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The Write Wing: Defining the Role of the Writer in Nonfiction

By Taylor Segrest

From Gibney's <em>Taxi from the Dark Side</em>, for which he won the 2008 WGA Documentary Screenplay Award. Courtesy of Jigsaw Productions

Editor's Note: You can see Alex Gibney in conversation with Ben Mankiewicz in person on Monday, September 28 in Los Angeles. More info and purchase tickets.

"Even people in documentaries ask me what the hell I do," Mark Monroe tells me between mild-mannered chuckles. "There's no narration. What do you need a writer for?"

We both laugh, but his is faint now and wanes quickly. With seasoned irony, he affirms, "It's a big question: the role of the writer."

"Yes, I'm beginning to see that," I eventually respond. "So, as someone who just marched into the relatively unmapped terrain of writing a documentary from conception to final cut [Darwin], I'm trying to map out the various roles that writers are playing in nonfiction these days and how they're being credited and otherwise appreciated by the industry. It's become an increasingly foggy and labyrinthine swamp, but I think I've got a canoe I can paddle now--or at least a castaway's raft of sticks and vines."

If anyone can begin to help me chart this murky, fertile Okefenokee of credit creeps, symbiotic collaborations, ego gators and boggy bureaucracy, it might be Monroe, who wrote, among other prominent documentaries, the Academy Award-winning The Cove, for which he was also the recipient of the Writer's Guild of America, West's pioneering, and apparently somewhat incendiary, Documentary Screenplay Award.

Monroe and I converse sympathetically about our similar experiences, so I turn for further insight to another recipient of the WGAW's Documentary Screenplay Award, this time a writer-director.

"I think the confusion of roles in documentary filmmaking is silly!" says Amy Berg. "Silly" is not exactly the word I expected to hear from the writer/director of Deliver Us From Evil (2006), a damning, Oscar-nominated indictment of the Catholic Church's handling of pedophilic priests, but I see her point and it suggests the underlying tension that I am trying to locate. "It is so difficult to get a documentary made," she affirms. "Everyone has to wear different hats all the time. Some directors use writers, and some producers insist on writers, as telling the story on the screen is one of the most difficult aspects of the craft."

From Amy Berg's <em>Deliver Us from Evil</em>, for which she won the 2007 WGA Documentary Screenplay Award. Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

As validating as it is to hear this, I am still wondering where the conflict and misunderstandings are exactly. So I turn, finally, to two-time WGAW Documentary Screenplay Award recipient and Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Taxi to the Dark Side). "This may or may not be a good thing to say," he says anyway, "But I feel a little uncomfortable in jam-fitting a credit. I don't want people to start confusing the role of the writer and the editor in the documentary film. I'm a faithful and loyal WGA member, but I don't think writers should take credit for what editors do, or what editors and directors do."

And there, for some, is the rub.

"The WGA has rules about what credits you can get," Gibney notes. "I'm comfortable with a ‘Written by' credit when I write narration. I'm not comfortable when I don't. Stories are structured a lot in the cutting room, and I think that's appropriate.  It's a big grey area."

Monroe, whose work does not usually involve narration, confidently states, "No one has ever had a problem crediting me as writer." Among the nine feature-length documentaries to his credit are the well-received The Tillman Story, and three to be released in the next year.

Increasingly perplexed, but intrigued, I paddle on and turn to luminary documentary blogger and accomplished filmmaker AJ Schnack, asking him why the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, which were founded in 2007, the same year the WGAW and WGAE began their respective Documentary Screenplay Awards, don't have an honor for writers.

 "For the past few years, those of us at Cinema Eye have talked about an award for documentary writing," he explains by e-mail. "And while it's clear that many nonfiction films use writing--particularly the scripting of narration--to powerful effect, we don't believe that the industry as a whole has come to a decision about whether narration is essential for a film to have a true writing credit or whether the ‘scripting' of a nonfiction film is actually a task that falls to the editor and director.

"While I appreciate the Writers Guild's efforts to recognize the construction of nonfiction filmmaking," Schnack continues, "I fear that adding a writing credit to nonfiction films without true scripting threatens to dilute the power of the editing credit. In nonfiction films, the editor has always been one of the key members of the creative team, and I believe that we should strive to honor the editor's credit."

With a better grasp now of the complexities surrounding the writer credit, I turn to Kay Schaber Wolf, WGAW Independent Film Executive, to get the Guild perspective. Of the Guild's Documentary Screenplay Award, she writes, "Created by the Writers Guild of America, West and Writers Guild of America, East, the WGA Documentary Screenplay Award was established to spotlight the writer's essential role in the collaborative process of documentary filmmaking."

Wolf further explains, "To some, the term ‘writing' is only applied in the fictional realm and, consciously or unconsciously, they do not link the writing process to nonfiction projects. However, the number of theatrical documentaries that include writing credits keeps rising, so hopefully recognition will continue to grow as well. For the most part, organizations and film festivals have been cooperative when asked to list writers for films that contain a writing credit. "

Potential credits include Story by, Narration written by, Screenplay by and Written by. (Complete information about credits, definitions and the caucus for nonfiction film writers is available at

Ultimately, though, quibbling over credits won't clear up any misunderstandings or preconceptions.  What matters is what writers do, and that varies from film to film. On this point, Wolf quotes one of the WGA's esteemed members, Stacey Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys; Crips and Bloods: Made in America): "Documentary films are written four times. The first time is when you conceive your questions, because those questions have to lead to a narrative. You have to know that the answers of your subject are going to start piecing together the film. The second part is when you get the transcripts back. I highlight them and start to puzzle all the different bites together. Where there is a break and it needs to be redirected, you write the voiceover. That is the third part of the process. The fourth time you write is when you are in the edit bay and you look at the footage. You do it all over again. It is really about taking your subjects' voices and giving them narrative."

With similar convictions, Berg offers a blueprint of her own writing process: " Writing a documentary has different stages and processes depending on both the film and the filmmaker, and as one who takes on complicated and multi-layered subject matters, I cannot organize my storytelling without writing. It's the first thing I do before I take a subject on. For me, it begins with the treatment. Then I write an outline to delineate the story beats that will take the film from start to finish. Within the outline, I lay out the three or five acts. Here, I generally begin to shoot and, once this happens, I will write scenes on location that will hopefully be realized in post! The main scenes I usually script out are the opening and the ending--but much of the story evolves with production and as I get to know my subjects.  The best scenes are usually written after much time spent with people as you gain trust over time."

Berg does not see the relationship between writer and editor as a conflict zone: "The relationship with the editor is where a real writing collaboration begins, usually. The process of having scripted scenes, outlines and thematic moments cannot come to life without a strong collaboration in the edit bay, and I feel that editors become writing partners at this stage of filmmaking. Everything that was previously scripted can be rewritten when the emotional flow of the film goes a different way, so there must be fluidity in post and much of the original concept is canned during the edit. Great editors are expected to know how to help shape the narrative, but every film comes with a different set of personalities and rules."

 "I am all for the writer," Monroe says, but also readily admits, "Documentaries are kind of an editor genre traditionally, and that's where the debate over the writer's role lies. I'm an editor as well and that helps, but as a writer you can kind of float outside of it and go forward or backward more quickly, always working with the big picture, getting micro as needed."

Monroe continues: "Other films that don't have writers credited do the same process, whether with note cards or organically, or the directors put it on paper first, or the editors themselves--a lot of editors are writers as well in their own way. There are certainly great films made today without a sole writer attached to them, and they have this narrative storytelling. So the job is getting done."

But there remains the big question of the grey area--the place where Monroe, Berg, Peralta and I crafted the narratives of the films on which we were credited as writers.

 "I tell everyone that to be a writer of documentaries is a niche within a niche," Monroe maintains. "I think the role of a writer in nonfiction is to bridge the gap between the passion of a director and the craft of an editor--and that is, in part, in structuring--[creating] a narrative game plan, a path for the editor to go down and a destination. And maybe you're seeing things in the footage that the director didn't see, but that he appreciates once you work with him."

Monroe describes his process on The Cove: "I was introduced to Louie Psihoyos, the director of The Cove. He made it out of passion--[he had] 900 hours of original material and had been editing and struggling to make a film. He had brought in different editors--a ton of documentaries are made by first-timers who start filming and then they get in the edit bay and it becomes suddenly difficult and compounded by sometimes big amounts of resources that they've put into it. And they're treading water, trying to find the narrative."

Monroe continues, "When we started working on The Cove the question was, ‘Who's gonna go watch dolphins get slaughtered?' So the idea was to give the audience something to root for, something to be hopeful about--just like a narrative film. So The Cove becomes like a noir, a heist film--but it still has the information, the things we love about documentaries."

Monroe began with long discussions with Psihoyos to get a grasp of what he was trying to say. He began to see that the director had not cut himself into the movie yet and encouraged him to make himself a character. Then, once he had a narrative structure outlined, Monroe began working with the editor via extensive ongoing iChats, e-mails, and QuickTimes between a Silver Lake coffee shop and an edit bay in Colorado. 

"I had a very similar experience," I tell Monroe. "Although I would add that a writer can play that role from the beginning, starting with development." This was the case for me on Darwin. Collaborating with the director, Nick Brandestini, I was developing the film with our co-producer, Sandra Ruch, then writing out a 20-page package for each of Brandestini's solo shoots in Darwin, California. The packets included interview questions, scene sketches, notes on our objectives and strategy, and the ever-evolving outline. As with Monroe on The Cove, this process was a perpetual back and forth, but from the beginning: Skype, QuickTimes, e-mails and Word file attachments between Los Angeles and Zurich, where the director is based. 

Eventually, though, once all of the footage was more or less shot, many elements had been edited, but the film was not yet a film. I had to throw out all the previous work I had done and completely overhaul Darwin into ten somewhat unconventional chapters. That was when the most rigorous, pure phase of writing took place.

While I think I have a useable map of "the grey area" now, I still wonder what all the friction is about, especially in a field that prides itself on breaking down barriers of misunderstanding. It is clearly agreed that the roles of the Director and the Editor are unique in the genre, but so is that of the Writer. Writers work passionately in nonfiction to pursue and craft narratives, often transforming them out of obscurity to distinction, and they collaborate with directors and editors with productive, mutual sympathy.

After vigorous and much appreciated debate, in which he pondered that reality television story editors might perform a role closer to writing than a "writer" who doesn't write narration on a nonfiction film, even Alex Gibney eventually came around:  "I guess it depends from project to project. I could imagine a scenario close to what you're saying in which a writer tries to figure out some kind of story structure, and I could imagine how it would be useful because otherwise the story or the structure would be too vast."

As Justin Weinstein, writer/editor of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, recently told me, "I had always thought it strange to see a writer credit on docs, especially vérité ones, but after having struggled to apply my knowledge of screenwriting, narrative structure, and dramaturgy to give Elmo shape and substance, I no longer question it!"

It seems safe to assume that the documentary industry will continue evolving to a point where it more deeply understands and prominently recognizes and encourages writers' collaborative role in the filmmaking process. Their increasing presence in the genre seems to be in concert with the emergence of stronger storytelling and gutsier narrative innovation-all of which improves the accessibility and impact of the people, issues and stories that the films' makers strive so selflessly to bring to the wider world.


Taylor Segrest is writer and co-producer of Darwin. He is currently writing his next film, which he will direct, a narrative feature about the most tragically forgotten rebellion in American history.