Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Inspired by a Magazine Article (But Works Better on a Big Screen)

by |

Blackfish_Dogwoof_Documentary_7_1600_900_85

A still from the documentary Blackfish.

As a fan (and writer) of magazine creative nonfiction, as well as a writer (and fan) who focuses on documentary film, it’s a natural for me to consider the relationship between the two forms. Have you wondered where magazine stories end and documentaries begin? And vice versa?

Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has given the matter more than just passing thought because her latest film, which hits theaters today, about the mistreatment and dangers for orcas and trainers alike at SeaWorld and other such aquatic parks, is rooted in a 2010 article, “The Killer in the Pool,” which was written by Tim Zimmermann for Outside magazine.

“Tim and I talked about writing as chess,” says Cowperthwaite, who hired Zimmermann as an associate producer on Blackfish. “And the documentary process is three dimensional chess.”

There have been a bunch of hot documentaries that were first magazine articles. Steve James’ The Interrupters, about anti-gang activists in Chicago, was based on an article by Alex Kotlowitz in The New York Times Magazine. The Imposter, the big hit from last year about a man who passed as a long-lost boy, was preceded by a long piece in The New Yorker by David Grann.

I didn’t read Kotlowitz’s article, but I felt the Imposter story worked better as a magazine piece. It was just as dramatic as the documentary, but without the annoying, cheesy reeactments. In a way, turning the story of a con man into a film was playing into the con, giving him the star treatment he craved. As a magazine article, the story allowed the reader to remain more critical and yet still, thanks to Grann’s writing, and his remarkable subject, riveted by the narrative.

My friend Brad Prager, a professor at the University of Missouri, has co-taught a class (with Stephanie Craft) on this very subject, in a class called Topics in Journalism: The Intersections of Documentary Film and Journalism. It makes me wish I could be a student again, pondering such questions as whether documentary is “filling a critical need that journalism is no longer willing or able to meet?” (And I’d love to see how he presents Super Size Me in relation to the writing in Fast Food Nation.)

Cowperthwaite tells me that she most envies how magazine writers have the gift of time to be more methodical. “By the time I got funding, the clock began ticking and it was so incredibly difficult gunning to finish,” she says.

Zimmerman’s article was a launching pad, and then she did her own research. She wanted him on board, as a way to give him credit, or “point to his assist,” as she says.

Not surprisingly, Cowperthwaite calls herself a visual person and she sees the biggest advantage her film brings that the article never could, is satisfying “that need to really understand what it is like to be at SeaWorld as an audience member bombarded by the stimulus, the massive animals and the colors and music,” she says. “You just can’t write that.”

It’s worth noting that SeaWorld has marshaled a massive PR counter-offensive against Blackfish that it didn’t subject Zimmerman’s article to. Admittedly, Cowperthwaite’s film puts its sites more squarely on SeaWorld but a documentary’s cultural impact compared to that of an article might be measured in such a rabid defense.

Cowperthwaite closed our conversation by giving a tip of the hat to writers; “You guys keep writing,” she said. “And if you want to be a part of a documentary, give me a jingle.”

Blackfish opens theatrically on Friday July 19, 2013 in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto, then it rolls out to many more North American cities in July and August. For a complete set of show times and cities, visit blackfishmovie.com.

Read Tom Roston’s post “Beware The New Doc Vague” on POV’s Doc Soup blog. Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki