How to write a documentary

WGA noms explain methods to form narration and arc

‘Soundtrack for a Revolution,’ written with Dan Sturman

“Part of it is how do you conduct the interviews. I was talking to (civil rights activist) Samuel Billy Kyles, and while we were tweaking the lights, he leaned over to me and said, ‘I can still feel the texture of Martin Luther King’s tie that day.’ And you realize the interview subject has gone back in time, and as writer and director, you try to set the atmosphere and try to capture that emotional truth.”

‘The Cove’

“‘The Cove’ was unique because I came in after the film had been conceived. Louie Psihoyos had spent 2 1/2 years getting it on tape. But he was struggling with how to make it into a story. Here, the trick was figuring out a way for the audience to have a rooting interest in Louie and his team. And so my role was to make Louie part of the film. And that got us off to a fresh start and we got to tell this adventure story, interweaving this human story with the overall big picture.”

‘Capitalism: A Love Story’

“I usually have an idea, and that idea never becomes the film. I usually just start shooting, and one discovery leads to another, and that discovery leads to another idea. Although I have a general idea of what I’d like to explore, I leave my mind open for the unexpected — and especially for those things that challenge my own set ways of thinking. I like to be surprised, and I know if I am surprised, the audience will be, too. … We shoot first and then write later. That seems crazy. It’s completely ass-backwards. And it’s the only way to do it.”

‘Earth Days’

“It’s all about telling stories with words. But it’s a lot more difficult if those words have to be found by other people. When I’m doing interviews, I’m editing the films in my head and making sure that the information that’s being delivered comes with some personal context. Because, like in a narrative film, you need character development; you need the audience to sympathize with that character, and through that character get some sort of satisfaction. I don’t see the need for narration. I think it comes between the audience and the story.”

‘Good Hair,’ written with Chris Rock, Jeff Stilson and Lance Crouther

“It was a lot of trial and error. As Chris was talking to people, we’d write down questions and slip them to him. And some he would take and others he wouldn’t. Chris is a very good interviewer; he doesn’t try to crowd out someone who is going to say something funny, interesting or poignant. Like Al Sharpton gets off a couple of good lines. But it was also knowing what he might say. I told Chris to ask him, ‘Can you touch your wife’s hair?’ And he responded, ‘The question is, ‘Is she allowed to touch mine?’ I knew in the back of my mind that he was going to say that, and Chris set him up perfectly.”

‘Against the Tide’

“The narrative that you start with is not the narrative you end up with. With this particular story, we started out looking to find parallels between Jewish refugees in the ’40s with stories today. Then we found an interview with (Jewish activist) Peter Bergson that Claude Lanzmann (“Shoah”) had shot and never used. That totally changed the course of the film. Once I had this interview, then I knew how to write my narrative, and it became more about this conflict that erupted in the Jewish community about what was the proper approach to rescuing the Jews of Europe.”

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