Spring 2018

Switching Gears

Filmmakers who straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction are storytellers first and foremost


Gabriela Cowperthwaite, with her DP, Lorenzo Senatore, set up a shot for Megan Leavey (Photo: Michael Tacket/Bleecker Street)

In film language, "documentary" and "narrative" are often used as if they are mutually exclusive terms. Practitioners may know the difference, yet upon further examination, the lines become blurred; whether performed by actors or pieced together from the archives, almost any film is first and foremost an act of storytelling.

It's the recognition of that shared principle that enables some filmmakers to swing freely and flexibly between the two disciplines, bringing the truth-seeking drive of their documentary work to Hollywood-style narratives, or the formal creativity of fiction to purely factual material—sometimes even minting exciting hybrids in the space between. But how do these adaptable storytellers define and navigate the transition, and how has their art grown from it?

For docmaker Jeffrey Friedman, half of the directing team that includes longtime collaborator Rob Epstein, the shift into narrative cinema was an overdue one: "It was always part of the five-year plan," he says. "It just took 20 years to complete it."

The pair first teamed up to Oscar-winning effect on the 1989 AIDS-epidemic reflection Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt; two decades later, they segued experimentally into scripted territory with Howl, a James Franco-starring ode to beat poet Allen Ginsberg that merged biopic form with documentary technique. Another, more straightforwardly dramatized biopic, Lovelace, followed in 2013.

"We always approach our films as narratives, so that didn't feel different," says Friedman. "All of our documentaries are constructed as narratives that will work for an audience in the way that a fiction film will." Friedman and Epstein initially tackled Howl as a documentary project, before agreeing that the material was urging them toward a new approach. "We were finding ourselves stymied: We weren't coming up with anything alive. 'Howl' was a poem written by a young man, for a young culture, and all the people who we could approach to talk about it were very old. So we decided to recreate something that would have the energy of a youthful adventure."

British director Asif Kapadia, meanwhile, started out in fiction film—winning two BAFTA awards for his 2001 debut feature, the India-set adventure The Warrior—before crossing to the other side with such biographical docs as Amy, an elegy for the late soul prodigy Amy Winehouse, which earned a DGA nomination and won an Oscar. The film was distinguished by its reliance on found footage, with no newly staged talking-heads sequences.

For Kapadia—who has since shot another fiction feature, and directed two episodes of David Fincher's Mindhunter for Netflix—the move to nonfiction was born of creative restlessness. "I find writing quite slow, really hard," he says, "and then there's so much waiting involved in the process of getting a drama made. So it's been fun to have a very inverse way of working with docs, where I just go off with a tiny crew and can just start editing something. With the fiction I'm interested in, you have a crew of 500 people, this massive machine. I enjoy the circus of it all, but sometimes it's fun to just make something in your back room."

(Top) A scene from Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary, Blackfish; (Middle) Asif Kapadia, crouching right, zeros in on the action for the scripted series Mindhunter; (Bottom) a scene from Kapadia's Oscar-winning doc Amy, about the late singer Amy Winehouse. (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Middle) Merrick Morton/Netflix; (Bottom) A24)

The filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, too, appreciates the relative DIY nature of the nonfiction form. "The thing about documentary is you don't ask permission to make a documentary—you just make it," says Cowperthwaite, who scored a popular hit and a slew of awards with her second documentary feature Blackfish, an impassioned exposé of killer-whale captivity. "You gather resources as you go, little by little, and you're filming something real. Your subjects exist and your content exists in the world, and so you capture it. But after I made Blackfish—which I had kind of fashioned as a feature thriller—I was approached by reps who said, 'Have you considered the feature world?' And of course, I had! I just didn't know what the port of entry was if you didn't go to film school, which I didn't."

That port came unexpectedly to Cowperthwaite, as the script for Megan Leavey—a biopic of the eponymous Iraq War hero—was sent to her out of the blue. "They were ready to go; they just could not find a director," she recalls. "So I went in and pitched it and was hired in the room and was on a plane within about four weeks. So much of documentary is scrambling for resources, and sometimes you think to yourself, 'Wow, if I could just focus on the creative, how amazing that would be?' And there it suddenly was."

For veteran docmaker Alex Gibney—a three-time DGA Award nominee and an Oscar winner for Taxi to the Dark Side, his 2007 investigation into U.S. military torture policy—the flip wasn't nearly so sudden. The filmmaker cut his teeth as a fiction film editor before moving into documentary and, recently, scripted television with the 9/11-focused Hulu miniseries The Looming Tower. It's Gibney's skills as an editor across both disciplines that help him parse the difference between them.

"In editing fiction or scripted films, you're spending more time adjusting elements of rhythm, pace and performance, so you're refining and shaping what's been shot," he explains. "But in docs, you're inventing. There's a freedom of mind that also requires an incredible discipline, to define structure out of chaos. That is, I think, much harder. But there are always ways where you can kind of break apart the form."

One director doing just that across both documentary and narrative is U.K.-based Bart Layton, whose 2012 BAFTA winner The Imposter, a stranger-than-fiction account of missing-persons identity theft, playfully tossed the documentary rulebook aside with its artful genre trappings and ambiguity-laden reenactments. It nodded toward an affinity for narrative cinema that fully bloomed in American Animals, unveiled at Sundance this year, in which Layton dramatizes the headline-making 2004 Transylvania University Book Heist with a daring documentary twist: The real-life criminals comment on the sidelines of Layton's scripted interpretation of events.

Layton is blithely casual about his fluidity of form. "If I haven't already been thrown out of the documentary club for The Imposter, I would be for American Animals," he laughs. "So there's no question of [the latter] being a documentary. It's not. But it plays with the idea of how stories get fictionalized, misremembered, sensationalized. And the scripted form helped with that. I felt that the inclusion of the real people would deepen your connection to the story. Suddenly, you have skin in the game."

For Friedman, switching from documentary to dramatized nonfiction entails a subtle change in the filmmaker's relationship to the facts: a distinction between what he terms "literal truth and deeper truth." "In scripted narrative, it feels more acceptable to take liberties with details of fact as long as you're true to the basic outlines of the story," he says. "In documentary, when you're dealing with real people who are presenting themselves on camera, I feel a responsibility to those people to present them in a way that they would be comfortable with. But when I'm recreating somebody's story or a historical incident, I don't feel as much responsibility to present every detail exactly as it happened. I can never know exactly how something happened anyway."

(Top) Director Bart Layton, left, and his DP, Ole Bratt Birkeland, on the set of the feature hybrid American Animals; (Middle) Alex Gibney, right, directs the action on the fact-based series The Looming Tower; (Bottom) Co-directors Jeffrey Friedman, left, and Rob Epstein confer on the set of the narrative feature Howl. (Photos: (Top) Wilson Webb; (Middle) Jojo Whilden/Hulu; (Bottom) Everett)

For Friedman and Epstein, as well as Cowperthwaite, the biopic genre seemed an obvious outlet for their skills as documentarians. Kapadia, whose narrative films have all been fictional, struggles to imagine directing one: "I don't want any actor pretending to be Amy Winehouse—that's her, that's really her life, that's her singing, that's her being, that's her physically changing. Someone playing that: I feel like I can't see past the construct. Certain sequences in Senna (about the Italian Formula One racer), like when he wins his first Grand Prix in Brazil, you can't restage that footage: This guy's doing 220 miles per hour and his life is genuinely at risk. Rather than trying to shoot something to look like that kind of shakycam, this is the real thing. Something about that just plays."

Gibney, however, is happy to let reality and reconstruction bleed into each other a little more, whether working in documentary or narrative. "The term cinema vérité means not truth, but cinematic truth," he says. "Mixing fiction filmmaking methods into docs is healthy and valuable, and often much misunderstood by critics, who ask, 'Why does he or she need to tart up something when just listing the facts would be better?' In the last 20 years, nonfiction has exploded formally: The days of the NBC White Paper are gone, and thank God. But you also see scripted films increasingly borrowing doc techniques, in terms of camera style, the willingness to grab material and embrace more chaotic reality."

Though Layton is one of those filmmakers who liberally mixes disciplines, when it came to American Animals, he found value in the strictures of screenwriting—at least initially. "In a doc, you embrace the unpredictable. But when you get into shooting a narrative movie, with all of the machinery that goes with that, that level of spontaneity or unpredictability was not what I wanted. I wanted the plan of how each scene was going to look and feel to be locked down, so I could then relax enough to open the door back up to all the stuff that you want on a documentary—basically, all the things actors do that you could never have written."

Cowperthwaite elaborates on Layton's planned-vs.- improv dynamic: "With scripted filmmaking, you know what's supposed to happen every day," she says, "but with documentary, every single shoot day is a question mark. You might get arrested, your interviewees might not show up, there are so many things that can go wrong. There's a freshness and a magic to that: You make decisions on the fly and just embrace the imperfection of life. So what I found myself doing in scripted was encouraging those impromptu moments, encouraging my cast and crew to be spry on their feet, in case something unscripted happened."

Ultimately, the four filmmakers are all in the business of making movies, whether scripted or not. "It was always my hope and dream to make movies for the big screen—and that's the same in fiction or documentary," says Kapadia. "So I could take all the things that I'd learned from fiction features—in terms of sound, music, camera and storytelling—and make reality just as visceral. It's why I choose not to do talking-head interviews: They take you out of the movie and make you very much aware of the filmmaker. Even with the sound design, I remember fighting to mix Senna in a really big stage, because it's a movie. It felt like this was the most exciting action film you could imagine, with this incredible hero: kind of the greatest movie star I'd come across."

As more filmmakers move more fluently between forms, the medium evolves and expands: documentary and narrative are no longer the separate worlds they once were. In an age of "fake news" paranoia, are directors concerned about blurring the line too much?

"The obvious peril is that people stop being able to differentiate between documentary and recreated reality, and I do think that's a problem," cautions Friedman. "We're currently facing a political crisis in defining what's true and what truth even means anymore. Even in a traditional documentary, you're making all kinds of choices, and it's more mediated than audiences might realize—but if it's done well and honestly, there's always a reliable storyteller behind the images. That level of trust is more difficult to maintain now."

Finally, for Gibney, there's only one clear rule for the storyteller, whether working in documentary, drama or somewhere in the middle. "I think you can fool the audience for a time," he says, "but don't ever lie to them."


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