Doc Talk: Can a Narrative Feature Be Remade as a Documentary?

Doc Talk: Can a Narrative Feature Be Remade as a Documentary?

Jun 01, 2011

Every now and then, I like to address the topic of remakes as it relates to documentary. In the past I’ve mostly focused on the slowly rising interest in narrative (dramatic) adaptations of documentary films. Such as the King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters redo that is still in the works at New Line (a new update from the original’s producers claims the screenplay isn’t yet finished*) and the recently rumored interest from Hollywood to adapt the upcoming Sundance hit Page One: Inside the New York Times as a studio-produced drama.

But here is a novel idea that might also work in a reciprocal way: remaking narrative features as documentaries. Actually, I should stress that it should be fiction films, since narrative features can include works based on true stories, which wouldn’t be too unlikely or difficult. For instance, Werner Herzog could have technically made the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly after making the dramatic version, Rescue Dawn, as opposed to vice versa.

But what if instead of remaking Bad Lieutenant the way he had, with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he had gone and found (either in NYC or New Orleans) a real-life corrupt cop reminiscent of Harvey Keitel’s role in Abel Ferrara’s original version and documented that man’s depraved life? It sounds implausible, if not impossible. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s also typically more untouchable. People like “The Lieutenant,” if they exist, aren’t going to jump to sign a release for such a revealing (negative) portrait.

Okay, but what about a less debauched tale? With many documentaries nowadays proposed like Hollywood pitches, usually those involving a Super Size Me-esque experiment, it’s possible that some actual fiction pitches could also be non-fiction pitches. Think of comedies in particular, such as Hall Pass. The concept, which asks what happens when men and women are given a break from their marriage, could easily involve real people. Of course, that scenario is more suited to a reality show than a film.

I pondered this sort of remake while watching Hal Ashby’s The Landlord the other night. In that film from 1970, a wealthy and spoiled young man from Connecticut (Beau Bridges) buys a tenement building in “inner city” Brooklyn (in the Park Slope neighborhood, which has been almost entirely gentrified in the 40 years since) with plans to evict the occupants and fix it up nice all for himself. I’m actually surprised there hasn’t been a plan to remake this largely forgotten movie at all (though the 1991 Joe Pesci vehicle The Super seemed similar), let alone as a non-fiction venture set out as a filmed social exercise.

Could it work for many other films? A lot of situational comedies and dramas perhaps, but only so far as the set-up is concerned. The problem with remaking a fiction film as non-fiction is that you can’t usually control the plot of the latter like you can the former.

Sometimes you can try to mold the story in editing, or marketing so, say, American Teen seems like a documentary remake of The Breakfast Club. Or critics and fans will draw certain comparisons maybe unintended by the filmmakers by saying Anvil! The Story of Anvil is like a documentary version of This Is Spinal Tap or The Parking Lot Movie is like a documentary version of Clerks.


Another way of handling this hypothetical would be to just remake certain scenes from a narrative film. Consider Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Not to come back to the unlikely idea of documenting an antihero (this one played opposite Harvey Keitel), but this particular film was recently brought up when news out of Cannes confirmed that Scorsese and Lars von Trier would be collaborating for a new version of von Trier’s own documentary The Five Obstructions.

Never mind the confusion about whether or not the project is a remake or sequel of the first Five Obstructions. The considerable speculation, based on a year-old rumor, has been that Scorsese will be ordered by von Trier to remake parts of Taxi Driver for the film. Would this qualify as remaking fiction as non-fiction? More like remaking fiction as fiction again for non-fiction purposes, I guess.

Here’s the kicker, though: Scorsese has actually already remade part of Taxi Driver as documentary. In his 2010 film on Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking, which came out on DVD last week, Scorsese features a little montage of the author driving around Manhattan in her 1979 Checker Marathon. The sequence was shot to resemble bits of Robert De Niro driving the Checker cab in the 1976 classic, footage from which also appears earlier in the new documentary. Still, it’s only a segment. Lebowitz never does the famous mirror scene, nor does she shoot a pimp to save a child prostitute.

Maybe one day Scorsese will make a documentary about a former boxer and redo shots from Raging Bull, or one about a pool player with a sequence remade from The Color of Money. But if you could pick any fiction film (by anyone, not just Scorsese) to be redone as a documentary, what would it be? Here are a few ideas: Brewster’s Millions; Sullivan’s Travels; Air Bud.

New Releases

In addition to Public Speaking, which I recommend highly not just for fans of Lebowitz (though maybe not so much for her haters), new and notable documentary DVD releases include American: The Bill Hicks Story, which comes out Tuesday and is just about as funny, though it’s also more forgivably enjoyed with your eyes closed (it’s not very interesting, visually, after ten minutes), and a cheap-looking, archive-heavy thing titled The King Speaks, which I guess is pretty much the documentary version/remake of The King’s Speech.

In theaters this Friday is a conventional history of Gospel music, Rejoice and Shout, which is informative yet overlong but mostly due to its inclusion of great, fully featured old performances from the likes of Mahalia Jackson, the Dixie Hummingbirds and Sister Rosetta. Wait for video on this one, though, even if you’re a Gospel junkie.

Categories: Features
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