Research is an important step in the world of screenwriting and today, we shall discover more about it!
The Research Process in Documentary Screenwriting
“As a researcher, you need to combine the penetrating brazenness of the good journalist with the painstaking attention to detail of the Ph.D. candidate. You must be observer, analyst, student, and note taker. Over a period that can be as short as a few days or as long as a few months, you must become an expert on the subject of the film, a subject you may never even have known existed a few weeks before – not an easy task, but always fascinating.”
– Alan Rosenthal
If a screenwriter is already involved in the first stages of making a documentary, it is obvious that he or she will conduct the required research. After the research, the writer will become an expert on the subject matter. This research will reveal potential material that will need to be included in the shooting process. While the writer will also consider the target audience, the research will focus more on the context and the story’s characters.
The screenwriter must have a clear strategy. He or she should have already defined and narrowed down the documentary’s subject matter before approaching the research stage. The parameters of the subject matter will determine what needs to be researched. The writer then focuses only on material directly connected to the subject of the documentary. Let me give you a simple example. Suppose a screenwriter is working on a documentary about the impacts of technological progress on the process of making sugar, the writer will delineate an appropriate field of research. He or she will not waste time studying the uses of by-products of the cane industry, which is a tangential subject. But, remember that the greatest danger at this stage is being sidetracked by any topic not directly connected to the subject matter.
While undertaking research, a writer also aims to uncover information that is not common knowledge. A documentary about well-known facts and information is of no interest. The writer must search for something new, compelling, unusual or human about the story. The writer is looking for an angle, an unknown detail with the potential to make the story woven from the facts compelling and interesting.
Published material provides a wealth of sources for research, such as online databases, newspapers, magazines, diaries, letters, transcripts of events, interviews, archival records and so on. However, the writer needs to verify the validity of information and the credentials of these materials. They search for primary sources and originals. If a newspaper story references a police report, a good writer will find and use it.
Now, location or field research is another crucial aspect of the research stage. The screenwriter always tries to experience the topic or subject of the documentary in situ whenever possible. But why? That’s because location or field research allows the writer to experience the feel, mood and tone of the documentary’s subject. This direct experience provides the writer with information unobtainable through any other means. By physically going to the subject’s location, the writer becomes closer to the subject.
Screenwriters also visit any accessible places where they know shooting will take place. It might consist of climbing a mountain, visiting a prison or taking a boat trip. When in the field, the writer soaks up the world with an eye on the visual.
Finally, the writer must talk to people to learn first-hand information about the topic. Conversations provide the writer with multiple perspectives of a subject. Experts provide trustworthy facts but the ordinary people contribute a human value to a story. These informal interviews present an insight into the richness and breadth of the subject. The information gained from these interviews can supply the writer with a unique angle from which to approach the topic. At this stage, the interviews are not conducted to include them in the documentary. However, the writer identifies potential interviewees and their contributions.
By the end of the research stage, the writer has collected a significant amount of information. But, of course, he reviews and sifts through the collected data. The final step in the research stage is to identify what to keep and what to exclude from the documentary script. In this selection process, the writer ensures the information remains trim and relevant.
One thing that writers often do is take a step back from the project upon completing the research. As they work on other projects, the collected information is processed at a subconscious level. When the writer returns to this project, he is more likely to see patterns, characters and potential storylines emerge from the collected data. The writer then canvasses these elements of the collected data to develop a script. And that’s how a documentary script is created!
What do you think about the research process? Please share your comments!