“Dying to Do Letterman,” Part II
It’s the lot of documentary filmmakers these days to have to say something along these lines: “No, it’s not reality; it’s real.” “Reality” has taken on a dubious definition, something not all it appears to be. “Real” is something else.
Reality and documentary are definitely affecting each other, and creating a kind of aesthetic that owes itself as well to lighter and cheaper equipment, digital technology and the seemingly insatiable interest in “real” people – the irony is that the way to become a celebrity is by not being one.
As The Hollywood Reporter piece of last week declared, “Reality Television Is Killing Scripted TV,” it’s worth noting that “Reality” is taking on as much dimension as “Scripted,” which would encompass everything from “That 70s Show” to “Mad Men.” But in the same way, the groundshift may be bringing reality TV and documentary filmmaking closer together, and in that way creating filmmakers who are equally comfortable in both sides of that particular coin.
“Dying to Do Letterman,” the work of husband-and-wife filmmaking team Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina, is something that really shows that. Joke and Biagio have been working on reality shows for IFC (“Commercial Kings”), VH1 (“Scream Queens”) and MTV (“Caged,” slated for 2012).
“Dying to Do Letterman” shares elements with reality TV, in a way. It is not a documentation of an existing reality, but a story with a definable goal, and a clear MacGuffin. The film’s subject, Steve Mazan, has learned he has possibly life-threatening cancer, and as a stand-up comic decides that he will pursue his dream of appearing on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” In the course of his pursuit, Steve narrates his tale, and seeks counsel with well-known comedians such as Ray Romano, Jim Gaffigan and Kevin Nealon. The audience follows his pursuit, a mission that might have task-connection to such shows as “The Apprentice.”
So how is it different?
“’Commercial Kings’ is the reality series we’re doing now,” Biagio says, “and when we interviewed for that, we saw that clearly there was a built-in format – the guys are going to make a commercial, but you don’t know what you’re going to find along the way, or how people will react to them.”
And the fact that they were interviewed to do the work may be a major distinction. Reality is “produced,” if you will: It’s conceptualized, formatted, and packaged. The true driving forces are producers, not the filmmakers, and the story lines often are reactive to conceptions of what audiences want. Joke says this:
Commercial Kings kind of walks the line for sure, but to me the definition has always been this: In a reality show, we take people an kind of put them into the producer’s environment. “Big Brother,” as an example, literally took people out of their own lives and put them in a house, or “Beauty and the Geek,” which we did, or “Scream Queens,” which we did, takes people out of their every day lives and you put them in your world – “Survivor,” “Amazing Race,” all that stuff.
Doc is, for me, where we’re guests in our subjects’ lives. We go and follow them, and document them, and let what will happen, happen. Then you can really craft the story back in the edit bay.
“We all know there are shows out there calling themselves reality that are as scripted as any dramatic series,” says Biagio, but he says their work stays far away from such productions.
“We’re doing a documentary for MTV, for the documentary side of the network, called “Caged,” which will be on in 2012. They’re leaving us alone, and letting us chase stories. We’re shooting 12 days an episode.”
Where the line of “Is this more doc or more reality?” comes with things like “Swamp People,” or “Ax Men,” where you’re clearly in their world but you also know you need one thing to do each episode. They’re not living in your house, but there’s more of a format to it. Those are doc series with more of a reality format. If you have a Venn Diagram, you have Reality, and you have Doc, but then you have that Doc Reality. I think “Commercial Kings” falls in that middle bubble. We’re definitely out in the field and in people’s lives, but we know the format is that within three or four days there will be a commercial.
“Dying To Do Letterman” is distinguished not only by its multi-year journey with Steve, his illness and his aspiration, but it’s also clearly a film in its production values – careful editing, a three-act structure, Steve’s own ruminations and memories, and the visual devices that punctuate the film. Reality TV, for the most part, doesn’t have the time to devote to cinematic quality.
But that’s polarization, and that seems to have diminished with the rise of what has been called, again somewhat euphemistically, “Quality Reality.”
Like a lot of newer filmmakers, they have not viewed reality shows as a threat to documentary film, or as something to avoid. The work they have gotten has made them professional, self-sustaining directors and producers. MTV pioneered the tipping of the word “Reality,” but working for MTV now, Joke says,
What’s great about that is that they are also trusting in what is real, as opposed to going in with preconceived notions of what needs to happen – ‘we need a catfight,’ or ‘we need somebody to get drunk.’ I think we’re seeing that more out in the TV landscape, the idea of what real people are really doing. I think it’s definitely helping the documentary world.