-again, off-again long-distance relationship starring Justin Long and Drew Barrymore — directors of documentaries and features are constantly looking for openness from the people in front of their cameras.

"Even in a documentary," says Burstein, who also made the Robert Evans documentary "The Kid Stays in the Picture," "you can tell when people are not being that honest …. [So] you may ask them the same question a few different ways, because you are not getting an answer that is as poignant as it could be."

Says New Line production president Richard Brener: "Nanette used a lot of ad-libbing. So it feels like they are not scripted lines. With documentary-based directors, there are less moments of artifice."

Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans" uses a child molestation case as a starting point for an inquiry into narcissism, denial and, ultimately, uncertainty — the film is a complex portrait of someone easily dispatched as a "monster." Jarecki's dramatic feature, "All Good Things," is based on another true crime story, the case of Robert Durst, a real estate scion who was linked to the disappearances and deaths of three people, including an elderly Texas neighbor whose body he admitted hacking up (Durst did not cooperate in the making of the film). Ryan Gosling stars as the fictionalized Durst, and Kirsten Dunst as his wife.

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