THE NATURE OF DOCUMENTARY SCREENWRITING
March 11th, 2004
THE NATURE OF DOCUMENTARY SCREENWRITING
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I am pleased to present Marino Colmano's answers to several question concerning documentary screenwriting I had. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Documentary screenwriting is a very important part of film writing.
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1] For those of us who are not involved in documentary screen writing, what are some of the major differences between motion picture writing and documentary?
Dramatic writing is dependent on developing characters, setting up a plot and creating rising conflict in each scene that forwards the story. Documentary in it's most interesting format should strive to similar goals. However, in most cases, documentaries tend to fix upon an idea that requires proving a premise, much like in a character driven scenario, but the production required to prove that premise may be linked to historical events, that for lack of a bigger budget, do not allow for re-enactment's. Therefore most documentaries rely heavily on interviews and narration to progress the story line. I personally feel that if a documentary filmmaker can find a way to establish characters within the context of the structure of the film, then it is possible to let those characters drive the piece much like a dramatic film. I managed to do this on several occasions. The first film that I directed was about the making of a Dustin Hoffman feature called STRAIGHT TIME; He Wrote it for Criminals. In order to create a series of characters that could narrate the story in their own words I choose to construct the story in a linear manner. I starting from the beginning, about how the writer Edward Bunker became a criminal and after many years in prison became a writer and finally a book he wrote got into the hands of Dustin Hoffman who wanted to make it into a movie. We shot footage of Bunker and an interview while he was still in prison. Then in order to keep the pace going we interviewed many people involved in the making of the movie and behind the scenes footage. Interestingly, also very important, was the inclusion of an interview with x-cop/writer, Joseph Wambaugh, who represented the law's side of the writers imagination. The result was a film that only needed about two minutes of narration to tie sum up a few concepts. (Online at: http://www.zpub.com/bus/bravo/bravo8.html) More recently, a film I directed, photographed and edited a film called RESERVOIRS OF STRENGTH, which grew out of 13 hours of film footage that was shot after writing a script that looked more like a dramatic feature. The beauty of this process was that I knew if I got the kind of words and coverage written in the script we created, I would have what I needed to flawlessly edit together a film that would need no narration. In this case the end result is a documentary that comes off more like a dramatic feature with no faceless voice telling you how to feel or repeating what we already see on the screen. (see footnote, also Online at: http://www.zpub.com/bus/bravo/bravo10.html
2] If a writer wanted to get involved in documentary screen writing what course of action would you suggest? Are there schools that focus on documentary writing?
I don't know much about film schools. I never went to school to be a filmmaker. I am completely self taught and learned the rest by blood, sweet, and tears in a very demanding and unforgiving profession. I suspect that all the major film schools at least touch on the subject of non-fiction writing. The question of how a writer gets started, is simple, just put pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard. Write, write and keep on writing. It is a learning curve that is never over. A writer improves with practice, experience and perseverance.
3] What are the major elements of documentary writing?
I suppose that would be doing all the necessary research, compiling the results into some form of order and then writing a narrative that ties it all together. THE DOCUMENTARY SCRIPT The Documentary is one branch of film making where it is unproductive and even undesirable to develop a script, as with a drama, in normal industry fashion. This film will grow in the making of it, and neither dialogue nor incidents can be entirely pre-structured. Nevertheless, in my approach there are usually TWO WORKING SCRIPTS utilized. The FIRST SCRIPT will formulate the intention and suggest a probable line of development--perhaps no more detailed than a list of sequences derived from previous observation of subjects and subject matter, which the director will use as a guideline. Some of this work may vary depending on the availability of certain individuals and incidents. The finished film may eventually differ both in substance and in structure from that original blue-print; however, it will have evolved from it organically. Once the film has been shot, the material will be amorphous, shapeless, and voluminous. It is then that the SECOND SCRIPT will be constructed. From the material, the writers and director will organize their selection and editing pattern. Dialogue will be transcribed and edited on paper, and then cut on film and/or video accordingly. Incidents will be arranged so that they are given shape, weight, and a line of development. The SCRIPT now becomes the final blue-print for the editing of the film. The following study group guide can be an important example of how writers might concern themselves with developing a blue-print prior to writing the original draft of a documentary. In answering these types of questions writers can become better equiped to tackle all the necessary elements needed to tell their story. [RESERVOIRS OF STRENGTH] A Burn Recovery Film DISCUSSION QUESTIONS 1. What is burn rehabilitation? How has rehabilitation changed? 2. What is the importance of friendship to the rehabilitation process? How do emotional and spiritual factors affect recovery? 3. What hopes and fears surface during the recovery of a burn patient? 4. What role can friends and loved ones serve in the healing process? 5. The "risk" of being seen: how does burn rehabilitation help patients and loved ones deal with burn disfigurement? 6. What kind of progress has been made in skin grafting, pain control, antibiotics, and skin culturing? What role do pressure garments serve in burn rehabilitation? 7. Many burn patients are children. How is their plight different? How does a child adapt to burn rehabilitation? What role does the family play in the child's recovery? What about the child's return to school? 8. How can a patient fight back against the intrusive images of flashbacks and nightmares? 9. As healing progresses, how does the patient deal with separation from treatment? 10. How does burn rehabilitation help restore a patient's independence? 11. Often a burn accident involves the negligence of another party. What are the legal aspects of a burn accident and treatment? 12. Sexuality. How does burn rehabilitation deal with the issue of sexual intimacy?4] Can a writer make a living as a documentary writer? How high is the demand for documentary films, and writing?
Just look at programming like A&E Biography. They contract out about 300 hours of programming each year. This form of writing is primarily historical retrieval for the narration. The shows are primarily clip driven with very little additional shooting. Mostly it is just the occasional interview to spice up the otherwise repetition of clip after clip. Somebody has to do that writing. Then there is The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, The History Channel, A&E, Lifetime, and all the network special documentaries that keep many writers busy. In many cases, a documentary writer is much like an investigative reporter. Digging up information, finding clues to solve mysteries, and finding missing persons are all messy jobs writers might find themselves doing. This can be really exciting, especially since oftentimes, the truth we discover is stranger than fiction. Stranger even than our wildest imagination.
5] What are your five most important documentary films in the past ten to fifteen years?
The basketball film that became a theatrical hit late in 1995 called HOOP DREAMS shows that a filmmaker can spend five years following someone around with a video camera and get it to all make sense and make it to the big screen. ROGER & ME about how the closing of a Michigan car plant devastated the town proved how a serious subject can be handled in a humorous manner and still make the point. CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, a feature documentary that got incredible theatrical exposure and made lots of money proves there is an audience for speculative historical conjecture. IMAX documentaries like the one on the oil fires of Kuwait, the moon walks, Sahara, etc. Lately they are screening the premiere of the "2D" Academy Award-nominated film THE LIVING SEA. This 40-minute motion picture has broken box office records at the "2D" IMAX theatres worldwide. Narrated by Meryl Streep, the popular film features music by Sting. This epic scale entertainment is presented on a six-story 90-foot-wide screen. I think these are all important landmarks in the documentary world because they are gaining theatrical distribution and have been very popular with the general public.
6] Documentary writing is very important, is it getting the recognition it deserves?
There are a few places that recognize the significance of the documentary form even if the writing isn't particularly singled out. The IDA, International Documentary Association is one of them. They have annual awards and offer information and networking to its members. The Film Forum for 24 years has been part of New York's modern art and artifice. Directed by Karen Copper programming its premieres and screening of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 films a year in search of provocative movies for Manhattan's treasured Forum. Her efforts and sensibility, include anything from three-minute gems to hyper-feature-length monuments. Several years ago Cooper imported German director Ulrike Ottinger's TAIGA after seeing it at the Berlin International Film Festival. A nine-hour long documentary on Northern Mongolian nomads ("wonderfully shot and full of texture," Cooper proclaims) TAIGA was a surprise hit to everyone but her. Other documentaries that have received their national premiers at the theater include CRUMB, HOOP DREAMS, THE WAR ROOM and NIKO ICON. (partially compiled form Variety's On Production magazine, November 1996) "Documentaries are every bit as riveting and exciting as fiction filmmaking can be, and sometimes much more so," says Cooper of non-fiction films, which comprise half her annual schedule. She likens their success at Film Forum, and beyond, to "a stone that goes into a quiet pond...Ripples come out in many other places."
7] When a project comes together how is a writer involved in the process?
In the feature film business the writer either writes on speculation that he will be able to sell his screenplay, or is hired to write or re-write from a producers idea, a book, a short story or even another existing script. Documentary writers can be hired in exactly the same way. There are some writers that have written award winning material and are therefore in demand. I don't think the job search is substantially different in any area of filmmaking. Lots of knocking on doors, submitting samples and sending out resumes.8] What factors are involved when you choose a topic for a documentary film?
For me, seeking a new topic includes figuring out it is how unusual it can be. I don't like doing the same thing over again or repeating something someone else has done very well. How different from the maddening crowd can it possibly be? Helping people is so important for our society. The problem is there appear to be so few scripts out there that deal with positive issues. I'm always looking for provocative, passionate, uplifting material. I personally love movies that present an emotional message, that causes people to think and be moved. FOOTNOTE on R.O.S. Reservoirs of Strength - A Burn Recovery Film. This program was created and produced by Margot Tempereau. It was directed, photographed, and edited by award-winning Director Marino Colmano. The film grew out of over 13 hours of interview footage with burn patients of all ages and backgrounds, their friends, family members, co-workers, and the many specialists who comprise the burn team. Shot in true documentary style, there is no "narrator," nor was any "stock footage" used. While the film deals with a topic with obvious medical implications, it is not intended as a medical "teaching" film, nor are the medical views expressed necessarily those of every burn center or burn care professional. The filmmakers would like to emphasize that they shot what they actually saw and heard during visits to several burn centers around the country, and pieced together what amounts to a real life narrative of the anatomy of a burn from the initial state of emergency through recovery and beyond. Intended primarily to assist people who have been burned, their friends and families, the film also appeals to a much broader audience, as it vividly demonstrates the strength of the human spirit and the effect of love on recovery from severe burn injuries. It was produced primarily as a public service/public educational film. It is hoped that hospitals and burn centers will make patients, their friends and families aware of the existence of the film, so that as many patients, their families, friends, and co-workers as possible can benefit from the experience of individuals who have recovered from severe burns. Copies of the film can be ordered directly from Bravo Entertainment, Inc. (818) 764-8580, fax (818) 764-5752. Online at: http://www.zpub.com/bus/bravo/bravo10.html email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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