I want to explore what can be a very fun or very frustrating (depending on the process) stage in documentary filmmaking — brainstorming and ideation.
How to Come up with Documentary Film Ideas
For most documentary filmmakers, the writer’s block doesn’t come during the production or post-production process, but rather in the development and pre-production process when we are first trying to brainstorm and come up with an idea worth turning into a film.
Each film, after all, takes a gargantuan effort, and the last thing any filmmaker wants to do is spend their precious time and energy on a project they aren’t totally sure about and aren’t totally passionate about.
This fear of wasting time and energy is what creates most writer’s block. Over the years I’ve found some tried a true methods that help me break through this resistance, continue brainstorming and ideating, and eventually move forward with one idea in mind. Here are a few of my favorite ways to break writer’s block and come up with documentary film ideas.
Practice a New Creative Skill
When I first graduated from college I was struck with the worst writer’s block I’ve ever experienced. It lasted for years and was creatively debilitating. After a lot of time and a lot of work, I finally realized what the true problem was.
Because I had spent so much time in high school and college studying and practicing video production and editing, I had lofty and unrealistic goals for what I thought I should achieve with my work. I wanted my next project to mean something, to make a difference. I set the bar too high in my own head. Every time I’d sit down to brainstorm, I’d become frustrated with the process because nothing seemed good enough. I’d throw these ideas out before I even gave them a chance. It became a cycle. I would come up with ideas, throw them out, then be filled with fear that I might never come up with a good enough idea. I’d try to face this fear, come up with more ideas, throw them out, and manifest even more fear.
Eventually this fear turned me away from considering doing any of my own video production or editing projects. I started trying new creative pursuits. I went to a few open mic comedy shows and eventually (even though I was terrified of it) forced myself to go on stage. I flopped, but it didn’t matter. I started writing rhymes (even though I disliked poetry growing up) and eventually became pretty good at thinking up 10-16 line “poems” randomly throughout the day. I saw someone playing acoustic guitar and gave that a shot, learning some basic chords and strumming patterns online until I could play and sing some songs. I didn’t master any of these skills, but that wasn’t the point. I didn’t take them as seriously as I took video production and editing, they weren’t as daunting, so I was a lot more open to studying and practicing them.
Over time this made me realize a few things about the creative process.
First, as I learned new skills I realized how little I actually knew about video production and editing. I became proficient in writing rhymes and playing guitar very quickly… just like I had done with video… but then I plateaued… just like I had done with video. So, really, what had been holding me back was my desire to make great videos and films coupled with a lack of mastery. Instead of focusing on making the next great video or film, I needed to focus on studying and practicing video production and editing so that I could achieve a new level of mastery. The next great video or film wouldn’t be the result of a great idea, it would be the byproduct of focused study and practice.
Second, learning new skills informs the study and practice of my old skills. As I took a break from video production and editing to learn new things, I spent as much time thinking about learning the new thing as I spent thinking about how I was learning the new thing. Specifically, I was thinking about the teaching methods I best responded to, the teachers I best responded to, and how I would gather information and then put it to work. When I returned to studying and practicing video, I was more prepared to learn and grow because I had taken the time to figure out how I do it best.
Finally, and perhaps one of the best results of these detours from video production and editing was the amount of ideas I had generated each step along the way. Writing (bad) jokes forced me to think in ways I hadn’t thought before, and left me with a notebook of material I could draw from in the future. Writing (bad) poetry encouraged me to look at the simple day-to-day happenings of life and record them on paper, and left me with a box of notes I could draw from in the future. Learning how to play (bad) guitar made me think about music differently, especially the structure of songs and how different layers of instruments and sounds are introduced into music over time.
All of these things contributed to a pretty massive growth spurt that happened when I returned to video production and editing, and projected me forward both professionally and personally when it comes to my creative pursuits.
Draw from Your Life
It has been said that art reflects life, and the best stories are drawn from the creative person’s own journey or experiences. With this, I couldn’t agree more.
When I look back at all of the videos, films, and television shows I’ve worked on, I can honestly say that my best work has been the result of drawing inspiration from my own life.
Now, given that I’ve worked on shows like Lockup for MSNBC, a show that follows inmates in jail, and haven’t been to jail myself, you may be wondering how it’s possible that I draw inspiration from my own life.
Autobiographical work is not the only time we draw inspiration from our own lives. If a writer is creating a biography or a painter is creating a portrait, they may be featuring someone else as the prominent character or focus of their work, but the writer or painter has to express their interpretation of that person to create the final product.
Think about that process: the writer or painter interacts with the subject, they internalize that interaction, they interpret it, they shape it into a story, they express it to create the final product. Every step in that process requires the writer or painter (or documentarian) to draw from their own life, experiences, and worldview.
If you ask the subject questions, those questions will be based on your understanding of the topic. If you internalize, interpret, and shape the answers to those questions into a story, that story will be based on your understanding of the answers to those questions. If you express that interpretation, the final product will be based on your understanding of the medium and your ability to express what you are thinking or feeling onto it.
So, if I am putting together a documentary about inmates in jail, I may not be drawing from my own experiences in jail, but I am drawing from other experiences in life throughout the process in order to take the subjects’ stories, interpret them, shape them, and then express them.
The best storytellers work to eliminate their own biases in order to tell a more honest story. They also find universal themes in a subject’s story that anyone listening to the story could relate to. These storytellers focus on the universal themes and express them in a way that is not only true to the subject, but true to the audience as well.
How does this relate to brainstorming? It’s simple.
You have the choice to draw a story directly from your own life, or draw a story indirectly from the life of another. Either way, your creativity will be on display. Once you realize this, it’s a matter of choosing something that interests you.
This is the final point I’ll make on this topic. If the story doesn’t interest you, it’s not going to interest your audience. Too many creative people try to focus on what the audience is interested in and not enough time focusing on what they are interested in.
This is detrimental, especially to the filmmaking process, because it takes so much time and energy to make a film that, if you lose interest midway through, your film is doomed before it’s even finished. If you can’t stay interested in the story, how do you expect your audience to?
So, if you are looking for ideas for a story, you can look around your life and ask yourself two very simple questions: what interests me? (then make a list, then ask yourself) what interests me the most?
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