7 Reasons You Should “Script” Your Documentary Projects
In this article, we present some industry tips on how to “script” your documentary project before you actually dive into production.
Cover image by Kevin Pedersen.
Documentaries are supposed to be the cinematic search for truth. The genre’s cinéma vérité roots (which literally translates to “cinematic truth”) call for strict impartial or narrative manipulation. However, as any famous documentarian will quickly tell you, all that may be well and good, but it’s not how documentaries get made.
In today’s digital market, documentaries are as popular as ever — from Netflix’s true crime series to HBO’s features to countless film festivals dedicated to celebrating new and exciting projects, visions, and stories. And if you look at any of the above, you’ll find that each has been well-produced from the beginning — in many ways scripted to a point.
You don’t need to “script” your entire documentary project, but ample pre-production does help get your subjects, locations, and even narratives outlined and queued up before you begin filming. Let’s look at seven ways you can script your documentary’s game plan from the beginning.
1. Have a Story Going In
Truthfully, it’s probably much harder to not have a preconceived idea of what your story could be before going in than to have one. There’s no reason to fight it either; your documentary project begins the moment you get an idea, and if you embrace it, you can start working through your story from then on. This will influence how your research your story: how has it been told similarly before, what worked, and what didn’t?
Try writing out some short log-lines to brainstorm the topic of your documentary. What would be most interesting to audiences? What would be most interesting to you?
2. Grant Requests and Funding
As you grow as a documentary filmmaker, projects will get bigger and more ambitious in scope. With that growth comes added responsibilities and more time securing funding and winning grants. A major part of any pitch or grant request is to carefully detail your project’s story, scope, and budget. You can’t do that without having a tight and fast “script” of what your project is about, who it’s for, and how you plan to get it done.
Here are some good insights into applying for funds and film grants.
- 10 Insights to Keep in Mind When Applying for Filmmaking Grants
- Fund Your Project with the IDA’s Massive List of Grants
- How to Write a Documentary Treatment
3. Questions to get Answers
In narrative projects, actors read scripted lines. In documentaries, you may not have that level of control, but you can ask questions and offer prompts. You may even have answers in mind that you’d like to hear more about. A good practice when preparing to interview your subjects is to not only write out your questions but also take a stab at predicting their answers. They might not say exactly what you’re expecting, but it will help you develop a narrative and guide your interviews.
4. Shoot B-Roll with a Plan
Similar to shooting documentary footage and B-roll to accompany your interviews, you may not exactly know what your subjects will do or where they may go, but you can take a guess and lead them to certain spots or into actions. Try “rehearsing” some sequences with your subjects so you know where they’re about to go — this way, you can plan some of your angles and be ready to get the best footage possible.
5. Secure Locations and Contracts
During pre-production, you’ll have to plan your shoots. You can’t always just show up and ask for permission after the fact (or forgiveness for trespassing). You’ll need to be proactive about securing locations and upfront about getting talent releases and contracts from all your subjects. This requires presenting them with information about your documentary and at least a glimpse of the story it aims to tell.
Here are some free downloads for location and talent release contracts to keep on hand.
- Free Location Release Form for Film and Video Productions
- Free Location Fact Sheet for Film and Video Productions
- Free Talent Release Form for Film and Video Productions
6. Set Decoration and Props
By the same token, even once you’re on location, you’ll need to be prepared to decorate the “sets” with relevant items and props to help tell your story. If your subject needs to be doing a certain action, you’ll need to be sure to include a “prop list” before your shoot day to make sure they (or you) bring everything they need to perform.
7. Have a Narrative Backbone
Once you have everything painstakingly planned out, you can finally dive in and let your project develop. Just because you do all the leg work in the beginning doesn’t mean you can’t stay fast and flexible as your story unfolds. In many ways, having a strong backbone to anchor your narrative will help free you up to explore other veins. The trick is to know your story in and out while having faith in yourself as a documentary filmmaker to bring it into its best light.
For more documentary filmmaking advice and resources, check out some of these articles.