Brits combine efforts to raise docu stakes

Battsek and Chinn put the narrative into non-fiction pics

NEW YORK — For British producers John Battsek and Simon Chinn, a narrative film doesn’t necessarily mean a fiction film. “I don’t subscribe to that semantic distinction,” says Chinn, who produced Oscar-winner “Man on Wire.” “Documentaries can also be narrative films.”

Together with Battsek, Chinn produced DGA winner “Project Nim” (from director James Marsh, as was “Man on Wire”) and two of the most talked-about nonfiction films at this year’s Sundance, “Searching for Sugar Man,” which was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and won an audience award and a special jury prize, and “The Imposter,” an account of a Frenchman who posed as a long-missing Texas boy. That film was picked up by Indomina last month.

“John and I both start from a position of looking for stories that are strong narratives that we feel can play on a bigscreen,” explains Chinn. “And a lot of the stories are almost so unbelievable that if they were told any other way, they wouldn’t work.”

About two years ago, the London-based duo realized that if they pooled their resources in what was becoming a more competitive niche market, they could become an even greater force in the sector. “We have complementary skills,” says Chinn. “Although we are both very focused on the creative side, I guess I get more involved in the business details, while John has good contacts and great instincts.”

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Chinn’s Red Box Films now shares an office with Passion Pictures, the company Battsek formed with Andrew Ruhemann, whose catalog includes 1999’s Oscar-winner “One Day in September,” “My Kid Could Paint That,” Emmy winner “Sergio” and Oscar nommed “Restrepo,” among others.

For Battsek, Chinn’s hunger to produce has helped re-energize his own passion for making docs after a couple of tough, emotionally draining productions, including 2010’s “The Tillman Story,” where he grew close to the family of fallen U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman.

Despite the personal toll, Battsek says those true-life connections are “one of the magic ingredients and secret rewards of making docs over making (fiction) movies.” Because docu makers are dealing with real people and have a responsibility to them, says Battsek, they’re compelled to create the best possible film, sometimes taking far longer than intended.

Other noteworthy aspects of the team’s recent collaborations are high production values and glossy re-enactments. “Searching for Sugar Man,” for example, uses animated sequences, while “The Imposter” is told with many staged noir-like sequences.

“To be honest, it comes from hard work and tenacity rather than a big budget,” says Chinn.

If Chinn and Battsek’s films are marked by their use of fiction elements, both producers don’t believe it’s required for a docu to be commercial. “We always embark on our films with a cinematic ambition,” says Battsek. “And reenactments can work absolutely beautifully, but it’s not required.”

The duo are producing helmer Nadav Schirman’s “The Green Prince,” based on Mosab Hassan Yousef’s bestseller “Son of Hamas,” about one of the founders of the Arab org, who was turned informant by the Israeli internal security service. “It’s as much a story set against a political backdrop as it is very much a human drama,” says Chinn.

It’s that added depth that is “essential for any movie,” adds Battsek. “Films that work are bigger than the sum of their parts.”