Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Secrets from the documentary workshop: How is a film not a book?

By workshop leader David Taylor, who leads a Starting a Documentary Film workshop beginning February 9.

People sometimes ask, “What does a writer actually do in making documentaries? Doesn’t the camera simply follow characters around and capture events as they happen?”

Well it’s never that simple, as I’ve learned in 16 years working as a documentary writer and sometimes producer. Even if the camera merely follows a person through her day, by the time you see the film someone has shaped how that day gets presented. The director and film editor are important, naturally, but typically the first hands shaping that story are the ones hammering it out on the keyboard. Those hands select which people to follow, help decide which scenes reveal their characters most tellingly, and choose how to convey their struggles, conflicting motives, tragedies, and triumphs.

Documentaries involve major writing. Before shooting starts, a research summary may guide how the director approaches the story. Then there’s the treatment, which maps the story’s visual path and helps get a film funded. A shooting script (yes, even for a documentary) helps the production crew work efficiently. After shooting, a paper cut strings together the best interview gems in sequence for the film editor. And if there’s narration, there’s a final narration script. In the workshop, which starts again in February, we go through all the phases with hands-on exercises and examples. (Participants from previous workshops have gone on to take technical workshops at Docs in Progress, finish their films, and receive a travel fellowship to make a mini-documentary abroad, to name a few.)

In each phase, we explore the peculiarities of writing for film instead of the published page. You see this difference in structure, for one thing. A film has a different skeleton, mainly because we take in a film along time’s arrow: viewers can’t turn back a few pages to remember who Jones is or where he hid the weapon. The story itself doesn’t have to be linear, but the one-way spool determines how a filmmaker signals what’s coming up and how she recaps key points.

That difference between writing for a film and writing a book hit home on my recent project, Soul of a People, about the intertwined lives of a few people in the 1930s, some who would later become famous and others not. It started as an article I published in Smithsonian magazine, grew to a book proposal, and then developed into a documentary film created with my partner, DC filmmaker Andrea Kalin. (The film aired on the Smithsonian Channel and is now on DVD; the book was published by Wiley.)

In both formats, I aimed to pick a handful of characters from the thousands of people who worked “holding up a mirror to America” during the Depression. Andrea and I both knew we didn’t want to make an administrative account. We wanted the flesh-and-blood tragicomedies of people who lived the story. I was drawn to poet Margaret Walker’s depiction of her youth in Chicago, and her statement that the Writers’ Project fostered “what nobody believed was possible at that time -- a renaissance of the arts and American culture, and some of the most valued friendships in the literary history of the period.”

For the book, I envisioned a prologue setting out the dramatic tensions faced by Zora Neale Hurston and other WPA writers, foreshadowing how they became controversial later in the glare of a Congressional investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Chapters would take readers from the East Coast to West and back, highlighting individual stories, friendships and their intersections, and leading to the climactic trial in Congress.

For the film, scripting and production grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed us to do research, location filming, and interviews with WPA writers, including the wonderful Studs Terkel and Stetson Kennedy, who worked with Hurston. Our choices shifted. How much context did we need to give viewers about the Depression? We always knew the film would require a distilled subset of characters and a visually dramatic storyline through this saga. Finding the right mix took a lot of work.

Ultimately the book followed an operatic cast of characters with a structure open enough to encompass the experience behind Walker’s statement. The film distilled that story to its dramatic essence, as we recognized that in 90 minutes viewers can invest their emotions in only a few main characters. Writing for film, you have to channel the story through its most evocative voices and images.

David Taylor is an award-winning writer and filmmaker on science, history, and culture. He has written scripts for documentaries broadcast on PBS, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, and other networks. His documentary Soul of a People: Writing America's Story , nominated for a 2010 Writer's Guild Award, and the book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America , named among Best Books of 2009. Most recently, Soul of a People, received several trophies at the recent Peer Awards, including best scriptwriting and the night's top honor, Best of DC. The film also won a CINE Golden Eagle award this year.

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