Approach

Inevitably, the questions that come up in the first discussion are What approach are you going to use? and How are you going to do it? At that point, I try to say as little as possible, especially if the film's topic is a new subject for me as a writer, or if I do not really know the sponsor. I want time to become familiar with the subject before I jump in.

In working out an approach, it helps to look for certain elements and qualities in the subject. You can start, for example, by exploring the following:

1. Situational or personal conflicts

2. The existence of strong and charismatic characters involved in the story

3. Possible areas of focus

4. Character and situational change, either immediate or over time, as seen, for instance, in Michael Apted's Seven Up to Thirty-Five Up

There are other jumping-off points, but the above four represent the four strongest lead-ins and matters for overall consideration.

While in the back of your mind, there may still be questions, the sponsor or commissioning editor may want something very concrete. If you have been thinking about the topic for years, you should have no trouble at this point, as you have probably already thought of a way to do the film. The difficulty occurs when the subject is new and you know nothing about it.

Sometimes I just play for time. On major documentaries, I try to make a strong case that I need to research and absorb the subject before I can guess at an approach. However, if they ask how you would do it, you have no option but to plunge right in, even though you know you may junk the idea as soon as you exit the room.

I was doing a news piece one of the first times that question was sprung on me. The director of the museum where I was filming asked me, out of the blue, how I would do a general film on the museum. At that stage, I knew nothing about the museum except for having walked around it once. My spontaneous answer was that I thought we could look at the museum through the eyes of 2 eight-year-old children. It seemed to me that at that age there was a curiosity that would add freshness to the way the museum was observed. This would break the standard intellectual catalogue approach to museum filming. In the end, I didn't get the film. Would silence have been better? I don't think so.

Conversely, a friend of mine did get a film because he ventured a fresh approach at the right time to people with a receptive imagination. And here again, it was a case of jumping in while knowing nothing about the subject. The Vermont State Bureau of Taxes wanted to encourage people to pay their local taxes. David knew nothing about taxes but suggested a scenario in which his hero dreams of leading a revolt against tax payment. Everybody supports him. He becomes the local hero, but suddenly there are thieves everywhere, as there is no money for the police; likewise, there are no hospital services and no schools. The hero wakes in shock and pays his taxes. It was a very funny idea and powerfully put across the essential idea that taxes are necessary to make the social order work smoothly.

One difficulty that frequently arises is trying to get the sponsors to abandon an approach that they have been nursing for months but that you feel is wrong. For example, they may want the film to star the managing director, who is also the chief shareholder, but who would, in your opinion, be a total disaster for the film. If the idea is not a good one, then it has to be killed early, but tactfully.

Leaving all discussion of approach until the research has been done is great in theory, but difficult in practice. This is particularly true of television quasi-news documentaries, where the time between idea, research, and filming is often so negligible as to be nonexistent. In reality, you start thinking about approach from the beginning, and later research either reinforces your original hunch or shows its deficiencies.

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