To date I have about 20 hours of interviews, dialogue and action to transcribe for My Shanghai. The transcriptions are the written record of the video clips and other audio. I could hire someone to do it, but there’s no better way for it to soak in than to do it yourself. Then you can reverse engineer the script.
Screenwriters will swear you need a script before you can shoot a movie. There are exceptions.
Several years ago I went to hear Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk) and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There) shoot the breeze in a small outdoor amphitheater at Reed College. Gus also made Gerry. Gerry is about two guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who go hiking and don’t take food or water with them. Part of it was shot in a frigid little cabin in Argentina. Matt and Casey and Gus didn’t take any firewood with them. Guess what they burned in the fireplace to stay warm?
I understand the screenplay wasn’t the holy manna of this film. It may have been a hot piece of writing, but only in BTUs, not critical reviews.
(To be fair, I don’t think Gus Van Sant is anti-script. He had something else in mind for Gerry, and he had Matt and Casey.)
Feature films generally need scripts. Documentaries need them, too. One clear difference is that a documentary is not “scripted.” When I interview people, I don’t know exactly what they’re going to say. I might think I know what they’re going to say, but after I ask a question, I have no idea how the words will come out. I can ask the same question six times and get six variations — the same story, newly told.
Sure, you have to approach the documentary with a plan, an outline, a clear sense of where you’re going. You also have to be light on your toes, because things can change in a heartbeat. When we showed up for our film shoot the first day, the man across the street was moving. He generously offered us his back yard on the bay for interviews if we wanted it. If we wanted it!
Maybe I’ll start with that interview. It would be easy to transcribe because the wind started to blow and ropes hit against a metal flagpole across the patio and we didn’t stay long. The first draft of My Shanghai will include: “Heavy ropes clang against a flagpole o.s. [offscreen].”
If I’d had a script to begin with, I probably would’ve jammed it between the rope and the pole to stop the noise.