Education, Inspiration

7 Narrative Directors Who Have Made the Leap to Documentary Films


Director Terrence Malick has created some of the most thought-provoking narrative feature films ever, including Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life. But his latest, Voyage of Time (out this Friday in IMAX), a decades-in-the-making film about the history of the universe, is something altogether different for the filmmaker: his first ever documentary.
Of course, Malick isn’t the only famous narrative director to switch things up and make a documentary. This year alone, Jim Jarmusch looks at Iggy Pop and The Stooges in Gimme Danger (out October 28) and Ron Howard shines a light on the Fab Four in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week (on Hulu now and DVD/Blu-Ray on November 18). Here are some other notable directors who have made the journey from narrative to documentary filmmaking (with streaming options indicated when available).

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Spike Lee

The Honorary Oscar-winning director has long stood out for his ability to look directly into the soul of America (which is often not a pretty place) through movies like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Documentaries can provide an equally rich opportunity to do that, so it’s no surprise that Spike Lee has seized that opportunity on a few occasions.

While Lee has made docs about lighter subject matter — the work of Michael Jackson (Bad 25), Kobe Bryant (Kobe Doin’ Work), and comedy royalty (The Original Kings of Comedy) — he’s also made docs that stand side by side with his narrative work. There’s his Oscar-nominated 4 Little Girls, about the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. And there’s his multiple-Emmy-winning documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for which he interviewed over 100 people. It’s not often a narrative director makes a documentary that stands among the best of his work, but Spike Lee has done it.
4 Little Girls can be streamed on YouTube. The Original Kings of Comedy can be digitally rented via iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.

Sarah Polley

Longtime actress Sarah Polley took many by surprise when, two decades into her career, she revealed how far her talents extended with her Oscar-nominated narrative directorial debut, Away From Her and the follow-up, Take This Waltz. One a story about an older married man coming to terms with his wife’s Alzheimer’s, and the other about a young married woman considering adultery, they proved Polley’s considerable directorial range. However, her next project, Stories We Tell, still came as another surprise — not just because it was a documentary, but because it was a deeply personal one about her own family, and the revelation that Polley was the product of an affair her mother had.
Stories We Tell is available as a digital rental on Google Play and YouTube.

Tom Shadyac

You may not recognize Tom Shadyac’s name as readily as others on this list, but you’ll probably recognize the movies he’s directed, which have earned $890 million domestically at the box office: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, Patch Adams, and Bruce Almighty. In 2010, however, Shadyac shifted away from silly comedies. Inspired by soul-searching after a bad bicycle accident, he took to more serious subject matter with the documentary I Am, in which he turns to philosophers, environmentalists, scientists, and more to ask two big questions: “What is wrong with the world?” and “What can be done about it?” They’re questions Shadyac continues to explore, as he has also produced several documentaries (Finding Kind, Happy, Racing Extinction) that explore the same questions. In that way, he is arguably the rare director who almost entirely gave up narrative films for documentaries.


Martin Scorsese

Anyone who knows Martin Scorsese’s works (especially their soundtracks) knows the director loves rock music. That affection has led him to frequently venture into the music world with documentaries like George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Shine a Light (about his beloved The Rolling Stones), No Direction Home (about Bob Dylan, just announced for re-release as a 10th anniversary edition), and, most famously, The Last Waltz. Capturing the final concert of The Band in 1976, along with guest performances by Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and more, it’s considered one of the greatest rock films of all time. Scorsese isn’t a stranger to other topics in documentary form, either, including movies he loves (My Voyage to Italy, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies) and books (The 50 Years Argument about The New York Review of Books), but it’s The Last Waltz that continues to stand out all these decades later.

The Last Waltz is available as a digital rental on iTunes.

Steven Soderbergh

The director of Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven has long been one of our most interesting contemporary filmmakers, defined by an eagerness to experiment with the cinematic form and get hands-on (he often shoots and edits his own films), so it was only a matter of time before he’d make a documentary. Surprisingly, however, he’s only ever made one: 2010’s And Everything Is Going Fine. Back in 1996, Soderbergh worked with renowned monologist Gray Spalding on a film adaptation of one of his monologues, called Gray’s Anatomy; after Spalding died in 2004, Soderbergh sought to pay homage to him in this doc. Compiled entirely from archival footage edited together to create a final monologue of sorts, the result is quintessential Soderbergh — a clever use of the possibilities of cinema, without ever overshadowing the subject at hand.


Oliver Stone

You don’t have to dive deep into Oliver Stone’s filmography to know that the director has a fascination with real-life people and events (see: The Doors, JFK, Nixon, Alexander, World Trade Center, W., and now Snowden). You also don’t have to dive deep into the movies themselves to see Stone has a very unique perspective — unexpected and often controversial. Given his fascination, the only surprising thing about his turn to documentaries in 2003 with Comandante (the first of three films he made about Fidel Castro) is that it took him so long. Since then, he’s added a few more docs in between his narrative work: South of the Border, a history of leftist South American governments; Persona Non Grata, about the Israel-Palestine conflict; and The Untold History of the United States, which offers the director’s own take on American history. If those sound unexpected and possibly controversial, well, it wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if they weren’t.


Orson Welles

Some might consider calling Orson Welles’ F for Fake a documentary something of a cheat — but the Citizen Kane director would have probably been pleased with that. In theory, F for Fake is a documentary about notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory, who is rumored to have sold thousands of fake artworks to galleries and museums. But the “doc” has something more trickster-like in mind. To give too much away spoils the fun, but know that F for Fake proves to be as much about forgery as it may be an act of forgery itself. In that way, it’s representative of Welles’ inability to make something ordinary. Even when he turned to documentary, he made something uniquely his own, full of cinematic magic and tricks.
What are some of your favorite documentaries made by directors better known for their narrative work? Let us know in the comments!

Top Image: Still from Voyage of Time by Terrence Malick, in theaters October 7.