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Can Fact and Fiction Coexist?: Three Filmmakers Who Work in Both Worlds

By Elizabeth Blozan

From Penelope Spheeris' 'Decline of Western Civilization'

Docuphiles know and love the elegant British director Michael Apted for his "Up" series, the ground-breaking British documentary project that, for 40 years now, has revisited the same individuals every seven years to document how their sense of self as children predicted their real adult lives. Apted shoots the next installment, 49-Up, in spring 2005. But mainstream American movie fans know Apted as the fiction director of films as varied as the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Enough (2002) and the classic Coal Miner's Daughter (1980).

"I suppose the ' Up' film is the most important work I've ever done or will ever do," says Apted, now a veteran of both genres, with 58 titles to his credit. "So I think that's always stayed with me. I think in my heart I'm a documentarian. Whatever movie I do, whether it's James Bond or Gorillas in the Mist, I still approach it with a documentarian soul."

Documentary invited Apted to join Dogtown and Z-Boys director Stacy Peralta, who will direct his first fiction feature, based his documentary Riding Giants, and Penelope Spheeris, creator of the Decline of Western Civilization series who also makes studio features, to share their thoughts about moving between the fact and fiction worlds.

"I think my entire motivation for making a documentary is very, very selfish," says Spheeris. "I do it so I can learn. Also I do it because I feel that certain subjects are ignored and do need to be preserved for historic purposes." Spheeris began her film career in the 1970s by starting LA's first music video company, "way before MTV." Her first documentary, the now classic Decline of Western Civilization (1981), captured the punk rock movement then exploding in LA. "I found a bunch of people who were like me—intelligent and yet had been treated badly when they were growing up," she recalls. "They were angry, and I was angry, yet had a sense of social responsibility. I found people I could relate to and I was thrilled. I felt just obsessed to document it."

While Spheeris shot Decline of Western Civilization II (1988), which captured LA's heavy metal scene, and Decline of Western Civilization III (1998), about LA's homeless teen "gutter punks," she also directed several studio comedies, including the smash hit Wayne's World (1992), which Spheeris considers both a blessing and a curse. "To be honest with you, I'm pretty fed up with both sides of filmmaking," says Spheeris. "I don't want to sound like I'm not thankful for the career that I have, because I'm very thankful. But the bottom line is that I can't do the studio movies that I want to do because they think I can only do screwball comedy."

And count yourself lucky if you caught the film that soured Spheeris on documentaries for a time, because shortly after its award-winning festival tour, We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll (2001) stalled in music licensing conflicts. Spheeris spent three years documenting an Oz Fest tour, only to learn that producer Sharon Osborne had misled her about securing the music licensing. "It's a brilliant, brilliant film," Spheeris says. "I feel kind of bad to say that because I'm talking about my own work, but it really is a good movie! I told Sharon one day, 'You know what? I don't ever feel like making another film after this experience.'" But Spheeris adds that shooting in high-definition video proved invaluable: "Which is why it was worth it, even though nobody saw the damn thing."

Peralta's first documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, was also inspired by personal passion. After a successful stint as a pro skateboarder, he became a board-manufacturing mogul. In 1984 he created a promotional video that took off unexpectedly as a retail product, launching the "action sports video" market. Mindful producers with kids glued to the TV started calling, and Peralta was soon directing network specials and comedies.

But he only decided to turn his childhood story about how the rogue "Z-Boys" invented pool skating after a 1991 Spin Magazine article had producers calling him for his life rights. Peralta decided the Z-Boys should get their own version out first, but expected the indie project to end up somewhere on cable. "Having been a skateboarder my whole life and having been told, 'Get lost, we don't want you here...get out of the school yard,' I just didn't think people would look at it as a valid culture," Peralta admits.

Peralta eventually did sign his life rights to the producing team of Art Linson and his son John, with the proviso that Peralta write the screenplay that would become Lords of Dogtown (directed by Thirteen's Catherine Hardwicke), which will be released in 2005. "Even though I lived through that situation, writing that script was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he says. "There's responsibility to the guys to try to draw them so they don't come out as comic book archetypes, but as human beings. My storytelling got so much better as a result of that experience."

To Peralta's own surprise he now finds himself working with the Linsons again on a fictional script based on his big wave surfing documentary Riding Giants, on which he will be making his fiction feature directorial debut. "The new script that we're writing is coming together so much better because of both experiences," he maintains. "They really build off each other."

"It is a two-way street," concurs Apted, who is also president of the Directors Guild of America. "Those lessons of structure in a fictional piece are very helpful to me when I'm putting together a documentary. I have an idea of how I'm going to put it together—what the first, second and third acts are going to be. So when the whole thing is changing and appears to be chaos, at least a part of my brain's always thinking, Well, how will I be able to use this? And I don't think it means that you don't take chances or you don't take risks. It's just a piece of the antenna that's working."

Apted adds that his fiction experience also provided valuable lessons for presenting the characters in his documentaries. Early in career he made Stardust (1975), a fictional homage to the English rock era of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. "But it kind of turned out weird because we didn't do enough work, and we were sort of disrespectful of characters," Apted admits. "So what was supposed to be a homage turned out to be an unwitting castigation of these characters. I carried that lesson very carefully into Coal Miner's Daughter because traditionally Hollywood has trashed country music and trashed the Appalachians.

"Particularly with the 'Up' films, where I have a huge amount of material, I want to establish the characters' credentials and create an atmosphere of sympathy for them," he continues. "Tony the taxi driver has a very unsympathetic attitude towards family life and sex and all this kind of stuff; actually, he's very decent. I have to be very careful in the way I present a character so they can't just be dismissed as a caricature of themselves."

Peralta adds that he has taken that lesson to the point of learning how to cast his documentaries. "You have to make sure that the people you decide to go with are great on camera. Like Greg Noll [a subject from Riding Giants]. When I met him, literally I went, 'I could make a film about this guy.' He's that compelling. When I was interviewing him, another side of my brain was going, 'My film is being told! He's giving it to me!'"

Now preparing for his third documentary, an examination of LA's South Central gangs, Peralta feels his first job is field research to find the right people to express the story to his audience. "They have to connect with the audience. I can use music and moves and visual things, but ultimately I can't trick people with that stuff. The audience has to find these people compelling to find the story."

But Spheeris found little in her particular feature experience that inspired her filmmaking. "I learned far more making documentaries that was valuable in other areas of filmmaking than I did making studio movies," she says. "The only thing you learn from that is how to glide around politically." For Spheeris the documentary is an escape from the studio. "The studio movies I've done, especially after Wayne's World, I just did them to make the money. I couldn't do the serious films I wanted to do. When you're shooting your documentary the whole fun of it is to be able to fly by the seat of your pants and figure out the way to do things that are impossible when you don't have any money. I couldn't afford to get dailies transferred when we were shooting Decline II, so I took a Hi-8 camera and I shot the camera screen. That's fun when you can come with stuff like that. When I'm doing a documentary I almost feel like it's not a job. It's a pleasure!"

Spheeris applied her documentary bravado to her most recent project, the feature comedy The Kid & I. "We shot it in 24P. I used two cameras, and I let the actors just 'fall off the truck'—you guys go in there and show me what you would do when you say those lines that are on those pages there. And then I say to the DP, 'OK, you've got two cameras, go follow those people around. And they go, 'Hey, we're gonna be shooting each other!' I said, 'Well, then don't shoot each other!'"

For Apted, his lifelong passion for documentaries lent a specific taste in his fiction features by grounding them in a tangible reality. He had a unique opportunity to indulge that taste when he received a script for Thunderheart, a fact-based feature about an American Indian uprising in South Dakota. Unbeknownst to the producers who sent it, Apted had been working on the documentary Incident at Oglala, about the same story.

Apted enhanced the script with details he had learned while shooting Incident and stayed in South Dakota 's Pine Ridge area for a location shoot. "I much prefer shooting on location than I do on sound stages," he says. "Even, for example, doing the Bond film [ The World is Not Enough], since it was about taking gas out of the Caspian, my first instinct was to take them all down to Azerbaijan to have a look at it. And they did. They must have thought I was crazy. As a matter fact, I filmed there for a bit, and we got some amazing images.

"You shoot the human landscape as well as the geographical landscape," continues Apted, who cast just five professional actors for Coal Miner's Daughter. "When I did Thunderheart I was looking for a Native American political leader, but I couldn't find an actor who had that look in the eye of someone who had that kind of power as a political leader. So I just went back to the documentary and the leaders I had interviewed, particularly John Trudell, and asked him to be in the movie. He'd never acted before, never even thought about it before. It's a gamble because they could always fold up on you, but as long as you don't ask them to do more than they are, you can work with them to get them to relax into being able to be who they are."

For Peralta, working on fact and fiction versions of both Dogtown and Giants proved an ideal crucible for maturing his storytelling skills. And he revels in the new broad definition of "documentary": "A feature film, that's a broad category. Is it a 'dramedy'? Is it an action adventure? Is it a romantic comedy? They all still fit under the fictional banner. And we're seeing multiple expressions of what a documentary is. There's a film like Dogtown, Michael Moore's films, Capturing the Friedmans or Super SizeMe. Totally unique films. Yet they fall under the documentary banner."

Spheeris would rather leave the definition of "documentary" traditional and come up with a new word for Michael Moore's movies. Her suggestion: "Docugandas." "I think you have to be passionate about the subject and you probably have to know which side of the fence you're on," she maintains. "But I'm from the Fredrick Wiseman school. He would do a movie like Basic Training that people who were against the war loved and that people who were for the war loved. That's the position that I'd like to take."

"I've never been of the opinion that there's something fundamentally more moral about a documentary than a movie," says Apted. "But when you're purporting to show people real things, then I think you have in your own soul more responsibility to not fool around with the truth. Now, what is the truth? Well, truth has to be a manifestation of your moral sense. I've done untruthful documentaries. Oglala is 'untruthful'; it isn't a balanced thing. The FBI didn't appear in it. I asked them to and they wouldn't. But I had a real passion for that story. I don't tell lies in it, but I don't balance it off.

"You can't willfully deceive people," Apted continues. "But every edit is a choice, every edit is a judgment. The only pure piece of film is Andy Warhol pointing at the Empire State Building for eight hours. None of us do that anymore."

For Apted, his documentary soul remains his strongest influence. "When you do something like the ' Up' films, which I suppose has really guided my life in some ways, you learn that what goes on out there in the world is weirder, more unusual than almost anybody can put into a story. And that's why I'm driven to stories that are based on reality. I want to find the solutions in the real world, which is either a strength or a weakness, but there it is."


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance entertainment writer and publicist based in Santa Monica, Calif. She is currently producing a documentary on LA rockabilly.