Let’s get real. We like to laugh at the expense of other people. It’s a fine line between laughing at and laughing with someone in a movie, and truly successful comedies manage to make characters relatable enough that we don’t want to cross the border of meanness.
One of the trickiest and greatest forms of comedies is the mockumentary, or a fake documentary: the film that has all the codes of the documentary and pretends to be one but is fiction. Some of the most hilarious comedies in history have been mockumentaries. They are, however, a tricky feat to achieve, a recipe that needs to achieve a fine balance of several ingredients.
Don’t be afraid of clichés
Clichés are a difficult balance to manage in movies, as we’ve seen all of them before. Subjects of mockumentaries are usually very odd and/or very relatable. Best In Show? We know what it’s like to want to give the best possible impression. Bob Roberts? We’re familiar with crooked and dishonest politicians, sure. However, when you make them funny enough as well as relatable enough, then you’ve got something going.
Don’t use too many talking heads
Talking head interviews are a terrific tool in a mockumentary. They explain what a character is feeling, add a twist to a scene, pace a scene, or help build a misunderstanding between characters to hilarious results. However, they can’t be used too often, as they then become a significant part of the film and take us out of the action. They should be used like spices, lightly, but to great effect.
Make it real
If you’re going to use the documentary form, then it brings a lot of constraints in terms of the realism that you’ll have to show on screen. You’re not likely to find stylised shots, elaborate set design and the lighting will be, if not natural, at least minimal. And performances will also have to be directed to be as true-to-life as possible in the case of a tightly-scripted film. As is the case of mockumentary director Christopher Guest, hiring actors who are gifted at comedy and improvising will bring the realness to a whole other, unexpected level.