How to Plan an Unscripted Documentary

Posted by Tony Levelle on

Learn how to plan an unscripted documentary like a pro with this expert article.

How do you make a documentary when you have no script? I was faced with this problem when I shot my first unscripted documentary for a class in documentary filmmaking. We had the assignment of making an 8–12 minute unscripted documentary. I started by visiting a friend's farm and shooting some footage. I quickly filled up 3 one-hour tapes. Wanting to make extra sure that I had enough footage, I shot more, and more, and more. I ended up with 30 hours of tape.

Unfortunately I had a day job, and no time to log, much less edit all of it. In desperation I hired another friend, an editor, to look at all the footage and choose the three "best" tapes. Meanwhile, I was off at my day job, writing technical books for an Internet company so I could pay the mortgage and feed the family.

It was clear to me that I needed a better way to go about making an unscripted documentary. Filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman has been making successful unscripted documentaries for 30 years. I asked her how she did it. She began by telling me of how she made the award-winning documentary Why Do These Kids Love School?

My videographer, Peter, and I chose to spend our first day of shooting in the schoolyard of an alternative school. We were ready to record whatever happened.
Peter waded into a group of twenty nursery school students. Soon the children forgot about the camera. He filmed as they screamed with excitement, dunking fat brushes into cans of paint, bristles dripping with thick wet color as they painted their climbing equipment, and sometimes each other.
I didn't need to tell Peter what to shoot. He knew, intuitively, how to spot "the action." I watched as he followed a little boy with golden curls who was starting to cry. The child ran over to his teacher to tell her he was sad. She leaned toward him to listen.
As Peter came closer, the camera microphone picked up the little boy's words, "John splashed paint in my ear."
The teacher asked, "Did you tell him you didn't like it?" The boy shook his head "No," then turned toward the other little boy, who was now far across the schoolyard. Peter followed as the boy toddled over to the other child.
The camera microphone picked up his voice as he announced, with determination, "John! Don't splash paint in my ear!"
Later, during an on-camera interview the school's director told me, "We don't label children's behavior as good or bad, we look at what's working and what isn't working, and that makes sense to kids." Her statement explained why no one was reprimanded in the paint-splashing episode. When edited together, the interview and the unplanned paint-splashing episode graphically illustrated the school's approach to education.

Capturing the story in unscripted moments

Some filmmakers write a treatment, proposal and script before they begin shooting. Fadiman's approach is different. After some initial background research, she assembles a crew, contacts interviewees, and starts filming. She watches each day's footage, chooses the best clips, and allows the film's story to emerge.

She says that the key to this approach is to be ready for moments that can become the heart of the story as you are filming.

Fadiman cautioned that the absence of a blueprint does not mean grabbing the camera and running out to shoot whatever you see. She said, "It means, instead, finding a good idea; doing background research and putting together a supportive team; then, once you start shooting, opening yourself to the direction suggested by what you see and hear. This is how you allow your footage to tell you where to go, instead of following a predetermined script."

Fadiman's scripts develop gradually, in the editing room, as she chooses the best clips and rearranges them—all the while slowly building her movie.

Getting started with your unscripted documentary

When Fadiman holds Producing With Passion filmmaking workshops, the first question that people ask her is often, "If I don't have a script, where do I start?"

Begin with an overview

She tells her students to begin by writing a one-sheet description of the project. This description will not be perfect or final, but it will set the filmmaking process into motion. Briefly sketch your themes, story, characters, and the filmmaking style you would like to use. (A good way to start choosing a style is to list the names of a few existing films that use a style that feels right to you, for this film.)

After you've written the one-sheet description of your intended film, ask yourself:

  • Who do I want to interview?
  • What locations do I want to visit and perhaps shoot?
  • What activities do I want to capture?
  • What research do I need to do?

Who would you like to interview?

Think generously of people you might talk with. Make lists of whoever comes to mind. Some may be friends, and some may be strangers. You do not even need to know names. You can simply list them by position or title.

Name people who you think will know whatever it is that you want someone to talk about. Don't be shy, just free associate. As you make this list, choose people who intrigue you or who are experts. Be bold. Add to your list "the best authorities in the field."

Even if you don't interview these people, you will still need to know who they are. You may want to read their books, articles, or writings they've posted on the Internet. Include famous people, even if you don't think there's a chance in the world that they'd have the time or interest to talk to you. You never know, you might be able to get them. Even if they don't agree to appear in your film, they might act as consultants or write a blurb for your film.

Where would you like to shoot?

List the locations and landmarks that seem essential to your idea, as well as places that excite you. In every film, there are places that define the characters and the story. If you can film these places, they will give your project depth and power.

In the classic documentary Man of Aran (1934), filmmaker Robert Flaherty used the turbulent sea and rocky coasts of the Isle of Aran to define the lives of the people who lived on the island. The stark beauty of the island illustrated the strength and spirit of the people who lived there. The inhabitants survived in a place so bleak that even soil had to be created by backbreaking labor.

What situations or events would you like to document?

Think about the activities the people in your documentary do as they go through their daily lives. As you list situations that might be filmed, give some thought to the sequences of events. In Man of Aran, Flaherty films a whale hunt. He also films all the events leading up to the hunt, including the preparation of the boat, the coiling of the line, and the preparation of the harpoon. The sequence concludes with footage of the killing of the whale.

Think also about mundane tasks. Things like going to market, or drinking a cup of tea. Consider events that happen once a year, like a birthday, or once in a lifetime, like a wedding or a graduation.

When you make a list of these situations, be alert for the ones that seem to have the most "life." Such situations will naturally rise to the top of your shooting list.

Let the story evolve

With an unscripted documentary, rather than planning everything beforehand, you simply give yourself guidelines and let the story evolve based on the material. If you do your research and have a sense of the story you want to tell before you start shooting, you allow yourself to be open to surprises, making changes as you go.

Allow interviewees to "free associate" during interviews. They will be more likely to share ideas that feel alive to them. Open-ended interviews often lead to moments you couldn't possibly have scripted!

Fadiman's film, Moment by Moment, documents the remarkable healing journey of a woman named Molly Hale, after an auto accident left her paralyzed from the neck down.

In the film, her husband Jeramy describes his once-a-week overnight stays in the hospital when Molly was still wearing a cage-like metal "halo" that immobilized her head and spinal cord.

During his on-camera interview he said, "How do you make love to your wife in this cage? It was overwhelming. It was a kind of a surreal experience, but we were intimate in the way that we could be, and that was really important for both of us."

Speaking of his interview, Fadiman said, "How could anyone have scripted that! I had no idea people with severe spinal cord injury could have sex in the hospital under the cover of night!"

This clip, taken from a long, free-flowing interview, inspired Fadiman to cut together an entire scene about how Molly and Jeramy rebuilt their sexual connection after the injury.

Fadiman says, "If you decide beforehand what you want to happen you run the risk of missing what may turn out to be the best material!"

Key Points

  • You can produce a documentary without a script.
  • Shooting without a script requires thoughtful planning.
  • Unscripted documentaries may require extensive research and preparation.
  • When you shoot an unscripted documentary, the story is built in two stages:
    1. While shooting, and
    2. In the editing room. It is not built on a word processor.

Meanwhile, I still have 27 hours of footage on my shelf, taken on small farms in Ireland and Northern California. If you know anyone who needs some really good stock footage, let me know!

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →