Documentary production processes differ greatly from the more streamlined (factory?) approaches of mainstream fiction media. Without the written script, paid actors, and deep budgets, documentary makers face many variables that might advance, pause, or change a film’s progress. Some of those variables might even halt the film’s production altogether.
Learning about what happens on other films can help documentary filmmakers handle the challenges that might appear in their own productions. Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told, by Jeffrey Swimmer, provides just those kinds of insights and more.
For this accessible volume, Swimmer interviews directors and producers who worked on Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning documentaries. The chapters cover films such as 20 Feet from Stardom, The Act of Killing, Food, Inc., Gasland, Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, Man on Wire, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Restrepo, Sergio, Sound and Fury, Spellbound, Super Size Me, and Undefeated.
To write these chapters, Swimmer conducted interviews with Josh Aronson, Greg Barker, Jeffrey Blitz, Simon Chinn, Josh Fox, Mark Harris, Sebastian Junger, Robert Kenner, Daniel Linsday, James Marsh, T.J. Martin, Frieda Lee Mock, Morgan Neville, Deborah Oppenheimer, Joshua Oppenheimer, Elise Pearlstein, Morgan Spurlock, and Roger Weisberg.
Though structured by title, the book develops several themes across these interviews. One of the largest overarching themes is working with participants. Though often quite watchable and engaging, charismatic subjects can still prove challenging. For Man on Wire, high-wire walker Philippe Petit is just that charismatic subject, but Petit also proved reluctant to consent to the production and demanded involvement other aspects, such as interview choices, interview filming, and dramatizations. Sergio offered a different kind of challenge with the charismatic subject. Though Sérgio Vieira de Mello had died in 2003, interview participants remained reluctant to say anything negative about him on camera.
While a few filmmakers start with their own stake in an issue, such as with Josh Fox and Gasland, most are outsiders to the cultures and communities appearing in their films. In creating Sound and Fury, which offers an inside look at the Deaf community and the divisive issue of cochlear implants, Josh Aronson needed to find access, to gain the community’s trust, and to show the community’s views fairly. He learned some sign language to help with communicating, but the filmed signed interviews still required careful translation to prevent alienating the community.
Of course, finding and choosing the right interview participants remains the fundamental challenge for any documentary production. Spellbound follows the National Spelling Bee, which draws finalists from regional competitions. How do you choose engaging candidates who might make it to the finals from such a large pool? is one question that Jeffrey Blitz faced. Mark Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer also faced a similar challenge with Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Morgan Spurlock solved the “casting” problem for his fast-food experiment by “casting” himself in Super Size Me.
Offering a range of interview voices is important, but some participants remain reluctant to talk at all. This situation arises in particular with documentaries that address political issues, including Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and Gasland.
These participants become part of the documentary’s story, which creates more issues. Many materials about the Holocaust exist, so Harris and Oppenheimer needed to find a new angle. Food, Inc., needed to balance gruesome scenes within its story. Morgan Neville encountered the largely overlooked stories of backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom, but he struggled to bring those stories into one narrative until postproduction. Every chapter in Swimmer’s book offers points about these storytelling struggles.
Money — mostly the absence thereof — was also a prominent refrain in these chapters. Some started with funding but still needed completion funds. Some maxed out credits cards and juggled them to make expenses meet. Some started with nest eggs and soon ran out, accruing more debt. Of course, the money woes impacted travel, equipment, and other expenses, which in turned impacted interviews and storytelling.
The chapter I highlighted most was about The Act of Killing, which flips the script on genocide documentaries to focus on the perpetrators and not the victims. Director Joshua Oppenheimer worked with one of those perpetrators, Anwar Congo, to recreate the multiple murder scenes. Inspired by the Hollywood dream factory, Congo had some extravagant ideas about faked chase scenes and on-location scenes, but Oppenheimer turned him down. The chapter’s strength lies in the discussions of the trauma that Oppenheimer himself experienced both during the production and the nightmares afterward.
Swimmer writes in a conversational style that makes for a quick and engaging read. The quoted remarks and the background information mesh well together, and Swimmer avoids unrelated tangents and academic theorizing. His choice of Oscar-connected titles is a savvy one, and the production issues these case studies reveal are relevant for filmmakers and documentary enthusiasts alike.