One way to reach a bigger audience: don't just make a documentary, make the narrative feature, too. Directors at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival made a strong case for how documentaries can inform narrative features. At the "Based on a True Story" Speakeasy discussion, host and Festival Director Deirdre Haj reminded us that documentaries are more than just informative, they are powerful storytelling devices.
In the case of directors Marshall Curry, Nancy Biurski, Stephen Nemeth, and Mark Landsman, powerful documentary stories are being used to both inspire and inform fiction films.
Nancy Biurski embarked on the documentary "The Loving Story," after reading the obituary of Mildred Loving in 2008. Biurski's approach to the Loving family with this idea was unique in that she could already envision both documentary and fiction features. She began writing scripts for both, but the archival footage for the documentary jumpstarted that project first. By the time Biurski and team had a trailer, she had opened up the conversation again on the narrative idea.
Director Marshall Curry consciously wrote and edited "Racing Dreams," about young aspiring race car drivers, with the intention of demonstrating fiction film appeal.
Demonstrating commitment through documentary helps build relationships.
Biurski's work on the documentary instilled a sense of confidence in the Loving family that their story would be honest and authentic in a fiction film.
If you make the documentary first, then you have a property that someone has to option.
For both Biurski and Curry, the documentary's success and power of story caught the attention of potential buyers for the narrative version.
Don't wait to have the conversation with your subjects.
When Mark Landsman met with The Kashmere Stage Band and they let him know about a reunion concert in tribute to their leader Conrad "Prof" Johnson, Landsman immediately secured the rights for the documentary AND the feature. "Don't wait to have that discussion with your character," said Landsman. "If you get the instinct, I would say go with it, someone else is going to have the instinct, too."
When other inquiries to the subjects started to come in from Hollywood, Landsman had a clear line, "tell them they're too late!"
What is the role for the documentary filmmaker in the narrative? Directors agree it's never too early to make that decision as well. Landsman is currently in development on the "Thunder Soul" fiction feature along with Executive Producer Jamie Foxx. By the time Biurski's narrative film was in development, she had started on other work so she opted not to direct. She's content to be co-producing and writing--the project could benefit from fresh ideas.
In the case of "Racing Dreams," optioned by Dreamworks after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Marshall Curry is executive producer. Curry said this gives him a voice but not ultimate creative control. This begs the question, Curry pointed out, of how a documentary filmmaker protects his or her subjects.
Biurski's response is that it's about having confidence in the team you're working with. Landsman, agreed, it's about the company your keep--surrounding yourself with the right people. "We all love our subjects deeply… we have a responsibility."
Stephen Nemeth's feature film "The Sessions" (2013 Academy Award® nomination for Helen Hunt), was also inspired by a documentary, Jessica Yu's "Breathing Lessons." Nemeth pointed out that the great stories truly endure--look no further than the body of work based on a documentary classic that transcends generations, "Grey Gardens."