The filmmakers behind six documentary series and seven documentary specials divulge the genesis of their projects and the most surprising things they learned along the way.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Each episode of this globe-trotting series focuses on a chef's handiwork.
The most surprising thing to me about making Chef's Table is how little our show is actually about cooking. Often, when we would try to put in a scene that was particularly technical or instructional, it kind of fell flat. Only when the cooking was personal, when it reflected an element of the chef's journey through life, did we find that it mattered in our edits. It's not about what they cook, but why they cook. This philosophy came to its fullest realization in our episode about Jeong Kwan, a nun who practices Buddhism through her cooking in a monastery nestled in the verdant mountains of South Korea. She doesn't even have a restaurant. She simply cooks for the other nuns and monks as well as for travelers who come to learn from her. The food is not meant to make money or win awards, but rather to be a demonstration of the harmony that can exist between nature and the human spirit. For our crew, the experience of being around her and, in a way, becoming her students ourselves, was deeply moving beyond the simple deliciousness of her cuisine.
— David Gelb, director
Five directors recount the lives of five Hollywood masters who enlisted during World War II to document the war.
Although this documentary series was based on a brilliant book by Mark Harris, I had to find a way to tell the story cinematically. My goal all along was to somehow link the story of our five guys (William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford, John Huston and Frank Capra), and of World War II, to our times. The best way was of course to have five contemporary filmmakers talk for and about them. But that meant finding filmmakers who had charisma, knowledge and could discuss not only the historical facts but also identify with the times and situations. With Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass and Francis Ford Coppola, we lucked out and met our ambition. They not only delivered on facts needed to tell the story but went beyond and brought in personal experience and perspectives. Another balancing act was how much narration was needed. Once Meryl Streep came on board, of course, the aspect of the narration reached a whole new level. It became another character, a sixth voice.
— Laurent Bouzereau, director/producer
Former Catholic school students investigate the death of one of their teachers and uncover accusations by another student, "Jane Doe," of sex abuse by a priest that may be connected.
The genesis of The Keepers was my mom telling me she had recently found out that her childhood friend had a horrific past. I was admittedly skeptical — the story just seemed so unbelievable — but I flew out to Baltimore to meet that woman, known previously only under the alias Jane Doe. I had no idea this initial conversation would lead to a Netflix series. The moment I left my first meeting with Jane Doe, I knew I wanted to be her partner in telling her past. When making a feature, you have a beginning, a middle and an end. When making a seven-episode series, you suddenly have 21 of those narrative beats to hit. It's liberating creatively to follow certain storylines that deserve their own attention and investigation. The Keepers was so complicated because it was such a twisted web of crimes; telling it episodically allowed us to do much more justice to all the nuances involved in the story.
— Ryan White, director
This half-doc, half-dramatization imagines what a mission to Mars would look like in 2033 and the science and technology that would enable it.
Perhaps the biggest surprise during the research and development phase was just how much work had gone into the actual engineering and planning of a future Mars mission. What was once a notion of science fiction has now become a realistic and accomplishable milestone within the next 15 to 20 years, though not without significant challenges. Between the work being conducted at NASA, SpaceX, ESA and many other government and private organizations, we had access to so much real information and science that it enabled us to model everything from our storylines, documentary subjects, production design and VFX to reflect an actual mission to Mars. The biggest compliment came from rocket scientists, who, after our first screening, said, "Yeah, it would probably look something like that …"
— Justin Wilkes, executive producer
Soldiers' personal footage from their deployment to Afghanistan forms the bulk of this series.
Soldiers have always brought journals and personal cameras to war, but the advent of GoPro cameras means it's now possible to get a view of warfare from the soldier's point of view, from a camera that's almost always rolling. There are literally thousands upon thousands of hours of footage out there, much of it housed on drives that are collecting dust in the backs of closets across the country. We were further pleasantly surprised to discover that when multiple soldiers are equipped with helmet cams, it's possible to reconstruct the play-by-play of the battle as if it had been covered by a multicamera setup. On the flip side, just because there was the possibility of total coverage doesn't mean we always had enough material to work with. Some of the most pivotal moments ended up happening off camera, simply because of a spent battery or a soldier accidently hitting the off button in the heat of battle.
— Joseph Schneier, executive producer
Journalists and celebrities venture around the globe to explore solutions to today's environmental problems.
Climate change is a complex subject that takes a lot of reporting and producing to bring to life on the screen. The doc series format enabled us to go much deeper into the subject. We took David Letterman to India to learn about its energy transformation and what that means for global climate change. It's a rapidly growing and developing country, and how they go about providing electricity to several hundred million people in the next couple of decades will have an enormous impact on the rest of us. Dave had never been there before, and over the course of a couple of weeks he was able to speak to a wide range of people, from scientists to engineers to entrepreneurs — even the prime minister. So when he goes to visit a family in a rural area that has no electricity and learns what a limited amount of solar power would do for the kids who live there — enable them to study and keep up in school — he's really informed, he's really engaged, and the effect is profound. The experience really changed his life, and you can see it happen on the screen.
— David Gelber and Joel Bach, executive producers
This Oscar-nominated feature explores the mass criminalization of African-Americans since the 13th Amendment passed in 1865.
What surprised me [during research] was learning about ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council], an organization that marries conservative legislators with private companies, and together they promote policies that keep prison populations high, among other things. Having been an African-American Studies major at UCLA and growing up in Compton, I was very familiar with the black history that I share in the film. But I was so taken aback by discovering ALEC that I delved into that research for a good six months. I wanted to learn the ins and outs fully enough to share it in the documentary. It was a devastating development.
— Ava DuVernay, director
Leonardo DiCaprio meets with scientists and activists to discuss solutions to the world's climate problems.
I always knew the climate was in trouble, but I had no idea how much until I dug deeper. And I didn't know how many of our politicians in the U.S. were actually bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry. When I learned how much money the Koch brothers and other special interests poured into the 2010-16 election cycle, I was completely disheartened, and I knew we were in big trouble. On the flip side, meeting people like Elon Musk and [the late climate scientist] Piers Sellers gave me hope that we could turn this around quickly. Though we didn't think it would play a large role, early in production we thought there was an interesting connection with Leo filming The Revenant, which explores man's impact on the pre- industrialized world. What we didn't expect was that production of Revenant would be impacted by unprecedented heat waves that would force the entire production to move to Argentina to find snow, which also changed our planned filming schedule. In the three-year process of making the documentary, climate change never ceased to play a part. It's tragic that the United States at this point has pulled out of the Paris accord. There could be a whole new devastating chapter [in our doc] that would hopefully have a happy ending, as cities in certain states continue to fight this president's incredibly narrow-minded climate policy.
— Fisher Stevens, director
The close relationship between mother and daughter is captured in this doc, which aired shortly after their deaths.
Debbie and Carrie were incredibly hesitant to do sit-down interviews (we never really managed to get one with Carrie), preferring to talk as they were doing something else. They rarely answered our questions. They took over each other's stories. They sang when you thought they would speak. They laughed at the sad memories and teared up at the happy ones. We learned they were impossible to direct, in some sense. Debbie and Carrie were a kind of duet — we didn't realize how symbiotic they were until we'd filmed them a while. Even though each was a heady potion in her own right, together they were as intoxicating and funny as humans could be.
— Alexis Bloom, co-director
Filmmakers explore the Los Angeles riots on the event's 25th anniversary.
One particular moment that stands out was watching the speech Rodney King gave during the unrest. In and of itself, the event was not surprising to us. If anything, it was one of the moments that we had a clear memory of. What was surprising was the discrepancy between how we remembered the speech and what we saw when we watched the raw tape. For many people, the rhetorical "Can we all get along?" was all they remembered from King's short address. It is arguably the most recognizable statement from the time period. However, for many people it had been relegated to a pop-culture phrase, if not a punchline. With a city burning down in his name, this young man is paraded out in front of cameras and ostensibly asked to try and single-handedly quell the unrest. His timid and anxious body language betrayed any sense of calm he may have been attempting to portray. While we knew we would be revealing some footage that had not been widely seen, we also wanted to find a way to reframe many of the iconic moments — like this one — that the audience may have assumed they knew.
— T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay, directors
Morgan Spurlock delves deep into cities with major rat infestations.
By making this a horror doc, we didn't want to shy away from the gruesome realities of the rat universe — whether that be the diseases they carry, the experiments tied to their demise or the fervor with which they are hunted around the globe. When you shoot around the world in as many countries as we did, you end up with a wealth of riches. We got some pushback on the intensity of some of these scenes, but we stood by our vision of the film, and I truly believe they only made the end product that much better.
— Morgan Spurlock, director
A famous transgender YouTuber documents her transition.
The most beautiful revelation was going to Toronto and getting to know Gigi's father and two brothers. Her family's willingness not only to participate in the documentary, but also to expose their hearts so readily for us, was amazing. Watching Gigi's father be so in touch with his emotions and his love for his child in front of the camera was a beautiful surprise. Having him break down in tears while we were filming, I was in tears, too. I went home to New York, and I couldn't get Gigi's family off my mind. I kept thinking that if everyone had a family like this, the world would be so much better. They are driven by love, and that's what we need in this world right now.
— Barbara Kopple, co-director
The recent drought was front and center in this film about the state's water crisis.
I was shocked to find out how closed, archaic and secretive the water world is and felt that a lot of those in power don't want laypeople to know how it works. Between water rights, water law, the fact that California is a desert with a man-made river running through it — it was a lot to try to make sense of and explain in a film. And there are so many layers to that world — engineers, policymakers, politicians, businesspeople, lawyers, environmentalists, farmers, fishermen, water districts, water suppliers and journalists — trying to understand what is going on and informing the public.
— Marina Zenovich, director