NOTES TO ASSIST IN PREPARING TREATMENTS OR SCRIPTS
These notes are taken from a review of an actual project prepared by Erica Pomerance, a producer/director who was asked to comment on an emerging producer’s treatment. She has graciously allowed the CIFVF to use her comments which we think may be of use to you. Erica has been a mentor who participated in the mentoring program run by the CIFVF several years ago; she has participated on CIFVF review committees and has submitted several applications herself to the CIFVF.
When submitting a request for production funding to the CIFVF, some of the following points might be helpful, specifically for first- time applicants.
A synopsis should provide a short résumé of film content, state in a few brief lines the theme or subject matter, the arc of the storyline and identify the main protagonist(s), if this is the case. It should describe your film in a nutshell, somewhat like the blurb on a DVD jacket, or in a newspaper listing of films now playing in theatres. The synopsis should be well crafted using a dynamic, punchy or terse style that creates curiosity, and intrigues the reader in order to make him/her want to know more, read further.
It is important to keep the following elements in mind when writing your treatment or draft script: The general theme or themes and objectives of your project: the story, characters and situations. Your introduction might contextualise the subject, give some historical background and outline the focus of your particular treatment (whether you intend a wide or very specific focus).
Preamble, Context, Background
Usually, after the short synopsis, the filmmaker includes a section of (several paragraphs or a page) describing the film’s aims and objectives, backed up by a description of context, background or history that incorporates the preliminary and field research one has done in order to define the scope and mastery of the subject matter to be dealt with in this specific film. In a political and social issue documentary, it is usually necessary o provide some history and background underlying your motivation for making the film. Some of this background information will eventually be conveyed in the film treatment itself, through characters or situations, while other information or comments you provide describing past and present-day contexts behind the thematic content, the deeper issues at stake etc. will help the reader (and potential funders) to reflect on the philosophical/ social justifications for such a film.
Background information should be provided in a coherent, unified manner. For example, the issue you are treating may have been the subject of many books, articles commissions and studies in the recent years. You could describe and summarize the various aspects of the wider issue that led you to choose your particular focus, then draw a portrait of the specific issue you are treating, the problems that ensue and various solutions proposed, what fixes have worked or might work, those that have not worked and why. Certain topics do require evidence you have done thorough research, and you may want to provide references to some factual, statistical or case studies in order to back up your story and to justify why you are particularly qualified to make such a film. You might want to back up your story with quotes based on such and such statistical studies, commissions, white papers, journals, articles, and reports. etc). But in this wider introductory section, you are not yet into the nuts and bolts of your own particular film story.
The story line
Now you proceed to the actual treatment or draft script itself. Your script treatment per se should relate the story you intend to put on the screen.
Stylistically speaking, script or treatment writing for documentary is an art in itself. While it must describe the theme and hypothesis to be captured in images and sound by camera, a detailed treatment should preferably also have literary merit on its own, and draw the reader into the story of real-life characters in situations with which they can identify, or want to empathize, or else disagree while reading. While a treatment relies on factual information to back it up, whenever necessary, it should also be written in a compelling manner, to hold the reader’s interest allowing him/her to learn more about the topic while piquing his curiosity and convincing him this film should be made. Your treatment must be so convincing it may move us to tears, compassion, indignant rage, or an urge to act.
As of late, the tendency, in Canada and elsewhere, has been to the “ documentary novel”. A quasi dramatic form that follows the story of one or several main characters over a specific period of time, whether this be a day, a month or over several years time; and that shares their particular dilemma, their role in a real-life crisis, a life-transforming event, or series of events. Provide context, colour and anecdotes that make your story come alive in the imagination of those who read - and eventually may fund- your documentary. If the documentary is in the style of a political or social pamphlet, à la Michael Moore; or an overview of some vital human rights or environmental issue, as in the films of Carole Poliquin or Marquise Lepage, (to name 2 examples of Québec filmmakers who often work in that mode), your treatment must demonstrate you have privileged access, and some strong characters that open the doors to some form of revelation
Character development, dialogue, interviews, verbal content
In the case of a short outline for a treatment you are planning to elaborate at a future date, it would be understandable that you may not yet know your main characters and what the actual situations will be. But in a detailed treatment, ready for production, you should have at least ten to twenty pages of written material that walks us through the story or parallel stories of your characters, and gives us the intended content of your experts or content providers who we are going to meet in the course of the action. You can make up some characters based on real-life people you have met during your research, but we have to feel like they are actual people we can identify with, and are going to meet. You can also invent composite characters or draw on real people whose names or identities will change in the course of production. But normally, at the stage of writing a detailed treatment or draft script, you should know who your characters are or might be.
Your characters are important and should be developed in order to convey real-life, credible human stories. This can be done by briefly outlining their lifestyle or particular situation, as relates to the film. The rest should be conveyed through action and dialogue.
A story is usually told in sequential or thematic form. You might be following one main character, and want to tell the story in a non- linear manner, alternating action with more reflective sequences, and playing with the elements such as time and place, or else you might want to build the story sequentially, leading up to a climax or a key event that turns the situation around.
In cases where the issue involves more than one main character, you can tell your story chapter by chapter, character by character (i.e. John’s predicament, then Mary’s story, then Peters, Lisa’s etc) or else describe your storyline using a parallel thematic structure by making the various aspects of issues one treats into chapters in order to deal with them thematically. In such a structure, your characters and ‘experts’ may reappear several times during the film, and contribute to the content of different chapters. It depends on how you want to use characters to tell the story and create the blocks or help to set up moods and tension, so as to construct the film you wish to make. (Style and form are often an intrinsic part of storytelling, and should be developed further in another specific section describing your film style or treatment).
While you can’t always predict or prescript dialogue or interviews, the treatment should provide a detailed resume of key content, some quotes or summaries of dialogue, interviews, Sometimes one incorporates the contents of actual (or projected) discussions or interview or dialogues into the script treatment. You can even include quotes or invent quotes, to give a better idea of the style and content of discourse of the different protagonists. It makes for a livelier and more compelling read, although you aren’t required to fully script dialogue as in a fiction film. Some filmmakers like to summarize discussion or interview content in the third person. (“After talking about her ailment, Mrs S then describes how she contracted SARS while waiting for days to be moved from Emergency to the 8th floor” etc…) However many documentary filmmakers who have conducted and taped detailed interviews with protagonists during the research phase, often incorporate direct quotes from these interviews in their scripts.
In your script, you describe and flesh out your main characters through dialogue and action, in individual, personalized terms. You need to give us an idea as to their evolution within the story. For example: do they remain helpless victims, or do they courageously fight back against the injustices of the system, on an individual or a collective basis? What makes each one tick, why have they been chosen as distinct examples to illustrate the filmmaker’s POV (point of view)?
Normally after telling the story in which you identify characters by name and their role in the action, you are expected to provide a list of main and secondary characters with a short description of who they are, the role they play in your story. This section entitled Cast of Characters or Protagonists/ Participants should precede or follow your draft script or story treatment. In the actual script, we experience your characters’ specific situations in relation to the underlying theme of your story. However we may require some idea of who they are, their personal background or history, outside of the timeframe of direct situation covered in the film. (For example, “Peter was a highly-trained industrial designer before his wife left him, taking their two cherished children. He went into a deep depression and eventually became an alcoholic on the streets of Vancouver...”).
Content experts and supporting characters - specialists, official spokespersons, family, friends, accomplices, rivals, people they meet along the way. In the case of on-camera content experts, specify their credentials. Among the people you list as consultants in your proposal, some who have written letters of support might be drawn on to provide such content in the course of on-camera interviews that support or contradict the points of view you advance via your characters, and through the cinema direct or cinema verité material you plan to shoot.
Locations: Identify key neighbourhoods; offices, departments, cities, regions and countries which are involved in your shoot.
Film Style or Treatment.
Be careful not to confuse film treatment (synopsis, detailed story outline, sequential step- by-step outline) with the stylistic treatment, meaning « Film style », that describes elements such as the type of camera work, editing, rhythm, use of graphics, archival footage, sound track, music etc, you intend for your film. This material is usually described in a separate section, after story line and thematic content and list of characters..
Point of View/Director’s Notes
This section describes the filmmaker’s point of view, intention, motivation and justification for making the film. It can be intensely personal, and describe an experience you had which made you aware of a certain situation: a trip, a relationship or encounter, a personal or political involvement. You can tell why this subject is important to you. It supports your proposal and makes the reader (funding institution etc) confident that you are really the person qualified to make this film, because of your social, professional or personal involvement, or commitment. While not necessary, you may wish to explain how a particular project relates to your previous body of work.