Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Getting to Sundance: Writing the Theatrical Documentary

Excerpts from an interview published online, http://www.albany.edu/news/20478.php, shortly before the feature documentary "Slavery by Another Name" premiered in competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

  There are a lot of misconceptions about documentary writing. One is that documentaries aren’t written, because people tend to think of film writing in Hollywood terms, where a fictional screenplay is completed before the cameras start to roll. How do you script real life or real interviews? So there’s a notion that documentary filmmaking is about showing up and shooting, or perhaps finding visuals to go with information. If there’s a writing credit, people think it refers only to traditional narration.

In fact, writing a documentary is similar to writing any work of creative nonfiction, in that it involves making narrative choices. Which stories will told? How will the work be structured? Who are the characters? What is the point of view? How will evidence be selected and presented? Every documentary film, to some extent, addresses these questions, whether or not a writer is credited. It's a collaborative process that begins well before footage is shot and, unlike Hollywood screenwriting, continues until the last days of editing. At that point, when the words and images are locked, you have a script.

Until then, you have a series of increasingly polished outlines and drafts that you revise to incorporate new research and incoming footage and other materials. It’s a lengthy process. As the writer on Slavery by Another Name, I worked for about a year with producer/director Sam Pollard in New York, co-executive producer Douglas A. Blackmon in Atlanta, and executive producer Catherine Allan in Minneapolis, and we’d all meet periodically in New York. The film elements include re-enactments, interviews with scholars and descendants, archival materials and images, and of course, music.

(full interview available online; view the entire film at www.pbs.org/sban)

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