In the late 1990s Joker writer-director Todd Phillips, then applying his trade as an underground documentary filmmaker shot a non-fiction project titled Frat House, which nabbed the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance before being promptly acquired by HBO Films. 

“The premise of the documentary is that he pledged fraternities at colleges,” John Sloss, producer, founder and CEO of Cinetic Media, told an audience at the Sands Film Festival in St. Andrews, Scotland. He was discussing the pic as part of an onstage Q&A about the current state of documentary filmmaking alongside Molly Thompson, Head of Documentaries and Non-Fiction at Apple TV+, and Oscar-winning producer Melanie Miller (Navalny, Maestra).

Sloss had been representing Phillips at the time. Despite the early buzz surrounding the pic, it was never officially released. HBO shelved the project. 

“What happened was that a separate chapter of the fraternity he [Phillips] pledged and made look like a bunch of idiots in his film, was the same fraternity that the head of Time Warner’s son belonged to at another college,” Sloss said. 

Sloss said Sheila Nevins, who was running HBO docs at the time and he described as  “one of the great figures in the history of documentary filmmaking,” intervened and put in a call to “kill the documentary” by concocting a story about the credibility of the nonfiction filmmaking. 

“It had just won the grand jury prize at Sundance and Sheila manufactured this idea that, wait a minute, the filmmaker is pledging the fraternity, this isn’t real at all. This is shocking. This is not a documentary. But that was the entire premise of the film,” Sloss said. 

The one-hour doc featured now widely reported scenes of ferocious hazing abuses within American college fraternities. Shortly after the Sundance screening, students from Muhlenberg College, where the pic was shot, accused Phillips and his filmmaking team of staging scenes and directing participants. 

 “They told us exactly what to do,” one student said in an interview at the time. ”They’d call and say, ‘We’re coming in, like, two hours; think of some stuff we could do.’ When it came out as a documentary, I was shocked because [our segment] was all staged. They would retake scenes and everything.”

Circling back to the original audience question about the bridge between nonfiction and fiction in documentary filmmaking, Sloss added: “There are choices made in every frame that slant truth from one version to the next. You have to draw the line somewhere. But the idea that there is a pure version of documentary storytelling is just a pure fallacy.” 

Thompson added: “The minute you put the camera somewhere you’re leaving out 98% of the picture.” 

HBO has still never broadcast Frat House and Phillips, of course, went on to shoot, amongst others, the Hangover movies followed by War Dogs; and, mostly recently, Golden Lion winner Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. He returns to Gotham this year with Joker: Folie à Deux, a musical with Lady Gaga co-starring with Phoenix.

Elsewhere during the hour session, the pair were quizzed on their opinions about the contemporary trend of celebrity-focused documentaries where the subject is given final editorial cut. In recent years, the editorial control of documentaries like, for example, Harry & Meghan on Netflix, sparked much debate around how much editorial control on-screen subjects should be given.  

“If you want to see a forgettable film, give the subject final cut,” Thompson said. 

“It doesn’t lend to the best filmmaking. On the September Issue, for example, Anna Wintour, one of the most powerful women in the world didn’t have final cut on the film and she wouldn’t have wanted it because she respected the filmmaker.” 

Thompson added that Apple would never green-light such heavy-handed projects.  

The Sands Film Festival runs until April 21.

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