When you think of Hollywood's biggest filmmakers, the documentary genre usually doesn't come to mind. Yet despite the fact most of these directors are famous for their narratives, many have flirted with the non-fiction narratives throughout their career. Here are 15 noteworthy Hollywood directors who have dabbled with documentaries in the past.
Spike Lee has been weaving his way in and out of documentaries since the release of Four Little Girls in 1997. The majority of these works have been intended for television, specifically channels like ESPN and HBO. Among Spike’s most highly praised documentary endeavors are When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in For Acts, Jim Brown: All American and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.
Martin Scorsese has been dabbling in documentary narratives since Street Scenes in 1970. Said film, made after Scorsese's debut Who's That Knocking At My Door, documented two Vietnam protest rallies. Since then, the director has specialized in music documentaries like The Last Waltz, No Direction Home, and Shine A Light. He’s also released two documentaries on film history—My Voyage To Italy and A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.
While Tim Burton is mostly known for his fantastical narrative features, the director also developed a documentary on his friend, legendary actor Vincent Price. Conversations With Vincent was an hour-long documentary intended for release in 1994. Then when the film was finally completed Tim Burton decided to abandon its release, citing the film as “too personal.” It is unlikely the film will ever see the light of day, making it highly coveted among Burton and Price aficionados.
While the majority of his resume is littered with science fiction blockbusters, the bulk of Cameron’s documentaries have been science-oriented as well. The director has helmed Expedition Bismarck, Ghosts of the Abyss, and Aliens of the Deep. The latter two films became particularly popular as they were made specially for IMAX 3D theaters.
Before she was known as the director of Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris was known for making rock ‘n roll documentaries. Her films The Decline of Western Civilization and The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years examine the underground California punk scene of the 1970s and the growing heavy metal scene of the 1980s. In later years the director would also helm The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron and the Ozzfest doc We Sold Our Souls For Rock N’ Roll.
Michel Gondry’s surrealist music videos (for artists like Bjork, The White Stripes and Kanye West) and features (like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) led him to direct Dave Chappelle’s swan song doc Dave Chappele’s Block Party. Four years later, the director would pursue a personal documentary about his own family entitled The Thorn In The Heart.
Steven Spielberg isn’t known as a documentary filmmaker in the slightest. However in 2007 the director made an exception to the case. A Timeless Call is a short, seven minute documentary that acts as a tribute to U.S. Veterans. It's narrated by Tom Hanks and was screened at the 2008 Democratic Convention.
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Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire filmmaker Wim Wenders has frequently made forays into documentary filmmaking. Noteworthy docs made by the German filmmaker include Lightning Over Water (an examination of fellow director Nicholas Ray’s struggle to finish his final film before succumbing to cancer) and Buena Vista Social Club (about the revival of a group of Cuban musicians mostly forgotten after the rise of Fidel Castro).
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Academy Award winning Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme regularly devotes his attention to the musical documentary genre. His most noteworthy films include The Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold.
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Though Peter Jackson is not a documentary filmmaker per se, The Lord of the Rings director did put together a the behind-the-scenes feature on the making of his film The Frighteners. He’s also produced RKO Production 601: The Making of King Kong and the critically acclaimed West Memphis Three documentary West of Memphis.
Rain Man director Barry Levinson has used his special blend of comedy and drama in a few non-fiction films. Original Diner Guys was produced in 1999 and looked at the real-life characters who inspired Levinson’s breakout hit Diner. Levinson also directed The 20th Century: Yesterday’s Tomorrows, a film that examined the predicted future for the 20th century.
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Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón’s resume is littered with oddities—from sex dramas like Y Tu Mamá También to blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Yet the more curious entries in the filmmakers oeuvre are the political documentaries Shock Doctrine (examining government interrogation torture techniques) and The Possibility of Hope (which features scientists and philosophers examining immigration, global warming, and capitalism).
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Blues Brothers director John Landis saw a career slowdown in the mid-1990s, leading to a great deal of experimentation from the legendary director. Among his most well-received recent projects is Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Documentary which examines the legendary comedian’s life and career.
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One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest director Milos Foreman virtually began his career directing Czechoslovakian documentaries before turning to narrative films for Hollywood. In 1973 he briefly returned to the genre, directing a segment of the Olympics documentary Visions of Eight.
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Late Casino Jack director George Hickenlooper is likely to be better remembered for his documentary films than his straight narrative excursions. Among Hickenlooper’s crowning achievements are his 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which examines the personal and creative meltdown of Francis Ford Coppola during the making of Apocalypse Now. Other noteworthy docs that were directed by Hickenlooper are Monte Hellman: American Auteur and The Mayor of the Sunset Strip.