Writing for documentary is a complex area. Natasha Gadd gives us an insight into the oddities, challenges and benefits of the craft.
There are no templates for writing documentary treatments, no pre-given formulas. It can involve a script (not unlike a fictional narrative script), a story outline, a treatment, a creative brief or an audio-visual breakdown.
In many instances, the approach will be dictated by broadcasters or funding agents who require a written document outlining the structure, subjects and visual approach to the film. Given the written form does not have the luxury of sound and image to enhance the story, the documentary treatment needs to work extra hard to engage and compel the reader.
When writing the treatment for our first feature length documentary, Words From the City – a documentary about a number of Hip Hop MCs in Australia co-directed with Rhys Graham, I felt quite unnerved writing about characters and events prior to actually filming with them.
Given the written form does not have the luxury of sound and image to enhance the story, the documentary treatment needs to work extra hard to engage and compel the reader.
The development process made this somewhat easier as it enabled us to film some preliminary observational footage and interviews with the subjects. This, along with research into the subjects and the topic, enabled us to create a written document that gave the stakeholders of the film some sense of how the documentary would take shape. As an observational documentary filmmaker, this felt anathema to the idea of documenting real life events as they unfold before the camera.
Looking back on the process, I think we invested a disproportionate amount of time and resources trying to create a great document on the page than to create a guiding document for the actual shooting and editing of the film. This was disadvantageous on two levels: one, it put enormous pressure on us as filmmakers to construct a riveting story for the page; and secondly, it set up a high expectation in the stakeholders for the documentary to live up to the written treatment.
Writing to guide the process
With my most recent documentary, Anatomy – Muscle, about an itinerant performance troupe, Acrobat, I wrote a treatment that would not only engage the stakeholders but would also provide a realistic guide for the shooting and editing process.
From the early development phase, I knew that the film would need to explore the idea of strength and fragility in the human body. For this troupe, these ideas inform not only their show but also their way of life.
Once the individual characters arcs were established, I needed to find the story and structure.
Despite looking the picture of health, the three members of the group have all been confronted by the fallibility of their bodies. Prior to their last national tour, Simon snapped his achilles in a routine training session resulting in a complete nervous breakdown. His partner Jo was, at the time, struggling with exhaustion and depression following the birth of her youngest child and Mozes, the third member of the troupe, had been living with HIV and the very real threat that his body could one day fail him.
Once the individual characters arcs were established, I needed to find the story and structure. Given the transient nature of the troupe, I thought that a physical journey charting the tour would compliment the more existential journey the film was exploring.
The edit was no easy feat as we still needed to shape the character arcs as well as the overall story.
Whilst this significantly fed into the treatment to provide a sound basis from which to commence the shoot, I still undertook an observational approach to filming to allow for unpredictable moments to unfold before the camera.
Despite putting all of this planning in place, the edit was no easy feat as we still needed to shape the character arcs as well as the overall story.
Looking back on the footage from Muscle, I realized that I needed to construct a story and character outline for the film with the footage I had shot, not with what I had written about in the treatment. I also realized that I needed the characters to represent a different facet to their complex relationships with their bodies.
Whilst some observational filmmakers would never even write so much as a synopsis prior to filming, the writing process has become an invaluable part of my documentary filmmaking process.
Fleshing this out with editor Andy Canny, we worked out that Jo represented the emotional relationship an acrobat has with their body as she become increasingly torn between the needs on her body of both her children and her work. Simon represented the mental burden of injury, and Mozes the physical challenges of preventing the HIV from destroying his immune system.
Once we had worked out these basic character journeys we could approach the edit with a renewed and consolidated idea of the story that still honoured the premise of the original treatment but that, most importantly, honoured the actual footage that was captured.
Revisiting some my favourite documentaries – particularly the observational films from the Direct Cinema moment – I am reminded of how they utilised the devices of narrative fiction film to create an engaging and compelling story.
It is story that motivates the viewer to continue watching.
The work of the Maysles Brothers (pictured below) is particularly successful on this level with their films setting out to have all of the character development, conflict resolution, tension and plot of a fiction film.
Whether creating a character based documentary like Grey Gardens about an odd mother-daughter relationship or an event driven documentary like Gimme Shelter about the ill-fated Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, it is story that motivates the viewer to continue watching.
Like fiction films, these documentaries create a sense of intrigue prompting the viewer to ask, “what happens next?”, “how will story this turn out?” and “will the subject/s get what they want?”
Some observational filmmakers would never even write so much as a synopsis prior to filming. For me though, the writing process has become an invaluable part of my documentary filmmaking process.
Rather than stifling the creative process, I feel that it has enabled me to be more focused on capturing footage to enhance the story rather than searching for the story whilst shooting.
The important thing is to be responsive and open to those spontaneous, unforeseen moments that give a meaningful insight into the lives of the subjects and the worlds they inhabit. Those moments that, when captured by the delicate observations of the documentary filmmaker, transport us on that serendipitous journey Maysles refers to “so for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual”.
What a privilege it is to not only have that experience as a viewer but as a documentary filmmaker.
Natasha Gadd is a Melbourne based writer and director whose recent works include the AFI nominated documentary, Words From the City, and Anatomy – Muscle, awarded Best Documentary at the 2008 Australian Directors Guild Awards.
Cleo Mees is a Sydney-based writer, filmmaker and dancer. With a background across several disciplines, her interest is in finding out how these different disciplines can intersect and inform each other.