This might be more than a pet peeve for me. Documentaries that feature interviews with their own director seem to be just plain wrong. It throws off the whole center of a film’s perspective and confuses its voice. Anytime I’m watching a doc and the director shows up as a talking head, one who is meant to be on equal ground as the rest of the talking heads rather than a direct narrator or host, I want to shout at the screen, “Who are you talking to?”
Two films that opened recently that do this are Mike Myers’s Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon and Ryan McGarry’s Code Black. Both are cases where the director is part of the story and therefore an expert witness. So why not just offer a first-person point of view throughout the film? With the former, maybe it’s because the subject, Shep Gordon, provides the primary authority on his own life. With the latter, I suspect that McGarry wasn’t the only captain of his ship.
I’ve attempted to overlook and make excuse for directors who feature interviews with themselves. It’s the equivalent of a fiction filmmaker acting in their own films in a supporting role rather than in the lead, which would equate more with the first-person docs. Myers is literally a supporting character in the life of Gordon. It shouldn’t be weird that he has that role just because he’s also the person at the helm of the whole thing. But it is. And conceptually it feels off.
When I talked to Sebastian Junger about Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, I asked about his decision to put himself in as one of the interviewees. “I had a lot of trepidation about it,” he told me, “that it would be perceived wrongly and self-indulgent and all that.” He admitted that he was “loathe” to do it in the first place but was convinced by editor Geeta Gandbhir as an alternative to voiceover narration.
“I really was the only person who could speak knowledgeably and in depth about Tim’s experience in Afghanistan,” he added. “That experience and making Restrepo and going to the Oscars, those experiences were enormously important to him personally and in his career and how he’s perceived by the public as a photographer. I was the only guy who could do it.”
For that case, Gandbhir was apparently the one conducting the interview, or at least whom Junger is talking to off-screen in his bits on camera. Normally I would think it’s a producer handling that part. In some of the scenes in Code Black, on-site moments rather than his sit-down interview parts, McGarry seems to be talking to his cameraman or someone else on his crew. Part of me wants to believe that Myers, on the other hand, is talking to nobody.
Which Way is the Front Line From Here? is one film where I made an exception, forgave the director and recommended it highly anyway. I agree with Junger that the way he handled his necessary accounts of his friend’s life and work was the best and smoothest way possible, that being more direct with the viewer would have been even more self-indulgent and a little too personal. I’m not a fan of it here any more than in any other doc, but as a whole the doc works well enough to trump it.
In contrast, I never believe Myers is a necessary talking head in his film. He’s not even really a necessary part of the story of Gordon. His testimonials are either redundant or otherwise superfluous commentaries on the character of the subject. His on screen appearances feel more like a presumed obligation to the audience to include him as one of the movie’s stars, simply because he’s a celebrity. That’s why it’s more often that a famous director making a documentary will show up as a talking head. Maybe if we didn’t also hear Myers’s recognizable voice during interviews with Gordon it wouldn’t be so bad.
I also made some exception for Code Black because often McGarry appears as if he’s talking to the camera, though it’s clear he’s looking slightly off frame. That one is comparable to Banksy’s self-interviews in Exit Through the Gift Shop. In part because we can’t see his face, most of the time it’s as if he’s focused directly at the audience, as an on-camera host and narrator.
Something Myers, McGarry and Banksy have in common is that they’re not filmmakers first. And therefore their label and role on screen is mainly as “actor,” “doctor” and “artist,” respectively. That doesn’t automatically allow for acceptance of their self-interviewing, but it sometimes indicates an easier separation of the person in his director shoes and the person in his primary expertise shoes.
The very worst instances of a director appearing on screen in interview form is if their only relevance is that they’re the director of a film about this subject matter, and that film is this film. For example, Lauren Greenfield appears in her own short Beauty CULTure basically just in the role of “filmmaker.” And “photographer,” and she did start out as a fashion shooter and there’s the higher significance there, but why not just get another photographer?
One thing this idea of filmmakers interviewing themselves reminds us of is how collaborative docs are. Often it’s said that editors or producers should be credited as co-writers or even co-directors. Gandbhir would appear to deserve some sort of extra credit based on Junger’s confession, though maybe he wrote his own questions for her to use in interviewing him. Code Black is co-written by its editor Joshua Altman, who I bet was a huge help in shaping the film. On IMDb, Supermensch producer Beth Aala is listed as one of the film’s directors, though the official credits do not.
Documentarians are not always auteurs. While none of the films mentioned here are works for hire, in spite of the personal attachments or relevance of the filmmakers to the subjects and subject matter, they’re not all making something as an expression of themselves. There are producers and editors and others involved steering and collaborating on the point of the film, so the director appearing as a talking head is more them sharing their own side.
The practice can be confusing and weird, but it’s not inexcusably wrong. Filmmakers should only do it when they have no other choice and where it works for the overall structure and tone of the piece. With Supermensch, it’s not just that Myers interviews himself that ruins that film, it’s that he does so gratuitously and it takes us out of the flow of the doc, which is otherwise really swift and entertaining.