Insights and Observations

Mitigating the Risk of Documentary Filmmaking


Recently I was asked, “How did you script real life?” If something is scripted, it has to be fake right? Cringe-worthy reality TV shows probably come to mind where “real life” is captured by producers prompting, probing, and stoking emotional flair-ups for the camera. When something is scripted we assume it will feel fake. But this begs the question: What role does a script take in a documentary film? Can a documentary be scripted? 

The outdoor industry is filled with stories of bold heroes, sad tales, and adrenaline-fueled sports. When an individual sits down to watch a film they’re expecting to be whisked away into an immersive and engaging story that’s worthy of their time and attention. Telling a good story has inherent challenges that force many brands to think twice before green-lighting a film. Documentaries are notorious for taking years to produce and frequently run over budget. The number of variables that have to be aligned to make a successful film is staggering. Filmmaking is about controlling the controllables and adapting to variables. A script provides a path for the story but also provides clarity around the cost.  It informs scenes, scenes inform production days and production days create a budget. The script is like a beacon in an avalanche. It provides a golden path for a filmmaker to follow in the nebulous art of filmmaking. But the question still stands: Is it possible to script real life without sacrificing authenticity? 

It’s possible, but it requires copious amounts of listening before the cameras start to roll.

For the sake of the length of this article, let’s assume a few things. The creative brief is done, the budget has been set, the concept for the film has been agreed upon, the concept supports the goals of the brief, and the characters have been chosen. It should be worth noting that the following method only works for stories that are in progress or have already happened. If the events you’re documenting have yet to happen you’re in the Wild West. It’s only through intuition and determination that you’ll claw yourself out of the hole you’ve willingly jumped in. 

 Documentary films are created in the editing suite. Steve Jobs said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward…” The same is true for many films, only by committing to create the film does the story reveal itself in time. The key to navigating around this challenge is to tell a story with an end in sight. While the emotional journey of your character doesn’t need to be known, it is necessary to have a line in the sand that will end production - the obstacle of the film must be known.  What is your character working to achieve or overcome?  If the obstacle isn’t known, it’s still possible to script parts of the story but the brand must be willing to accept the unknown from a cost and time perspective

Many times the story of a documentary is discovered while filming primary interviews, however, if time and budget don’t permit multiple rounds of production the story must be known before cameras start to roll. Here’s our process at Port Side:

1. Conduct Pre-Interviews - The first step in the scripting process is to get to know your characters. Jump on a call, ask them questions, listen, and use a transcription tool to record the conversation. Ask them to tell you their story from beginning to end and leave no stone unturned. There are a few things to look for:

  • Plot - What are the events in time that make up their story
  • Articulation - Can they tell a good story?
  • Supporting Characters - Who are the supporting characters that could be used for additional interviews?

2. Break the Story - With these details in hand start plotting the story beats in a visual medium that allows you to stand back and evaluate the film from a fifty-thousand-foot level. Through this exercise, you’ll realize what you’re missing. 

3. Have Another Conversation - Get back on the phone, record the call, and continue to ask questions. Seek to not only understand the plot points of the story but dig deep to understand:

  • Emotion - How they describe their emotions
  • Details - Ask them to describe details of events. A well-spoken character can transport an audience in time and space through details.
  • Inflection - A good interviewee will be able to articulate their story with not only their words but the inflection in their voice.
  • Scenes - The more you get to know the character the more you start to visualize their life. With this in mind, it becomes possible to start brainstorming scene ideas.

4. Repeat - Repeat these steps until the story takes shape 

With hours of transcripts in hand now comes the hard part. Use the copy from the transcripts as placeholder dialogue and write scene descriptions based on the conversations.  Follow a scripting format and embrace the discomfort, write, take a break, and write some more. Eventually, the script will take shape and at this point, it’s respectful to share the script with the character and walk them through it. Ask them: “This is what I’m thinking, but I need you to tell me if I’m telling your story the right way.

With the story approved and the client excited, pre-production can now officially start. Locations can be scouted, dates locked, and shot lists created. This process of writing can take weeks or months. It depends on the scope of the project and how many characters are involved. While the script will guide the majority of the film, deviations from the script are encouraged because real life hardly fits on paper. 

The reason this scripting process leads to a different outcome than reality TV (amongst many) is that instead of pushing the characters to an outcome, they lead you to the story. While the filmmaker holds a creative license to mold and shape the story in the best way they see fit, the responsibility of storytellers is twofold: 1) We must uphold the integrity of the story  2) We have a responsibility to tell the story in an engaging way that honors the time of the audience. These two responsibilities can be at odds with each other but a great story is made in embracing the tension.

-Cole Heilborn