Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Change of plan: 15 documentaries that switched course during filming

Illustration for article titled Change of plan: 15 documentaries that switched course during filming

1. My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

Most non-fiction filmmaking is about imposing structure where no structure exists. To explain a topic or make a point or achieve an effect, documentaries essentially reshape life (or at least life as seen through their lens). Every once in a while, however, it’s life that reshapes the documentary—usually by providing a new “story” so compelling that the filmmakers are forced to abandon their old one. That was certainly what happened to director Amir Bar-Lev when he began filming My Kid Could Paint That, a profile of toddler-aged professional painter Marla Olmstead. Possibly the youngest art-world sensation ever, Marla was only 4 when her abstract pieces started selling for a whopping six figures. And for a while, Bar-Lev seems to have a reasonably compelling human-interest doc on his hands. Everything changed, however, in February of 2005, when a 60 Minutes segment dared to ask if it wasn’t actually Marla’s father, a former artist himself, who was doing all the painting. Confronted with the allegations—and with his own set of doubts—Bar-Lev transforms his project into both a probing inquiry and a study of the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Does his imperative to uncover the truth outweigh his responsibility to his interview subjects? Either way, the takeaway is clear: Life is what happens when documentarians are making plans. [AAD]

2. 9/11 (2002)
Documentarian brothers Jules and Gédéon Naudet were in their adopted hometown of New York, making a movie about a rookie firefighter, when they—like everyone else—were taken by the surprise of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Their resulting film was the gripping, horrifying result of being in the wrong place at the exact wrong time: Jules was on a ride-along investigating a possible gas leak when the buzz of American Airlines Flight 11 caused him to look up, catching one of the only recordings of the first plane striking the North Tower. From there, the film—balanced by Gédéon’s footage of the firehouse dealing with the disaster—became a harrowing, on-the-ground chronicle of the twin towers’ collapse and aftermath. When it finally aired on CBS six months later, uncensored and with an introduction by Robert De Niro, 9/11 provided many with their first unfiltered look at a tragedy that had been obscured by so much confusion and media noise. And it remains an important, if difficult-to-watch, document of a moment no one predicted—least of all the filmmakers. [SO]

3. Capturing The Friedmans (2003)
Here’s why research is crucial: Sometimes the most interesting stories are hidden in the margins of other ones. Capturing The Friedmans began as a documentary on children’s birthday clowns in New York City. In the early 2000s, the biggest name on that scene was “Silly Billy,” the alter ego of thirtysomething entertainer David Friedman. Curious about the backstory of his most famous subject, director (and Moviefone creator) Andrew Jarecki began to dig deeper, quickly unearthing the dark underbelly of the material: Two members of Friedman’s immediate family—his father, Arnold, and his younger brother, Jesse—had pleaded guilty years earlier of sexually molesting a whole classroom of students. What’s more, David had tapes and tapes of home-video footage, chronicling the family during the investigation and subsequent trial. Naturally, Jarecki realized he had a much more compelling movie on his hands, and shifted the focus to the troubles of the Friedman clan; the result is one of the most ambiguous, problematic documentaries of the new century. But as those still interested in NYC clown culture will be happy to know, Jarecki also finished the original project: “Just A Clown” is included as an extra on the DVD of Friedmans. [AAD]

4. Sherman’s March (1985)
After receiving a $9,000 grant to make a documentary examining the lingering effects of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating Southern campaign at the end of the Civil War, director Ross McElwee was abruptly dumped by his girlfriend. Shattered and lonely in New York City, the courtly McElwee took his camera back home to the Southland and, instead, started filming his ex-girlfriends and a diverse cross-section of Southern womanhood, all of whom resist his tentative attentions with varying degrees of diplomacy. Sounding like the setup for a comedy by Christopher Guest or Albert Brooks, McElwee’s documentary (the title was eventually lengthened into A Meditation On The Possibility Of Romantic Love In The South During An Era Of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation) gradually suggests a cockeyed insight into the film’s originally stated theme. Perhaps out of fear of the unthinkable—another fiery apocalypse—McElwee’s subjects have twisted themselves into variously eccentric personae. In that light, the director’s romantic befuddlement and desperate identification with the tortured Sherman starts to make a sort of improbably affecting sense. [DP]

5. Daughter From Danang (2002)
Reunions of family members who’ve been torn apart by hardship are among the most reliable tearjerkers. That’s likely what Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco were thinking when they decided to make a film about Heidi Bub, a young woman born in Vietnam who’d been evacuated to the U.S. in 1975, near the end of the war, as part of what was called Operation Babylift. Having been raised by an American family from the age of 7, Heidi was eager to finally meet her birth family, and Dolgin and Franco tagged along with a camera to capture the heartwarming moment. Instead, Daughter From Danang unexpectedly became a slow-motion train wreck, as Heidi was perceived by her desperately poor Vietnamese relatives as their means of economic salvation. Radically different cultural expectations led to horrific misunderstandings, and the film essentially depicts Heidi’s complete mental breakdown; what was conceived as a feel-good journey of filial healing—a project that would salve old wounds even as it exposed them for our collective tsk-tsking—slowly but surely devolves into a fascinating, cringe-inducing portrait of cultural solipsism, climaxing in an emotional meltdown that wouldn’t look out of place in mid-period Cassavetes. [MD]

6. Gimme Shelter (1970)
The Maysles brothers set out to record The Rolling Stones as they wrapped up the final weeks of their 1969 U.S. tour—a series of shows that marked the group’s ascension to arena-rock gods, and quasi-mythical legends of a counterculture that had consumed the era. But then they got to Altamont, a free festival added to the end of their already-exhausting sojourn that would change the narrative of both the film and the 1960s. As the Maysles’ cameras watch (some of them operated by a young Martin Scorsese and George Lucas), the already-restive Altamont crowd boils over until, almost inevitably, things turn violent: 18-year-old Meredith Hunter attempts to force his way past the Hells Angels members serving as security, who respond by beating him; as he draws a revolver, another Hells Angel grabs and stabs him to death—and it’s all caught on camera. Any ability to enjoy Gimme Shelter as a concert film becomes immediately lost in that bad trip. From there, the movie switches to a documentary about the Summer Of Love ending in murder—a “snuff film,” as some incensed critics branded it—that even Mick Jagger, in one of the film’s signature moments, finds himself unable to look away from. [SO]

7. The Queen Of Versailles (2012)
There’s no way that filmmaker Lauren Greenfield could have guessed that her documentary portrait of excessive wealth and privilege would end on a note of poetic justice. But that’s exactly what happens in The Queen Of Versailles, which locates dramatic/comedic fortune in the unexpected misfortune of its subjects. Said subjects are time-share mogul David Siegel and his beauty-queen trophy wife, Jackie, who in 2004 began building the largest single-family residence in America—a sprawling Florida mansion at least partially modeled on the Palace Of Versailles. Siegel earned his billions coercing middle-class folks into buying vacation condos they didn’t need. So it’s hard to feel too terrible when—in late 2008, after the economic collapse—his real-estate empire begins to crumble, putting a halt to the construction of the enormous luxury property and forcing the whole family to adjust to a less lavish lifestyle. Greenfield, there to document this humiliating downward plummet through the tax brackets, ends up with something much more bitterly satisfying than the film she initially envisioned. The schadenfreude is accidental but potent. [AAD]

8. The Armstrong Lie (2013)
There’s a scene in The Armstrong Lie in which Lance Armstrong, sullen about his apparent non-victory in the 2009 Tour De France, looks at filmmaker Alex Gibney and says something to the effect of, “Sorry I ruined your movie.” That’s a telling moment in a film full of… if not lies, conflicting accounts of what Armstrong was up to during his reign as the world’s most famous cyclist. Armstrong does seem to be adept at creating a narrative: Whether he’s “telling all” to Oprah or being confronted by Gibney after doping allegations derailed what was supposed to be an uplifting redemption story, the athlete answers the questions that fit the official chronology and deflects the ones that don’t. Throughout The Armstrong Lie, the subject remains elusive, even as he sucks other people (like, as he freely admits, Gibney) into his charismatic orbit. [KR]

9. Let It Be (1970), I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002), and Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster (2004)
If making-the-album documentaries prove one thing, it’s that art is only a fraction of what goes into cutting a record. While in-fighting and business deals gone awry may not seem like lucky happenstance, they were to these filmmakers. Let It Be began as a television special to accompany a broadcast performance, but ended up capturing small cracks in the Beatles that would eventually transform the film into a eulogy (featuring the band’s legendary final public performance), rather than an overview. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart follows Wilco as the band is dropped from its label on the cusp of completing the critically adored Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. (If that wasn’t enough, director Sam Jones also captured the crumbling relationship between Jeff Tweedy and bandmate Jay Bennett.) And Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Some Kind Of Monster plays out like a prolonged therapy session, as Metallica bassist Jason Newsted leaves the band, while James Hetfield (who takes a break to go to rehab during filming) and Lars Ulrich butt heads so intensely, a kook shrink is brought in to make sure the record whose recording is being documented actually gets finished. [ME]

10. Vernon, Florida (1981)
Errol Morris’ follow-up to his first feature, the pet cemetery documentary Gates Of Heaven, originally had a much more sensational premise: Titled Nub City, the film was to be an examination of the residents of a small Florida town who supported themselves by over-buying insurance and then cutting off their own limbs. Unfortunately for Morris, the people of Vernon were uninterested in having their scam exposed to the documentary-going world, and, according to the director, threatened to kill him if he proceeded with his plan. So Nub City became Vernon, Florida, abandoning the residents’ profit-minded tendency toward self-mutilation in favor of an almost-hypnotic series of monologues from the town’s eccentric residents, including a garrulous turkey hunter, a worm enthusiast, and a semantically minded preacher. [WHu]

11. Overnight (2003) and Operation Filmmaker (2007)
The cinema is irresistible to narcissists, so any documentary about the making of a film threatens to become a portrait in megalomania. In Overnight, Troy Duffy is living a Hollywood Cinderella story, having sold his screenplay for The Boondock Saints to Harvey Weinstein, who also attached the novice to direct, drafted his band to record the soundtrack, and bought his bar for good measure. Operation Filmmaker’s Muthana Mohmed’s big break is equally impressive: Liev Schreiber sees Mohmed in an MTV documentary and is so touched by his dreams of becoming a director, he invites Mohmed to intern on Everything Is Illuminated. Nina Davenport’s documentary about cross-cultural understanding quickly devolves as her camera reveals Mohmed as a shiftless brat who has absorbed the Western world’s privilege more than its cinematic output. Duffy is done in for the same reasons—charisma and gab only go so far—and he alienates his biggest supporters with ruthless efficiency. Overnight’s directors don’t tip their hand, allowing Duffy to go full boor as he makes an enemy out of Weinstein and watches his auspicious career sputter. But Mohmed realizes the narrative has changed and thwarts Davenport’s production as her probing questions betray her opinion of him. Together, the films offer further proof that narcissists love cameras, but hate mirrors. [JA]

12. Lost In La Mancha (2002)
Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe proved their talent for behind-the-scenes documentation with The Hamster Factor And Other Tales Of Twelve Monkeys, a feature-length glimpse into the creation of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. So it was hardly surprising when the two got hired to chronicle the making of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam’s take on the classic tale of everyone’s favorite windmill tilter, starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort. What Fulton and Pepe ended up documenting, however, was a film that never got finished, due to problems including NATO noise pollution, flash flooding, and a star with a herniated disc. “At one point as the film was falling apart, we even approached Terry and told him that we felt uncomfortable shooting, that it seemed to us like we were just exploiting his misery,” Pepe told Dreams, a Gilliam fanzine. “He replied, ‘Someone’s got to get a film out of all this mess, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be me, so it had better be you. Keep shooting!’” [WHa]

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