Are Self-Produced Projects Like Amazon’s ‘Val’ Documentaries, Memoirs or Sales Pitches?

·6-min read

Even Val Kilmer doesn’t consider the movie he produced about his life to be a documentary.

“Val,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this month and begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video Aug. 6, traces his career from his “Top Gun” breakthrough to recent health struggles, incorporating footage from Kilmer’s vast personal archive into the film. His son, Jack, also an actor, supplements his father’s narration, the elder Kilmer’s voice virtually unrecognizable from his heyday as a performer due to treatment for throat cancer.

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“Val would say in relation to this film that we are not making a documentary; we’re making a Val Kilmer movie where he’s playing himself as Val Kilmer,” co-director Leo Scott says.

However you classify “Val” — Cannes labeled it a documentary — it is the latest in a series of films self-produced by their star subjects that, to some, raise questions about creative control and the nature of documentaries. Recent examples include “Kid 90,” a Hulu documentary Soleil Moon Frye directed from her home movies that was released in March; “Pink: All I Know So Far,” which bowed in May on Amazon Prime; and “In Wonder,” the Shawn Mendes documentary Netflix released in November. Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Madonna have all previously produced documentaries about themselves.

Kilmer was extremely hands-on as a producer of “Val,” to the point that Scott and co-director Ting Poo did not have final cut. The filmmakers drew on more than 1,000 hours of material for the film — about 800 hours from the actor’s personal archive and another 200 hours that they sourced or shot — relying on Kilmer to make sense of it all.

Given that the movie was intended to be told in the first person, “we required much more of Val’s involvement than had the film been put together from third-person interviews, like most documentaries,” they jointly say, insisting that they were able to make the picture they wanted even without final cut.

“The only responsibility we took on in terms of making a documentary was to express something true about Val’s own experience and hopefully in turn tell something true about life, art and what it means to be human,” they say.

Still, there are moments when viewers might have wanted additional perspective about Kilmer’s behavior on set or in his personal life. Similarly, there were times when Frye’s “Kid 90” could be frustratingly coy about her now famous friends from the past.

Sometimes the level of star involvement can be murky. Billie Eilish did not receive a producer credit for the February Apple TV Plus documentary about her, but Interscope Records execs and members of her management team did.

Documentary filmmakers concede that there are business realities to working with celebrity talent — music rights and access chief among them — and it can be easy to soft-pedal unpleasant subjects.

“Tina” directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin insist that Tina Turner had no influence over HBO’s Emmy-nominated documentary about the music icon’s life, which was executive produced by her husband, Erwin Bach. Yet, Lindsay says, “If I’m being honest, you can still find yourself as a filmmaker feeling the pressure of like, ‘We don’t want to piss off the person that you are making the film about.’”

That could be why Turner’s health struggles, including a stroke in 2013, an intestinal cancer diagnosis in 2016 and a kidney transplant in 2017, were not mentioned.

Frank Marshall, director of “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” another Emmy-nominated documentary from HBO, says he consulted Barry Gibb and the estates of the late Robin and Maurice Gibb, but they did not have final approval on the project, which was backed by Capitol Records.

“I like to work in collaboration with whoever’s story I’m telling,” Marshall says. “Part of the deal was that I would bring the rough cuts to Barry and the family. If there’s personal things that people don’t want to say, it was my job either to convince them that it’s the right thing to include or not.” In return they might alert him to things that weren’t portrayed accurately. “So it was also part of the research process.”

There is no denying that some star-driven docs are targeted as marketing devices tied to a new album release or TV series. They also can be used to revive a career or in the case of “Val,” pay tribute to one.

“The problem that I see is that the audience can’t tell the difference between these films and documentaries,” says Lois Vossen, executive producer of PBS’ “Independent Lens.” “They hear the word ‘documentary,’ and they think all of it is being judged by some universal criteria that everybody is applying. And that’s absolutely not true.”

She questions whether documentaries produced with the cooperation of their subjects should be instead called memoirs. “Nobody is there making sure we see the good, bad and the ugly,” Vossen points out. “For those of us who are really invested in the art form of documentary as a way to tell a deeper truth about our society, these make us nervous, because that’s the commercialization of the art form.”

But at the same time, Vossen understands why star performers — and the companies that work with them — want to protect their brand in such nonfiction films or series, regardless of what they are ultimately called.

The murkiness surrounding these documentary projects extends to money. Are celebrities getting paid for their involvement? The information is not often made public. Last year, Michael Jordan raised eyebrows when he reportedly received millions of dollars for “The Last Dance,” a co-production of Netflix and ESPN, donating the money to charity. The miniseries won last year’s Emmy in the documentary or nonfiction series category.

Michael Kantor, executive producer of PBS’ “American Masters,” considers such payments a worrisome trend. “In my head, reality stars are paid,” Kantor says. “Documentary subjects are not paid. So there’s this convergence of the reality-show model and the documentary model, which is confusing in the sense of what truth is being told or not because people are being paid.”

But Bryn Mooser, head of XTR, a nonfiction film and TV studio, says the interpretation of the documentary form is expanding whether we want it to or not.

“We are seeing a moment of a redefinition of the genre and a breaking of a lot of the old ideas that were perhaps tied to some journalistic idea that are going to be challenged,” says Mooser. “The lines are being blurred, and that’s really exciting.”

Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.

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