From 'Tupac' to 'True Life': The Story's the Thing at MTV's Documentary Division
Lauren Lazin began her tenure at MTV in 1992, when she formed the MTV News and Specials Department after having created MTV's longest running documentary series Sex in the '90s. She has directed, produced and executive produced the documentary series MTV Rockumentary, the health series Mega-Dose and the indie film series alt.film@mtv. Currently, she executive-produces MTV Ultra Sound, Cribs, Diary and the Emmy-nominated Uncensored series, as well as True Life, a documentary series that chronicles social issues affecting young people. She also serves as executive producer on all the documentaries that come out of MTV's News and Documentary Department, a division that delivers over 100 documentaries a year to the channel.
This fall, Lazin's first feature-length documentary for MTV as director, Tupac: Resurrection, will be released theatrically through MTV Films. Having premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, the film garnered critical praise for its innovative style and deeply authentic portrayal of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.
After having overseen hundreds of more traditional documentaries, Lazin decided to bring a different vision to her theatrical premiere film. "I wanted to do something that felt right for the big screen, something different than what you would see on American Masters," Lazin says. "The entire film is told through Tupac's words and music. There's no narration. There are no talking-head interviews with other people. It's all Tupac telling his life story in his own words. After I came up with the idea, I selected interviews from a number of different sources—some from MTV, some from radio interviews that he gave—and wove them into a narrative telling the story of his life. To do a bio that's going to play in a movie theater, it has to be really special and really different. I think this particular subject is larger than life, and he is a movie star. He fills up the screen. He really has command of it."
Having finished the project, Lazin is extremely happy with her decision to "break the convention, break the form a little bit, where you're not telling the audience what to think. It's a very intimate way of telling the story, and it allows you to experience his life with him, as opposed to being told who he is through someone else's voice. You're shaping [the film] with the editing and with your music choices but there's not some ponderous voice telling you how to feel about his life. The film looks at all sides of Tupac—his charisma, but also some of the really bad decisions he made. It's left to the audience to form their own opinions about the choices that he made."
That same intense focus on storytelling carries over to the MTV News and Documentary Division as Lazin shepherds projects through development to post-production. "I would say, more and more, our shows are getting more story-driven and less narrator-driven," she maintains. "We're into compelling stories with a beginning, middle and end. Being able to relate to and empathize with the characters is as important as any other qualification. A lot of the young people that we film have their own cameras so they do a fair amount of their own shooting. They're pretty savvy about documentary filmmaking. They get who we are and that this is their channel, so they're a bit more participatory in creating the shows which, I think, makes for stronger shows. I think that within the past two years, we've set the bar pretty high in terms of engrossing, compelling storylines. I would rank our True Life documentary series with any documentary series out there."
As the documentary-savvy viewers of MTV seem to have a rapacious appetite for real life, the channel's documentaries and news specials are some of the consistently highest rated programming it airs. This is good news for documentary filmmakers who have an interest in covering the lives of young adults in America. According to Lazin, no topic is taboo—sexual orientation, the war in Iraq and the rise in crystal meth usage have all been covered in recent MTV documentaries.
For Lazin, what matters is that a documentary filmmaker knows the MTV demographic-18-to-24-year-olds—and has a clear vision of the story this population wants to tell. "Our direction is where young people's lives go. That's what we try to stay true to; what's going on in the life of an 18-to-24-year-old." Although a good deal of MTV's documentaries are done in-house, "We do accept pitches for some of our series. A lot is done with a core group of freelancers," Lazin says. "In the past couple of ,we have embraced the documentary filmmaking community more and more. We just did a co-production with World of Wonder (Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey). We've also worked with Susan Koch and Liz Garbus and I'm hoping to do more of that in the future."
"Our premiere series, True Life, is more of a traditional, cinema vérité documentary series that looks at young people's lives," Lazin continues. "That's probably where we work the most with outside production companies, and we're always open to pitches. We also have a series development division within our Documentary Division and we're always open to outside pitches there as well. Because we have such a unique sensibility, it's easier for us to work with filmmakers who have an idea or who have characters and casting in place. They know what their story is, and they have access to a unique story. That's usually the stage we come in on. Sometimes they'll have done a little bit of shooting, and we'll be there to supply the finishing funds and have domestic broadcast rights."
When it comes to pitching story ideas for an MTV documentary, forget the music-marketing stereotype of the white, suburban, middle-class male who buys gangster rap music as the target audience. "We've covered all races, all socio-economic classes [in our documentaries]," Lazin says. "For example, last year we did a show called True Life: I'm Coming Out, about gay teens coming out to their parents. It was riveting and pretty emotional. The kids in that show were from all over the country and of different ethnicities but there was a common experience that they all shared. Our shows tend to emphasize a common experience but they can come from anywhere. We try not to stereotype people. Sometimes we'll get pitches where the person will say, ‘I think you should do something on Latino kids.' And we'll say, ‘Well, what's the story?' We're not just about profiling ethnic kids. Hopefully, you can be colorblind and not choose your characters as some sort of affirmative action but choose them because they're compelling characters and you can relate to them. That being said, I think we've done a really good job representing the cross-section of American young people."
And although The Real World and Road Rules are not under the purview of MTV's Documentary Division—they are classified as real life soap operas—Lazin is upfront about the current reality show programming frenzy. "More and more people are getting into the reality game, and I would say that is happening at MTV like it is happening at every network," she asserts. "So for us, how does what we do differ from that? I would say that more than ever we're capturing real life. We don't do gimmicky reality shows. We don't have elaborate setups to get to reality. We just find a compelling story and get it. I guess I wouldn't rule out a reality series as long as it had that feeling of authenticity and integrity."
Lazin is especially interested in getting her vision of what the MTV Documentary Division wants to the readers of International Documentary. "The people who read the IDA Magazine are pretty serious filmmakers," she notes. "I think a lot of them have something set in their mind of what MTV is and they don't necessarily watch the channel or watch shows like True Life. I know that when I've met with documentary filmmakers and sat down with them and watched our shows, a number of them get really excited about them. They realize that they have some really interesting ideas that we'd be interested in. I'd encourage the readers to see the kind of work that we're doing. We get really, really big ratings on the channel and our [documentaries] do as well as anything else airing on the channel. Our documentary unit has been around over ten years and it [has produced] always been some of the most consistently highest rated programming. So there is a really active and involved audience that is eager for these kinds of films."
Patricia Troy is an LA-based freelance entertainment journalist.