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Truth v Fiction: when documentaries and films tell the same story

PUBLISHED: 11:20 07 December 2017 | UPDATED: 08:47 08 December 2017

Netflix documentary series Shot in the Dark and Nightcrawler. Photo: Netflix/Entertainment One

Netflix documentary series Shot in the Dark and Nightcrawler. Photo: Netflix/Entertainment One

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Netflix series Shot in the Dark revisits the subject of LA crime stringers seen in Jake Gyllenhaal film Nightcrawler. It’s the latest example documentary/film crossovers. But which can you most trust?

Scene from Netflix documentary series Shot in the Dark. Photo: Netflix Scene from Netflix documentary series Shot in the Dark. Photo: Netflix

Los Angeles and a ‘stringer’ is racing through the nocturnal underbelly of the city to be first to a traffic accident hoping to sell the news footage of someone’s misery to a local television news station.

That’s a scene from 2014’s dark, twisted media satire Nightcrawler right? The one that starred a spooky eyed Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a driven young man desperate for work who discovers the high-speed, morally dubious world of crime journalism.

Well no this is actually a description of scenes from Netflix’s new documentary series Shot in the Dark, but it is an easy mistake to make as they both cover the same topic — one fictional, the other fact.

Shot in the Dark revolves around the Raishbrook brothers, freelance stringers scouring the streets of LA to film crime scenes, fires, accidents – and anything else they can sell to news outlets.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. Photo: Entertainment One Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. Photo: Entertainment One

Howard Raishbrook, a British-born Los Angeles resident and his brothers, Austin and Marc, make up RMG Entertainment, one of three competeing companies whose rivalry feature in the series.

The way the series is shot — fast editing, high-speed driving, prowling nighttime footage — is more than a chance echo of the earlier film.

But this fact versus fiction crossover isn’t a one-off. There are previous examples of feature film makers who have plundered documentaries for stories they think they can dramatise; and of documentary makers who think there is more to be added to a film.

Another recent example is The Witness, the Oscar-nomainted documentary looking back at an infamous 1964 murder case, a dramatic narrative version of which is in production.

Netflix documentary series Shot in the Dark. Photo: Netflix Netflix documentary series Shot in the Dark. Photo: Netflix

Other recent documentaries being tapped for remakes include The Eagle Huntress, Meet the Patels, An Honest Liar, The Wolfpack, and The White Helmets. There has even been talk of Making a Murderer and the podcast Serial being adapted into narrative films.

Heading in the opposite direction are docmentaries that re-visit previous feature films. Netflix has also just released Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. Chris Smith’s film follows Jim Carrey’s time spent portraying complicated comedian Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man On The Moon.

Carrey earned critical acclaim for the performance, but many of his most Kaufmanesque moments played out behind the scenes, but feature in the doc having been captured on video by Andy’s former girlfriend, Lynne Margulies and former writing partner, Bob Zmuda.

It offers fascinating insight that sheds new light on the film. It stays the right line of adding to the subject rather than just rehashing the same story.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Robert Zemeckis 2015 film The Walk. Photo: TriStar Pictures Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Robert Zemeckis 2015 film The Walk. Photo: TriStar Pictures

Man on Wire (2008)

The Walk (2015)

Perhaps the most glaring recent example of a documentary/film crossover of recent times. The story of Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker who strung a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 was told in British filmmaker James Marsh fantastic 2008 documentary Man on Wire, winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Robert Zemeckis then decided to dramatise the story in his 2015 feature The Walk, using 3D technology to give Petit’s vertigo inducing perspective but otherwise adding little to a story already told.

James Marsh 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Photo: Icon Productions James Marsh 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Photo: Icon Productions

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Werner Herzog has lept freely from documentary to fiction seemingly seeing little distinction between the two forms. Rescue Dawn, the true story of US helicopter pilot Dieter Dengler (played by Christian Bale) shot down and captured before making a daring escape through the jungle, saw him revisit his own earlier documentary. The film dramatises what was previously only described in Dengler’s words in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, proving there are two ways to tell the same story.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Oliver Stone's Snowden. Photo: Sony Pictures Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Oliver Stone's Snowden. Photo: Sony Pictures

Citizenfour (2014)

Snowden (2016)

Laura Poitras was making of a film about abuses of national security in post-9/11 America when she started receiving encrypted emails from “citizen four”, who was ready to blow the whistle on covert surveillance programs. The man turned out to be Edward Snowden and her Oscar-winning documentar is a real-life thriller. Oliver Stone’s subsequent dramatic take on the Snowden story also had tense moments, but with one difference: it had well-known actors, while the doc has the actual people.

Poster for Laura Poitras 2014 documentary Citizenfour. Photo: Submitted Poster for Laura Poitras 2014 documentary Citizenfour. Photo: Submitted

All Good Things (2010)

The Jinx (2015)

This is a case of the documentary following the fiction film - but with a twist. In 2010 director Andrew Jarecki based All Good Things on the disappearance of the wife of Robert Durst, heir to a real estate dynasy. He cast Ryan Gosling, but called his character David Marks. Subsequently Durst himself agreed to talk for what became his six-part HBO documentary series The Jinx. While All Good Things is a so-so thriller, The Jinx is a mindboggling masterpiece.

Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. Photo: Netflix Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. Photo: Netflix

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Milk (2008)

The Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Robert Epstein, told the story of Harvey Milk, outspoken San Francisco activist and one of the first openly gay US politicians elected to office until his assassination in 1978, using archival footage to paint a vivid portrait of the man, times and place. Gus van Sant’s subsequent celebratory portrait is powerful, including an excellent performance from Sean Penn, but tells it in a fairly staid biopic style.

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher. Photo: Sony Picture Classics/Scott Garfield Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher. Photo: Sony Picture Classics/Scott Garfield

Foxcatcher (2014)

Team Foxcatcher (2016)

Bennett Miller’s intense Oscar-nominated drama Foxcatcher chronicles the real-life story of Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz who accept the patronage of John du Pont, heir to the chemical company fortune and who developed a deadly fixation. An almost unrecognisable Steve Carell is chilling as Du Pont but the film leaves many questions. Netflix’s documentary, directed by Jon Greenhalgh, sheds much more details about what led to murder at du Pont’s Foxcatcher estate.

Christine (2016)

Kate Plays Christine (2016)

In 1974 news anchor Christine Chubbuck pulled out a gun and killed herself on live TV. Giving that it is 40 years since this tragic and shocking event it was odd that the story formed the basis for two very different films in 2016. Rebecca Hall starred as Chrstine in director Antonio Campos’ biopic-style feature film. In contrast Robert Greene’s documentary follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the part of Christine and becomes increasingly obsessed with her subject.

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