Directors Close-Up: The Secret Origin Stories of This Year’s Best Docuseries Nominees
From Tiger King to The Vow and back again, documentary series have experienced an incredible boom over the past five years. Streamers have opened a new lane for a form previously relegated to the shortened runtimes and specialized audiences of the theatrical feature. Now, however, you can easily binge a six-hour series from the couch with a big bowl of popcorn, then hop online to join the conversation via Twitter, TikTok, Reddit and Instagram.
In our February 15 Directors Close-Up session “A New Kind of Narrative: Best New Non-Scripted Series” panelists and 2023 Film Independent Spirit Award nominees W. Kamau Bell (We Need to Talk About Cosby), Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Ted Gesing (Children of the Underground), Andrew Renzi (Pepsi, Where’s My Jet) and Nanfu Wang (Mind Over Murder) gathered together to discuss their projects.
Continuing today online at noon, our full library of 2023 Directors Close-Up online sessions are still available to pass holders with three live in-person events (Guillermo Del Toro! Jason Segel and Shrinking! Best Feature filmmakers!) coming soon. See our events page for more details.
Diane Becker, producer of the Oscar-nominated Navalny, moderated a delightful and intriguing conversation, starting by asking the very simple-yet-challenging question of each project’s origin. Of We Need to Talk About Cosby, Bell said: “I guess for me it was different, because I was completely unqualified to direct a documentary series,” going on to say, “ I directed once before, a small project on A&E about Chris Rock’s documentary Bring The Pain. The producer on that was a woman by the name of Jamila Wignot, who has gone on to make lots of amazing things. I really feel like she taught me how to be a director.”
Becker asked Bell how he started tackling the project and collecting stories for the Bill Cosby centered docuseries. He replied that as a kid born in the early ’70s, he grew up in “Bill Cosby’s America”–particularly as a black kid who tuned into The Cosby Show because he felt like he was a member of the Huxtable family. “As a young black man who wanted to do stand up comedy my whole life, to a certain point, had been following the example of Bill Cosby. At the time that my career broke, was the same time that a lot of the stories came out about the survivors. So I was wrestling with the question, what do I do with all this Bill Cosby that is in my head and in my soul when I know the truth of these survivors.”
Becker turned to Gabriela Cowperthwaite–primarily documentary film director–on her experience with making a documentary series for the first time and how it differed from the feature side. “I came at it through Ted [Gesing, executive producer on Children of the Underground], who unearthed this story about this woman, Faye Jager. She ran a children underground based on her own trauma and her own past. When I learned about this I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about it. For me, I think all of us, it’s a series of questions. That’s how you delve into any one thing you do in documentary. Yourself personally, have so many questions. In my case it was just, ‘How could this have gone on? How could this be such an insidious world that we require an underground? We require people to be kidnapped in order to keep them safe.”
Gesing added: “It was a big step turning it into a series. It was a big story from the get go. We knew it had a lot of potential. A lot of angles to pursue and we thought it justified several episodes. It changed a lot for my original conception but all in a way that vastly improved the storytelling and turned it into a really emotional series that I’m proud of.”
Andrew Renzi, a child of the ’90s, said: “ I’ve always been someone who likes to take risks and see where I end up. This story kind of fit into my life when I was looking for something a bit light. A bit of a romp. Something that I felt that I could latch onto from capturing someone’s spirit of adventure; who is this 20 year old from Seattle who thought he could have a harrier jet from Pepsi?”
Becker moved to Nanfu Wang, director of Mind Over Murder. “To me, the series is about false memories.” She mentioned about how her DP on a previous project remembered things differently about a film they made together. The DP was adamant that the edited cut was exactly how the real life action being documented had happened. However, Wang had edited the piece and distorted the order of events, creating a different narrative.
“From that moment I was very interested in how malleable and valuable our memory is,” said Wang. “Fast forward to a few years ago, I read an article and the headline was, Remember A Murder You Didn’t Commit?” She explained that the article was about six people convicted of murder in 1985 Nebrasta, the Beatrice Six, which formed the basis of her HBO series.
“They were exonerated in 2010 but three of the six people said, ‘ Wait, I was innocent? I thought I was guilty. I remember being at the crime scene and murdering the person.’ She continues to explain that these three people had a hard time coming to terms with this not actually happening. “ It was all about how their memories had been revised over the years and that they internalized a version of the narrative that wasn’t true.”
For the rest of their conversation you can watch the full panel, as well as all of our 2023 Film Independent Directors Close-Up library of online and in-person sessions by purchasing a series pass here. They all chat about editing, notes from the studio and collaborating with their subjects, advice for future documentarians and beyond.
The Directors Close-Up series continues with events through March 1 leading up to the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards on Sunday, March 4. Passes are on sale now.
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