If you’re reading this article, you’ve already taken the hardest step:
saying “YES, I’m going to make a documentary.” Now it’s time to get to work!
By Caitlin Cooper
The period of time before you start filming is called the development phase.
This is when you juice, blend, and test all of your ideas about your subject.
This phase is absolutely ESSENTIAL for a successful documentary. And it can also feel overwhelming.
Take a deep breath and start here.
Not only will these 20 questions get the wheels turning, but they’ll alert you to any loose bolts or squeaky parts in your production...
What will viewers learn about in your documentary? After you’ve answered the first question, ask yourself: who are the people in this story? The better you can define your subject(s), and WHY they belong in the story, the clearer your story will be.
Do you know your subject(s) personally? If not, can you get in contact? How will you do that?
What actions would help an audience understand the person or people leading the story? Their daily routine? Their work? Their favorite pastime? These actions should agree with the message you want to communicate about your subject.
All films need an internal motor that keeps an audience watching until the end. What is that detail, big or small, that conflicts your subject?
Just like when you’re telling someone a story, there needs to be a departure and a destination for your subject. See question 6 for more…
Does the documentary happen in one day, for example, a “day in the life”? Or is it shaped by an external force, like a challenge, person, or journey? Most internal timelines fall anywhere between 1 day and 2 years.
Will you tell the story from the point of view of a single person? A group of people? From the perspective of the story’s hero? Or its villain? Remember that you have this important choice.
Hear about how Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman approached this question while working on Cartel Land:
Do you have anything in common? What makes you different? Use this information to better engage with your subject.
Does your subject like to talk or are they a little more reserved? What environment is most comfortable for your subject? Where do they feel least secure? Knowing the limits of your subject’s participation in your documentary is of the utmost importance.
The best documentaries have staying power. How do you think your doc will “age”?
If they’ve surprised you, they’ll probably surprise your audience. Use this in the story!
Making a documentary is a two-way street. Respect, trust, and willingness are qualities that are built, not forced.
It doesn’t have to be a documentary on a similar subject! It could be inspiring for its mood, rhythm, editing, music, structure, etc.
Some common categories include: visual, written, archival, and spoken. Will you get that info from a database? Will you film it yourself? Will you ask someone to speak to you about it?
What genre are you shooting for? How do you want your audience to feel as they watch the film?
Describe any aspect(s) of your documentary that will show your audience something they haven’t seen before, cause them to think in a new way, or help them understand something.
Here's another clip from Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman on "Characters and Character Development":
Why you? Why this story?
What ignites YOUR interest?
Your audience will probably also like this!
Your audience might dislike this too!
These 20 questions should send you well on your way to developing your dream documentary.
Have a great question to share with other filmmakers in the development phase?
Reporting by Caitlin Cooper
Caitlin Cooper is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist. She is the co-founder of the production company Cine Vita, whose work has been screened and workshopped all over the world.