It was November 2018 and Nanfu Wang had four weeks before picture-lock on her third feature documentary, “One Child Nation.” The film, which Wang co-directed and edited, had already been accepted to the 2019 Sundance Film Festival but wasn’t quite ready.
“I was debating and really struggling with what note to end the film on,” Wang says. “I needed a fresh set of eyes.”
Enter the documentary whisperer, Mark Monroe.
The University of Oklahoma journalism graduate has been the doc industry’s go-to guy for the past decade. His writing on the 2009 Academy Award-winning “The Cove” put him on the map.
“The Cove,” which received equity money from Impact Partners, was Louie Psihoyos’ first film.
“The Cove” producer “Fisher Stevens wanted to bring Mark on to help restructure the film,” says Geralyn White Dreyfous, co-founder and executive producer of Impact Partners. “At the time, Louie’s film was so linear and just straight storytelling. It was also a little in the weeds. Then Mark came in and really helped to clear up the story.”
When “The Cove” won the Oscar, Monroe had been working in the doc space for five years. His first feature doc job was for veteran nonfiction producer John Battsek, who asked Monroe to help restructure his Miramax doc, “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos.”
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“We had hit a creative [block] on that project,” Battsek says. “So I had a number of meetings with Mark to get a sense of his perspective on the story and on the process. What I found was that his take was refreshing, insightful and creative.”
While Monroe has never directed or edited a feature documentary, he spent several years working as a Los Angeles-based producer-writer-editor-director on television docuseries including “Beyond the Glory” and “Behind the Music.” Prior to that he wrote for news anchors at CNN in Atlanta. Throughout his time working in both cities, Monroe spent his free time watching DVDs.
“I would take the films that I loved and I would note card them out,” Monroe says. “I would write extensive notes on each card for every scene and figure out why it was there. What purpose did it serve?”
This practice, along with his day jobs, helped Monroe determine how to, as he puts it, keep people on the movie train.
“The train means the communal emotions of watching a film,” Monroe says. “You want to get people on the train and stay invested in the story. People fall off the train when they are confused or there’s a lack of clarity. The other reason people fall off the train is boredom.”
By poring over interview transcripts, watching rough cuts and speaking at length with filmmakers about their visions, Monroe helps by providing docu directors and editors with a story map.
“The story map gives everyone a direction to go towards,” Monroe says. “Of course the story maps that I write are never, ever perfect. They aren’t meant to be. They are only meant to put you in the right neighborhood or in the ballpark of an idea. Then once you’re in the middle of it, hopefully great, magical things happen.”
Monroe has provided veteran filmmakers including Sebastian Junger (“Hell on Earth”), Fisher Stevens (“Before the Flood,” “And We Go Green”) and Ron Howard (“Pavarotti”) with story maps.
He also frequently works with rookie directors such as Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”).
“I’m like a plumber,” Monroe says. “I’m just trying to diagnose what’s wrong or what I think is wrong and usually it has to do with engagement and clarity. That’s it.”
What Monroe can’t fix or straighten out is what he calls “the most important component of a documentary” — the characters.
“You can’t cast a great actor to be in a documentary, so great documentarians latch onto characters as much as they latch onto the story,” Monroe says. “I’ve worked on many films in which [the filmmaker] has an incredible story. Like one of those stories that you could really engage people with at a cocktail party. But then you get to the edit bay and the people who populate that story are not very charismatic. It’s a tough thing to tell a director, but it’s true that a character matters a great deal.”
Case in point is “Icarus.” The Oscar-winning Netflix doping documentary was originally about Fogel and the effects of using performance-enhancing drugs. Then the helmer’s research connected him with Grigory Rodchenkov, a key figure in Russia’s state-sponsored doping program in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“When Grigory came to the film, I knew it was going to be hugely popular because he casts a spell over you,” Monroe says. “We just had to get out of his way and figure out how to make the story make the most sense. But so many other films that I worked on don’t have a Grigory. They might have the same crazy kind of story but no Grigory. Those are the films I worry about.”
Battsek was concerned about Amir Bar-Lev’s “The Tillman Story” when he asked Monroe to join the project in 2008.
The film was three-quarters of the way complete and on its third editor as Monroe entered the picture.
“Mark really helped us by simply going back to our original, unedited interview transcripts,” Battsek says. “He helped Amir and the editor pick out the really important elements that we were struggling to find ourselves.”
The doc went on to premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival where the Weinstein Co. acquired it.
In addition to structure, Monroe helps filmmakers with tone.
“We brought him on for ‘Meet the Patels’ because Geeta and Ravi [Patel, the directors] were struggling,” White Dreyfous says of the 2014 doc. “They couldn’t get the film to land and then Mark came in and made a few suggestions that really helped make the film work in terms of the humor [the directors] were going for.”
Monroe’s role as a documentary writer has come under criticism by some in the field who argue that he is a glorified editor who takes writing credit on non-narrative films.
“A lot of editors can do what I do,” Monroe admits. “But what an editor really is supposed to do is to make each moment almost better than it was; to add stakes or consequence or context to each scene.”
Some editors can make moments better while also maintaining a film’s three-act structure. Some cannot. For those who can’t, Monroe takes on that role.
“If I remove that responsibility, that weight, then they’re free to do the thing they are actually the best at,” he says. “All I’m trying to do is free up the other players in the game to be better at the things that they’re meant to do.”
In other words, he is not a doc savior.
Monroe says part of the criticism against him could stem from the myth that docu filmmakers are penniless auteurs who do everything on their own. In reality, it takes a small village to get a doc made.
“Making documentaries is very hard,” Monroe says. “You don’t have actors and you don’t have a lot money. You also don’t have the tools and engagement that a lot of Hollywood films do. And so you’re trying to figure it out all the time.”
Battsek adds that the concept of a documentary writer might be foreign to some, but it’s a role that should be embraced.
“[People] need to get over themselves because we all need help with story,” Battsek says. “We can never get enough good eyes and brains on these films, so I’m all for doc writers.”
So is Wang, who worked with Monroe for five months on her debut docu “Hooligan Sparrow” and for four weeks on “One
“I enjoy arguing with Mark,” Wang says. “He makes me think about things I hadn’t or didn’t want to necessarily consider. Sometimes I ignore his notes, but he has been super helpful structurally.”