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Writing a Documentary Film With No Rules

By Susan Kouguell

There is no “right or wrong” way when it comes to writing a documentary film. Sounds easy then, right? Well–wrong! While there are no set screenwriting rules for writing a documentary script, it can still be challenging to convey a specific subject matter and its characters succinctly.

Writing a Documentary Film

This nonfiction genre can be written, using the traditional 3-Act structure, as seen in fiction films or in a nontraditional narrative format. The use of stock film footage, reenactments, “talking heads” (interviewees’ faces discussing the subject matter), voice-over narration, animation, photographs, live action, and so on, are just some examples of the tools used to convey the story when writing a documentary. Whether you choose to present your ideas objectively or subjectively, the execution and clarity of your material is important to the success of your project.

Agnes Varda Writing a Documentary

Agnes Varda

Writing a documentary can challenge traditional narrative conventions as seen in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s film Manakamana. A documentary can portray, for example, social or political issues (Louis Malle’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, God’s Country; Joe Berlinger’s Crude, and Michael Moore’s Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11), a musical concert (Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock), a “making of a film” (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo), or follow the lives of a person or persons over a period of time, such as Michael Apted’s series of films 28 Up (1984), or tell autobiographical stories in a unique and revealing way, such as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès.

“Making documentaries is a school of life,” says Varda at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival where I asked her about her process of writing a documentary. Varda describes her style as cinécriture – writing on film. “InThe Beaches of Agnès I am turning the mirror to the people who surround me. It shows how you build the life with others.”

In a documentary, characters give a face to the story you're telling. A character can not only be human but an animal, an object, a location, or the filmmaker can choose to be a character in his or her film. The audience should feel empathy for the people you are portraying – whether it’s love or hate, viewers must feel something and care what’s going to happen to them. If the subject matter of your project does not involve people, films can show characters directly or indirectly relating to the subject matter.

There are various techniques and modes from which writers can choose to convey their story. Whether you're at the idea stage or have a draft of your script, keep in mind the following points:

  • What are the film’s themes?
  • What is the significant message of your story?
  • Who are the main characters and what are their goals and/or possible agendas?
  • Why is the subject matter of this documentary important to you?
  • See other documentaries that deal with your subject matter and explore what makes your project different.

Finding Your Story When Writing a Documentary

Documentary filmmakers approach their material, and find inspiration and ideas in various ways.

I asked writer, producer, director Allie Light, Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary Feature for In The Shadow Of The Stars with her partner Irving Saraf, how writer/filmmakers can make their distinct voice come through on film.

Allie Light: “Listen very carefully to what you are being told by the subject of your film. The film belongs to the person or persons whose stories you are telling. You are helping that person to make the story of her life. All you are is an experienced helper. Draw your ideas from the story you’ve been told. That means you must think ahead and craft an excellent interview. Ask your subject to describe his story, to tell you one more time how she saw what she’s described, how she or he might tell it to a blind person. When you have their stories presented in their own colorful language, you can’t help but work from within their visions.”

Agnès Varda: “Sometimes I go by myself to do location scouting. When I go by myself, something speaks to me in the place I’ve chosen and I think maybe I should take advantage of that. We have to be working with chance. ‘Chance’ is my assistant director.”

Whether you leave some elements to chance or you stringently stick to your script when writing a documentary, indeed, there is no right or wrong way – but listening to your interviewees, those who know your subject matter, and/or just being present in the location of the filming, the opportunity for more ideas might just further enhance your story and film.

Susan Kouguell, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, e-author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! writes for Indiewire/SydneysBuzz, and other publications. As chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990, Kouguell works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, executives and studios worldwide. Her short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Kouguell worked on Louis Malle’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies.

Don't miss Susan Kouguell's Screenwriters University class on Writing the Documentary Film, starting August 28, 2014!