View Full Version : Writing for a documentary

09-20-2004, 06:42 PM
Okay - here is a good one. I've been debating whether posting something like this here, but then I thought - what the heck?

I am working on a sort of 'personal documentary' where I stumble upon an interesting piece of my family's history here in Toronto that was previously unknown to (hidden from?) me. Events happened over fifty years ago in another country (where I grew up), and the discovery only occurred after one of the main characters has died... I get intrigued, and start a 'search for truth' mission that involves tracking down some people, have interviews with them, travel back to my native land where everything took place over the course of half a century...

I've been debating how much of this should be scripted and/or acted (obviously not the interviews, but possibly little re-enactments of actual events). I want it to be a kind of a detective story to keep it interesting.

I am mostly interested in camera work - I am not a writer, not much of a director, and definitely not an actor - although there will have to be some shots of me unraveling the puzzle.

So here is the problem - it's clear to me that I need a good structure to move the story forward (not a writer...hmmm). I have someone who will help me direct it, but is there a need for a script? I am trying to resist one, but I have seen documentaries 'written by...', so I am sort of running in circles.

Should I find a writer to help me write a script? If I get a script written should I hire an actor to pretend to be me? Should I take some acting lessons to act in my own doc or count on my natural behavior - I mean I am who I am so it shouldn't need to be acted, right? ???

Should I wait until I have all the interviews shots to start extracting the story out of what I have?

All these questions seem a bit silly but I really need some fixed point from which I should start.


09-21-2004, 03:09 AM
Dear Jerry,

No question is silly!

This is what I would do if I was the Director,.(as I am always when I do my docs, one man show - director - producer - cameraman - writer...etc....)

1. Decide on the treatment/structure.

2. My personal opinion, you act your role. And be what you are, need not act - what you are not :) or want to be "seen as"., but project what you are instead. When you go back in time, if you wish to show yourself as a child, then yes you will need a child artist, which will have to be a child ;)

3. Have a rough draft on paper, in other words, write down on paper what you want to show, how will you show it.. etc.

4. If you are going ahead with the interviews, then go ahead with it, a story will still come out of it as long as you ask the right questions during the interview.

The above points 1 to 4 not necessarily in the same order.

I am in Toronto, you can keep in touch and good luck with your project. Sounds interesting.


09-21-2004, 09:44 AM

My advise comes from the great book "Making Documentaries and Reality Videos," by Barry Hampe. He correctly poses that having something written down is necessary if only to have a plan that you will stray and improvise from.

He suggests an outline that answers:

1. Purpose of the film (thesis)

2. Approach to the film and filmmaking (concept and execution)

3. Content of the film (basic premise)

4. Filmic situations. These are ideas of shots or situations that you can now visualize that will move and pace the film and support the thesis. This includes each individual who might be interviewed, what questions you need answered and thus what questions you need to ask and how to ask them without prompting the subject to "act out" the answer you want.

5. Big question: WHY do I need this talking head here instead of providing visuals because film should be visual.

Really for a doc the writing process is one of filtering out weak ideas and continually adding to the stronger ideas until one has a complete, workable, VISUAL film in one's mind. The film one ends up will still be WAY different than the written film because we aren't controlling sets and actors. But the writing process gives concrete direction and purpose.

Hampe's book is SO rich and will answer most or many of your questions. I believe that reading his book improved my ability to make a doc by a couple hundered percent immediately after the first read. Great book.

Best of Luck,
Moe snodgrass

09-21-2004, 07:43 PM

Great advice! I guess I am going to write something up eventually - I just have to get all those interviews even if I will only use small fraction of what I will shoot.

There are scenes with secret police interrogations and similar stuff that I believe I will have to hire actors for - even if just a background for the interviewed voice over.

Another thing I am not sure about is how to do 'interviews with myself'. I think it wouldn't work very well - be in some shots as I am going after the story, and then different shots where I speak to a (fictional) interviewer?

I am thinking about using (my own) voice over, but don't want to end up like Michael Moore (too much of him everywhere). Also, I think people would get bored with that.

Any thoughts on pros/cons of the two approaches?


09-22-2004, 09:12 AM

I think you're right that you can't interview yourself. Decide film-wide if you want to edit out the questions (interviewer) and just show the answers (subjects). This gives the most editing options. You have the option of changing angle/focal length between answers, before each new question is asked. That avoids jump cuts, unecessary cutaways and the entire task of having to shoot the interviewer asking the questions. You can make it seem more like a narrative or docu-drama and that might work better for your idea.

The problem with cutting out the questions is that you often have to "coach" the subjects to repeat the question as part of their answer. They then become actors to some degree and it often sounds less convincing or staged and probably is. You might be able to get around this drawback using voice-over if there's not too much voice-over in the rest of the film. Either way you'll filter and balance all this through writing it.

Since you'll be the the sole "constant" in this "journey of discovery," it might make better sense for you to narrate instead of having yourself interviewed. You can still show yourself on film most any way you think you need to including as interviewer if you choose to show the questions. You'll have complete technical control of the voice-over in post and that's simpler.

It'll all come together over a couple of weeks of writing.


09-26-2004, 01:08 PM
i would definitely read that documentary book that was mentioned, i have it and it is a great resource.

as far as interviewing yourself, i wouldn't do it, i think it would come off odd.

i forget the name of the documentary but there was one where a guy was doing research about his father who was a famous architect and he just sort of wandered through the film asking people questions and talking to the camera.

he did it in a way where when he was talking to the camera the visual was often of him doing something else like walking around the grounds of some campus his father designed in california.

so in other words he didn't sit there looking at the camera and talking to it.

i wish i knew the name of the film i'm thinking of but i can't remember. i don't know if i saw it on sundance or at a film fest. i'll try to go through a few film festival programs that i have hanging around and see if i can find it, it was something that would definitely IMHO be worth watching for ideas.

another example is this thing that they had on sundance, the subject matter was a bit different in that it was a woman talking about her brief experience as a stripper and interviewing a bunch of women she worked with.

the style of the piece was VERY well done, the camera work was nothing special whatsoever and the audio was marginal but the story REALLY worked regardless of the fact it was titilating. (couldn't resist)

it was called STRIPPED and i'm sure it will be on sundance again.


09-26-2004, 04:58 PM
That first one was called: My Architect: A Son's Journey (2003)
Not familiar with the second.


09-27-2004, 01:52 PM
I've read about 'My Architect' but I haven't seen it (I'd love to). It may be somewhat similar, as one of the questions I am going to find out is how did my father and his family live through the Communist political purges of 50s...

I think that where I need to establish the context (different places, meeting people, etc), I'll just narrate over shots of me exploring the places and meeting the people, but it will mostly be other folk talking (where appropriate). It's really a fascinating story, but you guys will have to wait until I am done with it... ;D

Thanks for your replies!

09-27-2004, 05:23 PM
sounds interesting.

my architect sound like the one i was talking about.

i searched on my tivo and it isn't schedule to show on sundance or anything else i get in the listed future.

where are you located and where will you be filming?


09-27-2004, 06:35 PM
I live in Toronto - that's where the story begins (I actually discovered it there after living there for thirteen years! :o), but it takes the audience to Czech Republic (where I am originally from), Prague and places where the communist regime had forced labor camps in uranium mines between 1948 and 1965. Also to Austria, to the refugee camp in Traiskirchen near Vienna.

So those are the places where I will be filming this November, if things go well... :)

I've started a story outline in the form of script with a lot of blank spaces, but it's so hard... :-[ I am really hoping that once the interviews and local shots are done it will become much easier.

11-03-2004, 01:50 PM
Anyone familiar with a book by Alan Rosenthal called "Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films and Videos"? Both this and the Hampe book were very highly praised on Amazon.

11-12-2004, 10:18 PM
Jerry--this sounds great. *If you're around here before you leave--you can stop by and borrow the Hampe book--I agree it's excellent. At this point, I think you should concentrate on the interview and location footage you're planning on getting. *Your voiceover is going to be the narrative thread that holds the film together, but the voiceover can be mostly written after you get back. *There's no need to interview yourself, because all the details will come out naturally in the course of the voiceover. *Don't worry about injecting yourself like Michael Moore. *Moore's style is to inject his personality in to what really isn't a personal story. *In your type of doc, the story is intensely personal, so it's natural that you'd have a large presence. *

Don't try to impersonalize the story by minimizing yourself--you're not a dispassionate observer in this case. *The film will hinge on viewers connecting with *you* rather than the interviewees or historical details. *

11-19-2004, 11:00 PM

I'm also working on planning out a doc and I must say that Moe brought up a good book to reference. I just started reading it a few days ago, but it has really brought many things to mind that I probably would have not thought about. It also gives some suggestions as to getting better interviews.

I requested the book from my local library which didn't have it at first but ended up buying it. But it's got so much info that i'll need to get a copy of my own to be able to highlight in.

Anyways good luck! Family history can be very interesting.

11-29-2004, 10:02 AM
Hey guys, thanks for everyone's input.

I just got back... as they say, sometimes you learn more from what people won't say than from they will say... Amazing how after fifty years, people still want to keep their secrets. Anyway, I have about fifteen hours of footage - the uranium mine labor camp shots will give you the shivers. Some local residents are building a natural museum (sort of a reconstruction of how it looked like back in the fifties). Others, as I learned from a very nice young lady at a local information center, don't want to even hear about what was going on (guilt by association?).

I've got some really interesting interviews, too - with people who spent several years in prison for things like printing forbidden literature, and with some members of my family. Interestingly, it's my cousins that had some really revealing information, but I didn't have interviews with them in my schedule, so maybe I'll go back in spring...

I also have great location shots from around the country, including some of myself going to or being at these places. As Barry mentioned, my voiceover should stitch this together.

I participated in some rallys that took place during the celebrations of fifteenth anniversary of 'Velvet Revolution' - all I can say is 'the more things change, the more they stay the same'. Some shots from these events should be quite dramatic - police chasing demonstrators, students chanting, former political prisoners making speeches about how today's society still hasn't fully acknowledged and accounted for the past...

If I sound a little incoherent, it's because I am still overwhelmed with everything... I'll post some grabs once I get everything into a computer - probably in a couple of weeks.

Cheers! Great to be back...


12-08-2004, 08:08 PM
Sound nice, Jerry. Hope to read and see more of what you've done.


12-08-2004, 08:31 PM
This sounds like an interesting documentary. :)