Documentary Filmmakers Discuss the ‘Intimate’ Nature of Capturing Their Subjects: ‘If I’m Not in Love … I’m Going to Make Something That Sucks’

Documentary Filmmakers Discuss the ‘Intimate’ Nature of Capturing Their Subjects: ‘If I’m Not in Love … I’m Going to Make Something That Sucks’

At its core, documentary filmmaking is an intimate process. The filmmakers are asking their subjects to bring their truest selves to the table — and that can be difficult when those subjects are rock stars who are used to being asked probing questions.

“These music groups who have been around forever, they have the pat answer. They’ve been asked the same question a million times,” said director Frank Marshall, whose latest documentary “The Beach Boys,” chronicles the group’s six decades in the spotlight. “You have to spend the time with them and get their trust in order for them to dig down under and get the real authentic answers.”

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Gotham Chopra — who joined Marshall, Lance Oppenheim (“Spermworld” director), Joie Jacoby (“Black Twitter: A People’s History” showrunner and executive producer) and Maria Wilhelm (“Secrets of the Octopus” executive producer) at Variety’s TV FYC Fest to discuss the documentary medium — chimed in with the perfect example. When Jon Bon Jovi reached out in 2022 to discuss the idea of making a documentary about the legendary rock band, “he had the vision for a four-part thing that was going to look back at 40 years, and I thought, ‘Okay, that’s interesting,'” Chopra recalled. “But then I started to observe like, ‘Well, what’s going on with the voice?’ I could tell literally at breakfast from his voice that something wasn’t right.”

Turns out the Bon Jovi frontman had been losing his voice over the past few years and was planning to start a few weeks of rehearsals before the band’s upcoming tour to see how much longer he’d be able to keep performing. “I’m going on this 15 city tour in April, for 30 days, and by the end of that, I’ll know if I can still do this or if it’s time to hang it up,” Bon Jovi told the director, adding, “But that’s not for the documentary.”

Too late. Chopra knew this human struggle was the story and convinced Bon Jovi to share it. “I was in Newark, New Jersey with him three weeks later at those rehearsals following the story and building a relationship with him and the whole band,” Chopra said, concluding his anecdote. “I always say, ‘I’m not a reporter. I’m not here to do it on you. I’m a storyteller. I’m here to do it with you.'”

That’s the job of a documentarian, especially when the subject matter is sensitive, like Oppenheim experienced with “Spermworld,” which explores the unregulated sperm donor market, as in donors and prospective parents who connect via Facebook instead of through sperm banks.

“It takes time and curiosity that can lead you to somebody, and hopefully having the resources to just be with someone for long periods of time,” Oppenheim said, outlining the main challenge to documentary filmmaking. That’s why it was so remarkable for FX to take a shot on this unconventional subject matter. “It was not an easy pitch by any means. I’m going to be filming people masturbating, and then giving their sperm, and hopefully children will be made, and we’ll watch this happen.”

And in order to tell those stories empathetically, the filmmakers have to be empathetic too.

“If I’m not in love with the person that’s in it, then it’s not going to work and I’m going to make something that sucks,” Oppenheim added. “Part of the thing I’m looking for is someone who can clearly articulate what they want in life. Most cases, I think most people want to be bigger than life. That’s why they probably want to be in a documentary or be seen in some sort of way.”

That’s why Jacoby’s favorite moment of filming “Black Twitter” came during the Hulu docu-series’ verité segments, where she and her fellow executive producers orchestrated meet-up scenes (or a “live tweet-up” as she described it) with Twitter users who were instrumental in the platform’s early days.

“They’re not as well known. When we had them all together, in a room and they were like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen your tweets, or I’ve seen your memes,’ them feeling seen in this way was really gratifying,” Jacoby said. “As much as we knew that this was a piece of history that needed to be documented. It was amazing to be able to document these people and their connection to it.”

And that connection also extends to our natural world, as is the case with Nat Geo’s “Secrets of the Octopus,” which follows documentaries about whales and elephants in service of one mission: to reconnect people with nature.

“You’ve heard the quote that ‘You don’t conserve what you don’t love. You don’t love what you don’t understand,'” said Wilhelm, who executive produced the trilogy of docs about our “intimate” connection with nature. “And it is working There is a moment of love for nature that’s being expressed by the size of the audience that these series are garnering. We are working hard to do what we believe, as a mission, is important to every single one of us in the room. And we’re doing that by bringing you into a world that is all around us, but often we don’t see.”

At the end of the day it’s passion that keeps these filmmakers in the storytelling game.

“We spend hours and hours and hours in the cutting room and in interviews, and you have to love what you’re doing, and in the music area, you got to love the music,” Marshall said. “It has to be a passion project for you, because you’re not honest and you’re not authentic if it isn’t.”

Watch the full conversation in the video above.

[Pictured: Gotham Chopra, Joie Jacoby, Lance Oppenheim, Maria Wilhelm and Frank Marshall]

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