Growing up, "I don't even think I knew documentaries were a thing," recalls filmmaker Ryan White. "I probably saw Frontline or something, but I wanted to be a photographer." He enrolled at Duke University, unaware of the school's Center for Documentary Studies. "Which ended up changing my life."
White made his feature debut with 2013's Good Ol' Freda, about The Beatles' lifelong secretary, Freda Kelly. He's directed documentaries about sex therapist Dr. Ruth, tennis champion Serena Williams, and the women convicted of assassinating Kim Jong-nam. The Case Against 8, his 2014 documentary about the legal fight for same-sex marriage, won the Directing Award at Sundance.
"I feel like I have the best job in the world, in the sense that I get to be on the sidelines of these journeys of people going through incredible things," White says. Of how he selects his subjects, he explains, "It's just a gut feeling of wanting to be around something for a few years. They are all character-based. If there's not some sort of character that I'm going to be spending an insane amount of time with and having to win that person's trust and be with them day-to-day, then I'm usually not interested in the subject matter."
His latest film is Good Night Oppy, which follows Opportunity the Mars Exploration Rover (also affectionately known as "Oppy") and the team of NASA scientists who created her. Originally expected to live for only 90 days, Oppy ultimately explored Mars for nearly 15 years! "Even though it's about a robot, I would still argue it's character-based," White says.
To bring Oppy's story to life, he worked closely with Industrial Light & Magic on the movie's visual effects, a skillset not often required in documentary filmmaking. "One thing that always hooks us is if the film has some crazy aspect, some sort of challenge that we've never done before. I love being thrown into something that I feel totally clueless about, and then, coming out on the other end of a film feeling like I'd mastered it."
The director's next project, meanwhile, is a Pamela Anderson doc for Netflix.
"I think she's going to surprise people in the best of ways," he teases. "She's hilarious. She's very in on the joke. She's incredibly quick and smart. And she's just cool too. She doesn't give a s—t. She's unfiltered, and raw, and unabashed. It's the anti-celebrity doc."
Below, White shares with A.frame the five films that helped make him the filmmaker he is today.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Written and Directed by: Agnès Varda
I was always a film nerd growing up. And so, when I went to Duke, I was taking a lot of film classes for fun. I was also a super nerd and cared deeply about grades. I was taking a film class where I had an A- or something, and I wanted to get an A, and there was extra credit if you went to this screening and wrote a paper about it. And it was Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I. I'll never forget it.
I knew nothing about it. I didn't know who she was, I didn't know what the film was about, I didn't know what a documentary was. I remember exactly where I was sitting in the movie theater, and I remember thinking, 'I've never seen anything like this before. What is she doing?' She's talking to the camera and filming herself. It felt like the perfect combination of all of my passions, and I didn't even know it was a thing. So, seeing that film totally changed the trajectory of my life. I found the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, and that's all I cared about after that. That is the film that changed my entire life. That is the reason I'm a documentary filmmaker.
Directed by: Laura Poitras
I'll never forget seeing Laura Poitras' The Oath. I was in my twenties and embarking on my filmmaking career, and you can tell it's just Laura with her camera. It's such an intimate film. Such an incredibly important but also entertaining character portrait. I remember being so inspired by it, and all of Laura's films. She's a huge filmmaking hero of mine, and I've been on a couple panels with her this year. She's so kind too. That's one of the things I love about my doc community. Your heroes are within arm's length of you, and almost all of them are the nicest people in the world.
Directed by: Steve James | Written by: Alex Kotlowitz
I saw The Interrupters right around that same time. And when I was beginning in documentary filmmaking, it was not a viable career path. I thank my parents so much for not dissuading me from doing it, but you thought you were taking a vow of poverty. You had to do it because you loved it. I remember seeing films when I was in my late twenties and thinking, 'It's worth it, this path that I'm on, because look at what these incredible filmmakers are doing.' And Steve James' The Interrupters is one of them.
Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
I remember seeing Spellbound in a movie theater and thinking, 'This is just straight up entertainment.' It's great character portraits, and you could say it's probably got social issues at the heart of it. But what Jeff Blitz, who's a friend of mine, was doing there, it was filmmaking. It was sheer entertainment. And I remember that widening the breadth of documentary to me, that it didn't have to just be about social issues. It could be something that's funny, or feels like a scripted film. And I think Spellbound plays that way.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Written by: Melissa Mathison
My favorite film ever is E.T. I was like a total space geek growing up. I wanted to be an astronaut. My Cabbage Patch doll was the astronaut version. There are all these photos of me in E.T. gear from the '80s. For me, that was such a formative film. So, what a dream to have made this film with Amblin. They're the producers of the film, and brought me the idea. Actually, when Jess and I had that dinner with Amblin where they pitched us the idea of this film, we came home and we watched E.T. And it was the first time I'd watched it in years, and still sobbing at the end of it.
E.T. was probably the biggest inspiration for this film specifically. I was never trying to achieve E.T. status in cinematic history, but, in terms of tone, that's a huge one for me. Near the end of the process, my producers at Amblin showed Steven the film and relayed his notes to me. I don't even know if I would call them notes. They just said he was incredibly proud of the film, and that he loved it. That was one of the best emails I've ever gotten in my life. One of the best days of my filmmaking career.