“Operation Varsity Blues” director Chris Smith, best known for the documentary “Fyre,” about the misbegotten music festival, wasn’t particularly interested in making a film about the Singer episode unless he could find a unique way into the story.
His screenwriter, Jon Karmen, made a bold proposal: Why not use the public record — hundreds of pages of affidavits and FBI wiretap transcripts — as fodder for a screenplay, and have actors play Singer and his clients? (The team also reached out to interview key players in the scandal, most of whom were unavailable or unwilling to be filmed. Singer’s most high-profile clients included actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, both of whom received short jail sentences after they admitted participating in the scheme.)
“I’m not one of those filmmakers looking for an opportunity to do something in the narrative space,” Smith explains in a recent telephone conversation. “It was just a consequence of, how do you tell this story? We didn’t have access to the parents, and we didn’t have access to Rick Singer. The next best thing were the transcripts of these conversations between Rick and some of the people he was working with. For me, it was the closest thing we had to a window on that world.”
Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is nothing new for Smith: He made his filmmaking debut in 1996 with “American Job,” a fictional movie about a young man working a minimum-wage job that was so convincing, many viewers assumed it was a documentary. His sophomore effort, “American Movie” (1999), chronicled the real-life exploits of low-budget filmmaker Mark Borchardt; the documentary was so funny and full of you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me moments that several audiences assumed it was fiction. Now, with “Operation Varsity Blues,” Smith says, “it finally made sense to put them together.”
“Operation Varsity Blues” is part of a trend in documentary filmmaking, a discipline that has historically frowned upon devices like reenactments, dramatizations and other conceits borrowed from narrative fiction. As far back as Robert Flaherty’s seminal 1922 film “Nanook of the North” — billed as a candid portrait of the life of an Inuit family in the Arctic Circle and revealed later to contain scenes that were scripted and staged — purity has been used as both an aspirational ideal and a cudgel. In 2005, controversy erupted when Robert Houston’s short documentary “Mighty Times: The Children’s March” won an Oscar, despite containing undisclosed reenacted sequences. Years before, Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line” didn’t receive an Oscar nomination, despite its groundbreaking use of narrative techniques such as reenactments; stylized, slow-motion insert shots; a moody Philip Glass score; and a noir-esque, whodunit structure. In fact it was just those flourishes — seen as revolutionary at the time — that reportedly turned off old-school members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary branch.
Today, such tut-tutting seems as dated as the cheesy, ripped-from-the-headlines TV movies that gave the term “docudrama” a bad name.
Morris used the actor Peter Sarsgaard in his 2017 documentary series “Wormwood,” about the CIA’s history of secret experiments with LSD; in 2010, Alex Gibney enlisted the actress Wrenn Schmidt to portray a sex worker in “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.” In “The Arbor” (2010) and “Notes on Blindness” (2016), actors lip-synced to tapes made of real-life subjects. The 2018 series “Watergate,” directed by Charles Ferguson, mixed straightforward interviews with scenes of actors performing taped conversations between President Richard Nixon and his advisers. In Netflix’s 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma,” about the malign effects of social media, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski illustrated the observations of several executives, activists and academics by way of travails experienced by a fictional suburban family, played by an ensemble featuring Kara Hayward, best known from the Wes Anderson movie “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Lisa Nishimura, vice president of original documentary and independent films at Netflix, welcomes the innovations, emphasizing that they’re “not about blurring the lines between fiction and reality, but really about adding to the fabric of the story when it makes sense and supports the filmmaker’s vision.” She adds that “every story is different. We have documentaries that use traditional techniques, like ‘Crip Camp’ and ‘My Octopus Teacher,’ where there are no reenactments and the filmmakers had access to rich archives and a plethora of visual material. There are, however, instances where materials are limited and a story calls for bringing additional devices to already established and highly effective techniques — be it verite or archive.”
Used with ingenuity and transparency, such conceits are valid means to the end of good storytelling, insists Taghi Amirani, whose 2020 documentary “Coup 53,” about the plot conceived by British and U.S. intelligence to remove Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh from office, includes sequences starring Ralph Fiennes as real-life MI6 operative Norman Darbyshire.
Like Smith, Amirani and his editor and co-writer, Walter Murch, had access to Darbyshire’s words — in this case, the transcript of an interview conducted by the producers of the 1985 Granada Television series “End of Empire.” Initially, Amirani and Murch thought Fiennes could read portions of the transcript in a conventional voice-over, or they could film him reading in the sound studio with headphones on. Eventually, Amirani hit on the idea of shooting Fiennes as if he were being interviewed for “End of Empire,” in a chintz-covered chair at London’s Savoy Hotel, much like the series’ original participants.
That choice resulted in some of the most absorbing and memorable moments in “Coup 53,” in which Fiennes delivers a crafty, utterly mesmerizing performance (“That’s Norman,” Amirani recalls Darbyshire’s widow saying after she saw the film). It also resulted in vociferous pushback from the “End of Empire” team, who maintained that they never filmed Darbyshire and have criticized “Coup 53” for allegedly distorting the details of Darbyshire’s involvement in their film. (The “End of Empire” team does not dispute the authenticity of the Darbyshire transcript or the fact that they recorded his interview.)
Amirani regrets nothing. For one thing, he says, the way he staged Fiennes’s scenes — where the audience can see him preparing amid lights and cables, and talking over last-minute notes with Amirani — signals its speculative nature. In fact, it’s one of several instances where “Coup 53” breaks the fourth wall by showing the filmmakers’ research and editing process.
“Are we telling you 100 percent Darbyshire was filmed? No,” Amirani says. “[But] there’s not a shadow of a doubt that he said these things.” What’s more, he adds, having Fiennes channel Darbyshire’s words gives them considerably more emotional weight and meaning than if they had merely been read as voice-over narration, a la Ken Burns in his 1990 documentary miniseries, “The Civil War.”
On a broader level, “there’s no such thing as complete objective truth in documentary,” Amirani says. “I actually cut my teeth in television doing observational documentaries, using a handheld camera and following everything.” That jittery verite style, he notes, has often been used to telegraph truth when even the most spontaneous, fly-on-the-wall film has been shaped by the person behind the camera. “What you choose for your subject, whether you shot in the morning or the afternoon, when you cut, when you say, ‘action,’ what lens you use, what questions you ask — you’re editorializing from the very beginning to the end, including [where most of the] editorializing [happens], the cutting room.”
In many ways, films like “Coup 53” and “Operation Varsity Blues” are simply continuing a dialogue that has always existed between fiction and nonfiction films, wherein directors like Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow inject authenticity into their movies with verite “shaky-cam” techniques and Chloe Zhao casts Frances McDormand and David Strathairn alongside nonprofessionals in her Oscar-nominated drama “Nomadland.”
Heidi Ewing, who makes nonfiction verite films with her frequent directing partner Rachel Grady, will release her first narrative feature in May: “I Carry You With Me” tells the true story of two Mexican American immigrants using many of the spontaneous and observational techniques Ewing developed over the course of her career, as well as more straightforward documentary elements.
What was a hard-and-fast line when she first started, Ewing says, “has become more porous. People have become freed up to give the story what it needs.” She connects that development to more visibility for documentaries, which are finding bigger audiences on cable and streaming outlets. “With popularity comes less adherence to the dusty or more stuffy rules of the medium that were in place for 50 years,” she says. “Also, the type of filmmaker making documentaries has changed. Now you have people who do music videos, commercials, narratives, Ron Howard is doing documentaries, Martin Scorsese. People are going in both directions and bring with them what they perceive as cinema.”
Murch, best known for his editing and sound design work with Francis Ford Coppola on “Apocalypse Now” and other films, sees the expanded boundaries between fact and fiction as a function of technology. When cinema verite was the gold standard in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, he observes, independent filmmakers couldn’t afford the bells and whistles of narrative film.
“In those days, any kind of fancy stuff was aesthetically frowned upon, but also expensive,” he says. “And that’s all changed now. The sprocketed marble of documentary filmmaking in the old days has turned into digital clay.”
For Smith, the elastic nature of his film’s visual language was designed to meet the viewers’ own experience. In addition to the dramatized sections of “Operation Varsity Blues,” Smith uses snippets of YouTube videos, television news reports, Google searches and social media posts. The aim, he says, was to acknowledge how “the way we consume media has evolved, [where] you’ll be watching a film and have your computer or phone on and you’ll be Googling things the whole time.”
The ultimate question, of course, concerns the filmmaker’s unspoken contract with the audience: When we see a documentary, we assume that it will tell us, if not the truth, then at least a version of the truth that the filmmaker has been honest about shaping. For Amirani, the acid test is whether he can go home and say, “I have not misled anyone in this scene or this cut or this entire film, [and] I’ve used the entire cinematic toolbox to keep them interested and lead them through the story.”
When it comes to once-distinct visual languages that are in a continual state of cross-pollination and mutual influence, Smith is even more latitudinal. “I don’t want to be misconstrued as saying it’s okay to play with the truth and the facts,” he says. “We’re always trying to be as accurate as we can.” But, he adds, “I saw ‘The Thin Blue Line’ when I was in high school, so I never looked at documentaries in any way other than how I was introduced to them, which was telling a story in an effective manner. To me, [that’s] not an evolved or new idea in any way whatsoever.”