This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Maybe it’s time to stop calling the films they make “documentaries” — that word sounds so dull, educational, earnest, “a hangover from the old days when documentaries were supposed to teach simple lessons,” says Alex Gibney. An Oscar winner for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney, 60, worked overtime this year, directing both We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and The Armstrong Lie, which began as a chronicle of Lance Armstrong‘s comeback attempt at the 2009 Tour de France and turned into something darker when the athlete finally admitted to doping. And when Gibney joined five of his fellow documentary filmmakers for THR‘s first Documentarian Roundtable, if there was one point of consensus, it was that their films should be called simply “films.”
After all, they offer up a lot more human drama than most cookie-cutter studio movies. The Crash Reel, directed by Lucy Walker (who declined to give her age), follows snowboarder Kevin Pearce as he fights a traumatic brain injury; 20 Feet From Stardom, from Morgan Neville, 46, pays tribute to the unsung backup singers behind superstars from David Bowie to Mick Jagger; and Tim’s Vermeer, directed by Teller, 65 (the silent half of the Penn & Teller magic act), follows an obsessive inventor as he sets out to prove a theory about the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Also joining in the conversation were James Toback, 60, whose Seduced and Abandoned, a valentine to the art and commerce of movies, recounts a 2012 visit to Cannes he and Alec Baldwin took in an attempt to raise financing for a movie, and Errol Morris — an Oscar winner for 2003’s The Fog of War — who turned his camera on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for The Unknown Known.
During their spirited conversation, they discussed the sense of responsibility they feel when approaching real-life subjects; Gibney rejected the 60 Minutes model that interviews have to be prosecutorial exercises leading to “gotcha” moments; and the slyly provocative Morris explained why Bruno, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, should have been a best picture winner.
Feature filmmakers work from a script, so they know in which direction they’re headed. But with documentaries, it has to be much more unpredictable. Errol, how did you manage to convince Donald Rumsfeld to allow you to film him?
Errol Morris: I wrote him a letter. He invited me to Washington. I met with him in his office. We spent four hours together. Much to my surprise, probably to many people’s surprise, he agreed to talk to me.
Morris: You probably should ask him. People ask this question as though I had some privileged access to his mind. He probably did it for many, many reasons.
Teller: Did he know your work?
Morris: He told me that he had seen The Fog of War, my film about a former secretary of defense like himself, Robert McNamara. And he told me he hated the movie.
Teller, your film is about a man, Tim Jenison, who spent almost 10 years exploring a theory about how the Dutch artist Vermeer painted his pictures using a device that combines a system of mirrors and a camera obscura. When did you become involved and know that there was a film there?
Teller: Penn [Jillette] learned about Tim’s project over dinner in Las Vegas. I saw Tim’s device and I thought it was plausible. So I got involved very early on, but I still didn’t know until about the last year what the film was going to be. He might have failed. And at one point I actually said to him, “Tim, are you going to succeed?” And he said, “But of course — if I don’t succeed there won’t be a movie, right?” I said, “Oh, there will be a movie.”
Morgan, you’ve done a lot of music documentaries. Why did you decide to focus on backup singers in 20 Feet From Stardom?
Morgan Neville: When you make a documentary, you shoot a movie and then you write a script. And that was very much the case here. My producer Gil Friesen came to me and said: “Backup singers. I think there’s something interesting about them.” And I tried to do research but I couldn’t because nothing had been done. So we went out and spent three months interviewing 50 backup singers. Very quickly I realized there was this incredible world and these incredible artists who completely upset every misconception I had about them. From then on it came together pretty quickly. The horrible irony is that this was Gil’s baby and he died just weeks before we premiered at Sundance. So he never got to see the film come out, but he believed in it more than anybody.
Jim, I know you and Alec Baldwin went to Cannes in search of a film. What did you think you were going to find?
James Toback: The idea was, we were going to do a movie together no matter what. We just didn’t know what it would be. We finally fixed on what we called tentatively Last Tango in Tikrit, but in case we didn’t get the money for Last Tango in Tikrit — which we were going to Cannes to do — I at least wanted to know we would be able to make a movie about the quest to make it. Secretly, I was more interested in the idea of doing an unscripted, documentary-like film about the joys of actually making a movie and the horrors of trying to get the money. As Orson Welles says in the quote that sets up the movie, “I look back on my life as a filmmaker and it’s 95 percent running around trying to get money and 5 percent actually making them. It’s no way to live.”
Lucy Walker: 98 percent. That’s his quote.
Toback: Is it 98? Oh my God. We need to correct that.
Lucy, The Crash Reel looks at the rivalry between two snowboarders, Kevin Pearce, who had a near-fatal accident just before the 2010 Winter Games, and Shaun White. Why was this an attractive subject to you?
Walker: I like watching extreme sports because my eyeballs are kind of sucked out of my head at these extraordinary acrobatic feats that these young people are doing. At the same time, I have this urge to jump in and tie those kids down before they get hurt because the stakes are life and death. When I met Kevin, it was his first excursion after the accident. And my first thought was, “Olympic hopeful crashes.” It’s a sad two-note story. It took me a little while to see the potential for a bigger story. And it was when I started to observe that Kevin was desperate to get back on a snowboard, despite his doctors telling him that if he hit his head again he would die. And I thought, “My God, is it possible that we’re going to have some kind of Rocky-type comeback? Or, more likely, is he going to crash and die?” Or is he going to dig deep and transform in some way we can’t anticipate yet? I had no idea where it was going, but I knew it would be interesting.
Alex, what’s it like when you start out expecting to make one sort of film and then have it change midway through? You certainly had that experience with your Lance Armstrong movie.
Alex Gibney: Well, it was a five-year process. I started out to make a comeback story. And it went from Breaking Away to Breaking Bad. So I had to follow that curve. In a way, it became a peculiar process of actually reinvestigating my own first film, which hadn’t been finished, and going back in and looking at it in a completely new way. And for the other film I did that came out this year [We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks], nobody would talk to me. With that one, I started out thinking I was going to make a film about Julian Assange. And Assange wouldn’t talk to me. But that ended up driving me to investigate Bradley Manning — now Chelsea Manning — who had been the forgotten figure in all of this. But the challenge was, How do you present her if she’s in prison? We elected to actually use her chats, her printed chats, which I had never done before, which was terrifying. And then I had Lance Armstrong, who talked a lot, but you couldn’t believe anything that he said.
Toback: Were you ever suspicious about him from the beginning?
Gibney: Yeah. I mean, the interesting thing about the Armstrong lie is that it was a lie that was hiding in plain sight. Even from the start of the comeback story, you know, you could look at the allegations, starting in 1999, and there were very credible allegations that he had doped, which were covered up by the UCI [the Switzerland-based International Cycling Union]. But one of the interesting things that happened, which I then reflected on in the film, was that as part of following him — I was embedded in the Armstrong Army — I became convinced that in 2009 he was clean. But it was interesting, the psychological process I had to go through.
There’s an interesting common denominator in all your films this year. Whether you’re talking to politicians or musicians, performers or sports figures, you’re dealing with people who put on public faces. Is it your job to come in and strip some of that away? How much are you prosecutors when you’re making a film?
Gibney: One of the interesting things about Errol’s film was that he presents Rumsfeld as the one who’s trying to present a face for himself. He presents himself in such a forceful way as someone who has no regret.
Walker: And I have a brain-injured person in my film who has cognitive dissonance. He’s living in this reality where he’s fine and he can get back on a snowboard and get back to the top of the Olympics podium. In reality, he’s got a severe traumatic brain injury. And there’s an interesting responsibility when you have relationships with these conflicting personae. We have the power over how people appear. We can make them say things they don’t say. And there’s this huge responsibility with that.
Toback: I was stunned at how easy it was to get these iconic figures, Scorsese, Coppola, Bertolucci, Polanski, Ryan Gosling, to trust that I was going to make them look … not good, but look like who they are, which was my goal as those portraits are fundamental to the film. Alec Baldwin is great at that stuff. He’s the most nonprosecutorial, subtle, almost sneaky interviewer alive. He lets people relax and draws them out. These are public figures and [I think they like the idea] of taking a vacation from the public face. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one of the reasons Rumsfeld [agreed to be interviewed by Errol].
Neville: Trust is a key currency because with trust you get intimacy. For me, it was all about establishing this intimacy with these musicians and these women who, for the most part, didn’t want to go on camera. You think most people want to go on camera, but these singers have made their own bargain with themselves about what their relationship was going to be with fame. And it was really about telling them they could trust me with their stories.
You’ve got some great people like Darlene Love front and center. But you say there also were singers who ultimately wouldn’t sit with you?
Neville: Yeah, but even singers who did sit with me didn’t always want to in the beginning. And Darlene was one of those. They just felt so burned by the industry — and that I was somebody else who was going to exploit them.
There’s a famous quote from Janet Malcolm, who says that all journalists are basically confidence men who gain their subject’s confidence and then betray their trust. Do you ever feel that as documentary filmmakers?
Walker: It’s actually surprisingly easy to make people look ridiculous, to egg them on, to make them do extraordinary things. And you have this tremendous responsibility. I don’t think it’s that hard to push people, and it’s our job to use that force wisely.
Teller: When we did the Bullshit! series for Showtime, we always liked to brag it was highly biased and very fair. (Laughter.) At times we had situations like you guys described; once we had nuts who believed in extraterrestrials. We wanted to let them get their case out there. And we wanted to let them look as foolish as they wanted to be. But there was one with really bad teeth. And we couldn’t use him because his bad teeth prejudiced the viewer against him. And what we wanted was for him to be able to deliver his case, and the home viewer to go, “That guy’s crazy.” (Laughter.)
Gibney: You have to imagine showing the film not to some random audience, but to the subject himself or herself. And you’ve got to be able to defend it, to look them in the eye and say, “I feel like this was truthful in some larger sense.” In another film I made, I made murderers too sympathetic in the cutting room because I had great sympathy for them. They were young men. They were put in a very difficult position. I sometimes show rough cuts to people and based on what people said, they felt, “Oh gosh, these guys were victims.” I thought, “Well, there’s a real victim; that’s the person who was killed.”º And if that’s what people are coming away with then something must be missing.
Walker: I had an interesting situation with my second film, Blindsight. The film was about a mountain climb that goes wrong. And there’s a wonderful showdown at 23,000 feet between a blind American mountaineer, a blind German, a bunch of blind Tibetan students … and everyone starts letting fly [with arguments over whether they’re endangering lives]. And I had not showed it to anybody before the premiere, and then they were all there. But what was fantastic was that everybody came up to me afterwards so happy with how they’d been edited, but so worried about how everybody else must feel. I thought, “Gosh, I must be doing a good job because that is reality.”
Morris: Part of what I think my job is, for better or for worse, is to capture the complexity of my characters …
Morris: … And the complexity of the environment. I like to remind myself that I am a filmmaker for better or for worse and not a social worker.
Gibney: There is a problem now in terms of expectation of what a documentary is supposed to do, and it comes in part from 60 Minutes. Michael Arlen, a long time ago, wrote a great piece in The New Yorker called “The Prosecutor,” about how 60 Minutes sets up this prosecutorial environment. The idea of thumbs up, thumbs down, instant opinion; it’s a drag. Because a lot of what I think the people at this table do is to reveal. And sometimes what you reveal is not a simple answer. Sometimes it’s ambiguity. Sometimes it’s mystery.
Morris: Hollywood movies imitate documentaries almost endlessly: the use of available light, handheld cameras, so on and so forth. And there is this expectation that documentaries should imitate Hollywood movies. They should have redemptive endings. They should obey certain rules of dramaturgy. They should provide certain levels of audience satisfaction. In short, they should become extended versions of Free Willy. (Laughter.) And the very thought of that just fills me with a kind of horror.
Some years back, Errol’s film The Thin Blue Line wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, which stirred up a lot of controversy. Do you think the Academy is doing a better job now of recognizing the best docs?
Walker: I am just grateful to the Academy for recognizing documentary features and shorts, which I also think are becoming more vital again.
Toback: They should give it a lot more prominence than they do.
Morris: I’m now a member of the Academy, and I wrote in as the best film of the year [in 2009] — not best documentary, but best film — [Sacha Baron Cohen’s] Bruno. And someone asked me, “How could you do such a thing? This is unspeakable.” (Laughter.) I said, “Well, there was a very simple reason. It was the best film of the year.” Aside from that fact, it’s a great documentary. There are things that are happening in that film which are clearly unscripted — things that capture something about the real world that perhaps is distasteful, but it’s also extremely funny and revealing.
How has the digital revolution changed your jobs?
Gibney: Well, we have digital cameras.
Teller: When we went to visit [artist David] Hockney, he’d had really bad experiences with documentary people before and he didn’t want anything videotaped. So we didn’t bring along our fancy Red cameras, but we did slip a couple of cameras into our overalls. And he brought us into his kitchen, into his dining room, made lunch for us, and we went up to his studio. On the way up I said, “David, is there any chance we could shoot this?” He said, “Sure, go ahead.” Which is why the sound in that particular scene just sucks royally. But thanks to digital stuff, we were able to correct it enough that you could at least understand it.
There are more opportunities now for people to watch documentaries: PBS, HBO, Netflix is becoming involved, CNN has started running documentaries. Does it matter to you whether your movies are seen in theaters or on TV?
Toback: Let’s face it: Everybody knows that most people now consume movies in a nontheatrical environment. I hate to say this, because I grew up loving theaters, but I don’t see how they survive. Unless it’s 3D Imax and even then, eventually, there’ll be living room 3D. I don’t see how it survives.
Teller: I think snacks are the answer. It’s one of the reasons why I think cineplexes don’t care too much when you sneak from one theater to the other, because you’re buying outrageously priced snacks.
Walker: With The Crash Reel, we’re putting it in theaters after HBO, which is an unusual experiment. And I’m actually convinced that this is a better approach because it’s so hard to have the resources to create the awareness for a proper theatrical [run]. And we’re treating HBO as a wonderful sort of promotional instrument, in addition to reaching a certain demographic.
Gibney: Yeah, it’s all changing and it’s changing in an interesting way. I live in the suburbs, and some theaters sell subscriptions to a slate of movies, 10 movies. And the theaters are packed. Why? Because usually somebody from the film or somebody who’s interested and knowledgeable about that subject shows up and they discuss it afterwards. That “town hall meeting” thing becomes a very interesting component.
So then you’re optimistic about documentaries finding an audience?
Teller: I think there is a big problem with the word “documentary.” The word documentary sounds like “document,” sounds like something you do in school. Sounds like something you would do in a legal case. I mean, here, I’m going to go to the movie theater now. Will I go to a documentary or a thriller? We need a better word.