Nearly ten years ago, I produced my first fake documentary. It was (and is) a dark comedy called Mail Order Wife that revolves around a filmmaker with questionable ethics. The film has been described (no exaggeration here) as brilliant, hilarious, ingenious as well as offensive, misogynistic, misanthropic, awful and tasteless. I'm personally very proud of the movie.
While the film's subject matter is somewhat polarizing, I also believe that the fake documentary style of filmmaking contributed to the extreme reactions to the film. There have been plenty of films in this sub-genre -- for instance 1972's "The Legend of Boggy Creek" -- but ever since The Blair Witch Project, there is an odd repulsion/attraction associated with the style.
With the overwhelming success of films like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism, the genre has once again come under scrutiny. It's wildly poplar with some fans, hated by others and frequently dismissed by critics.
In part, the negative stigma might have to do with the low-tech quality of some of these movies. While shoddy camerawork is not a requirement of the genre (take Cloverfield for example), it is sometimes an unfortunate byproduct of the micro-budgets and tight shooting schedules that characterize some of these films. (Bear in mind, some of these movies are also quite well shot, but in an unconventional style.)
People often assume that any fake documentary movie will be a shaky hand held, claustrophobic experience set primarily in one location. This isn't always the case.
I shot my most recent film, The Frankenstein Theory (which opens today!) across the wilderness of Alaska. I chose the location, for two reasons: 1) It fits the story of a disgraced academic, scouring the Arctic for a creature that may or may not exist. 2) I wanted a visually dynamic setting that isn't often seen in low budget films.
Another knock on the fake doc genre is that any guy with a video camera can make one. The truth of the matter is that they're deceptively hard to make (at least effectively). While there is some latitude given for low production value, a filmmaker is also handcuffed by the fact that it is a P.O.V. film, meaning that the camera is not an omniscient third person observer, but is theoretically operated by an actual character in the film. Every single shot must be logically accounted for in the narrative -- and will be scrutinized by fans and critics. One of the biggest challenges is giving the movie the spontaneous feel of an actual documentary. Some filmmakers are dogmatic about being true to the format, while others take liberties. Both can work, but either way, the intent will be questioned.
So why make one?
First, there is something visceral and exciting about the format. When it works, and audiences suspend disbelief, the stakes couldn't be higher. That hand held in your face camera-style is intimate and voyeuristic. It's easy to write off, "The Blair Witch Project" over a decade later (perhaps it doesn't hold up), but for its time, it was brilliantly executed and absolutely terrifying -- despite not depicting a single moment of onscreen violence.
Second, I personally love making horror films. A good one isn't just a horror film. It can be about anything; it's a blank canvas on which to tell any story you want. I often view horror films as the modern Western (another genre I love -- that I wish we'd make more of). They're morality tales, often times, wrestling with very complex themes that are bundled up into fun popcorn movies. For me, The Frankenstein Theory, for example, touches on themes of the novel like loss and the folly of human arrogance.
That's why skeptics of the genre should see the individual movies before condemning. I personally don't rush out to see musicals, not generally my genre, but Mary Poppins is one of favorite films of all time. Apocalypse Now is perhaps my very favorite (how's that for a one two punch?). The point is, you may not generally be a fan of found footage or fake documentary, but it's a style that's been harnessed by numerous different artists and the results are more varied than you might think.