‘Three Identical Strangers,’ ‘RBG’ directors and others look back on documentary’s big year

From left: Tim Wardle ("Three Identical Strangers"), Betsy West ("RBG"), Sandi Tan ("Shirkers"), Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ("Free Solo") and Morgan Neville ("Won't You Be My Neighbor") gather for The Envelope's documentary roundtable at the Montalban Theater.
From left: Tim Wardle (“Three Identical Strangers”), Betsy West (“RBG”), Sandi Tan (“Shirkers”), Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Free Solo”) and Morgan Neville (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”) gather for The Envelope’s documentary roundtable at the Montalban Theater.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

It was a big year for documentaries: abundant critical acclaim and four nonfiction films grossing more than $10 million each at the box office. That may not sound like Hollywood blockbuster money, but to put things in context, only one doc achieved that feat in 2017.

So why the sudden interest in real-life fare? We gathered the filmmakers behind the year’s biggest and most interesting nonfiction films, all shortlisted for the Oscar nominations Jan. 22, to discuss their theories on the documentary boom: Betsy West, who along with Julie Cohen directed the examination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life in “RBG”; Morgan Neville, director of the Fred Rogers bio “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”; Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who with husband Jimmy Chin followed climber Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan without ropes in “Free Solo”; Tim Wardle, who helmed the separated-at-birth mystery “Three Identical Strangers”; and Sandi Tan, whose search for the lost footage of her teenage feature film became a story in itself in “Shirkers.”

Director Morgan Neville shares the advice Joanne Rogers had for him while making “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and the reaction she and the Rogers’ sons had after seeing the documentary about Fred Rogers.


So why do you think that audiences have such a voracious appetite for documentary film right now?

Betsy West: There is a hunger for real stories that are inspiring. The news landscape is filled with somewhat depressing political developments, and people are turning to documentaries to find stories that are both educating them and also, I think, inspiring them.

Morgan Neville: I also feel like we’re making the kinds of films you don’t see that much anymore, which are adult, hopefully smart, entertaining films that engage with the real world. There’s just a hunger for those types of stories that people aren’t finding in scripted fare.

Sandi Tan: And it’s stories. Sometimes they don’t realize they’re watching a documentary. Like in “Three Identical Strangers,” I mean, that’s something that could be in a feature film. And when people are watching it, they don’t necessarily think of it as some kind of “boring” documentary thing.

Tim Wardle: I think for a long time, in certain circles, documentaries were regarded as just fact-based and dispassionate. If they were entertaining, it was almost like that was against the whole documentary ethos. I certainly reject that.

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: But I also think there’s something about this communal experience of watching these films. People are also enjoying being in a theater and looking up at the screen and having this experience with other people in a time where we’re increasingly more disconnected.


Tan: On the flip side of that — because I’m the Netflix person who doesn’t get to have a theatrical thing in a big way — if you’re slotted under “New Releases” [in the streamer’s categories] you’re not ghettoized as a documentary. It’s stories. … If you can grab people’s attention, hold it, you have something.

How did you convince your subjects to be a part of your documentaries?

Neville: My pitch was: “I don’t want to make a biography; I want to make a film about ideas.” And I think that was the right thing to say for two reasons: One, because Joanne Rogers, his widow, said to me, “Fred always thought if anybody made a biography of his story it would be the most boring movie ever made.” But also because I feel like his ideas were never taken seriously. He was always treated as a two-dimensional character. Nobody ever appreciated the depth of what he was doing.

Betsy West talks about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s initial response to being asked to be in the documentary “RBG.”

Was Justice Ginsburg hard to sway?

West: Well, initially she said, “Not yet.” So she didn’t say no, and then we worked on it. I think that she understands that she is inspiring to many people and that her life story has a lot of lessons for many different people. And I think ultimately that’s why she agreed to do it and to be open about both her professional accomplishments and her personal life. She understands the personal’s political.


Chai, you and Jimmy struggled with the ethics of filming Alex Honnold free climb, with your very presence possibly contributing to a mishap.

Vasarhelyi: The ethical question was: By filming it, is he more likely to fall to his death? Are we going to endanger him? Are we going to drop something, pull off a rock unintentionally? And we had to sit with it for a long time. Where we ended up was that we trusted Alex and trusted his judgment. And we also really respected the “why” of what he does. Alex has thought more deeply about his own mortality than anyone else I know. He chooses to climb with no ropes because that’s how he feels something. And this idea of living your life with intention was something that Jimmy and I were very moved by, and we thought that Alex’s story could inspire others.

What was it like to show your films to your subjects for the first time?

Neville: I sat in the living room with [Joanne], in Fred’s TV room, and screened it. I made a horrible strategic error in that I sat in front of Joanne, so I couldn’t watch her watching the film. I just had to sit there for 90 minutes, terrified as to what her reaction was going to be. And I turned to Joanne afterwards, and she said, “That was so great. I didn’t even cry once.” Like, it made her so happy to see all that come alive. The next comment was, “This is so good for my boys,” because her sons had never talked publicly before, and it was like a chance for them to reconnect and take their father back in some way. And the last thing she said was, “Fred would love this film.” So that was a success.

West: There is nothing like watching a film with an audience around. I was very grateful that Justice Ginsburg agreed to see it at Sundance for the first time with 500 people. People were laughing, and she was very responsive to that. And, of course, Julie and I were sitting across the aisle, just staring at her obsessively. The opening music is kind of big operatic music, and she turned to her companion and she said, “Well, I like the music.” And I turned to Julie and said, “She likes the music,” and it went on like that for the whole screening.

What is it like bringing your film to a festival when you’re seeking distribution?


Tan: You don’t enjoy a single moment. It’s like, everyone thinks you’re having a great time, but you’re like, “Ugh.” That’s the big secret. I mean, it’s costing a lot of money, and it’s the worst time ever. I had a great stake in it myself. So therefore, it’s like, OK, boom or bust.

Wardle: You were going to be totally in debt if you didn’t sell that film.

Tan: Yeah. I would have died.

Wardle: Like, it was a crazy amount. She probably won’t say how much, but it was a crazy amount of money that you invested in going in.

Tan: Yeah, with a bit of help from people and taking loans and stuff and then worrying if you could pay them back. So, yeah, it was a nightmare.

So when you were weighing who to go with, why did Netflix feel like the right choice?

Tan: Growing up in the place where I was basically a kid who wasn’t in New York and L.A. and just having no access to all the art house movies I wanted to see, I just wanted this movie to go out to all these kinds of people around the world who were like me.

What are the challenges you face in getting your subjects to open up?


Neville: I started as a journalist, and I know film people don’t like to hear this, but I always say journalism school is the perfect training to be a documentary filmmaker. Film school is the worst training to be a documentary filmmaker because film school is all about what your voice is and what you want to say, and journalism is about what you hear, what you’re listening to. And I feel like our super power is listening, understanding, taking it in and then figuring out where it goes from there.

Wardle: You have to have a plan when you go in and know the kind of areas you want to cover. But you totally have to be open to going off in all kinds of crazy tangents. If you’ve just got your list of questions, you’re like, “Tick, tick, tick,” you’re never going to have that connection.

Vasarhelyi: And also, some of the best moments happen in the silences, in the gaps and the hesitation.

West: And not jumping in. With Justice Ginsburg, she is an introvert. Her clerks would always say that they would count “one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand” before she replies, because she thinks before she speaks.

There is a narrative film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg coming out at Christmas, and Tom Hanks just finished a film in which he plays Mr. Rogers. How do you think your films are connected to those projects?

West: When we started, there was already a screenplay for “On the Basis of Sex,” which is written by Justice Ginsburg’s nephew. Our film took three years to make from the time we thought of it to getting it out. And theirs sort of took more like, I don’t know, five or six. So it’s somewhat coincidental. Or maybe it is the sense that people are recognizing the importance of the women’s movement. People are looking back and seeing what the groundbreaking women did — the women who marched in the streets, and the women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg who worked in the courts.


Neville: Yeah, and similarly, the Fred Rogers scripted film had been around for years and had been close to getting made a couple of times. I think there are things like that — just the awareness of the kind of audience that was hungry for that kind of thing aligns.

Aren’t they making “Three Identical Strangers” into a narrative now?

Wardle: They are. If you want to make a scripted movie, look to documentaries for ideas!

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