I’ve seen a lot of documentaries over the years. After awhile they all start to run together and you begin to pick out patterns. And with a few exceptions, I don’t like what I see.
If you’re wanting to truly influence people and change the world in some meaningful way, I am wholly unconvinced this normal template for almost every single doc I’ve ever seen is really the best.
Here’s the normal doc template in 7 steps, as experienced by Greg:
1. Start out with a few seconds of each of the several talking heads you’re going to feature in more detail later on in the doc. Try to include someone famous and respected so you can put their name on the title credits, even if you disagree with what they’re saying (like Noam Chomsky).
2. Establish the “problem” – clearly stated. Intersperse cuts from some old 1950′s movie or classroom educational piece to hold audiences attention in between talking heads.
3. It didn’t used to be like this. Better times were had before. “So how did we get from there to where we are today?” Cue history part of the show. Include even more 1950′s black and white bits, maybe some stuff from an old horror movie when you want to jokingly refer to something as “scary” etc. Maybe begin some type of half-ass cinematic sequence we can refer back to later to create the illusion we’re telling an interesting “story”
4. Take us on a lackluster romp through history as it pertains to our topic. Do lots of History Channel-like panning over still photos. Ken Burns effect crap. Some archival footage from these older times, if it exists. Forgettable voiceover.
5. Now we’re back up to the present day. Few more talking heads shots. “So what can we do about this?” Now let’s talk about possible SOLUTIONS, or if we’re really biased, we’ll only talk about our one favorite pet solution and make it look as good as possible, never (or seldom) mentioning any negatives.
6. The “Yay we can do it!” part of the show. Cue inspirational, upbeat music. Cue talking heads saying a bunch of crap you’re not really listening to at this point because they could be saying anything and it would sound good when combined with the background music. Show lots of vague shots of people coming together and singing around the campfire type stuff. Maybe some smiling children recovering from disease holding American flags, blah blah blah.
7. “It’s up to you” – call to action. Usually some flavor of “call your congressman” or “go to some website” – FUCKING YAWN, DUDE! WTF!!! That shit NEVER helps anything! Cut to black credits and continue playing happy music. la la dee fucking da
THE END! Woohoo! Win awards at film festivals and pretend like you’re making a difference in the world! Yay!
Except nothing changes. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
So what’s the alternative?
I’m dreaming up something more revolutionary. I keep thinking of that Pink Floyd movie “The Wall” and wanting to create something like that in a doc, but obviously something that will make SENSE to the average dude. I’m thinking about combining The Wall with what Michael Moore used to do that made him so famous. If it’s done right, that could make some real waves worth talking about.
I think you have to be relentless, uncompromising, unfair, and artsy to the extent you know what people are really thinking and you bring that out in your work graphically to keep their attention – and deal with objections much like a good salesman would do. That way you can be biased with your topic, but still cover the other bases to create the illusion of fairness. Unanswered questions at the end equals less persuasion.
Making your documentary along the 7 steps I described above is just lazy. Where are the new ideas, the innovation, the creativity? There’s a little out there, but not nearly enough.