Paving the Way: Docos That Inspired Feature Films
Posted on: 26/11/2015
In the space of a month, two films, each covering ground already trod by critically acclaimed documentaries get their release in The Walk and The Program. It’s not the first time that films preceded by documentaries have been made, and it won’t be the last, but what can dramatisations bring to a story that documentary can’t? And is it best to look at feature length drama ‘remakes’ as companion pieces, rather than rip-offs?
It seemed strange at the time that feature film Lords of Dogtown (2005) would be released just a few short years after Dogtown & Z Boys (2001), the documentary that had already told the story of skateboarding’s revolution in ‘70s Santa Monica (aka ‘Dogtown’) and the three young skaters at the epicentre of that revolution.
Z-Boy Jay Adams
The director of the documentary was none other than Stacey Peralta, one of the three skaters, and Peralta would also go on to pen the script for Lords of Dogtown. And whilst that film focuses slightly more on the relationships formed and broken, as well as the disenfranchisement felt by the youth of Dogtown; there are very few points of difference.
Director Catherine Hardwicke did well to capture the energy of it all, and also smartly gave Heath Ledger room to shine as Skip Engblom, co-founder of the Zephyr Skating Team. As Skip, Ledger shows glimpses of the brilliance that would garner him a posthumous Oscar for his take on The Joker, but ultimately the rest of the cast are embarrassing in comparison, especially Victor Rasuk as skater Tony Alva, and Johnny Knoxville as sleazy businessman Topper Burks.
Lords of Dogtown provides a point in case for those who would argue that there’s no point in making a scripted film when you’ve a perfectly good documentary already. But what if a director can enhance the experience, and take the audience beyond the limitations of a documentary?
That was Robert Zemeckis’ intent with The Walk (preceded by the excellent doco Man on a Wire) a dramatic retelling of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s daring (and illegal) tight-ropewalk between the Twin Towers. Zemeckis told Hollywood Reporter that:
“... the thing I always wanted to do was present the walk itself, and of course that can’t be done in the documentary because there’s no video footage of the walk ever recorded... [The goal] was to evoke the feeling of vertigo.”
And to great affect too, as there are reports of audience members actually experiencing nausea (including vomiting) during the titular walk.
Joseph Gordon Levitt in The Walk
The Walk is visually resplendent, and, like the documentary, romanticises the art of tight-ropewalking through the character of Philippe Petit. But Man on a Wire, using interviews with Petit and his team, as well as re-enactments, tells the same story just as compellingly.
Regardless, Zemeckis saw how he could enhance the story; but it’s hard at first glance to see what The Program (2015) could bring to the Lance Armstrong story that wasn’t already covered in Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie (2013). After all, Gibney had unprecedented access to Armstrong, following him for the better part of 2009 – Armstrong’s ‘comeback’ year –and again literally hours after confessing to the world that he was indeed a doper and a cheat on Oprah in 2013. Gibney, always a warrior for the truth, confesses in his film that he too was caught up in the drama of Armstrong’s comeback:
“I wasn’t naive about past doping allegations, but I couldn’t help but root for the old pro, and he promised he was doing it clean.”
The Program (2015) meanwhile focuses on Irish sports journalist David Walsh’s long fight in exposing Armstrong as a cheat, releasing three books on the subject including Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong on which The Program is based. Though both films cover similar ground and are akin in scope, they are vastly different in regards to perspective: with one the story of a documentary filmmaker reflecting on his naivety in light of new information - the other the story of a seasoned sports journalist who refuses to buy into the Armstrong mythology.
Actor Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program
The Armstrong Lie is a fascinating example of how separate viewpoints can influence the story being told, and looking back at Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin: A Self Portrait, and The Last King of Scotland (2006) the value of dramatisation becomes clearer. The Ugandan dictator held 200 French citizens living in Uganda hostage when he heard Schroeder had screened a non-Amin approved version of his documentary, such was his crazed attempts to control the movie, the shooting of which he oversaw.
General Idi Amin: A Self Portrait Trailer
Schroeder’s completed documentary takes aim at Amin’s absurd regime, but due to Amin’s control over the project, it fails to transcend the jovial nature the dictator put on for the cameras. In The Last King of Scotland, it’s through the fictional protagonist of Nicholas Garrigan that the magnitude of the horrors perpetrated by Amin during his reign, are seen.
Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland
Steven Spielberg’s Munich too has in part the riveting One Day in September to thank for detailing the story of the ’72 Munich Olympic tragedy, in which Palestinian group Black September massacred eleven members of Israel’s Olympic team. But Munich picks up where One Day in September left off, and follows the Mossad operation to track down those responsible, and explores the moral mire of such an operation. In that sense Munich can be seen as next chapter of the same story.
HBO’s Grey Gardens (2009) too went beyond the scope of its 1975 documentary namesake, by flashing back and forth through time in order to understand the reclusive nature of ‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’ Beale. The upper class recluses, relatives of Jacqui Kennedy Onassis, lived alone at the titular estate in squalor, and tell their own story to camera in the 1975 documentary.
But the dramatisation attempts to communicate that story more vividly, and the women are played magnificently and with great tenderness by Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. It’s fair to say though that had there never been a documentary, the HBO film would not exist, in fact the latter features the documentary’s filming within its narrative; yet it is best viewed as an extension of the work done by documentarians Albert and David Maysles, rather than imitation.
Feature filmmakers often present their own interpretations of characters and events and in doing so, they effectively dramatise and popularise tales already told by documentary. However, not all of these dramatisations are the result of opportunism; some filmmakers are furthering the story, or simply trying to enhance the experience. Still, rarely is anything as fascinating as the truth.
- Garry Westmore (@GarryWestmore)
Love documentaries? This February we play host to the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), which will be supported by screenings of The Hunting Ground, Catfish Interrupted and The Memory of Justice.comments powered by Disqus