Don’t Mock the Mockumentary: 4 ways the mockumentary style can save your indie budget.

Don’t be afraid to flip the ‘Mock’ switch.

As an indie filmmaker, I’m always on the lookout for ways to produce content faster and on a lower budget – mockumentary style to the rescue!  In case you’re not familiar with the term mockumentary, allow Wikipedia to clarify:

A mockumentary (a portmanteau of the words mock and documentary), is a type of film or television show in which fictitious events are presented in documentary format. These productions are often used to analyze or comment on current events and issues by using a fictitious setting, or to parody the documentary form itself.[1] They may be either comedic or dramatic in form, although comedic mockumentaries are more common. A dramatic mockumentary (sometimes referred to as docufiction) should not be confused with docudrama, a fictional genre in which dramatic techniques are combined with documentary elements to depict real events.

Mockumentaries are often presented as historical documentaries, with B roll and talking heads discussing past events, or as cinéma vérité pieces following people as they go through various events. Though the precise origins of the genre are not known, examples emerged during the 1950s, when archival film footage became relatively easy to locate.[1] A very early example was a short piece on the “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest” that appeared as an April fools’ joke on the British television program Panorama in 1957. – Wikipedia.

The mockumentary is one of my favorite styles and I find it works best with comedy, horror and sci-fi in that order.  For comedy, the raw nature of the “as is” locations, the perceived unscripted interviews, actions and dialogue, and the overall pacing create an environment that is ripe for absurdity, awkwardness, and general tongue-in-cheek revelry.  For horror and sci-fi, it adds a level of realism to the events, creating the illusion that this ‘actually happened’ and thus blurring the boundaries of reality and raising the bar for terror.

There is a sub-style here that plays an important role in the horror and sci-fi genres.  The rise of the “found footage” style of mockumentary continues to have an impact on horror.  The set-up is usually the same – “filmmakers went to some bad place and disappeared – the following is all that is left”.  Some examples include The Blair Witch Project, Grave Encounters, V/H/S, Man Bites Dog and Apollo 18 with many more on the way.

So how can you, the indie filmmaker with a low budget, benefit from this style?  Here’s four ways that the mockumentary can help your bottom line:

1.  Actors don’t need to be actors

In order to preserve the “real” feel of the scenes, most mockumentaries eschew the scripted dialogue for outlines, allowing the actors to improvise.  In comedies, the awkward moments normally associated with “amateur”  or inexperienced actors come off as natural, real performances. This means that many parts can be cast with friends, family and all sorts of interesting “real” characters, thus preserving your fragile bottom line.  This works great for comedy, however, be forewarned:  horror and sci-fi often require more subtlety to support the premise, so choose your talent carefully.

 2.  Keep it “as is”

The sets need to be as natural as possible to create the illusion of reality.  This means you can find locations and use them “as is” with minimal effort required to dress them.  Of course, plot point items will still need special attention, but lots of time and effort can be saved when your trying to capture reality.  There’s nothing more “real” than an undisturbed actual location so keep the environment as untouched as possible.

3.  High-end cinematography optional

Now some big budget documentaries use high end cameras, while others use whatever footage they can get their hands on.  The main point here is that all documentaries use a variety of different sources collected on a variety of different devices.  This means that for you, the indie producer, feel free to use your iphone, your camcorder, your old Betacam rig, etc.  All those different sources will only reinforce the overall perception of documentary style.

 4.  Scripted dialogue? Bah, improvise, man improvise!

This is one of the most fun aspects of the mockumentary style – letting your talent improvise the lines.  While you might shoot more takes to get the scene, the results are usually much more interesting and worth the extra effort.  Plus, you save money in the scripting.  Good dialogue is tough to write, even for seasoned professionals and many low budget films suffer from lousy language.  Letting the conversation flow naturally can help overcome dialogue difficulties and create a much stronger final production.

 Here’s my top eleven mockumentaries ( of COURSE we go to eleven!) :

 11.  Zelig – 1983

Lizard in the middle

Woody Allen’s ground breaking mockumentary set the stage for Forest Gump.  It’s the story of a “human chameleon” who has been EVERYWHERE in history and can change himself to blend in with his surroundings.  Zelig is supported by fancy compositing techniques at a time when fancy compositing techniques were very difficult at best and darn near impossible most of the time.  It is truly a pioneering film in the evolution of the mockumentary and well worth revisiting.

 10.  The Last Exorcism – 2010

Did you hear the one about the farmer’s daughter? She’s a Yoga instructor from hell!

I’ve been slowly catching up on the more recent horror films ( I have a 10 year old daughter so the last decade has been kid’s movies with little time for what I really like – I did, however, manage to throw in some Ray Harryhausen classics from time to time – just to keep it real!) so this one was a delightful departure from the usual exocism theme.  A disillusioned preacher seeks to debunk exorcisms once and for all.  Director Daniel Stamm and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland keep you guessing with lots of twists and turns all wrapped up in the documentary style.  If you haven’t seen it, you really should.

 9.  Take The Money And Run – 1969

Nosey parents!

Another Woody Allen entry, this one chronicles a lame gangster.  Normally, I’m hot and cold on Mr. Allen’s work.  This one is definitely one of his finer efforts.  Plenty of funny scenes with great characters and a silly plot.  More importantly, made in 1969, when NO ONE was doing mocks!


8.  Cloverfield – 2008

Heads, you lose!


J.J. Abrams skillfully created this sci-fi masterpiece.  While some critics weren’t too keen on this film, I strongly disagree.  Great characters with a simple story:  Alien invasion of New York City.  It plays on that universal fear among urbanites – what happens when the everything goes to hell in major metropolitan area?  The answer is:  chaos!  The effects are top-drawer with some of the best compositing I’ve ever seen – all shot through the lens of a camcorder.  I think I’m going to have to watch it again tonight!

 7.  Best In Show – 2000

They let Wombats into dog shows now?

Ever see the Westminster Kennel Club dog show?  This parody of dog shows is one hilarious bit after another with strong story lines running throughout.  Great interaction between Fred Willard (goofing on real-life dog show announcer and baseball legend Joe Garagiola) and his co-host produce some of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard – just take a guess at how much I can bench press.  A stellar cast (Fred Willard, Catherine O’hara, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Eugene Levy) which is replicated in this group’s other great mockumentaries:  A Mighty Wind, Waiting For Guffman, and For Your Consideration.  Anybody up for a mockumantary marathon?

 6.  The Blair Witch Project – 1999

Man, this contact lens is REALLY bugging me!

One of the originators of the “found footage” sub-genre, this film by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez is the ultimate in efficiency.  Shot in the woods (mostly) with film and camcorder, actors pushed to the limits of confusion by the directors, real emotional outbursts and conflict with lots of horror left to the imagination.  Heather Donahue plays the character of the fictional film’s producer – a modern day Ahab in search of her white whale.  Watch as she leads her crew to their doom in the name of film production.  Made for around $20,000 and has grossed millions.  Brilliant.

 5.  Borat – 2006

Them’s fightin’ words! Naked, manly, hairy, dude-on-dude fightin’ words!

Sasha Baron Cohen is a comic genius.  This irreverent portrayal of the anti-semitic leader of Kazahkstan is truly hilarious.  I watched this on a flight to Los Angeles and had to shield my ipad so others couldn’t see 2 nude men wrestling/fighting/sixty-nineing during the big fight scene.  Jews and homophobes beware!



4.  Bob Roberts – 1992

Who shot BR? Slow it down and find out!

This film, which came out when there were still VHS rentals at places like Blockbuster and Erols, is the only film where I actually used my VCR’s frame-by-frame feature to see what happened in a particular scene.  Starring Tim Robbins and Alan Rickman,  Bob Roberts is a frighteningly prescient view of politics today.  Also written and directed by Robbins as well.  Oh yeah, it’s funny as hell too!


3.  The Fourth Kind – 2009

Way too much caffeine, man, way too much…

This film is a strange mix of “actual footage and recordings” and dramatizations.  It is, perhaps, one of the most frightening films I have ever seen.  Not bloody, gory or anything like that, but just the thought that this stuff is real freaked me out for a week.  Plus I was alone in a hotel room for 4 nights afterward – and I had my phone ringtone set to Rob Zombie’s Superbeast which at 4 a.m. scared the crap out of me every time it rang.  If you have a dream about owls at your window, don’t hesitate, move far away immediately – trust me!

2.  The Making of ‘…And God Spoke’ – 1993

Guess who wins?

Even the title is stupid!  Hapless filmmakers who know nothing about the bible attempt to make a biblical epic.  Everything goes wrong in just the right ways.  The fight scene between Cain (Lou Ferrigno) and Abel (Andy Dick) is one of the funniest moments in film history.



 1.  This Is Spinal Tap – 1984

We go to eleven and Stonehenge is supposed to be bigger…

For all intents and purposes, this is the Big Kahuna of the mockumentary style.  Rob Reiner’s masterpiece was so effective at creating the illusion of a real rock band that people were trying to buy albums and get concert tickets to a fictional band.  This film goes to eleven.



Honorable Mentions from Television

My Name Is Earl – Episodes “Inside Probe – Parts 1 and 2” – While not a mockumentary show, the “Inside Probe” episodes of season 4 are absolutely hilarious and some of the best examples of the style around.

Curb Your Enthusiasm Larry David’s brilliant scripts are outlines – scenes improvised – it’s like you’re just hangin’ out with the cast.

Arrested Development this is just the greatest show!

The Office (UK version & USA version)

Oh yeah, and don’t forget the inventor of it all, Mr. Orson Welles with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast on October 30th, 1938!  It had people leaping from hi-rises to escape the alien threat!

Also, here’s a few other links if you’re looking for similar info:

So there you go, feel free to respond with YOUR favorite mocks.  I’ve personally got 2 of ’em cooking on the indie production back burner with another one waiting in the wings – but more on that later.  So to all you fellow indie filmmakers out there, don’t mock the mockumentary – it just might be your ticket to getting your story told!


Sunscreen, man, use your sunscreen…



5 Ingredients for Effective Horror

As a former film student and having had the guilty pleasure of sampling a wide array of horror films, I find myself analyzing what makes a film succeed within a given genre.  I’ve attended courses in Asian cinema, pop culture cinema, sci-fi, and even an in depth Hitchcock study.  But as a filmmaker, I find myself drawn to the horror genre.  First, because I can produce effective horror on a meager budget, and second (more importantly), I LOVE the dark stuff – unlike Eric Idle at the end of “Life Of Brian”,  I tend to always look on the DARK side of life.  So what makes horror really hum?  Let me throw out a few of my personal observations and before you all jump up and down with YOUR top five let me run my disclaimer – this NOT by any means a finite list – just my favs:

1. Environmentally Hostile – There are two items common to great horror films that are perfect for building tension. First, successful horror films thrive on tension and environments that force close proximity – mazes, tunnels, old mansions, basements, etc. all force characters into close contact with “monsters” and/or each other.  Whether they are psychos or actual creatures, that tight habitat with mystery around each turn breeds the most effective opportunities for terror.  Throw in a healthy dose of paranoia, and you’ve got a recipe for horror bonanza.  The Descent, while IMHO fell short when the monsters showed up, had that whole “trapped in a cave with mistrust” part was working like a champ in the beginning – claustrophobic, man, claustrophobic but beautiful!

Second, familiar, every night situations in which people are vulnerable – those universal events like taking a shower, crossing that dark parking lot or going down to the basement in the middle of the night to investigate some mystery noise, are all psychological trigger points that great horror wallows about in.  We’ve all been there and felt that eerie tingling on the nape of the neck that forces us to move a little slower and tense up.  As a matter of fact, I feel as if someone is watching us RIGHT NOW!

2. I Heart Characters –  complex characters that the audience cares about are a necessity for successful frightfests.  One sure fire method to up the ante?  In a word – children.  When children are put into jeopardy, everyone cares and hopes for their safety and redemption.  They are vulnerable and innocent – who doesn’t want to see them unharmed (outside of Jerry Sandusky, of course).   Insidious, The Exorcist, Here Comes The Devil, etc.

Families are also great motivators for salvation – Poltergeist, Sinister, Pet Sematary, etc.  One of my favorites is Jeepers Creepers, a celebration of the bond between brother and sister.  I found that to be truly refreshing.  No one wants to see a nice family destroyed – the struggle to keep the brood together is just a fantastic vehicle for tension.

And then there’s women – particularly attractive women.  Halloween, Psycho, The Hunger – all play to the desire of saving the hottie because, well, she’s hot and it would be such a waste of aesthetics for her to perish.  Male chauvinist pigs…

3. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Horror – Humor and Horror have more in common that a same first letter.  The both behave in similar ways with regard to human psychology and tension – particularly the build up and release of tension.  Comedy works like this – the build up makes us psychologically prepped for laughter.  It builds and builds and then, viola, out comes the uncontrollable laughter.  Horror is similar – tension builds and builds and then, bam, we flinch, scream, or jump in our seats.  That release then creates an environment ripe for comedy and laughter as well.  Adding comic relief at just the right moments in a horror film gives the audience a chance to relax, breath and get ready for the next big chill.  Without that break, some films run the risk of relentless horror.  While it might sound good on paper, the audience may not walk away as satisfied.  Remember how you laughed at Return of the Living Dead‘s split dogs?  I do!

4. The Mind Is A Terrible Thing – This one stands out as one of my personal favorites.  So many of today’s films rely on the shock of gore, showing every aspect of the brutality in a step by step nature.  For me, this results in desensitization.  Holding my hand through the bloody details only releases my imagination from building a much more personal, lasting and frightening set of images.  My lazy brain tends to sit on the couch and eat fritos during the gorefests.  Psycho never showed a knife penetrating (huh huuuhhh, I said penetrating) the flesh.  Instead, our brains did the heavy lifting and this created one of the most personal and long-acting horror scenes in history.  Leave more to the imagination and your audience will fill in the gory details better than even you can, Mr. Peckinpah.

5. The Great Unknown – Finally, most of my favorite horror themes touch on an aspect of human nature that is somewhat universal – fear of that which is unknown.  Those vast regions of our world that remain largely uncharted.  The ocean, space, the forest primeval, the human psyche, unknown disease, the afterlife etc.  These are places where mystery abound and the imagination is free to wreak havoc on our otherwise common senses.

So here’s my top 10 regarding these criteria – starting from bottom:

I think they planted the tree too near the house…

10. Poltergeist – the family threatened at it’s best – lots of familiarity, the thunderstorm and counting to see how far away the lightening strike occurred is something I did with MY family!  Also, the unknown world of the afterlife takes center stage.



I got slug for that slug…

9. Slither – the comic relief in this film makes it a campy classic.  Humor and tongue-in-cheek dialogue mixed just right.  I had to mention it as a prime example of how comedy and horror are BFFs.  Evil Dead 2 and 3 deserve mention here as well – all hail Bruce Campbell…


This phone is way too heavy!

8.  When A Stranger Calls – there’s a description of the killer “tearing the children apart with his bare hands” that painted a hideous picture in my mind when I first saw this in the theaters (I had snuck in to see Alien, but ended up sitting through this one instead!).  One of my favorite “monster in the house” films.

Is that a 10 inch butcher knife, or are you just glad to see me?

7. Halloween – Jamie Lee Curtis is the ultimate hot chick vic, the mysteries of psychosis, trapped in the house with Michael Myers, the imagination runs rampant with Donald Pleasence’s description of MM’s eyes.



I told you to clean the sink!

6. The Road – Cannibalism is just plain creepy.  This film is relentless in it’s pursuit of tension.  The happy times always find horror lurking around the next corner.  The imagination is truly let loose – plenty of hints of horror to guide the mind to hideous conclusions that stick for weeks.  The cannibal vics in the basement left me freaked.  One of the most finely tuned tension machines ever produced.

The lady of the house ain’t home, besides, we mailed you people a check last week.

5. The Thing From Another World/The Thing – Both Howard Hawks and John Carpenter make ample use of a closed, cramped environment and a free-range monster.  Carpenter ups the ante with a healthy dose of paranoia as well as the fear of contagion.  Let’s not forget the phenomenal Rob Bottin FX – solid analog performers in todays digital world – just shows that creativity trumps technology every time.

Now that’s some COLD water!

4. Jaws – ahh, the mysterious ocean – who knows what lurks – Speilberg, that’s who.  The vulnerability of the beach and swimming has made me think twice EVERY TIME I GO INTO THE DAMN OCEAN.  Curse my active imagination…don’t forget a bunch of dudes trapped on a little boat with a giant monster seemingly everywhere at once.  Dun, dun, dun, dun…

A bad complexion is nothing to projectile vomit at.

3. The Exorcist – horrors of the flesh, the unknown afterlife, trapped in the house with the devil, children victims – oh yeah, brief flashes of an African death mask that allow the imagination to fill in the creepiness – oh yeah, the sound of bees in the soundtrack which has been psychologically tested and proven to cause universal distress to humans.  Mr. Friedkin  sure did his horror homework…

Hard water sucks.

2. Psycho – the shower scene is brilliant and lasting – common vulnerabilities, hot female, mysteries of the human psyche, plenty left to the imagination, black and white, mother, blood, mother…Hitchcock was THE MAN – Nuff said.

Wow, she’s a member of the plumber’s union too!

1. Alien – Now I know you’re screaming “Sci-Fi”, but I call BS on that.  Ridley Scott with the collusion of artist H.R. Giger made a perfectly balanced and long-lasting horror film in 1979.  The unknown mystery of outer space,  a dark, cramped ship, never REALLY seeing the monster except in glimpses, tall, seductive, Sigourney Weaver in her undies, strobe lights to obscure (and cause epileptic seizures), lots of subliminal visual metaphors for sex, child birth and other deep psychological gimmicks to influence our subconscious – thanks Giger…

Please apply sunscreen

Please apply sunscreen