How to Plan an Unscripted Documentary

Capturing the story in unscripted moments

Some filmmakers write a treatment, proposal and script before they begin shooting. Other’s approach is different. After some initial background research, I assemble a crew, contact interviewees, and start filming. I watch each day’s footage, choose the best clips, and allows the film’s story to emerge.

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

The absence of a blueprint does not mean grabbing the camera and running out to shoot whatever you see. 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.”

Scripts then develop gradually, in the editing room, as you choose the best clips and rearrange them, all the while slowly building the movie.

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.