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Writing Documentaries

By Adam Beechen

A stack of screenplays.

A recent issue of THE JOURNAL (Writers Guild of America West, August 1996 ) featured the important article "Documentaries Exposed: Writing Real Life " by Lisa Chambers, with six writers of documentary discussing the reasons they chose to work in nonfiction, how the programs are written, where funding is obtained and the growing popularity of documentary (the writers are Joan Owens, Barbara Jampel, Carl Byker, Carol Fleisher, Jim Milka and Melissa Jo Peltier). As a "sidebar " to the lively discussion were quips from contemporary filmmakers whose documentaries have recently attracted considerable attention, and these comments are excerpted below, with the kind permission of the Writers Guild.

(The Battle Over Citizen Kane)

On writing documentaries:

"I'm always writing myself into a corner. When I'm having trouble with my writing, it 's because of insufficient infor­mation. All the facts and words won't help you if you don't have something to say.

"I'm a journalist by trade, so I tell nonfiction stories for a living. Television lets you tell a story with kind of impact that you almost can't get from the printed page. There's an immediacy and a synergy between the words and what's on the screen."

(Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern )

On where ideas come from:

"They range from ideas you get reading the paper, or meeting people, or ideas you have and then when you start meeting people in association with that, they kind of dictate it to you.... The kinds of documentaries we like best are about real people living real lives.

"Troublesome Creek is a film where there wasn't a research process per se. We were just filming people living their lives. These aren't fact-based films, they're real-life films."

(Troublesome Creek)

On making a documentary about her own family's struggles:

"There was really a plot to this film, in that it was a year in the life of this family, and we knew what event s were going to be really important during that year. But the little events in between were a crap shoot.

"In some ways this was a lot like writing dramatic film in that there had to be some poetry in it for it to work. I like to write big, cover a lot of ground, and work down from there. I'm basically an editor at heart. I wrote a tremendous amount that never made it the film."

(The Fire This Time)

On coming to his documentary projects:

"I've sought out pieces. Documentary filmmakers are always notoriously broke. You make a million phone calls, hoping you hook up with someone that needs to fund a piece on a certain subject at that moment. People hear about your interests on subjects, and they seek you out. Or you work with someone who recommends you later. Mostly we get our work in the traditional sense of word of mouth, association with subject matter or blind luck."

On the conflicts inherent in making documentaries:

"You never know your subject. To really make a good documentary, you have to be open to discovering the nature of the subject during the filmmaking process. Sometimes you don't know what your film is about until it's done. The conflict comes when you're trying to get funding, and your sources want the script ahead of time, and that diminishes the scope of the project."

(Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream)

On research:

"I had the benefit in the mid-1970s of studying in England With some of the great documentarians of all time. The three things they taught me that came through the most strongly were research, research, research. The time comes when you've done enough research to pitch and sell a project, but you've never done enough to say it's complete. There's always new things you're learning about your subject."

On choosing his subject:

"Hank Aaron represents the second generation of black ballplayers. We chose him first because he broke Babe Ruth's home run-record. Second, during his quest to break the record, he received more pieces of negative mail, including death threats, than any other athlete in modern times.

That says something about America that a man so gifted could be hated for pursuing the accomplishments of a near-mythical figure. His perseverance was truly remarkable, and in a real way, he shouldered the burdens of his race. He did a lot in his own quiet way to inspire and open doors."

(Jim Dine: A Self -Portrait on the Walls)

On making documentaries:

"The way I see it is that documentary filmmaking is an editing process, from the beginning of research to the point the negative is finally cut. Or when you come out with your finished product. To that extent, much of the time you're accumulating material, you're aware of the material that 'is good or isn't."

(Spokesman, NEH)

On funding cuts:

"NEH grants almost function as seals of approval that documentarians can take elsewhere as leverage to gain other funds.

"In 1995 and the years prior, the money allowed for media projects was $ 10.5 million. In 1996, the money allocated was $3.8 million. In 1995 and before, we received 200 documentary applications per year, and we funded about ten percent of those. In 1996, under our new constraints, we've only received 115 applications, and we anticipate being able to fund ten percent of those.

"We've suffered a 36% budget cut from last year to this. In fiscal 1995, the public programming budget was $24 million. This year it was $12 million. So the critiquing and winnowing process is more severe than ever before because there's less money to go around."

(The Shadow of Hate)

"The documentary can be separated from the fictional film in one very important way, in that it's more of an inductive-deductive process. If you do it right, the script is not as dictating. The process keeps changing as the material in front of you tells you new things. The finished product often looks very little like what you intended when you started."

On the difficulty in making documentaries:

"I've often gotten assignments and wondered how the hell could do it with the material available, which is either too much or too little... There's no art without restrictions, and without restrictions art would probably fail. For me, those restrictions can be that people come to me with a project, and I have to work within the constraints the story provides."

(One Survivor Remembers)

On the creation of Survivor:

"Gerda Weissmann Klein's testimony is part of the Holocaust Museum's permanent exhibit. We took two interviews of her, one in 1992, the other we shot in 1994, and we assembled them into a 40-minute narrative. We broke up different sections of those stories with cards that gave information about what Gerda was talking about. The only writing involved was the cards that come upon between Gerda's stories. Our idea was to contextualize without intruding at all on her narrative. Her gift is to relate memory with an emotional connection, and yet with a dignity that I've never seen before on film. We wanted to create a sense that she was taking the viewer on a tour through her memory."

(Frank & Ollie)

On why he makes documentaries:

"It's an intensely personal thing. There are two types of people who are making nonfiction films. There are some who have a journalistic streak in them and see themselves as reporters, and others who see life as stranger than fiction and try and find ways to tell real stories in a dramatic fashion. I myself am driven to the latter.

"I've always had an interest in making films. Ironically, it's always been easier for me to make the films I want in a nonfiction fontana than in fiction films, although the more films I make, the more I find myself gravitating toward a narrative style. As my vocabulary as a filmmaker becomes more diverse, I find myself more interested in interpreting reality rather than presenting it. You wind up having to make films with a stronger and stronger viewpoint, which isn't necessarily a bad thing."

On the difference between narrative and nonfiction film:

"It 's all the same river, it just depends when you dip your bucket in."