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Today we’re going to be answering the question of how to write a documentary or commercial film. It may sound like an oxymoron to write a documentary, but I assure you that most great documentary filmmakers do, indeed, do a lot of writing. I’m using the term documentary loosely here because I’m also applying this technique to commercial films.

If you’re like most filmmakers, you live and breathe cinema. As such, you naturally want to make money doing something film related rather than spend your time waiting tables or what have you. Chances are you’ve invested a good deal of money on gear and you figure you can sharpen your skills and put your gear to use by making films for other people and you’re right.

Every time you pick up the camera, no matter what you’re shooting, there is an opportunity to tell a story

But instead of just making crap to rub a few dollars together and pay off that fancy new tripod you just bought, why not try to make even the most mundane of projects great? You can if you spend just a few more minutes in the writing phase.

Long form documentaries vs. Commercial Films

Longform documentaries made for festival circuits or a broad audience have a different set of rules than short, commercial films. Let’s touch briefly on the goals of each so we know how to approach each one. The core of forming a story, as you’ll see, is almost identical, but the technical aspects like length and aesthetics do change from one to another.

Long form Documentaries

Although it’s hard to draw a line in the sand and set an exact amount of time for “long from” documentaries, I’m going to just estimate here and say around 10 minutes as the minimum. Think of these as short documentaries that you might submit to a film festival. So from 10 minutes all the way to a massively long 2 hour documentary fall under what I’m going to be calling “long from” documentaries.

The goal with long from documentaries is quite pure – to engage the audience and inform them of something interesting and factual at the same time. The length is dictated by how long the subject matter requires and that’s about it.

Commercial Films

Commercial films are usually films that put a company or a person in a good light or tell their story in an inspiring way in order to drive business. This is the bread and butter of filmmakers all over the world. People want 30 second spots for TV or local ads, or they want a 3 minute video for their website or youtube channel explaining what they do in order to build brand awareness and drive business. As a filmmaker, your underlying goal is to make whoever hired you look good – but the bigger goal should still be to tell a great story. In fact, when I pitch clients on making a commercial film for them I often talk to them about how facts and numbers don’t connect with people over video and how storytelling is what’s going to tap into the emotional core of their customer base.

Talking about storytelling with a prospective client puts you in a powerful positions because most people don’t think of themselves as storytellers. If you, as a filmmaker, come in and say “we have to find the story to your business” that immediately will set you apart from all the other filmmakers that will typically be pitching them.

The biggest difference between longform and commercial documentaries is that you are forced in commercial films to frame your client as the hero. It’s not that big of a deal ethically as long as you don’t accept any work for clients who engage in activities you don’t believe in though, so don’t look at it as selling out.

So how do you write these things? What’s the secret to creating a compelling story to frame your documentary film?

How To Write a Documentary: #1 Do Your Research

You have to do your background work on any given subject to find out what the story is. Who is the hero? Who or what is the villain. If you’re doing a promo film for a flower company, for example, maybe time is the villain and the flower company that could get flowers to a wedding before the ceremony started was the hero. Or if you’re making a commercial film for a piece of software, maybe there’s a case study where a company that was going out of business was able to implement the software in order to save their company.

There’s always a story to be filmed, you just have to find it. Remember that he essential building blocks to any story are the following:

  • Someone wants something
  • There are obstacles preventing that person from getting that thing
  • The person overcomes those obstacles to get the thing

I recently did a commercial project for a non-profit that’s getting off the ground and it’s about a man who suffers at the hands of malpractice. The goal in the story was for the man to lead a normal life after being injured, the obstacles were his injury, and overcoming those injuries to lead a normal life again was the completion of his journey. You can take a look at the film on my portfolio page.

But if you’re working on a documentary that is all about oppression or about some boring sounding company and you feel uninspired or hopeless when you think about the project, that’s a big sign that you simply haven’t found the heart of the story. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors I can tell you that even in the darkest, most blique of places there are always stories of hope and perseverance and it’s our job as filmmakers to find those stories and figure out how to frame them.

How to Write a Documentary: #2 How would you film it as fiction?

This is where the actual writing part of the film comes in. Imagine that your documentary was a Hollywood movie. What would be the ideal way to tell the story? If you’re telling a story about a product that saves someone’s business, wouldn’t the ideal way to tell the story be to film the person right at their very moment of desperation? To increase the stakes as much as possible to make it feel like something huge is on the line? Great – now how do you film that as a documentary?

Can you stage a re-enactment? If you’re limited to interviews then be sure to ask the pressing questions that show the stakes. If the main character isn’t giving you the drama talk to their spouse, interview their business partner. Phrase the questions in your interview to pull out the drama from your subject. Ask for pictures where people where in dire conditions or copies of bills that showed big “past due” stamps. Look for the drama and make sure to communicated it to the audience so that they understand how big of an accomplishment it is when your characters overcome these obstacles.

Make sure to stage obstacles or plan to be there when they happen

If you’re going for a verite style then you have to think a little bit like a fortune teller and figure out what the possible outcomes of any given event are and try to be there when they happen.

For example, if you were following around a candidate during a presidential campaign, you’d want to make sure to be there for their speeches, but even more important would be to be there when they’re tired and have just done three straight weeks of touring and see their family for the first time in a month. That sacrifice their making to be on the campaign trail will all come out when they see their family again – and you want to make sure to be there for that. Similarly, you want to be there when the election results come in so you can see if that sacrifice paid off or not.

The more you’re around your characters or think about the trajectory of the project the more you’ll realize that there are certain parts of the journey that have high emotional stakes. You can either be there or talk about it in interview form but you have to start learning to frame your stories in that manner in order to engage your audience in a compelling storyline.

As long as you look for the emotional core of your story and give it a human touch you should be well on your way to discovering a great story that will captivate an audience. How long, what visual style to tell the story in, and how you film it are all creative decisions you get to make but none of them matter until you figure out the arc of the story itself.


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