Bernard Curran has written a really useful hand-guide to documentary filmmaking in his book, Documentary storytelling for film and videomakers, Burlington: Focal Press 2003. I have only read the extracts we were provided with but this looks like a useful book to work my way through.
Some key points from this reading.
Finding the story
Documentary filmmakers do find their stories in many different ways. A key question that I’ve been asking even before I considered making documentaries is how much do filmmakers really know about what they are going to shoot and what their story really is before and while they are shooting. One documentary that really raised this question for me was Andrew Jarecki’s 2002 film Capturing the Friedmans. When I watched the film on its release I wondered at the time at what point did Jarecki realise he was going to be making a film about a family embroiled in charges of paeodophilia rather than a documentary about a well known clown (David Friedman, brother of charged sex offenders father Arnold and brother Jesse Friedman). Curran states that it was while Jarecki was making the film that he discovered through a character he was filming that Friedman’s father and brother had been involved in paedophilia while conducting home-based computer classes (Curran, P 30). Jarecki confirms this in a FAQ for Urban Cinefile where he states:
“I first interviewed Elaine Friedman, the mother of the family. At one point I had asked her a question, and she drifted off for a moment, sort of lost in a memory. Then she stopped herself, saying: “I don’t know. I .. I can’t say too much about it. We were a family.” The idea of a woman in her 70s speaking about her own family in the past tense, was strikingly sad. I didn’t know how this family had ceased to be a family, but I was determined to understand it. It was that phrase “We were a family” that stayed with me and drove me to do the work, to learn the story, to spend time with the family and get to know them.” Urban Cinefile.
This is a quite extreme but interesting example of how the process of researching or even filming can uncover the core of the story. It’s also a good example of what the spark is that makes you decide to make a story. Curran points out however that finding the story is not in fact a random thing but that in the process of filming or editing:
‘…he or she alters the story’s focus or more likely, its structure during production and post-production.’ (Curran, 2003, p. 28).
Developing the story – how much do you write?
Curran answered another question that I haven’t found an answer for which is how much do you write before you begin shooting? And the answer seems to be that there’s no answer. Well more correctly, the answer is it depends on a range of factors. Developing a documentary can require one or all of an outline, a treatment, script or a shooting treatment or shooting script (Curran, 2003, p. 35). What I found useful about Curran’s discussion of this is that in most cases full scripts are only used when shooting a recreation documentary or docudrama (Curran, 2003, p. 35). Also that films have been made (and funded) based on only a basic description. The example Curran gives in this case is HBO funding the film Lalee’s Kin on a basic description. My experience in seeking funding in Australia is that a high level of writing must be done to receive any level of funding with a treatment being the minimum requirement. Examples of funding requirements can be found at Screen Australia and Film Victoria.
Curran Bernard, S. Documentary storytelling for film and videomakers, Burlington: Focal Press 2003