Real life can play havoc with documentaries — for good, bad and general upheaval. Back in the ’90s, a 30-minute PBS film about high school basketball evolved into the three-hour “Hoop Dreams” because the narrative refused to surrender. In 2015, a hagiographic Bill Cosby doc that was nearing completion became jetsam after the subject’s troubling sexual past turned into front-page news. And Alex Gibney’s movie about Lance Armstrong’s triumphant return to cycling became “The Armstrong Lie” (2013) — after a doping investigation, Armstrong’s confession, and the stripping of his seven Tour de France titles.
Better, it seems, for filmmakers to have only a vague plan — as did two current docs that, seemingly, have little in common save an origin in uncertainty.
“Monrovia, Indiana,” the 88-year-old Frederick Wiseman’s 43rd feature, which opens this week in New York and Nov. 2 in Los Angeles, is a relentlessly objective, 143-minute portrait of a rustic Midwest farming community. “Mooch,” by the 32-year-old Andrew J. Muscato and now available on iTunes and other digital platforms, is a kinetic film about a frenetic subject — Anthony Scaramucci, the Wall Street hedge funder who became, for 10 days, communications director for the Trump White House.
To classify the movies as political documentaries would be true enough, though perhaps misleading. “Monrovia” is a portrait of Trump-Pence country, and some viewers will perceive it exactly that way. The director, characteristically, denies having any agenda.
“I’m not supposed to tell you what your reaction should be,” said Wiseman. “You’re entitled to whatever opinion you have. And I don’t say that ironically at all. I don’t think it’s up to me to state my point of view toward the material with words. My point of view toward the material is expressed in the film.”
Muscato’s approach was to let Scaramucci tell his own story. The window it provides into the mentality of current Washington may be panoramic, but is also open to a viewer’s interpretation.
“What I’ve always appreciated about the Frederick Wisemans of the world is their trying to remove the filmmaker from the process,” said Muscato. “I always viewed ‘Mooch’ as kind of a Rorschach test — you take away from it what you want. I didn’t want to color it with my personal feeling.”
Or, for that matter, impose any agenda on the material. Going in, Muscato had no idea what would unfold. For Wiseman, that’s a virtue.
“I never go in with a direction in mind,” said the director. “I spent three hours in Monrovia before I started shooting, and that’s pretty much always the case.” For last year’s “Ex Libris,” he spent half a day at the New York Public Library. “But I take the gamble that there’ll be enough interesting things going on that I can cut a film. I only go in with the idea that if I hang around a place long enough, I’ll find something.”
The closest Wiseman ever came to a film being totally upended, he said, happened in L.A.
“I started to do the film that became ‘Law and Order’ in Los Angeles in 1968, and after a week riding around in the police cars, I was told I couldn’t ride around in the police cars. But I could film anything else I wanted.
“But as there were no foot patrols in Los Angeles at that point,” he said, “it sort of limited the story. So I went to Kansas City.”
Muscato’s odyssey began in 2008 New York, where he was introduced to Scaramucci over lunch by Bobby Valentine, the baseball manager and subject of a TV doc Muscato had produced (“The Zen of Bobby V”).
“It wasn’t too long after that I called him about making a film,” said Muscato. A documentary, he said, has to have three things: a character, a story and relevance. “I wasn’t sure what the story would be, but Anthony struck me as a fascinating character. And back then, he wasn’t the Wall Street titan that his personality purported him to be. He’s always been his own biggest champion, but it’s served him well.”
When his subject joined the Trump campaign in 2016, Muscato thought he had the relevancy he needed. And then it kept getting more relevant.
“This film was made without a script or any expectation about where it was going to go,” he said, “but knowing that he was interesting enough that it was going to go somewhere. I could not have anticipated that it would end with him standing at the White House podium and then getting fired a week later, but as that kept going we had to keep revising the edit.” And revising the edit. And …
“What’s actually funny is that my editor, Jon Connor, and I screened a cut for friends the day before Scaramucci got the communications job,” Muscato said. “We got to the end of the screening and said, ‘Yeah, it kind of ends somewhere around here.’ And people said, ‘Seriously — where does it end?’ And we kind of shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘We’re figuring that out.’ ”
So then Scaramucci gets the White House job. “We said, ‘Finally, we have our ending.’ And a friend actually asked, ‘What if he gets fired in a week?’ And then that happened. And it was back to the drawing board.”
What Muscato and Wiseman shared was the advantage of time. And timing. The latter spent nine-plus weeks roaming around Monrovia. Muscato, whose project was independent, was under no pressure from a funder or broadcaster to get “Mooch” finished. Also, he’d gotten in on the ground floor. Even below the ground floor.