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Get It Down on Paper? English Film Schools on Scripting for Documentaries

By Henry Lewes

'Hacer La Luna,' a film by Joost van der Valk, a student at The National Film School in London. Courtesy of The National Film & Television School/UK

Not so long ago, before the introduction of videotape, almost all documentary films made in England were shot on 16mm, and scriptwriting was mandatory. The high cost of the material meant that every foot had to be planned and a ratio of 5:1 was considered generous. Steely-eyed producers refused to allow directors to go on location before they had written a three-column script, with the first column describing the action, the second the camera movement and the third the sound. Nowadays, with video, a ratio of 30:1 is not uncommon and working out the final story seems often to evolve at the time of editing. So, has the traditional script actually vanished? And if so, what has taken its place? Upon visiting London's five top teaching institutions to interview tutors and a number of their recent graduates, I discovered many answers as to what is required to be written before shooting begins, but only one philosophy: teaching is about the development of ideas, not scripts.

"Well, the first thing to say about a script is that if it's something you've scripted, it's not documentary," says Dick Fontaine, head of the documentary department at Britain's prestigious National Film &Television School. "The whole point about documentary filmmaking is that you're on a voyage of discovery. So if you've written a script, you know where you're going and where you're going to end up. I would prefer to use the word ‘storytelling,' rather than ‘script.' And one of the major purposes of our two-year course is to inculcate the idea of storytelling. This is true for all the films students make while they are here, which include an observational one, a character study, a core moment of truth and one which tries to use visual language in a poetic way. Proposals are just a page, and treatments not more than two or three."

'Promised Land',, a film by Nora Meyer,  a student at The National Film School in London. Courtesy of The National Film & Television School/UK

When Fontaine discusses ideas for documentaries with his students, he first asks a number of questions: "Have they the obvious qualities of good storytelling? Is it a journey with a conflict and a resolution? Has it a strong personal element? And where does the filmmaker stand in relation to [his or] her subject? One has to take into account that the audience is asking, consciously or unconsciously, ‘Who is speaking to me? Am I being manipulated?' It's not like the days of Flaherty and Nanook of the North, when everybody thought it was absolutely real."

While Fontaine acknowledges the obvious differences between fiction and documentary, a sensibility for fiction helps in teaching documentary. "In fiction you hire out people to play your script," he notes. "In documentary you work with real people whom you have to convince that you are trustworthy. You have to get their trust before you get the audience's trust. But it's still all about story. So I employ writers with strong fiction abilities to teach documentary because they know a lot that documentary filmmakers don't know."

And what about the graduates of the National Film School? Simon Chambers felt driven to filmmaking by a need to share what he calls "interesting personal experiences," which sounds self-indulgent until he outlines the subjects he's tackled. One film is about Rio Tinto, a company against which he had formerly campaigned for its environmentally destructive mining. The personal element in the film lies in the fact that his grandmother intends to leave him Rio Tinto shares when she dies. This personal public face is also evident in another film criticizing the local council where Chambers lives for its incompetent, slovenly services. More complex is his film about a Bengali girl rejected by her family for having a white boyfriend, since Chambers admits he was also working out a personal problem of rejection through her. "I write down themes and try to work out ways of creating dramatic structures and hopefully take the audience on an interesting journey where they have certain hopes that I might try to fulfill," Chambers intimates. How does he submit his ideas to TV companies? "I just fire off e-mails to commissioning editors, matching my ideas to available slots," he admits. "And then I might get an e-mail back saying, ‘Send me an A4 page [standard size for office stationery throughout Europe] about it.' Then, just sometimes, they ask for a meeting."

From 'Wag the Dogma', a film by Emily James,  a student at The National Film School in London. Courtesy of The National Film & Television School/UK

Caroline Dees, another graduate of The National Film School, is from Ghana and, although she seems unconscious of it, her films share a common theme of questioning identity. One film looks at the emotional turmoil Jamaicans in London experienced when deciding whether to support the Jamaican or the British football team in the 2002 World Cup. Another film questions the motives of Dees' grandmother, a German-Jewish immigrant who herself dislikes immigrants. And a third film concerns an Irish-Caribbean man who single-handedly runs a chaotic advice center for people with housing problems, while local authorities take him to court in order to repossess his premises.

"In terms of script I tend to write down ideas for a narrative and a voiceover towards the end," says Dees. "In the beginning it's just jotting down ideas for individual scenes. Or I might make up a storyboard to find out where I want certain shots to be and how they might affect the message."

Goldsmith's College is part of the University of London, and is unusual in running a one-year, post-graduate course in documentary film and television. When asked how her tutor had helped in the development of her ideas for a film about asylum seekers, Wida Chatab, a student from South America, explains, "He asked questions like, ‘What do you want people to think after seeing the film? How can you focus your idea more clearly?' And he gave me a list of films to look at that seemed related to my own subject. Early on he made me express my idea in just two sentences. But I never made a shooting script. When I went out to shoot I just had a list of questions." Chatab's tutor, Tony Dowmunt, has a set of priorities in judging ideas: "Firstly, is it an exciting idea? Secondly, is it realizable in the time? As for writing, we do have discussions about how to put down a proposal if it is to be read by a commissioning editor, and we have sessions with commissioning editors from the BBC and Channel Four."

The University of Westminster runs a three-year bachelor of arts course. The first film students make, explains tutor Peter Hort, is a portrait of an individual. As for treatment and script, "It's very much in the form of discussion at this stage," Hort maintains. "I talk a lot about the role of the researcher and his relationship with the individual—how you portray an individual in terms of autobiography? Quite a few students, because they start research on the Internet, tend to get entranced by issue, rather than personality. So, for instance, currently I've got students researching transvestites, and the danger is that they will make a documentary about transvestitism, as opposed to the study of an individual person. They need to become perceptive about how an audience will see an individual once he is on screen, as opposed to being immediately in front of them. It becomes a group writing exercise, and I encourage them to put down their work in the form of a treatment.

"The next stage," Hort continues, "is to plan out the story, which means, above all, knowing what questions to ask. Phil Parker, in his book Screenwriting—The Art & Science of Screenwriting, has this idea of the ‘Active Question,' which I think means that early on in a film one should raise an issue that the audience wants to have an answer to. So the challenge is to find a subject that creates a sense of narrative interest leading to some sort of revelation at the end. But it can be something that comes to fruition during post-production because you don't always get the footage you expect. Sometimes you have to look at the material and find a story structure that will work. So to me the script is a two-stage process: pre-production and post-production—and they are both very important."

Peter Murlis, Emory Ruxgg and Nicholas Rutter are graduates of University of Westminster, each making a short fiction film with the help and backing of the other two. Rutter shot on Super-8mm and won a competition to have his film shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year. "The rules are that you have to shoot in chronological order with only one take possible and no editing," says Rutter. "I wouldn't have been able to keep the set-ups and the shooting order in my head. So a three-column script was essential. But in the case of a documentary I've started, about a filmmaker who's trying to set up a feature film, I don't have a script. I'm going to record a chat with her tomorrow to get some ideas flowing and then lots of ideas will come out of that. Hopefully it will be ongoing for a couple of years, and even if the feature doesn't take off it will still be interesting."

Murlis found scripting a real problem at university. "I could never quite put down on paper the ideas in my head," he admits. "When I gave a script to the lecturer he would say I needed to explain more clearly what I was wanting to do. I was trying to fit in too many ideas at once. But it's funny because if you've got an idea in your head it doesn't really exist until you get it down on paper. But if you can get the script right I think you're on a much more solid foundation for the film itself."

"If you do have a script and ask someone questions, you're controlling what you want them to say," Rutter cautions. "If you want to be honest and get someone's real character you don't want too much planning. You can bend the truth and make a film more interesting, but that's dishonest."

While a script may not be necessary, you do need to be able to describe your film vividly in treatment form—particularly if you apply for production funding. In which case, here is a useful checklist produced by script-writing consultant David Wingate as to what you should submit: A budget, a note on the filmmaker's experience, an argument for the importance of the project, why you are going to film, a table of contents, documentation showing you can get access to the locations, a title sheet, additional material, a single-page presentation and a covering letter. Sounds as though making the film should be quite easy if you can sort all that out!


Henry Lewes has been writing the last ten years for film magazines in Australia, Canada, Africa, Ireland, the USA and the UK.