ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Strip-Miners —

There’s this slightly ugly trend that’s been going on in documentary filmmaking for a while. I’m sure it has some roots going many years back, but it’s come into my radar and I’m not sure how well it’s been covered or mentioned, so I figured I might as well pipe up.

Succinctly: For years, promoters and production types have been approaching documentary filmmakers, people who have dug some sort of story from reality, and have purchased the fictional remake rights.

I will be the first to admit I’m rather curmudgeonly about the documentary form, considering it a very special genre of film in which directors are implicitly making promises to the audience, promises that they could easily renege on without the audience being the wiser. The audience, to some level, is brought to believe that what they’re seeing is either filmed reality or film composed from reality. How much any member of the audience is willing to accept this for any amount of time is up in the air, but when you see action occurring, you think that you’re seeing filmed reality, and when you see people talking to the camera, you think you’re seeing someone being in some way interviewed in actual reality. All interviews can be cut weird and all interviewees can lie, but they’re really lying, like someone who is standing in front of you might be lying to you.

There are films that ape the documentary style, for example Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, in which his characters seem to be followed by a documentary crew and the people within it are answering interview questions at various juncture points throughout the film. It brings in a strange other reality for the film, and someone who doesn’t know who Woody Allen is might think this was a real documentary. There was a film I saw in film school which appears in every way to be a documentary about a girl going out and the cameraman is interviewing her and at some point she breaks down and reveals she was recently raped, and the students watching it were shocked when it had credits of actors playing the parts and we were told it was a scripted fictional play. This is all grey area and artists being artists so I don’t have much to say about them other than maintaining they should have truthful labels and not be filed under “documentary”.

Conversely, there is a scene at the end of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine that I do consider a breach of trust: He hammers Charlton Heston about gun control, which is fine, and typical journalistic assholery towards a greater good, perceived or otherwise. But at the end of this sequence, Heston walks away, and Moore calls him to show him a picture of a little girl who died from a shooting. This scene is impossible. The reverse shot we see simply cannot have been filmed at the same time we see Heston reacting to a photo. Moore might be actually showing the photo in the shot with Heston in the background and Moore in the foreground, but that reverse shot is being done at a later time, before they leave the grounds. Flat out. I consider that a lie, no matter how much it clears up the narrative flow for Moore’s editors. There is no grey area for me, I consider it wrong.

But I have no such concerns about most movies, even ones “based on a true story”. Even I know that when something is “based on a true story” it could mean that there once was a real story about someone, and all it shares with this story is both guys owned a dog. Or they lived in Portland, Oregon. Or they had a wife named Jill. It’s complete fluff and irrelevant that it was “based on a true story” just as much as that it’s “filmed on location”. I don’t apply any standard to it and dismiss it as fiction and enjoy or don’t enjoy it on its merits.

Such a low consideration, then, becomes problematic when that fictionalized story is “based upon” a documentary, especially when in all ways the documentary is based off of reality and therefore you know it’s not just a small overlap of details but many of them, and that what you are seeing is a hyped-up action-packed remake of real events. That brings in something, some weight or cachet, that an audience, including myself, might put upon the work. That’s significant.

There was a film called Dogtown and Z-Boys which I saw back in 2001 at my local theater, which I really enjoyed. I forgot why I wanted to see it other than I was really getting into documentaries and this one looked pretty cool and so off I went. I was really taken with how great the editing was, how it had so much vintage footage and portrayal of all these events, and I was also blown away by how good it looked. This was, in some ways, what strengthened my resolve to the idea that I, too, would make a documentary.

The issue, however, is that the film has a couple problematic aspects that I wasn’t aware of at the time. For example, one of the people in it, Stacy Peralta, is also the director. That’s not a fantastic situation, to have your movie be about something and you’re one of the major players in the story. Glen Friedman, a photographer for skateboard magazine, is an interviewee and also a producer of the film. The film is also funded by Vans, a shoe and apparel company. An article that goes in all sorts of pointing-finger detail about this is here.

But all that aside, what happened was that four years later, we had a fictional film based on the documentary, based on reality. Called Lords of Dogtown, this coming of age story used real people’s names, remixes some of the events, and has actual people in cameos near characters playing them. Are you going to watch it on its own merits? Or are you thinking that, because it’s based on a real story, it’s got some additional weight to throw around because things you’re watching are “reality”? It is, in other words, successfully more troubling than the original Dogtown documentary.

From here, my concerns about there being a trend start to fall together. Grey Gardens (1975), considered to be one of the classics of documentary form, is about the story of two distant relatives of Jackie Kennedy, living their lives in a dilapidated house and going some form of Mad. Grey Gardens (2008) is to be a fictionalized version of same, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange playing the parts of the two women from the first documentary, and a few dozen additional actors thrown into the mix. This new fictional film should also not be confused with The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006), which is another documentary by the same documentary filmmakers who made the 1975 Gardens.

And before the question comes to you, yes, I was approached on several occasions to sell or otherwise collaborate on fictionalized versions of the BBS Documentary. In one case one of the reporters who told my story was asked if we wanted to collaborate on a book or film, and in another case I was approached directly by a smiling, smarmy producer type who was more than happy to help me realize the full potential of my project by making a fictional script and who quickly became insulting, abusive and phone-throwing when I told him in impolite terms my own version of “fuck off”. I was let into a lot of homes and told a lot of special stories by a lot of people who trusted me. I consider turning around and making Wargames with more tits to be a betrayal of that trust.

So I started asking filmmakers, when I went to their screenings, and after the question period had ended and I was chatting them up at a later time, if they too had been approached for the fictional/story rights. So far, basically all have. Some had even sold them, before the film was even released. I think this is now the norm and is being done consistently. Or, conversely, is well on its way to being consistent in the case of unique stories that can’t just be made up without obvious pointing to the original documentary.

I don’t like this at all, not one bit. I consider it strip-mining of the worst sort, taking stories of people that are being told in these crafted works, and then turning them out on the street corner to be jazzed up, dashed about, tarted around with death and lipstick and repackaged again and again. I’m sure there’s a thousand little stories the directors can tell themselves about why this is a fantastic idea, but I am not in the least bit interested.

But the tragic part, or maybe the best part of all, is there’s nothing I can really do about this. It’s just another revenue stream being exploited, another quick-fix to sagging storylines that’s patched on, another cheap trick in an industry that prides itself on cheap tricks.

But I thought you might like to know about it.

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  1. Chris Orcutt says:

    As you pointed out, Jay, it’s all about money. The fact is, the fictional versions of nonfiction are valuable commodities to studios. More and more nonfiction books (e.g., Fast Food Nation) are being made into films because once they own the fictional rights, they own everything valuable (or at least with profit-earning potential) about that given story idea.

    But the alternative isn’t true. Owning the documentary rights only guarantees that you have the right to make a fact-based (and therefore less controllable) story. You have the right to do WEEKS of research and fly all over the damn place and get waivers and conduct interviews and then—yeah!—you get to spend MONTHS editing the sh-t together by yourself or with a tiny crew and no budget.

    Recently, when my novel was being considered by a Warner Brothers production company, I was told by the producer (through my agent) that while they loved my story (especially the characters), they were concerned about it being based on true events. They said they’d been burned in the past purchasing fictional stories based in fact because another one sort of like the one you just purchased can come out at any time. Therefore, the studios are always better off buying the COMPLETE rights to the nonfiction piece in the first place, effectively “cock-blocking” other studios from doing the same story.

    I’m seeing the other end of this right now with another project I’m working on. A couple of months ago, I was approached by a production company (based in your area, by the way) interested in doing a documentary based on a book I reviewed on Amazon. The book, Paddy’s Lament, was written by the late Thomas Gallagher, a close family friend and my writing mentor. The production company approached me because I mention in the review my ties to him, and they were interested in acquiring the “film” rights. Once we started talking, the producer realized I know the book as well as, if not better than, he does, so we discussed my writing the script. Anyway, I gave him the name of Mr. Gallagher’s last agent and a couple of weeks later the film rights department got back to him.

    In effect, they only wanted to sell him the nonfiction/documentary rights and were extremely reluctant to sell him all the film rights attached to the book. Why? Because fiction is where the money is. Even though the book was published over 20 years ago and has lain dormant with NO film or TV adaptations sold at any time, the literary/film agency is holding out for a BIG payday. (This reminds me of Ernest Hemingway who wrote several novels that never saw the light of day because when he finished them, he put them literally in the bank—a safety deposit box—to provide an income for his wife, Mary, after his death.)

    It seems that the agency, even though the book is about as useful to them at the moment as Hemingway’s locked-up work, is loath to part with the possibility of future money. They want to try to squeeze as much up-front cash out of the producer as possible, and it’s very likely that their greed will backfire. Already he’s said that as well-organized as Mr. Gallagher’s book is (his real reason for wanting to acquire it), the SUBJECT of the book, the Irish Potato Famine and why the Irish have an inbred hatred of the English, is freely available. He’s already considering dumping the idea of purchasing the rights and doing the fact-gathering himself.

    So, to you, here’s my point: If you are approached by a production company or studio or “fictional” filmmaker for the rights to BBS Documentary or inchoate GET LAMP, and they make a reasonable offer, and you have no intentions of doing a feature film based on your own material, TAKE THE FRIGGEN MONEY. Why? Because there’s nothing to stop them from simply bypassing you, gathering the material themselves (using your own documentary as a guide), and producing a big-money film based on the subject that you labored over so intensely for so long.

    I realize this is anathema to you, my friend, but I think it’s the reality of the film world today. Hollywood is SO DESPERATE for story that they’re making films based on friggen video games (sorry to those of you looking forward to DOOM) and toys, for Christ’s sake.

    It sucks, but I think that’s just the way things are.

  2. Flack says:

    Sadly, there have been no offers for the fictional film rights to Commodork. I’d even play myself, for the right price.

    I’m sure you already know this but a fictionalized version of King of Kong is (or at least was) floating around the rumor mill. I guess fictionalized films appeal to a different breed of film viewer. I much prefer the documentaries. I greatly preferred Dogtown and the Z-Boys over Lords of Dogtown. Real life seems to have enough drama without needing Hollywood to inject more.