Should I script my documentary?

Dear Doc Doctor:

I’m shooting abroad and want to make sure I don’t miss anything since I can’t go back to reshoot. Is there a way I can know the “story” or “script” of my documentary in advance?

You would be better off investing your time in learning a meditation technique than trying to write the script. When it comes to documentary filmmaking, your mantra should be “Be in the moment.” Or, if you prefer, “Here, now.” Screenwriters will tell you that their own attempts at controlling everything from paper are futile efforts even in the fiction world.

Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles says, “The very essence of filming is not controlling, but uncontrolled. You have some sort of idea of what your story might be, but you are ready at the same time to abandon that if it doesn’t happen or if something better comes along.” As I said, an exercise in Zen meditation.

Still, your concerns are valid. Abandoning yourself to the chaos of reality can be costly when filming abroad or with highly time-sensitive topics and characters. It’s crucial to find a balance between planning and being open to new approaches. But there are some things you can do in advance.

First of all, do your research! You might think that because your film is character-based doing research is unnecessary. But you will still need to do research in the broad sense. If you don’t need to learn more about your characters, learn about their culture, or similar historical circumstances. The more you know, the more you will be able to make decisions in the moment or under pressure, and be confident that they are the right ones.

Outlines are also helpful, but be careful not to limit your film to only one case scenario. When I am working with a client, I explore several possible structures, not just one storyline, leaving lots of room for new situations. The advantage of experimenting in advance with two or three models is that you become less anxious during the shoot. There is a sense of ease in knowing that all the material you are shooting will find a meaningful place once in the cutting room. And a calm filmmaker is a productive, approachable human being we all like to be around during a shoot.

If your film calls for interviews, these provide another opportunity to plan ahead. Think of lots of questions. Write down every single one of them. Read them a day or two later. Try to imagine how you would feel if you were asked these same questions, with the exact same wording. Is there a better wording for the question? You can fine-tune and edit your list until you are completely satisfied with it. But remember to listen during the actual interview. It is important to adjust your questions to what the subject actually says. Interviewees hold in their answers the seeds to the most interesting questions.

Go ahead and daydream “scripts” and stories of all the things that could happen when you point the camera, and then let reality be more magical than your imagination.

Dear Doc Doctor:

I have 120 hours of footage, half of which are interviews. Should I transcribe everything and create a script from the transcription before I cut anything?

Even today, after the waves of cinema verité have crashed on the shores of reality TV, the structure of many nonfiction films still rests on the precise editing of interviews. The most crucial part of editing interviews is that of the text on paper, not necessarily the work with the physical film.

In general, filmmakers with a strong background in writing or journalism prefer working with transcripts. If this is your case, I would encourage you to use the tools that you are more familiar with. But bear in mind that though transcripts can be very practical, sometimes what looks great in writing is mumbled on the tape. Other times, weak lines on paper are so passionately delivered in front of the camera that they are highly effective. By relying exclusive on a transcription, you might unknowingly overlook a great moment.

Working with text is a great tool, but ultimately documentaries are an audio-visual form, and approaching the edit from a purely textual perspective can eventually stiffen the flow of your film. After editing a tightly cut interview based on a transcript, filmmakers are often tempted to just throw B-roll, or descriptive footage, on top of it. In doing so you are blurring your vision as a filmmaker and cutting short the narrative potential of your film. It corners your documentary into the show-and-tell format, a mere step above a slide show.

So before you spend $2 per page on a transcription, try this less expensive and more productive option: First watch your footage, focusing on the topics covered by the interviewees. During this viewing you should jot down the timecode of the quotes that sound interesting. Once you have a list of all the topics discussed, look for verité or action footage that relates that experience from a visual point of view, rather than illustrating it with matching images. By cutting this footage first and then adding the meaningful quotes, your documentary will grow in an organic way. With this tactic, you can also ensure that no footage will be overlooked or forgotten, as you will be searching for both images and words without giving one more importance over the other.

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