Nonfiction directors make strange bedfellows at Emmys

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Director

Bertram van Munster, co-creator and exec producer of “The Amazing Race,” has a shelf full of Emmy awards for various achievements in the nonfiction categories, including eight kudos for reality competition program. But there is one Emmy that eludes him.

Despite being nominated four times for directing in nonfiction programming, the trophy has always gone to directors of more traditional documentaries — as has been the case for the past eight years.

“It’s only a big deal if you lose because you’re in the wrong category,” says van Munster. “I think they’re very, very different genres. Our show is shot in real time. It’s chronological. It’s a completely different way of directing.”

The question becomes, does the TV Academy think the nonfiction directing category should be split?

“I think that in a category competition in which you are asking the voters to rank programming, one against the other, you ideally are going to have an apples-to-apples kind of comparison,” says the org’s senior awards veep, John Leverence. “And where you have an apples and oranges situation, as in this case, then you are asking your voters to do something which is very difficult.

“I see it definitely as something that will continue to be discussed. (Since) 2001, the Academy has seen an increase of approximately 20% in terms of the total number of categories, and that 20% is pretty much tied into the proliferation of nonfiction programming. (But) at this stage of the game, I would have to say that directing to a very high degree is directing.”

Paul Starkman, who last year received a nomination for helming “Top Chef,” sees his point of view.

“There’s always a set of circumstances, whether it’s a documentary or a show, and if you’re going to follow the real-life part of it, which is the passion of these people, then, yes, I think it can be put in the same category,” he says.

And yet for last year’s winner Josh Fox, the circumstances of “Gasland,” an expose on natural gas drilling in the U.S., could hardly have seemed more different.

“One of the biggest challenges was to make this material palatable, so that you could actually get to the end of it without wanting to commit suicide,” says Fox, who found directing a documentary similar to directing a feature. “The way to do that was through the humor and the extreme dignity of the people who we were interviewing.

“The same way you’re giving an actor permission to be their most profound and most sincere, because of the way that you signal to them as a director, you allow people to be intimate or heroic because you are, with every core of your being, signaling to them how you want them to be.”

Which makes the all-inclusive category a conundrum in Fox’s eyes.

“I’ve got to say, I don’t think they should be in the same category,” he says. “There’s a very big difference between reality television and documentary. Documentary filmmaking is filmmaking. Some of those films have their best outlet on television, so they become television. But reality TV exists for entirely other purposes than documentary filmmaking, I believe.”

In discussing what fundamentally is an honor — being recognized for your work — the nominated parties are mildly inquisitive, but not nearly aggravated enough to demand change.

“We talk about it, but nobody makes any moves on it,” van Munster shrugs. “We go back to work.”

And for the nominees, it really boils down to what’s important in life.

“Scorsese was nominated in the same category,” marvels Starkman. “For me, I mean, that was crazy. He’s one of my heroes.”

Adds Fox: “Gene Simmons was the presenter for our category, and when he walked out on the stage, I completely freaked out. So, if reality programming and documentaries were not lumped together, my question is, would they still have picked Gene Simmons to be the presenter? If the answer is no, then I do want them all together.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Director
A-Listers get schooled on set | Helmers huddle on how to get ahead | Nonfiction directors make strange bedfellows at Emmys | Crisis chat

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