For these writers, a doc script is an art unto itself
It’s not all talking heads and raw footage. Since 2005, the Writers Guild has honored those scribes who write the screenplays for documentaries. But as six of this year’s nominees tell it, writing a doc script is an art unto itself and like no other.
“TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE”
Written by Alex Gibney: The torture practices of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay are examined through the profile of an innocent Afghani taxi driver who is tortured and killed.
Gibney: “In the beginning, I sit down and write an outline with the knowledge that I’m going to completely throw it away. The material takes you, and if you don’t go with the material, you’re screwed. At the same time, those initial written treatments are helpful: They are the kind of discipline you need so you don’t shoot everything. With ‘Taxi,’ I wanted to follow the story of this guy who got murdered and use that story to weave in a larger story. At the end of the editing process, the structure of the story had gone through some huge changes. For example, at one point we had a huge structural problem with the Guantanamo section. It was so big that it just stopped everything dead. We had to figure out an artful way to split it up. Not every documentary has narration, most of mine do. I usually write it at the very end (of the editing process). I write to picture.”
Gibney won the WGA doc award for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2006).
“THE RAPE OF EUROPA”
Written by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen: Before and during World War II, Nazi Germany plunders Europe’s great works of art.
Cohen: “We applied for a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. They require that you turn in a full script of one act or one hour or some segment of the film. So we were in this position to write a fantasy script. Ironically, the film turned out to be very much like the original script.”
Berge: “(That first script) was a fully imagined script based on Lynn Nicholas’ book (1995’s “The Rape of Europa”). We imagined what people might say based on pre-interviews and Lynn’s book. We wrote narration. It was like writing a script to be put into production. It evolved, of course, as we continued to research and look for contemporary stories to breathe life into the history. We would find stories that steered the script, often from historical eyewitnesses whom we didn’t know in the beginning. We modified the script to accommodate those. The final film deviated in details from the original script.”
Cohen: “Many documentaries don’t have any writing, or almost none. This film relies on good writing, which is communicated by (actress) Joan Allen. Narration can breathe life into a documentary – if it is good.”
“THE CAMDEN 28”
Written by Anthony Giacchino: The Camden 28 are Vietnam War protesters who intentionally had themselves arrested and imprisoned.
Giacchino: “I had an outline in the beginning. That outline exists on index cards and then goes into transcripts, and I pull things out to tell the story. In general, the outline remained the same. I had specific questions. If it changed, it’s because I had to take things out. I just didn’t have enough time. There’s no narration in the film. The story is told by the people who are interviewed. In many ways, it is much more difficult to put your film together that way than to have written a few lines of narration. I spent hours thinking, ‘How am I going to convey this message?’ You have to go through all the interviews. The script is formed as you make (the film). It’s more fun that way, but it is more difficult. I was lucky to have the main participants; they were still alive, so they could tell their story. I really relied on them. These people let me sit with them for five hours.”
“NO END IN SIGHT”
Written by Charles Ferguson: The Iraq War turns into a fiasco from day one, with no occupation plan in place to run the country after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Ferguson: “There wasn’t anything that you could call a script in the beginning. I did write a couple of documents, which you could call treatments or outlines. They structured my thinking about what the most important issues were and the questions that I should ask people. When I came back from Iraq and had finished filming, I wrote a couple of documents that provided the structure of the film, including some specific selects I wanted. Two editors readied my documents and went through all our footage. They pulled selects, and produced a 5½-hour assembly, which was their first draft that included the best things and a rough order to put them in. We’d go back and forth between the written documents and the footage and see what actually did and did not work, and then I would go back to the documents. We alternated between visual and written. I wrote the narration as we edited. We’d come to a segment and say, ‘Well, put this in, and we need some narration on this subject,’ and I’d write it.”
Written by Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman & Elisabeth Bentley: In 1937, Western expatriates save thousands of Chinese from being murdered by the invading Japanese army, which had gone on a killing spree in Nanking.
Sturman: “(The finished script) is pretty consistent with the outline we put together. This is a historical event, which is 70 years old. A number of documentary filmmakers go in and shoot as things unfold. In that case, you can never anticipate what a film is going to look like. Because we were looking back, we could be more prepared. Our film had two components: (The first was) the pure documentary where we did interviews in China and Japan with the survivors and the soldiers. We did have a series of questions, and had pre-interviewed people. The other component was thousands of pages of letters and diaries from the Westerners. We did a staged reading (of that material) with actors to bring to life the Westerners. We went through thousands of pages and whittled it down to a narrative in which the Westerners described their experience. There is no voiceover. The immediacy of hearing from people on the ground creates a drama that you don’t have when there’s an omniscient voice speaking.”
“Sicko” writer Michael Moore is also nommed for a WGA doc award.