Seth Gordon, others making fiction switch

Truth may be stranger than fiction. But some documentarians are finding fiction more compelling than fact.

With nary a docu selling theatrically at the Sundance film fest, it’s no wonder doc directors are mulling their career alternatives. Led by helmer Seth Gordon — whose “Four Christmases” provided a huge box office boost for New Line — a new class of doc helmers is making the leap into the narrative feature realm.

It’s not traditionally a natural career arc in the nonfiction field, but it’s proved a blessing for some helmers and not so much for others.

Gordon, who directed the low-budget Slamdance entrant “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” before segueing to the Vince Vaughn-Reese Witherspoon starrer, is among a group of transitioning helmers that includes “Capturing the Friedmans’” Andrew Jarecki and “The Kid Stays in the Picture’s” Nanette Burstein.

“I feel incredibly lucky that New Line took the leap and gave me a chance to move from documentary to narrative film and on such a sizable project,” Gordon says. “They were among the first to see and respond to (and buy my) documentary ‘The King of Kong.’”

The newly in-demand helmer adds that New Line was perhaps more willing to hire him for “Christmases” because execs had already tapped Gordon to direct a narrative feature remake of “Kong” — a move they made when they bought the doc.

Jarecki, who landed a documentary Oscar nom for 2003′s “Friedmans,” will make his narrative feature debut with the drama “All Good Things,” starring Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling. Based on a unsolved true crime case, the film centers on the heir of a New York real estate dynasty who falls for and marries a beautiful woman from the wrong side of the tracks.

“It was less about wanting to do a narrative feature vs. a documentary and more about the merits of this particular project,” says New York-based Jarecki, who is editing the film, which was financed by Michael London’s Groundswell Prods.

Jarecki admits that, in some ways, he sort of did make a documentary with “All Good Things.”

“We shot hundreds of hours of footage about this case, about the couple,” says Jarecki, who is mulling a number of narrative scripts for his next project but also anticipates returning to the documentary field in the future. “It was part of the process. Maybe it will end up on the DVD some day.”

Similarly, Burstein is trading her Oscar-nommed documentarian credentials (“On the Ropes”) for the more lucrative and visible world of studio films. The “American Teen” director has signed on to helm the New Line romantic comedy “Going the Distance,” which is being produced by Adam Shankman’s Offspring Entertainment.

It was also New Line that made the unlikely choice to entrust Gordon with its holiday tentpole “Four Christmases” — a decision that production prexy Richard Brener championed.

“It’s not a New Line strategy, per se; these two directors are particularly talented,” says Brener of Gordon and Burstein. “But audiences demand a little bit of reality with their films. And documentarians know how to capture that. These directors also shoot so much footage and know how to whittle it down into a movie. That’s a really useful skill set, especially in comedy.”

As with any first-timer, doc filmmakers tend to come cheaper than fiction helmers. “That has nothing to do with it, well maybe a little bit,” jokes Brener.

Meanwhile, Jarecki bristles at the idea that he has graduated to a higher calling.

“I don’t see it as a stepping stone at all,” says Jarecki whose filmmaker brother Eugene is also a documentarian. “These are all different stories that need to be treated differently.”

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