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. 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. 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!) :
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.
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.
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!
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!
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?
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
Arrested Development – this is just the greatest show!
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!