Interviews | New England | Screenplay Doctor | Screenwriting

Ask the Screenplay Doctor: Writing for Documentaries

1 Mar , 2014  

Written by Susan Kouguell | Posted by:

This month, Screenplay Doctor Susan Kouguell interviews four award-winning documentary filmmakers for their insight into how they write for their documentaries. Email screenwriter@newenglandfilm.com to have your screenwriting question answered in an upcoming issue.

Inspired by the upcoming all-documentary Salem Film Fest that runs from March 6 – 13, and my March 6 online class Writing the Documentary, this month’s column is focused on the process of documentary writing.

In documentaries, writer/filmmakers have their own work and creative processes; what works for one may not work for another. I talked with four award-winning documentary filmmakers: Allie Light (In The Shadow Of The Stars), Emer Reynolds (Here Was Cuba), Eric Steel (Kiss the Water), and Alan Zweig (15 Reasons to Live)

And I asked each one of them this question:

How does your process start or is it different each time? For example: Do you begin by writing an outline or with a list of interview questions? How much do you draft and how much do you leave to chance? And, what do you find are the pros of cons of both?

Allie Light

Writer, producer, director Allie Light won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for In The Shadow Of The Stars with her partner Irving Saraf. Her credits include: Rachel’s Daughters: Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer (HBO), Dialogues With Madwomen, (Emmy Award; Freedom of Expression Award, Sundance Film Festival), and Empress Hotel. Light’s film partner and husband, Irving Saraf, died in 2012.

‘Our process for making a film always starts with images. How to illustrate ideas, what scenarios, scenes, and longer scenes, or scenes joined together could be made from the story we had heard (or read)? Very often our first ideas stayed as the first scenes in the movie. When we were making Empress Hotel, about a San Francisco hotel specifically for homeless people, our first thought was–where did people live before they had the hotel? One of the first scenes in the movie shows a 70-year old African American woman living in her car. Only after we’ve thought the idea through in a filmic way, do we write our idea, often in the form of a premise, so we can clarify and simplify our idea. This is probably more cinema vérité than scripting.

‘When we set up an interview, we then sit together and write questions that we often don’t ask. We start with our own questions but tend to follow the mind of the person we’re interviewing. We want his/her POV, not ours. So I would say that we leave a lot to chance. If we forget an item, or later think of something else we want to know, we can usually go back and do a pick-up interview, which we have done.’

Emer Reynolds

Emer Reynolds, director and triple-IFTA-winning film editor, is based in Dublin, Ireland. With IFTAs for Timbuktu, Shameless, and My Brothers, other feature credits include The Good Doctor, The Eclipse, The Actors, Small Engine Repair, and I Went Down. Here Was Cuba is her documentary directorial debut, and her third collaboration with John Murray and Crossing the Line, following the multi-award winning Broken Tail and the recent Jackson Hole winner On a River in Ireland. (John Murray has directed over 30 films for some of the world’s leading broadcasters and has won numerous national and international awards and produced 70 other films with leading Irish and international directors.)

Here Was Cuba tells the inside story of the Cuban Missile Crisis and how in October 1962 the earth teetered on the very brink of nuclear holocaust. In the first major feature documentary on the subject, the film brings to life the three central characters Kennedy, Castro and Khrushchev and reveals how the world’s most powerful men fell into an abyss of their own making and what courage and luck it took to climb out again.

“After a very intense research period, during which John Murray, (my co-director) and I wrestled with getting a handle on the chronology of events during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a perspective on the complex and conflicting political judgment calls; we tried to map out the story and visualize as dramatic and engaging a film as possible. I then spent some time drafting a guide story script, which included the chronology but also the adjacent political, personal and philosophical ideas we wanted to try to illustrate and expand upon, and also a visual map of sequences and scenes we would plan to film. This ‘script’ served as a kind of road-map during interviews, and as a guiding light for research and archive sourcing, but then ultimately got torn up and thrown out, and revised and rejected, and improved upon and revisited endlessly, as the shoot and edit progressed. Not having a narrator, we were led by the interviewees, and followed our instincts and hearts during the cut.

“It’s important to be able to throw away the plan and to be open to a better one if you’re lucky enough to find it! For example, the opening of the film, when the US U2 pilot says how he looked down from 75,000 feet on the beautiful Island of Cuba and thought to himself ‘This place is dangerous to me,’ was destined to be the opening of the film from the moment the words left the lovely Gerry McIllmoyle’s mouth, but obviously was not in the original plan! With that in mind, we took quite a loose approach to the interviewing, and would respond to the contributors according to their answers and strengths, and give everyone, including ourselves, lots of room to expand, adapt and regroup! I think if one is too set upon the film as originally envisioned, one will not see the jewels when they appear! Come prepared and informed, then stay light and open, that was our principle.”

Eric Steel

Eric Steel is the director of the documentaries Kiss the Water and The Bridge. In Kiss the Water we see a cottage in Northern Scotland, where Megan Boyd twirls bits of feather, fur, silver and gold into elaborate fishing flies — at once breathtaking pieces of art and absolutely lethal. In every strand, in every fibre, there is a mystery, a fairy tale, a truth — waiting to be unraveled.

Kiss the Water began with an obituary — more specifically it began with me clipping the obituary of Megan Boyd out of The New York Times in 2001. She was a renowned tyer of fishing flies from northern Scotland. I was not a fisherman, had never been to Scotland, and cannot eat salmon. In 2001 I was not even a filmmaker. So I cannot, still to this day, tell you exactly why I would have felt compelled to post her obit on the wall above my desk — except that it seemed more like poetry to me than a post-mortem, like an invitation to a strange fairy tale I couldn’t quite make out.

‘The article stayed on my wall and I kept looking at it; a lot of things came and went in those ten years — I had become a filmmaker (I filmed The Bridge in 2004, edited it in 2005, and it was released in 2006). I suppose the most concise explanation I can give is that I decided there must be a reason why I practically knew the words of Megan Boyd’s obituary by heart — even if I didn’t know what the reason was — and that I should trust my instinct, my subconscious and just go.

‘Strangely — and I know it must seem strange to a lot of people, and to a great many documentarians — I loved the idea that I was making a movie about a woman I had never met, who was long dead, whom I could never talk to. She was as much a myth as a person. This was incredibly liberating for me, and exciting creatively. It became a process of imagination — I was always trying to be in her life as opposed to looking at her life.

‘The structure of the film, its DNA, if you will, came from the two conjoined practices — fly tying and fly fishing. The first, fly tying, is about winding and unwinding bits of feather and fur from any number of birds and animals, some exotic — like an Ibis or a Blue Chatterer — and some ordinary — like a squirrel or a deer — and twirling them together into another fantastic creature that comes to life when you submerge it in water. The second, fly fishing is about a journey into a private world and learning how to read the water, read the pools — and imagining what is going on underneath, where you can’t see, the subtext.

‘For me, Kiss the Water is less about the words that people say than about the space between the words, the way stories seem to echo in the landscape or inside an abandoned cottage, or ripple along the surface of a river. I generally wrote out a list of questions to ask interviewees, but then invariably never once looked at them. I was never trying to elicit specific answers or to guide people into telling me certain bits. The interviews often lasted quite a long time — and most of the pieces we eventually chose to use in the film came only when the interviewees and myself had reached a certain comfort level, where a certain kind of authenticity could be felt by everyone in the room, and later in the editing room. I don’t see that this is ‘leaving things to chance’ — I am a great believer in patience — it makes for great fishing and filmmaking! Certain things reveal themselves over time, in the practice of making a film, in the devotion to the craft, to the person who needs to see them.

‘There is no message to Kiss the Water, no point I had to prove. I suppose I could have asked for specific answers — but I was and probably always will be more excited by the riddles and unanswerable questions, in the unintended metaphors, in the feelings more than the ideas.’

Alan Zweig

Alan Zweig’s first feature length documentary Vinyl was the first documentary in what became known as his ‘Mirror trilogy’ – films in which he told collective stories and included his own. Since then he has made three more feature-length docs, in a similar vein, experimenting with ways to use himself as a character in the films. 15 Reasons To Live, is a series of 15 short stories, presented back to back. Each story represents one ‘reason’ from a list in Ray Robertson’s book of essays called Why Not: 15 Reasons to Live.

15 Reasons To Live is the first documentary I’ve made where I had chosen the subjects because of a particular story. That’s not the usual way I’ve made films. When I made my film A Hard Name, for instance, I knew nothing of the subjects’ stories except that they were ex-cons. I discovered their stories during the interviews. So, in a case like that, I never have a list of questions. And in fact, it’s become a bit of an operating philosophy with me, though at first it was just the way I did things. I feel like the intimacy I’ve managed to achieve with some subjects only occurred because I had no agenda and just wanted to have a conversation with them. I do think that very professional interviewers can achieve that same thing while still hitting all the points they wanted to get to, but I can’t do that. So for me, preparing a list of questions would just make me nervous and destroy the spontaneity that I think I need.

‘As I said, 15 Reasons To Live was a little different for me. I knew the stories I wanted the subjects to tell beforehand. So what I tried to do was get them to tell the story as far as I knew it, and then try to get them to add some colors that I wasn’t aware of. And even in that case, I stayed away from a list of questions. I knew the bare bones of the stories more or less; I didn’t need to write down a list of questions to help me try to get the bare bones. And once more, I just felt that if I try too hard to steer the conversation in a certain way, I won’t get the little gifts I think I’ve gotten over the years, from the people I’ve interviewed. On occasion, if I’m interviewing someone more than once, I will come back to them with one or two questions in my back pocket. But generally I go on faith that it’ll work better for me if I come in with nothing but my curiosity.’

For more information about Allie Light’s films see: http://www.lightsaraffilms.com/catalogue.html

This is Cuba (Emer Reynolds), Kiss the Water (Eric Steel), and Alan Zweig’s 15 Reasons To Live can be seen at the Salem Film Fest, from March 6 – 13 in Salem, Massachusetts.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and industry executives worldwide. (www.su-city-pictures.com). Susan wrote THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin’s Griffin) and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, (14.95) which is available at $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD.

On Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply).

Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog: http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog/.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and industry executives worldwide. (www.su-city-pictures.com). Susan wrote THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin’s Griffin) and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, (14.95) which is available at $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. On Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog: http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog/.