A Mock-Doc/Horror Manifesto
…Because it’s about damn time someone wrote one.
Last night I went to see Daniel Stamm’s exciting new entry to the mock-documentary/horror genre, “The Last Exorcism.” Although I have my quibbles with the film (specifically the ending – which I will not spoil here), I found it smart, engaging, atmospheric, and mostly believable as a documentary in addition to being creepy as hell. As in most well-done mock-docs, the movie (until the ending I don’t like) makes credible performances its number one priority, and avoids a lot of horror clichés that force viewers to disengage.
As a filmmaker and a mock-documentarian, having directed three long-form mock-docs and over a hundred “found footage” viral videos (all of them genre projects) that needed to feel like the real deal, I’ve had to think a great deal about how one approaches, shall we say, artificial naturalism. After “The Blair Witch Project” came out, I kept hearing people say, “here come the copycats!” But it didn’t happen immediately. “[REC]” didn’t come out until eight years after BWP, and “Cloverfield” was a year after that. Surely there were mock-doc horror films (like “The Collingswood Story” or “The September Tapes”) out there, but none captured people’s’ imaginations until the recent deluge.
What’s to Mock?
I wish someone would come up with a more appropriate term other than “mock-doc” when we’re talking about horror films. The usage of “mock” is more like “mock-up” than “mockery,” but it still seems like a better way to describe “This is Spinal Tap” than “Paranormal Activity.” And while I’m on the subject, I think it’s smart to start this with some ground rules in mind.’
We need to separate four kinds of films here: standard narrative (“The Exorcist,” “Citizen Kane,” “Turner and Hooch,”), standard documentary (“Nanook of the North,” “Man on Wire,” “Gates of Heaven,”), docudrama (“JFK,” “Silkwood,” “The Informant!”), and mock-doc (“David Holzman’s Diary,” “Waiting for Guffman,” “Man Bites Dog,”).
So the big rule is this: Anything that isn’t some version of pretend-journalism-with-a-camera is not a mock-doc.
And even within mock-docs, there seem to be two basic categories – horror and comedy. We’ve all seen dramatic films which employ a documentary aesthetic (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Hancock”) or the aforementioned docudramas which tell a journalistic story using the dramatic form, but they’re just using it to create a sense of realism or naturalism, not to trick the audience into thinking that they are an actual recording of events.
Keeping it Real
So with that in mind, I have ten guidelines that I believe mock-docs would do well to keep in mind. While I know they ALL violate these on some level, these are good guidelines for any would-be mock-documentarians to live by:
- “Documentary Style” is a contrivance like any other kind of filmmaking. It may require as much lighting, makeup, and set design as any other kind of movie. It might also require a necessary restraint in all of those departments.
Often the very idea of doing a mock-doc springs from a low-budget. After all, real documentaries are just an ENG-sized crew running around without permission, right?
Well, yes and no. The term “documentary” casts a wide net that may include everything from archival footage going back as far as the filmmaker wants to high-end interviews which require a real sense of lighting and shooting to pull off credibly. Every filmmaker who endeavors to make a mock-doc seriously owes it to him or herself to watch a wide variety of documentaries made throughout the years and by various filmmakers to understand that the documentary comes with each unique filmmakers’ creative stamp on it.
- If casting is 90% of the job as the old saying goes, casting is almost 99% of the job in a mock-doc. We have to believe these people or it won’t work.
There are a lot of great actors out there, many of whom cannot pull off the subtle shading of character required in a mock-doc. Why? All of their training can become a hinderance. Now they have to acknowledge the presence of the camera and the crew, stutter and stammer like a regular person does when they talk, interrupt each other, not hit the “good” light every time, etc. There are some filmmakers who prefer to work with non-actors for this very reason, but I believe that the balance can be found – real, trained actors who know how to turn it off.
And it’s also important to keep in mind that, depending on how one shoots a mock-doc, a bad performance might be impossible to fix with traditional tools like ADR or even just by cutting around them.
- All production methodology needs to change when making a mock-doc. A shot can only be made from a place the camera could be, and likewise audio can only be gotten from a place where a microphone could be placed.
Almost every mock-doc violates this at some point because, well, it’s really difficult and it requires a kind of discipline that runs counter to what most good filmmaking is supposed to look like. On “The Blair Witch Project,” directors Ed Sanchez and Dan Myrick made sure that this couldn’t be violated by making the actors make a real documentary about what was happening to them, albeit with the suspension of disbelief (obviously they knew it was us in the woods). But that’s not always practical for every mock-doc; imagine trying to make “Cloverfield” with this methodology, for instance.
So filmmakers who want to capture the sense of verisimilitude that only a documentary can offer need to consider that most docs do not have multiple cameras, dollies, and wireless microphones on everything. Although the audience might not consciously know they’re being duped, when the camera is telephoto and the actors are clearly standing 100 feet away, the audio would be bad unless someone in that scene had a microphone on them.
- Coverage in a real situation is temporal, meaning between getting shot and the reverse shot, everything in the room may have changed.
When I was shooting the “White Enamel” section of “The Burkittsville 7,” I remember wanting to get a closeup of the dude being force-fed up the nose. Who wouldn’t? But my cinematographer, the late Neal Fredericks said, “but what would have changed between the previous shot and the reversal?” Neal, as usual, was right. We weren’t cutting across instantaneously like we do in straightforward narrative, we were making an intentional edit that the filmmaker made for emphasis, but in his raw footage a lot would have changed between the shots so we intentionally moved the actors around, violating the continuity as it would have been in a real doc situation.
Many documentaries are cut in a similar fashion to narrative films, but it’s important to know what the filmmakers would and wouldn’t have been able to change in the scene. And although audiences might not consciously realize this technique is being used, they can feel the realism in it.
- “Documentary” doesn’t necessarily mean “shaky.”
In fact, as documentarian Joe Berlinger (“Brother’s Keeper,” “Paradise Lost,” “Crude”) has pointed out, when he and his frequent collaborator Bruce Sinofsky shoot all “cinéma vérité” style, they try to keep the camera as still as possible. By putting one’s self in a position where the camera must move and making it clear the operator is trying to keep a level frame, one might send the message to the audience that a more trained eye is behind the camera – which may or may not be appropriate for a given film.
- Documentary style doesn’t necessarily mean “100% improvised.”
Most actors love to let it rip, and it can feel very freeing as a filmmaker to do the same. But unless you’re taking a rigorous, disciplined approach of total nonintervention, the all-improv technique can quickly become a mire of wasted takes, wasted time, and uninteresting footage.
Beginning with a well-written script is the basis of most good drama, and this should be no different. Creating a feeling of spontaneity is something that can be done on set by surprising actors with live stimulus (like sound), as well as a willingness to go off-script or let actors reword their dialogue.
- Although documentaries are just as contrived as every other kind of filmmaking, they often don’t have the ending we expect as viewers because people aren’t basing their lives on Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat.”
- If the conceit of the film is “found footage,” there must be an editor. If the end of the movie has the cameraman falling off a cliff, how did we get to see the final, edited movie?
- There isn’t a single camera on earth that records the “REC” red dot, battery light, or crosshairs that one sees when operating a camcorder. To show that is to show the POV of the operator, which is much more akin to narrative than documentary filmmaking.
- A mock-doc is not a “hoax. It obviously can be used to hoax people, but part of the fun is tricking a savvy audience into suspending their belief because it’s so believable.
Just to be clear, projects like “War of the Worlds” and “Alternative 3” are actual hoaxes, and have a reputation for having causing panic. Compare that to “Paranormal Activity” which just advertised itself as really, really scary. And yes, I know that “Blair Witch’s” marketing was set up in such a way as to allow the viewer to believe it was true – but it never made that claim.