The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For documentary filmmakers, our crazy news cycle is a nightmare — and a dream come true

Roger Stone in the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone.” (Barbara Nitke/Netflix)

“Get Me Roger Stone” could have been a very different movie. When the documentary’s directors started filming the proudly notorious political strategist in 2011, he appeared to be in the twilight of his career. Here was a portrait of a down-on-his-luck power broker with a seedy reputation, relegated to the fringes of Washington’s political elite.

Then Donald Trump happened.

Stone had been trying to get Trump to run for president since the 1980s. “I was like a jockey looking for a horse,” Stone explains to the camera, “and he was a prime piece of horseflesh.” And just like that, in the midst of production, a movie about a has-been became a film about how Trump became leader of the free world.

It’s hard to keep up with the news these days. Huge headlines seem to be getting bigger and cycling through faster. The way things are going, anyone shocked by the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey just needs to wait a few days for something even more outrageous to transpire.

Documentary filmmakers typically spend years working on a movie about the big picture. But what happens when the big picture keeps changing? These turns of events can be fortuitous, as they were for “Get Me Roger Stone.” With the surprise results of the election, there’s an urgency to make sense of our country. But it’s hard to explain the importance of news without the context that hindsight provides. These days, a number of documentarians in the eye of a hurricane have been rethinking their films on the fly, trying to give viewers a sense of what the whole massive storm could mean.

When “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it was astoundingly up-to-date. The movie premiered a few days after Trump was sworn in, and director Brian Knappenberger and his editors had quickly re-cut the ending to include scenes from the inauguration and the women’s march.

It seemed like a necessary adjustment. The movie paints a dire picture about the state of the First Amendment, especially since Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel bankrolled a lawsuit with the express intent of putting online media company Gawker out of business. With the election, the freedom of the press suddenly seemed even more precarious. After all, Trump claimed he was interested in “opening up our libel laws.”

Trump’s presence had always hovered over the production of the movie, according to Knappenberger. There were echoes of the Republican nominee’s anti-media sentiments in the Gawker case. But when Knappenberger went back to work the day after the election, something had obviously changed.

“It was clear I was making a very different film than the film I thought I was making 24 hours before that,” he said over the phone recently. “It went from being cautionary to being, well, holy s---: This is real.”

After the election, he had to do more filming (including, full disclosure, an interview with Washington Post writer Margaret Sullivan) to “bring that thought that was lurking in the background into sharper focus.”

Another documentary that premiered during the festival was “Trumped,” from the crew behind the Showtime series “The Circus.” The selling point of the show, which chronicled the election season, was its quick turnaround. Editors transformed loads of footage into concise episodes about the latest from the campaign trail. The movie used that footage to do more of the same — essentially retread what anyone who was paying attention had already seen: Clinton’s email scandal, Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape, every pundit’s reaction to the election results no one predicted. It didn’t shed additional light on how Trump’s victory happened, which may demonstrate the limitations of trying to explain a historical moment as quickly as possible.

For producer Blair Foster, a frequent Alex Gibney collaborator who also worked on “Get Me Roger Stone,” the best documentaries dig deeper. But that can be time-consuming.

“I think documentarians now more than ever have a responsibility to be the ones that step back and take the time to really examine something in full,” she said during a phone conversation, “and be that voice in a world where there’s Twitter, there’s Instagram, where everything is instant.”

Foster credits Netflix, which releases the movie Friday, for giving the filmmakers space to properly construct a movie that kept reversing direction during production.

“We could still be making this film,” Foster said. “Every day, every hour there’s something new.”

That brings up another challenge: At some point filmmakers just have to commit to an ending, even though the story may keep evolving after the credits roll. Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras grappled with that on “Risk,” her documentary about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The movie she premiered at Cannes a year ago was different from the one that hit theaters last week because, in the meantime, WikiLeaks released a cache of emails that some people (including Hillary Clinton) believe affected the outcome of the presidential election.

Poitras recut the end of the movie to include Comey’s testimony that the FBI would investigate ties between the Russian government and Trump. Of course, that huge news has now been dwarfed by other developments.

“I don’t mind that a film continues beyond the frame,” she said during a recent visit to Washington. “Closure is a kind of fiction.”

Last year, three of the Oscar-nominated feature documentaries used decades of history to make sense of American culture. The winner, “O.J.: Made in America,” wasn’t just about the “trial of the century”; it was also about the Los Angeles riots and hero worship, urban policing and modern celebrity. It can take a long time for us to sort through why the world is changing. And it may be getting harder.

In a way, the fact that “Get Me Roger Stone” — directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme — was initially not about Trump was beneficial. The movie was intended as a survey of the dark history of American politics since Watergate through the eyes of a man who was always there, pulling strings behind the scenes. The film includes some of Stone’s “rules,” including: The past is prologue. (Though, Stone being Stone, he says it more crudely.)

“That was what we used as the guiding principle for how we understood this moment,” said co-director Pehme. “The 24/7 news cycle can seem really bewildering and you can lose a sense of causality. But because we had shown so conclusively that what had unfolded this election cycle had been planted by Roger and cultivated over the decades, we got our perspective on the now.”