“If I keep shooting or editing, the story will come to me — eventually.”
The myth in all its glory
Shooting and editing are not myths at all, but necessary and very creative steps in filmmaking. However expecting the story to materialize as something external to the filmmaker, the result of following some formula or by sheer accumulation of hours—whether they’re hours of footage or hours in the cutting room—can pose creative danger, a schedule problem and become a financial nightmare.
Some variations of the myth include, “The story is almost there” or “If we do this one thing the story will happen,” while secretly doubting whether or not you believe what you’re saying is true.
The signs of the myth at work manifests itself in filmmakers when they hope that, if the shooting didn’t bring a story, the editing might. Perhaps during post, title cards or music—and if that doesn’t work, maybe… explain it directly to the audience the day of the premiere? Others hang on for dear life from formulas and recipes, that if followed faithfully, they believe will render a story, some story, any story. Some embark on a myriad of multiple test screenings and compulsive feedback seeking. Or do the opposite, dismissing confused viewers as too shallow to get the depth of this elusive masterpiece.
All of the above are the chains that enslave documentarians to the misconception of how storytelling works and unfolds in their minds and in the world. Time to unmask the myth that drains brains and pockets.
Possible origin of the myth
There was a time not long ago when filmmakers shot film, actual celluloid. Oh, the benefits of having 10-minute rolls, slow flatbeds, long expensive lab processing and limited budgets. Research, planning, pre-interviews and the thinking that went into them were valued as much as if not more than the strips with sprockets that carried them. The search and unveiling of a story started at research, grew in 30 hours of footage, and blossomed in six to 10 weeks of editing – exceptions abound of course.
And then, digital technology was born, the era of five dollar-tapes and absolute freedom to act on impulse and intuition. Making a film meant buying a camera and just shooting it. And then shoot some more, and maybe some more. Goddard’s camera as a pen – a pen with endless ink – could only bring fuller deeper stories, and it did to some degree. Drowning in 150 hours of footage filmmakers pondered where the story was, or if there was ever one at all. Could six months of editing uncover an apparently hidden narrative? Could hiring yet another editor solve the puzzle? Or maybe the Executive Producer knows?
As technology evolves, thinking about story shouldn’t become obsolete and to continue to apply methodologies and processes for story making that worked 30 years ago in different circumstances can only exacerbate the problem.
Some truth to it
Documentaries are about real life stories. Right? Yes, sort of right. Reality is out there and filmmakers, with their selective eyes and minds, see a story out of the complexity of events in front of them. Not in order to suffocate such reality with a pre-fabricated cookie cutter of a formula but to unmask it as a dusted mirror. Their choices in shooting and editing subsequently create meaning. In part the story will come to those who look for it hard enough, but it’s in the looking for it with an open inquisitive mind that the story materializes, the waiting being part of the looking, not an act in itself. Storytelling after all is an active verb.
The real deal
Some stories are out there in the world waiting to be captured and told, almost already scripted by an invisible hand. A character with a mission, an event with a deadline, the filmmakers just need to follow the thread and a story will unfold in supposed proper order soon or later. Other times life is more slippery, a hint of a story might get them started and then… and then we have to understand how story works because reality is not our co-writer any more.
What to do
If a story fell through or fate hasn’t plotted one for you, no amount of obedient formula application, endless shooting, obsessive transcribing, neat logging and intense editing will revert that… or it will — but at what creative and financial cost? When the search of a story takes you past the 50-hour mark, it’s wise to consider a session for just thinking and decision-making based on deep questioning away from books or people who chart single itineraries and away from all things that have a plug and a cable. Then when it’s time to act on the thinking, instead of following old procedures, create one that matches your creative patterns and film type. Evaluate proactive approaches taking advantage of the flexibility of the new technology rather than succumbing to its drawbacks.
A sequential approach of consecutive shooting/viewing/logging/editing by tape, character, event or topic whenever possible can be more conducive to discovering a story than approaching the beast in single long exhausting encounters. Another possibility is to prioritize the shooting and editing by emotional affinity, those characters or situations that you care for the most. Or let memory be your editor. If you still remember it, it’s worth having a second look rather than waiting for that tape to be next in line.
These approaches though sometimes eclectic in appearance, put the seeking of story at the forefront, making artificial recipes unnecessary while relegating methods at their proper place, a place of service to the filmmakers’ needs.
Maybe describing documentarians as hunters of real-life stories is counterproductive. Maybe they’re hunters of storylines rather than entire stories, patiently pulling one string out of a messy loop.
In all cases, may filmmakers be active weavers of meaning with reality being their muse and ethics their counselor.
Other information: The Doc will be giving her structure and trailer workshops in New York in May. More details soon at www.documentarydoctor.com
Doctor’s Credentials: Internationally renowned author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers including the 2009 Academy Award® nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and the 2007 Academy Award® nominated Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi shares her knowledge and research of story structure and the creative process in columns and articles in trade publications. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.