Learning From Screenwriters
The Character-Driven Documentary Trend
As the recent box office success of films like Supersize Me ($11.5 million, 2004) and Mad Hot Ballroom ($6.3 million, 2005) lure more documentary filmmakers to seek a traditionally risky theatrical release, audiences are lured too, by the promise that non-fiction cinema can tell stories that are as dramatic and entertaining as feature films. This trend, which began when the acclaimed 1994 film Hoop Dreams began its $7.8 million run, has accelerated in the past five years with the success of films like Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Tupac: Resurrection (2003), and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). All of these well-crafted documentaries borrow from the plot devices of fiction films. Whether the story-driven documentary will eclipse the essay-driven format is debatable, but one thing is clear: commissioning editors from stations like HBO, the Sundance Channel and Showtime want stories.
Whereas screenwriters are free to dream up plot twists for a three-act story, documentary filmmakers must design scenes based on what was actually filmed in real life. These two constraints-“what was filmed” and “real life”–present special challenges. Whether a documentary editor is using a three-act storyboard or some other narrative design, how does she stay true to actual happenings when she must persuade and contort them into climaxes and plot turns? This article will outline the principles of classic three-act narrative structure as taught by professional screenwriters, and it will examine how documentary filmmakers can adapt these structural demands to the randomness of real life.
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