One could safely argue that all documentary filmmakers (save for true big game players like Errol Morris and Michael Moore) are Unsung Auteurs, with even pioneering titans like Frederick Wiseman, The Maysles Brothers and Barbara Kopple not truly receiving the swathes of praise and celebration that they really deserve. Within this straight-up paradigm of unfairness (which is even worse, of course, for female directors), Nanette Burstein is particularly hard done by: though an early career Oscar nominee, she remains resolutely low profile despite boasting a resume dotted with truly bravura work.
Born on May 23, 1970 in Buffalo, New York, Nanette Burstein studied at New York University’s vaulted Tisch School Of The Arts, and hit major career pay dirt with her striking first feature film. Co-directed with Brett Morgen (who would go on to exemplary work like Cobain: Montage Of Heck and Jane), 1999’s On The Ropes was shot on the then game changing digital video format, and follows the lives of African-American boxing trainer Harry Keitt and four of his young charges at The Bed-Stuy Boxing Centre in Brooklyn. A tough, moving tale of cultural disadvantage and the triumph of the human spirit, On The Ropes was nominated for an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary, won the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance, and won the Directors Guild of America’s award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary.
“It’s very traditional in the way it was shot,” Nanette Burstein told Filmmaker Magazine on the release of the pioneering feature. “I think one thing that sets us apart from other documentary filmmakers is that we are completely conscious of the three-act structure. Shooting the film, we would say, ‘Okay, we’re in the second act now, and we have to make sure we shoot this and this and this. And how is the third act going to unfold?’ I don’t know if most people think of making documentaries that way…certainly not in the verite films of the ’70s.”
While On The Ropes was all grit, sweat and street level storytelling, Burstein and Morgen went decidedly Hollywood with their next film, 2002’s The Kid Stays In The Picture. The story of legendary and notoriously colourful movie producer Robert Evans (who helped bring 1970s classics like Chinatown and The Godfather to the screen), the film ingeniously employs still photographs, animation and Evans’ own wonderfully entertaining narration to create a breathtaking portrait of a truly fascinating man. One of the great docos on the American film industry, its stylistic and aesthetic importance in the documentary field is forever under-sold.
“It was really important to us to create this disorienting, hallucinogenic world,” Burstein said of the film’s extraordinary visual style at a post-screening Q&A upon its release. “Because it is Bob Evans’ version of the story, and he lives in his own enchanted tale, so we wanted the visuals to comment on it. And because Bob is the guy who got everything in his life based on his image, and lost everything because his image was tarnished. It was this true Hollywood extreme story. It was important that the visuals took you into never-never land. The best way to describe this film is a third-person autobiography in which Bob describes his life and his is the only voice you hear. He’s such a great storyteller that we wanted to embrace that and give you a Bob Evans experience. And then the visuals are commenting, and we’re giving our own subtext to the film, underneath Bob’s narration.”
For her first solo directorial effort, Nanette Burstein proved that her interests are wide and many varied. 2008’s documentary American Teen closely followed a group of Indiana high school students as they go about their both mundane and utterly fascinating lives. Pre social media but made very much at the height of reality television and the every-day-person-as-star phenomenon, American Teen managed to astutely and sensitively dig a little deeper into the adolescent experience. “I know reality shows and they don’t have the budgets, and they don’t have the time,” Burstein told Slash Film of American Teen’s point of difference. “They’ll shoot for a month and cut 20 shows out of it, and I shot for a year and made one 90-minute film. I knew that I had to spend that time there to be able to accomplish something that was worthy of it being in a movie theatre, and not just something you could see on TV.”
Beautifully crafted and truly absorbing, American Teen is indeed a cinematic experience, and not surprisingly, it led to Burstein’s debut as a fictional feature director. Bubbly and often confronting in its raunchiness, 2010’s now largely forgotten Going The Distance stars the ever charming Drew Barrymore and Justin Long as a couple who try and keep their love alive even while living on opposite US coasts. “Well, the biggest challenge was that I had never done it before,” Burstein replied when asked about the challenges of making her first non-doco. “You just rely on your storytelling instincts. Everything was new and exciting. In features, you have so much control over everything that appears on screen and you are in charge of every tiny decision; that was welcoming but also tiring. I would come home and my husband would ask, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ and I would say, ‘I could not make another decision!’ On documentaries, it’s a different level of anxiety. The intensity goes on much longer. There are fewer decisions, but it’s all about capturing reality.”
Burstein stuck with fiction for a considerable period (directing episodes of TV series like New Girl, The Carrie Diaries and Don’t Trust the B—- In Apartment 23) before eventually returning to the documentary format, first via the TV series 30 For 30 (where she directed a piece on disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding for the sports based series) and The Creators (about the stars of the internet), and then through the wildly entertaining 2016 feature Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee. The story of the notorious tech billionaire (most famous for his eponymous anti-virus software) who was eventually embroiled in murder, rape and a host of other crimes, Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee is a fine example of the old adage that truth can indeed be far more strange than fiction. “I have an attraction to subjects like a John McAfee character,” Burstein told Decider. “I have a history of doing films about extraordinary people and examining how their lives were affected by being rich and powerful and famous, from Robert Evans to Tonya Harding to now John McAfee.”
Continuing to move between features and episodic television, Burstein put another divisive figure under her lense with the four-part 2020 series, Hilary, which takes an in-depth trawl through the life and work of Hillary Rodham Clinton, interweaving archival material with copious interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from her 2016 US presidential campaign. “I was wanting to frame it in the context of the arc of the women’s movements and our history of partisan politics,” Burstein said of her approach to the series. “I wanted to communicate to the audience that her life served a bigger purpose, and that there would be a lot learned other than just some sort of vanity piece about her life or, flip side, some very dark version of her life.”
A masterful chronicler of the human condition – in all its flawed, crazy glory – Nanette Burstein is always worthy of the very highest praise.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.