Understanding Documentary Story & Interview Planning

With Colin’s Interview only three days away, we chose to spend this morning planning out our interview in more depth. Fiona and I had previously put together a range of questions that could potentially be asked, but we knew that they needed a little more refinement and structure.

One of my core areas of research into documentary film was how to construct a narrative. I struggled with getting my head around how to construct a story when you don’t know what the content will be. Previously when we had our interview planned, and all we could do was guess what Colin was going to say. By looking at a number of documentary stories as well as documentary theory, my mind began to piece together how to approach our piece.


On researching documentary structure I came across a number of great websites with a range of tips and rules to live by in documentary film. One of the main things that came up was the creation of a story arc. Where this may seem obvious, it’s difficult to plan what this may be when the content is unknown! Traditionally this is done in three parts, through a beginning, a middle and an end and is also referred to as a dramatic structure. Like Volgler’s writer’s journey, Morgan Parr writes,

“The beginning introduces the character(s) and establishes their goal(s). The middle, or second act, is the character(s) struggling to accomplish these goals and the obstacles that stand in their way, ending in the climax, which shows if they accomplished their goals or not. Act three – the end, resolution or conclusion – shows the growth or change of the character(s) due to the journey.”


We do not want to simply collect information about Colin when we interview him, we want to connect with him and hear his views, his stories and his struggles as an artist. Conducting a meaningful interview, rather than a purely factual one was important to us. Going beyond the small talk is what makes us connect with other human beings, and with an aim of only three minutes of interview, we wanted to capture some emotional content. As Parr comments,

“Another part of the story to think about in story development is the emotional center. All good documentaries have it. You want your audience to relate, empathize and care about someone in the work….Unlike in narrative script development, you are not making these characteristics up. Instead, you are looking to identify them and to show them to the viewer”

Indeed, when we were planning we wanted to do our best to bring out a side to Colin that is really true to himself; not just to capture his character for his own sake, but for the viewer too.

Planning With Intent

I shared some of my research with the girls, including a range of notes I’d made over the weeks on different structure styles. We choose to go with a five prong approach covering five main areas of the story arc: Introduction, Motivation, Barriers, Action and Resolution.

In addition to this, we discussed and decided on our main thread which we were studying in the interview which was “Finding your purpose and passion or a Path to purpose.”

From here, we began to break down what questions we had, and added to them to fit the story arc. We eliminated what we felt was too much to save time, and collected the general goals of each section that I had collected from previous research. The questions were as follows:

IntroductionScreen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.46.41 PM.png


Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.46.47 PM.png


Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.46.54 PM.png


Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.47.01 PM.png


Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.47.09 PM.png


I took time to look at how others are doing more creative interview pieces such as Chris Landreith’s “Ryan”, NY Times’ “Modern Love” and Jeremy Cox’s, “Paul Rand Retrospective”. Three extremely different pieces, both in content and delivery, but a common thread that runs through them all is the emotional connection that you can have with the interviewee.

With Ryan, the viewer is brought into Ryan’s mind, as crazy as it may be, and feels an element of empathy in knowing what’s effecting his actions. In another way, Modern Love shares a beautiful story of love and loss through one girl’s narrative. The intimate telling of her story brings the viewer in to her world, using simple line drawings, sound and animation to add to the emotional effectiveness of the piece. In a completely different way, Paul Rand shares his lessons on design, talking about how without passion and connection with people, the work is never as good. Through rhythmic animation matching the graphic style of Paul Rand, the viewer connects with the piece through the content Paul Rand talks about in the video.

With this research in mind, moving forward, we will do all that we can to conduct a natural and meaningful interview with Colin. In the editing stage this research will play a big role, as we work to form a meaningful edit around the theme, “Finding your purpose and passion or a Path to purpose.” 

Ryan – by Chris Landreth


Modern Love – Nick Van Der Kolk for the New York Times

Paul Rand Retrospective – Jeremy Cox 


2 thoughts on “Understanding Documentary Story & Interview Planning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s