THE NATURE OF DOCUMENTARY SCREENWRITING|
THE NATURE OF DOCUMENTARY SCREENWRITING
by: Marino Colmano
Bravo Entertainment, Inc.
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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
Webmaster: The Screenwriters Utopia
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:
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:
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
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
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
9. As healing progresses, how does the patient deal with separation from
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Copies of the film can be ordered directly from Bravo
Entertainment, Inc. (818) 764-8580, fax (818) 764-5752. Online at:
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Published on: 2004-03-11 (68388 reads)[ Go Back ]