"How Can I Know My Story Ahead of Time? It's a DOCUMENTARY!"
I was lucky to guest teach this week back at Syracuse University (I taught their students here in Los Angeles this past spring, but hopped into three classes when I was back there this fall)
And I was most able to talk about what I talk about in the workshop in a sophomore level class of Military Professionals now learning documentary filmmaking. (SU has a special program for them)
SO - there I was laying out the essentials of structure - the inciting incident, the decision the hero can't go back on - etc. - all with the emphasis on what the Hero WANTS and what the HERO needs (outlined in earlier posts) And a guy asks -
"But it's a documentary - I don't know what happens yet."
Well we are officially leaving the world where you can be a filmmaker and say such a thing. Of course there are times in the filmmaking process where you are gathering information, trying to choose who you will make your film about - and structure - or should I say TRANSFORMATION is essential to this choice. Because here is the deal: sure you can choose something that is interesting and go shoot it and cut it into a piece - or you can choose something that is a life or death situation (actual or metaphorical) but - why not have both? Why not select as a subject a person who is hurtling towards an inevitable transformation - or if it's historical, find a subject with a clear transformation or simply be curious about the life and death questions and transformations of the subject you've already chosen?
What I have found working in my workshops is that everyone, coming in with a wide swath of subjects, and genres, working in different styles, in different phases of their work (not started shooting at all some having shot for nearly a decade) all could find a transformation. Even the pieces that weren't about individuals - yes we even found a transformation for our film on the Freeways of Southern California.
Okay - so what is the key to finding a transformation? Here is an easy way to do it:
What thing that seems like "life and death" to the hero do they want that they can never get? Do they want to be as famous as Eminem? Do they want to rescue all the Polar Bears? Do they want Peace and Equality for ALL? What will they risk their life for, their loves? Do they want the attention of a narcissistic parent?
Do you see where I am going with this? Yes it needs to be real, but it needs to be on the side of IMPOSSIBLE - and you as the author/director can see that.
Now the flip side of the want is the need. So If the Hero wants to be as famous as Eminem, perhaps her need is to life an authentic hip hop life no matter what recognition she gets. If He wants to rescue all the Polar Bears, perhaps his need is to focus on this one polar bear family he can help. For our Hero who wants the attention of a Narcissistic parent, their need might be to give themselves the attention they didn't get - or better yet, give their child the attention they didn't get.
Many times when, in my workshops I first ask filmmakers to list the "WANT" of their hero, they list nice achievable things, "He wants to understand his mother", "She wants to help the school" But these are subjects that are transformed already - what we need to key in on is that irrational Want - "She wants all kids to have equal education in Los Angeles" Now we are getting set up for the journey....or looking at "Waiting for Superman" (spoiler alert) One of our heroes wants is: "She Wants her child to get a good education" simple enough....but the filmmaker most surely knew this child would not win the charter school lottery.
"Well this sounds horrible" I can hear that student saying, "So all we do is choose people failing at going for the impossible?" No, you are just taking us on a journey where your subject gets what they need: The hero might not be able to build his theme park - which he thought would seal his place in theme park eternity but a guy he never knew got obsessed with his theme park and is getting the word out anyways..... See what I'm saying?
So when you come to The Documentary Insider Workshops - this is what we do: run your story/footage/proposal though it's Want and Need possibilities and help you evolve into the clarity for the want and the need for your film - they aren't written in stone, but until you adjust your course, they provide the north star for shooting and editing your amazing film.
Please leave comments here on what you think your want and need might be, or feel free to email me at email@example.com
Workshops are ongoing, we have a class going now on Thursdays at 10:30, and will be starting an evening class as well.