Celebrities on Celebrities: TV Academy Focuses in on A-List Driven Documentaries
This year’s documentary directing Emmy race is celebrity-heavy. Not only are four of the seven directors nominated public figures, but the five docus featured include marquee names.
Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s “George Carlin’s American Dream,” Amy Poehler’s “Lucy and Desi” and Andrew Rossi’s “The Andy Warhol Diaries” each explore the lives of the titular characters.
W. Kamau Bell’s “We Need to Talk About Cosby” examines the thorny cultural legacy of Bill Cosby, while Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back” is a portrait of the band’s final chapter. Finally, Ian Denyer’s Venice episode of the series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” follows the actor as he visits the seaside city.
Denyer’s is the only nominated director with a film that doesn’t rely on archival footage. Instead, he spent two and a half weeks prepping in Venice before Tucci arrived for a one-week, meticulously mapped-out shoot.
“The show is the television equivalent of joining the Navy SEALS,” quips Denyer. “It’s a huge, three-camera shoot involving travel and food, which are the two things you just don’t want to put together because of constant angst. Of course, there’s also Hollywood talent, but because Stanley is a dream to work with, I keep coming back for more.”
A veteran doc director, he says that the increase in celebrity-driven docs is due to a recent recognition of the value of unseen footage. “The descendants of deceased celebrities have realized they’ve got cash in the attic if they’ve got home movies and unseen footage.”
“The absence of political and eco-themed documentaries in the category is not surprising given the current political and cultural climate,” says Sheila Nevins, head of MTV Documentary Films. “The world is very dark right now. There’s very little hope. We are desperate for lightness. So, it’s fitting that people that make you laugh like Judd and Amy are telling stories about famous people. It gives you a reason to wake up.”
Although “Lucy and Desi” is Poehler’s documentary directorial debut, she has helmed several episodes of “Parks and Recreation” and two feature-length narrative films. Poehler says that while the cinematic forms are “very different,” the key to both narratives and docs is giving the audience a reason to care.
“I wanted to make sure I found a special way into ‘Lucy and Desi’ because documentaries about well-known people can very often feel like well-produced tributes,” she says. “So, I thought, what content with these two very famous do we not know about?”
That’s when she discovered that the relationship would be the docu’s spine: “Lucy and Desi’s had a love story that keeps us caring.”
“George Carlin’s American Dream” is Apatow’s fourth doc and third nonfiction film that he has co-directed with Bonfiglio.
“I’m always looking for the emotional journey,” Apatow says. “So, with a documentary, it’s the same as a narrative, except I didn’t make it up. I also like that documentaries can go very deep if the material exists. George Carlin had a lot of notes and liked to record things. We found an enormous amount of very intimate love letters between him and his wife, Brenda, illuminating everything we were discussing (in the film). So, a lot of the work is also a scavenger hunt for the truth.”
Three-time Oscar-winning director Jackson spent four years sifting through 150 hours of audio and 60 hours of vintage footage generated in 1969 by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for his documentary “Let It Be.” The result was “The Beatles: Get Back.”
According to Jackson, the nearly eight-hour series requires the same dedication to story that a fictional film would call for.
“Directing a documentary using archive footage crosses over between writing and directing because although you’re not directing in the sense of standing on a film set saying, ‘I want this lens,’ you are trying to look at the footage and trying to figure out, ‘Where is the film? What is the film? How are we going to tell the story?’”
Streaming services’ increasing appetite for A-list-driven content has lent itself to celebrities entering the nonfiction space.
“The streamers have provided an incredible opportunity to tell stories in a big canvas,” says “The Andy Warhol Diaries” director Rossi. “But it also has rendered the traditional documentary market somewhat challenging. It makes sense that those who are going into the field have a lot of resources and also a great ability to get people to show up.”
He continues, “Getting people to trust you and to really show up in their interviews and to challenge what they have experienced in a new way and not just provide talking points is the job of the director. So, who has the relationships to make that happen? Who has the deep knowledge of the subject to make people feel comfortable to go to places they haven’t gone to? It varies for every subject and story.”
Apatow agrees: “I can’t imagine anything scarier than asking someone to try to boil down your father’s personal and artistic journey into a documentary. It makes sense that you would hope to find someone that you felt would understand all of the dynamics.”
Bonfiglio notes that the process of making a documentary about Carlin was much easier “with Judd’s track record, reputation and standing in the comedy world.”
He adds, “And let’s be honest, there is a marketing factor that is very helpful as well.”
Rossi’s “Andy Warhol” is a six-hour exploration of Warhol’s journey as an artist, director, publisher and producer. Based on the 1989 memoir, Rossi says it’s not about a celebrity.
“It’s a deep investigation into the meaning of queerness in one of the seminal queer texts that was never viewed that way with an artist who rarely is considered a gay man and a gay artist,” he says. “I’m trying to do this at a time when LGBTQ rights are being pulled back, especially at the state level, in the United States. So it’s a story that’s hopefully fun, immersive, and entertaining that can resonate with our disrupted moment and our feelings of living through a world that’s cracking at the seams.”
“We Need to Talk About Cosby” is layered too; it’s not only about Cosby’s downfall but also explores rape culture, accountability and Bell himself.
“I felt drawn to it because I’m Black, I’m a man and I’m a comedian. I also grew up idolizing Bill Cosby,” he says. “I couldn’t talk myself out of it. It just felt too big and too necessary.”
Ultimately, Bonfiglio believes that all the nominated films use celebrity as a way into something bigger: “What’s interesting about the nominated films is that they are all about celebrity subject matter, but they all transcend that and find things we all connect to that go deeper than just show business.”
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