In my first screenwriting class as an undergrad Film and Media Studies major at Stanford, the teacher had us do an exercise that, initially, seemed like a waste of time. She encouraged us to carry around notecards everywhere we went, and, as locations, ideas, or scenes that pertained to the screenplay we were working on popped into our head, we would immediately capture them, one per card. Lo and behold, one month later, I had the bare bones structure to the film in a format I could quickly restructure.
Now, the seed that was planted in that screenwriting class at Stanford has begun to sprout in an unlikely place - the early stages of our edit for our feature-length documentary, The Happiest Place.
I've always been fascinated by the craft of storytelling. In college I read works like Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey (Star Wars and many other Hollywood greats follow the Mythic Journey narrative structure outlined by Campbell, below) and Syd Field's Save the Cat. The gist is that the most compelling narratives employ a very clearly defined structure (in a screenplay, down to the page!) that makes for the strongest story.
In the last several years, character-driven documentaries have started to very effectively employ the dramatic structure that make fiction films so compelling - films like The Cove and Man on Wire are prime examples: protagonists with a clearly defined desire or "quest" who must confront a series of challenges to actualize their desire. It's been increasingly common for documentary filmmakers to work with a story consultant to throughout production and post to support crafting a narrative that will truly move your audience. Early in my work on the edit for The Happiest Place I discovered editor and story consultant Karen Everett's resources for character-driven documentaries (highly recommended!) which gave me a solid framework to approach our narrative.
After finishing our successful Kickstarter campaign a few weeks ago, editor David Pond and I dove head-first into mapping the dramatic arc of the entire film in a three-act structure using colored notecards. We've literally commandeered an entire wall in our office space and plastered it with our colored note cards. "Scenes" occupy the top level (white notecards), divided into a three-act structure, each act with it's own climax.
For each of the protagonists in the film (members of the Expedition Team) we've identified the inner transformation that each character makes through the film. Specifically, we identified the qualities that each embodied at the beginning of the film - and those they grew into by the film's end. Then we assigned each character a notecard color and, under each scene, we've charted the key "beat" (or story element) that relates to each character and which qualities the beat would allow us to express.
So, for example, at the beginning of the film, one of the expedition members, Tony Lillios, is feeling "disconnected", "uneasy" and "unconfident" given that he has significantly less adventure experience than the rest of the team, who have done several adventure races together. He's also worried about moving so quickly across the country that he won't be able to remain present to the beauty Bhutan has to offer. So, our task in the first two acts is to develop these qualities in connection to Tony's character - and, by the end of the film, to demonstrate how he has shifted.
While working on the dramatic structure we've read through the 40+ hours of interview transcripts from the film and made selects, which we've organized by scene. Now, we'll take these selects - and the dramatic structure we've outlined with notecards - and piece together our first assembly from our 300+ hours of footage.
The task ahead is a bit daunting - but, for the first time, I can can actually see the film taking shape. And I can't wait to share it.