Even though the 2015 Academy Awards telecast isn’t until February 22nd, and voting for the nominees by Academy members won’t begin until the tail end of December, it’s high time the powers-that-be behind the Oscars start whittling down the number of film submitted for consideration. This year, 134 films were submitted to the Best Feature Documentary category alone. In less than ten days, the Academy’s documentary branch will eliminate nearly 90% of these, leaving a shortlist of just 15 films in the running for the coveted statuette.
Scott Feinberg, lead film awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, sat down during the Savannah Film Festival with eight documentary filmmakers whose films are among the contenders. Some were new to documentaries, some were new to filmmaking as a medium, and some were documentary veterans. He spoke with all of them about their backgrounds, what drew them to their current subjects, and what challenges they faced making their films.
Feinberg was joined by an incredibly varied group of gentlemen whose films represent a fantastic span of interests. Alan Hicks, a rookie filmmaker, directed “Keep on Keepin’ On” about the friendship between a jazz legend and a young prodigy. Mike Myers made his directorial debut this year with “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” about the legendary Hollywood manager and agent. Steve James and Robbie Kenner, both previous Oscar nominees, helmed “Life Itself” (which chronicled Roger Ebert’s life) and “Merchants of Doubt” (people who help corporations by misleading consumers), respectively. James Keach, a narrative filmmaker, took a turn in nonfiction with a look at Alzheimer’s-diagnosed musician Glen Campbell in “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.” Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas made “Documented” about his life as an undocumented immigrant. Charlie Siskel directed “Finding Vivian Maier” about a nanny with an astounding eye for photography. And Gabe Polsky helmed a movie about the value and power of sports called “Red Army.”
One of the most interesting questions Feinberg posed was to Keach and James, whose subjects both have (had) terminal diseases. “What would you do if [their] health took a turn for the worst” during filming, Feinberg summed up. Glen Campbell’s response (about having Alzheimer’s), as relayed by Keach, was brilliant, “No, man, I got part-timer’s (disease), I just can’t remember anything.” Enjoy life and laugh in the face of your challenges—that was his message.
Vargas’ perspective on being an “illegal” immigrant was equally fascinating. He wanted to make a film that exposes the American population to the reality of the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. “You all know we’re here…. Some of us mow your lawn and babysit your kids and make you drinks and go to college, and maybe some of us actually make your own films.”
“Fame is the industrial disease of creativity.” So thought Shep Gordon, a legendary manager in LA who spent decades surrounded by famous individuals, and those questing for fame. Mike Myers, who is no stranger to celebrity, said that “[fame] has reproductive harm,” highlighting that he didn’t have children until he was 48, because of the way his in-the-spotlight lifestyle required him to live.
So what drove these eight men to make their films? What hurdles did they have to leap to complete their movies? To find out, watch the hour-and-a-quarter panel discussion below.