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Writers Roundtable On History of Documentaries

By IDA Editorial Staff

Mark Jonathan Harris, Joan Owens-Meyerson, Barak Goodman, and IDA Board member Lyn Goldfarb and Margaret Koval.

Every good documentary has its own compelling story, concept and point of view. Writing documentaries on historical subjects carries an additional challenge—the filmmaker must tell a visual story, but he or she can’t just take a camera and record what happens in reality. On a March morning at the Writers Guild of America West office, Joan Owens-Meyerson gathered together five award-winning WGA writers for a lively roundtable discussion to explore the creative challenges of writing historical documentaries.

Lyn Goldfarb’s credits as a writer, producer and/or director include the Academy-Award®-nominated With Banners and Babies and episodes of two award-winning PBS series, The Great Depression and The Great War and The Shaping of the 20th Century. Her current production with partner Margaret Koval is the PBS mini-series The Roman Empire in the First Century, to be broadcast in July. Ms. Goldfarb is co-chair of the WGA Nonfiction Writers Steering Committee and an IDA Board member.

Barak Goodman is the writer (and co-producer/director) of Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, an Academy Award® nominee for Best Documentary Feature, which aired on PBS’ American Experience. Mr. Goodman’s credits also include Merchants of Cool for PBS’ Frontline; the Peabody award-winner The Lost Kids of Rockdale County, also for Frontline; and the Emmy-nominated Daley: The Last Boss for PBS’ American Experience.

Mark Jonathan Harris received this year’s Academy Award® for Best Documentary Feature as the writer (and director) of Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Mr. Harris has an extensive background as a documentary filmmaker, journalist, novelist and film professor. He also earned Academy Awards® for The Redwoods (1968) and The Long Way Home (1997).

Margaret Koval is the writer (and co-producer, director and executive producer with partner Lyn Goldfarb) of the PBS mini-series The Roman Empire in the First Century. Her PBS experience includes episodes of the Emmy, Peabody and Du-Pont Award-winning series, The Great War and The Shaping of the 20th Century. Ms. Koval also has extensive journalistic experience that includes ABC news specials, Nightline, 20/20 and Dateline NBC.

Bridget Terry was nominated this year for a WGA Award (with co-writer Cari Beauchamp) for her first documentary, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood, which she also directed and co-produced. Her work in narratives and children’s productions has earned her a Peabody, Cable ACE awards and three Emmy nominations.


Joan Owens-Meyerson has written, produced and directed numerous documentaries for PBS, cable and network television. Her credits include the PBS special, The National Memorial Day Concert, which was awarded Gold Medals at the New York Film Festival and the Worldfest Houston Film Festival. Ms. Owens is a co-chair of the WGA Nonfiction Writers Steering Committee.


Getting Started in Docs

Joan Owens-Meyerson: Tell me a little about your backgrounds—are documentaries your first love, or did you come to them after having other writing experience?

Margaret Koval: I came to documentary from news, but docs are my first love. To me news was a nice way to segue into something more thoughtful and meaningful.

Mark Jonathan Harris: I started out as a journalist, as a police reporter in Chicago. I moved into filmmaking and have been making documentaries since the mid ’60s, so they are my most sustained love. I also write fiction and screenplays, but I keep coming back to documentaries because they’re the most interesting projects that I have a chance to do.

Barak Goodman: Documentaries have always been my first love, although I also come from a news background. I fell into documentary, grew to love it, and have been working mostly for Frontline for the last few years. I’ve done historical films on the side, but they’ve been what I love doing most.

Bridgit Terry: This is the first real documentary that I’ve worked on. As a filmmaker and as a woman, I was drawn to the information about women working in Hollywood in the teens and ’20s and doing what I’m essentially doing. So it’s a new love for me, and one that I enjoy tremendously.

Lyn Goldfarb: I started in documentaries from an interest in history. I began as an historian, and I got involved in film as a way to make history accessible to people.


Writing History

JO-M: What is the role of the writer in writing history docs, and are they different from other kinds of documentaries?

MK: Well, I haven’t written any other kind of documentary, but my suspicion is that they’re much different. There are those who go out in the field and shoot, then write and edit, but I’ve never done it that way. The historical documentary style that I follow is very much first the writer’s job. You’ve got this huge history out there that you need to turn into a story with a beginning, middle and end. You’re sifting through an enormous amount of information and characters, which I imagine to be different than a story that you go out and pursue.

MH: I’ve done both kinds of documentaries. It’s only in the last 10 years that I’ve been doing more historical documentaries, and I think the role is really the same. For documentary writers, the principle challenge is the structure, and even when I was doing cinéma vérité, as a writer it was, what’s the story? Who are the central characters? And sometimes you’re defining that in the process of shooting, but you’re asking the same questions: How am I going to organize this material? How am I going to make it accessible to audiences? What’s the focus here?

JO-M: Where’s the drama?

MH: Where’s the drama? Where does this scene go? We all know that many cinéma vérité films are made in the editing stage, but from my experience of making films that way, it really encouraged me to try to think about those questions as you’re shooting, so that when you got to the editing room, you had the story and you didn’t have to construct it.

BT: I was surprised, having jumped from dramatic writing to documentary writing, to find it was similar, in terms of having to get a structure down, get your material in some organizational form, and find a dramatic throughline. Initially, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s all going to be written in the editing room after we get the visual material.’ Creatively, you can’t do that; you have to have a framework before you even start the editing process.

BG: The real difference for me between writing historical and non-historical is the degree to which you can control and plan out what you’re writing, and not be shaped by it. The pieces I do for Frontline, I’m often rewriting. What you’re capturing is so unpredictable that it’s constantly dictating to you what you’re going to write, whereas with historical, one of the great pleasures of it is the degree to which you can really write and shape it. It’s just an ability to decide right away what the story is, who the characters are.


The Process

JO-M: Let’s talk about the writing process. Even before the film and the script, there’s the proposal.

BT: It’s a selling piece. Like everything else you produce, you need money and you need a distributor, so you need a selling piece. You need to make it dramatic and your ideas have to be compelling in order to interest somebody to air it and pay for it.

LG: You really look at the same elements: The proposal has to have a story, it has to be character-driven, it has to be compelling and it has to be visual.

JO-M: Let’s say you sell your idea. What would be the next stage for everybody?

MK: I think every case is different. On The Roman Empire, I was lucky enough not to get funded until my first applications, so I had to wait a year and a half to think about my material. From there the actual writing of the scripts followed very closely to plan. On my current project, my plan lead-time was much shorter, so I expect the scripts will actually deviate a good deal from the original idea. I think it’s important to let go of what you originally thought it was going to be and just let it be itself. Particularly with history.

MH: The entire process is a deepening process. People have said that films are written three times. You write the script, you rewrite in the shooting phase, and you rewrite again in the editing phase. That’s generally the way I work. I do a lot of my research. I write a script. I don’t pay much attention to the narration because that always changes. Then if the film involves interviews, you go out and shoot them, hoping that you’re going to find better stuff, and you usually do. Then you go back and look at the visuals, because when you first write the script, you’re in the process of doing your visual research, so you don’t know what exists. There’s a tension between what you expect to find and what you find, and you always find better things than you imagined, and there are things that you imagined you could find but can’t. It’s not until the final stages that I really pay attention to the narration. I’m writing throughout the entire process, and if everything works well, it gets better.

BG: I view the proposal stage as creating this vessel, and what happens the rest of the way is filling it out and making it concrete, and as that happens, it’s a journey. What you find will change what you had originally imagined, more or less.

JO-M: But with historical docs the change is a little less than with other documentaries?

BG: The change is a lot less. I don’t even write a proposal for Frontline. But with historical you can tell a story to your funder before you go out. But no matter how much you imagine or try to put words in peoples’ mouths, they always surprise you in wonderful ways, and they completely change the complexion of the film and send you off onto unexpected courses. That’s great.

LG: The other experience is when you’re hired when somebody else has written the proposal and received the funding. I did that on The Great War and The Great Depression. The film changes considerably once you start shaping it from someone’s initial conception to what the story will actually be.

BT: Writing is rewriting and discovering. One of the great liberating aspects for me in doing a documentary is the interview process, because you’re trying to get somebody to say something that you’ve written, then the person says something that changes your writing. When you edit those interviews, you have a transition into a whole new area, that maybe you were going to cover somewhere else, but it’s perfect the way he said it.

LG: We can’t write real life. That’s the great thing about documentaries. You can never script what people will actually say.

MK: Or you can be devastated by what they don’t say.


Words, Sound and Music: The Collaborative Process

JO-M: People still believe that if a script has narration, that’s what a nonfiction writer does—writes narration. Now, we’re talking about a lot of different things. We’re talking about using interview sound bytes as part of the story, we’re talking about story structure. But what about music and sound design? Mark, in your film on the Kindertransport, you had stills of broken windows and general destruction by the Nazis, and there were fabulous sound effects of windows crashing and breaking. That’s something, I think, that a writer does.

MH: Sound design is a tool that is often overlooked in documentaries because we’re so used to sync sound and cinéma vérité. The sound can be terrifically expressive aspect of it.

JO-M: And music, too. Are there times as writers when you get the music and see that it tells a story, and you drop narration?

BG: Part of writing documentaries is not writing: Getting out of your own way and letting these other kinds of elements come forward. I try not to rely too much on music because I think it’s a little bit of a cheat, but obviously there are moments where it’s called for.

JO-M: Then, do you consider working with composers or editors to be part of the role of the writer?

MK: Absolutely. The rhythm of the film, which so much drives the drama, happens in the edit bay with the editor. You think you’ve got it great, then you realize there’s a whole new edit with the music that either fails you or pushes you over the edge. So the writer has to know when to pull back and let the editing style, the cutting, the music fill or push you into the dramatic moments.

BT: In terms of putting the music and sound design on, so many documentarians multi-task. Is there a difference between the writer and the director here?

MK It’s a real collaborative process. Many of us are lucky to be able to function in both, if not all three roles —director, producer and writer. The line is very movable.

MH: You have to be involved all the way through because the medium is so changeable, so fluid. It doesn’t work just on paper.

JO-M: I guess that we as documentary writers are in the enviable position of being able to see it all the way through.