Some people think that documentaries are merely "captured" and that taste should take a back seat. For anybody who makes movies, we know that our own influences filter into every decision we make. This is a good thing.
While many documentaries have had a big influence on me, I find that I get just as much inspiration from fiction movies—sometimes even bad ones. We are all just telling stories with characters. Here are but a handful of films that have meant a lot to me as a filmmaker.
There is a debate in the documentary community as to whether we should be considered “journalists.” I come down firmly on the side of “Yes!” That has got to be due in part to this film, which inspired me as a high school student to go into journalism. Doing research never looked so exciting. The film is expertly crafted top to bottom—from the formally gritty camera work, to the rhythm-perfect editing. More than anything, it’s a film that respects its viewer’s intelligence. I go back to it again and again for inspiration.
I saw this documentary about a Muhammad Ali-George Forman heavyweight boxing bout when it came out in 1996. I was working on my first documentary at the time and this film felt like a magic trick to me. I had to see it again to unravel how the trick was performed. Ostensibly a story about a fight—the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle”—the film instead transforms into a narrative soup of funk music, African-nationalism, and a moment that changes these fighter’s lives. It also doesn’t hurt to have color commentary from Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee.
Orson Welles’ first documentary is a master class on letting your limitations inspire you. Welles is having so much fun spinning the story about a lie within a lie within a lie, that you can’t help but be taken in by it. Ostensibly a film about art forgery, it’s really an excuse for Welles to make his first and only comedy, and a film about himself. When I came to make my film about Welles, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” I looked to “Fake” like the sacred text and found new invention and wisdom there with each reading.
I think it’s a perfect movie, and another one I’ve gone back to many times. The entire cast is superb, but I especially love seeing Sydney Pollock make it look so easy. Most importantly, this film reveals its story in a way that demands your attention. I always aspire for my films to play like a carefully crafted thriller.
OK, if your film isn’t going to play like a carefully crafted thriller, it should play like an episode of Monty Python, which this film does. A story about the Manchester music scene of the 70s and 80s, “Party People” is a pastiche of documentary footage, comedy, and punk attitude. Steve Coogan is particularly brilliant, breaking the 4th wall to let us know that “this scene has a lot of symbolism.” I love how confident this film is in its weirdness.