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Capturing Creativity: How Oscar-Contending Documentarians Portrayed Innovators And Eccentrics

Oscar-shortlisted filmmakers talk about what they learned from the unconventional innovators at the heart of their docs.

Plenty of 2015’s Academy Award documentary contenders hew to tradition by addressing hot-button issues like campaign financing (Citizen Koch), war (Last Days in Vietnam), gay marriage (The Case Against 8) and NSA surveillance (CitizenFour). But a refreshing spate of short-listed documentaries downplay Big Themes by zeroing in on hyper-creative outliers.

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Featured among the 15 films shortlisted last month in the documentary feature category are four maverick personalities who shunned fame, fortune and power to pursue their own idiosyncratic visions. Art and Craft follows octogenarian art forger Mark Landis; Finding Vivian Maier unriddles the work of an attic-dwelling nanny/street photographer whose genius was discovered posthumously; Jodorowsky’s Dune describes how filmmaker extravagant imagination yielded great sci-fi storyboards but no finished movie; and The Internet’s Own Boy depicts the isolation that befell programmer and hacker activist Aaron Swartz.

Ahead of the January 15 Academy Award announcements paring 15 shortlisted documentaries down to five nominees, filmmakers talk about lessons learned from shaping off-kilter stories around inspired misfits.

Vivian Maier: Nanny, Photographer, Detective

After filmmaker John Maloof bought a trunk stuffed with breathtaking street photographs of anonymous origins, he spent six years trying to wrap his head around the mysterious artist who’d snapped the pictures. Finding Vivian Maier tracks the work to a Chicago-area nanny who lived in an attic, affected a fake French accent, hoarded newspaper articles about gruesome crimes and often described herself to strangers as a “detective.”

Maloof says “Vivian didn’t like cheap sentiment, she didn’t like fake people, If somebody told her ‘Have a nice day’…she hated stuff like that. It’s not like she went against the grain on purpose to be a rebel, but Vivian just didn’t care about things that normal people care about.”

When she died in 2009, the intensely private Maier left behind thousands of poignant photographs in storage lockers but never showed her work to anybody. Charlie Siskel, who co-directed the documentary, says “There are many secret artists out there in the world. To me the lesson in this film is that if you’re a true artist, you make the work no matter what the circumstances. For Vivian, being a nanny was a guise, a cover, a means to an end.”

“Art and Craft” of a Gentle Con Artist

Frail and wispy-voiced, 86-year-old self-taught painter Mark Landis embodies the Outsider Artist archetype in all its peculiarity. Operating out of his late mother’s house, Landis duped dozens of American museums by passing off his art forgeries as the real thing. After the co-directors of the shortlisted Art and Craft, Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, read about his exploits in the New York Times, they visited Landis in the small Mississippi town he calls home. Cullman recalls “When we met Mark in person the story opened itself up to a lot of other inquiries, the least of which was his state of mind. Mark’s mental illness came as a real surprise to us.”

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In the film, Landis recounts his lonely childhood and institutionalization as a teenager for schizophrenia, then shows how he crafts fake masterpieces from little more than photocopies, colored pencils and store-bought paint brushes. “Mark was very open with us as we watched him do forgeries,” Cullman says.

Unlike most con artists, Landis has never gained financially from his scams. Art and Craft closes with a shot of Landis, dressed in a priest’s collar, preparing to give away more phony versions of historic paintings. Absent profit motive, what keeps Landis going? Grausman says, “Mark was looking for the kind of respect that he hadn’t received in his adult life as somebody who was marginalized because of his mental illness. He wanted to tell his side of the story.”

“Jodorowsky’s Dune” Too Much for Hollywood

Following his surrealistic cowboy-on-acid cult classic El Topo, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky made a glorious attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune. As seen in Frank Pavich’s shortlisted documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, the writer-director-producer used unorthodox means to assemble his dream team of collaborators. Jodorowsky enticed Salvidor Dali to star in Duneby agreeing to pay him $100,000 per minute of on-screen time. Orson Welles joined the hypothetical cast only because Jodorowsky promised to hire the chef of his favorite Parisian restaurant as on-set caterer. And Los Angeles special effects artist moved to Paris to work on Dune after Jodorowsky plied him with an exceptionally hallucinogenic strain of marijuana.

Jodorowsky pitched his vision to Hollywood with a massive four-inch-thick storyboard book illustrated by French comic book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Studio executives passed and the project eventually went to David Lynch. Director Pavich says “There’s not a finished film that we can all view in the traditional sense, but in many ways, Alejandro’s extreme individuality and creativity resulted in something more powerful than a mere film.”

Jodrowosky’s storyboards, circulated widely in Hollywood, anticipated many of the visual tropes that came to define late 20th-century sci-fi cinema, while O’Bannon went on to write Alien after recruiting Dune colleague Giger to create the infamous monster. Jodorowsky would go 23 years before making his next movie Dance of Reality). Though studio executives resisted the filmmaker’s eccentric charms, Pavich says, “Alejandro draws you in like a master magician and wraps you around his finger in a matter of moments. If you want get through to people, you need to go for their soul and that’s what Jodorowsky does. Will that makes you friends in Hollywood? Probably not!”

Aaron Swartz: Smartest Guy in the Room

From the age of three, Aaron Swartz played by his own rules. Writing code as a kid, dropping out of high school, developing RSS web feed format, co-founding Reddit, then quitting a cushy job because he couldn’t stand the crass motivations of his peers, Swartz came to a tragic end after hacking into a scholarly database.

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Director Brian Knappenberger, who documented Swartz rise and heart-breaking fall in The Internet’s Own Boy, told Co.Create last year that the idealistic coder simply couldn’t tolerate herd mentality. “If you follow Aaron’s blog posts. the open office drove him crazy,” Knappenberger says. “He felt like San Francisco and the startup world in general was a little vapid, like it was all about making money. There’s a real sense that Aaron didn’t fit into that world.”

Instead, Swartz championed a wide-open Internet, which made him an outsider in the eyes of the Justice Department. Knappenberger says, “The majority of Aaron’s activity was about social organizing and getting people involved in their government. The notion that Aaron was some sort of quasi-celebrity hacker who needed to be made an example of is absurd and unsophisticated.”

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.

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