Screenwriting

Courting Controversy: Four Tips for Documentaries on Hot-Button Topics

Photo by Trace Meek

When I made my first historical documentary, The Fourteen Minute Gap, I was asked by my boss if I was willing to shoulder the controversy it would create. Would I be willing to have it in my portfolio?

The Fourteen Minute Gap tells the story of an erased telephone call between President Lyndon Johnson and FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover on the morning of November 23, 1963, less than 24 hours after John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. While the call is erased, the cover-up job wasn’t done very well – a transcript survived. Weaved in with the story of the call was the backstory of events leading up to the call, as well as the story of my former colleague, Rex Bradford’s discovery of the erasure and his efforts to get it out to the media (which ignored it).

Of course I was willing to have it in my portfolio. It’s a fascinating piece of hidden history (which makes me giddy with delight when I find such a cool, digestible story). But was I willing to shoulder the controversy?

Well… yeah. It never crossed my mind. When I took on the project, I never looked at it as controversial. It was simply a story, and it was my job to produce an engaging look at the story, the story behind the story, and the story behind getting the story out (whew).

I have four pieces of advice to anyone who wants to tell a story with a healthy heaping of controversy behind it. These four pieces have guided me through several projects (some lacking any controversy whatsoever).

• TELL A STORY.

Don’t try to ruffle feathers. If you seek to do so, it will come across like a slap to the face of your audience. Your audience must experience your story with you. You’ll be surprised by the feathers that can be ruffled by just telling a story.

• DEAL WITH IT

Tackle the controversy head on… by telling a story. It’s like juggling: look at a wall in front of you, and never think about how many things you’re actually juggling. Just juggle.

• GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT

No room for error here. If you mess something up, or bend it to fit a pre-determined outcome to court controversy, you’re dead in the water. Research, research, research. Include your research on a page with your film. The more you know about the facts behind the story you’ve chosen to tell, the better you’ll be able to connect dots as needed throughout the creative process – and leave room for the audience to connect dots themselves. Very powerful tool, that.

• NO SOAPBOXES

Documentary films are not soapboxes. It comes back to that slap in the face I mentioned earlier. If you use your film as a megaphone and soapbox, you’re wasting money. Just go buy a megaphone and a soapbox, pick a spot, and start screaming. A film is a storytelling mechanism – treat it as such, which wraps around to item number one…

TELL A STORY!

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2 Comments
   Dave C said on July 25, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Excellent advice, though today’s broadcasters appear to prefer items with a distinct point of view.

   Tyler said on July 27, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Thank you for reading and commenting Dave! I agree, several broadcasters like a distinct point of view. With most of the things I’ve taken on, like the Kennedy stuff, I’ve found that by just taking it on, I’m showing a point of view – in this case, that there’s something fishy going on. But at the end of the day, as long as it’s a great story, I’m happy!

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