Historically it's nothing new. Just look at Merian C. Cooper for a prime example. Or go back to the Lumiere brothers. But these days it's becoming more and more common for successful documentary filmmakers to jump ship, most of the time only temporarily, and give fiction a try. Michael Moore, Barbara Kopple and Errol Morris have all done it. Seth Gordon seems to be sticking with it. Werner Herzog has been balancing both mediums for a while. And now the latest documentarian to make the transition is Nanette Burstein, whose fiction debut, the raunchy yet sweet rom-com Going the Distance, opens this Friday.
Usually I'm disappointed with the filmmakers who try it, even while recognizing that maybe a cash-grab fiction project here will help finance a great non-fiction film there. The truth is few documentarians make good narrative features (see Canadian Bacon, Havoc, The Dark Wind, Four Christmases). Burstein is the exception, though. I revisited her three feature-length docs, two of them co-directed with Brett Morgen, and one made solo, and have to say she's better off doing stuff like Going the Distance, even with its faults. It's not that she's a bad documentarian, but her work in that medium is actually more pedestrian than this new Hollywood effort.