by Adele Schmidt, Docs In Progress® Director of Programs and Services

At Docs in Progress, we are big believers that no filmmaker is an island. Not only does it take teamwork to get a film made, at some point every filmmaker needs to get outside feedback to make sure he or she is on track with the film and to keep from getting stuck. There are few documentary professionals more adept at helping filmmakers become unstuck than Fernanda Rossi. Known to many asThe Documentary Doctor,” Rossi is a writer, filmmaker, and story consultant who has doctored over 150 documentaries, fiction scripts, and fundraising trailers, including the 2007 Academy Award Nominated film Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. Rossi’s column “Ask the Documentary Doctor” appeared for many years in The Independent and is now featured in Release Print. Her free online column “The Doc Doctor’s Clinic” appears on the Documentary Educational Resources website. Rossi is the author of Trailer Mechanics: a Guide to Making Your Documentary Fundraising Trailer and lectures around the country on various aspects of documentary story structure. We recently caught up with her to get a better idea of what she does and what to expect.

Q: So let’s start by finding out a little bit more about how you became The Documentary Doctor?

My profession is called story consultant and Documentary Doctor is a brand, the name of my business. My friend and filmmaker Mitch Teplitsky came up with it. There was a clear need emerging in the film business to understand how to structure a story as more people were interested in doing docs. Filmmakers were starting to shoot more — a lot more — and more networks were interested in documentary films that appealed to a wider audience.

My background seemed a good match to fulfill those needs. Without realizing, I had been learning and involved with story structure in one way or another my whole life. In elementary school where I did my first papers on story structure without knowing that that was the name of it, then as a teenager studying music analysis. Later on in film school, which included several courses in semiotics. Then as a full time film editor and on the side writer/director of my own projects. In addition, when I had writer’s block I decided to research the creative process too.

One fateful day, an editor friend of mine wanted me to see a few scenes she had cut and asked me to draw those little triangles and squares I always did when I discussed structure with colleagues. I had no idea what she was talking about but I was willing to help. I watched the scenes and shrugged, “What’s the big deal?” “There is no story! That’s the deal”, she said. I begged to disagree and proceeded to draw triangles and squares — I use drawings to represent different storylines and types of structure. She was my first “official” client. Since that day, people have been calling.

Q: Why do people consult a story consultant?

Filmmakers seek this type of help because they want to save time, money and not burn out in the process. They feel overwhelmed by the amount of footage and don’t know where to start. They either fear there is no story or think it’s not an interesting one. Sometimes they feel the story is not strong enough or too long and flat. In other cases, they are overwhelmed with feedback notes and don’t know how to choose from and execute those suggestions and opinions. Especially when those opinions are coming from people with big credentials.

Q: What kinds of films have you doctored?

All type of documentaries and a number of fiction scripts, even a musical for theatre. In terms of documentaries, from feature-length all the way to shorts, from social issue all the way to mockumentaries. From niche-audience types of films to theatrical releases. I have worked on over 100 projects.

Q: What is the best point for a consultation? Pre-production, production, or post-production?

Any point is good. It’s the consultation that is slightly different at each of those moments. Early on, we work more on story development and the trailer to raise funds. In production, we do story development to make the shoot time and cost efficient. Before starting to edit, to foresee a story structure and organize the footage in a way that is conducive to finding the story, it makes the editing more efficient. Then in post-production, I’m called when there is an assemble or a rough-cut, either to help the three hours assembly become a tight rough cut, or to weave more gracefully what appear to be different disconnected storylines, or make opening scenes and endings more powerful, sometimes to help decide on multiple endings and even find the ending.

Q: How often would a filmmaker need to consult you until the documentary is finished? What is your process for working?

We would consult at most four times in the entire life of the film: once with the trailer, once right before starting the edit, and once or twice with the rough-cuts. In general, these are full day hands-on consultations. Many people call for the rough-cut only and that’s OK too. There are no recipes, just filmmakers’ needs.

Some filmmakers have the (wrong) impression that I’ll watch the film and tell them what I think or give them feedback — more than what they have been getting so far. Some people call me because they want me to tell them they did a good job. My opinion is not important at all. I’m not a film critic. And I wouldn’t charge to watch a film and give the person a pat on the back. That would be so pretentious of me. That’s not to say that I don’t encourage people during a consultation, but I do it from a place that empowers them. I have developed methodologies and tools that help the filmmakers find their own answers. I guide them in such process. It’s not about me and my supposedly expert advice or opinion. It’s about the filmmakers, the film and their needs. The consultation is tailor-made in advance with their input. There are no surprises.

Q: What are the main problems you detect in documentaries? What kind of medicine does The Documentary Doctor apply?

Each case is very different. Documentaries tend to be overcrowded with information. Finding the emotional thread of a character is always a challenge especially for a filmmaker very committed to a cause, very invested in “spreading the word” and informing. In terms of the creative process, it hurts the most half-way through the editing. Most people shoot nowadays over 100 hours of footage. By the time they call me they are exhausted and they can’t see the finish line. In all cases, I have different techniques, tools and methods. It’s a case by case because there are many variables to consider when someone has a particular problem. Even when the problems look similar the subtle difference in how they got there and what else contributed to the situation determines what tools I’ll use. It’s holistic medicine.

Q: Could you give us a specific example? How were you able to help Leslie Iwerks with Recycled Life to the point that it was strong enough to be nominated for an Oscar?

Leslie Iwerks called me at the rough-cut stage of Recycled Life. We had a full day session. This was her own second or third film I believe, and she has worked as a producer a lot. In addition, she comes from a family of filmmakers and is very smart. I was very impressed with her capacity for listening and taking it in. She was fully concentrating during the session. The film was in pretty good shape but not quite there yet. She couldn’t put her finger on it. We did a structural and scene-by-scene analysis. We walked through it together and she started to see the fine points that were throwing the film off balance. Apparently it worked out great because she flew in from LA to work on her following film again at the same stage to go through the same process. We had a great time!

Q: So we want to ask you a few questions we’ve asked several of our other guest experts so that our readers can get different perspectives on similar questions. First of all, what should every documentary filmmaker think about before turning on a camera?

To remember to turn if off at some point! Seriously, I love all the verite style stuff, I do believe in “discovering” the story, and I do understand that some stories need more footage. But 200+ hours? It’s not always justified and today with 100s of hours of footage, we are not necessarily making better films than when people were conserving film and only shot 30 hours. There is the misconception that tape is cheap and even the myth of the more you shoot, the more important or better filmmaker you are. As you can see I’m very passionate about this topic.

Q: Does every documentary need a script?
No. Many paths take you to a good documentary. What’s important is for the filmmaker to know him/herself so they choose a method of work that matches their creative style. Scripts are one tool among many and they can come in at any stage. Non-linear thinkers and hard-core verite makers might have a harder time with a script. What every filmmakers and film needs is a clear understanding of story elements and story structure so they make films by choice instead of by default.

Q: What about characters? At Docs in Progress workshops, we’ve seen a number of films dealing with issues and there is a lot of pressure from the audience for these films to focus on specific characters? Does every documentary need to be character-driven?

No, not every documentary needs characters. The biggest challenge though is that we are right now in a market that favors character-driven documentaries. There is also the misconception that a doc has to have a dramatic conflict (as opposed to just a conflictive issue), another pressure from the present market. Issue-based documentaries are suffering from both of those demands. Yet a film can still be engaging if such topic is layered out in an in-crescendo of events while connecting the scenes in strong cause and effect succession.

Q: How can documentary filmmakers learn from fiction filmmaking?

Hmmm… Many documentarians read screenwriting books and that can be a trap. They get caught up in the three-act structure model and then try to push their doc into that format. That model is the most popular one in our culture but it’s just one of many.

Q: Are there specific documentaries you feel every filmmaker should see?

I don’t have a list of favorites or a recommended list per se. When I am in a session, I tend to shy away from recommending films because I want the filmmaker to concentrate on their own voice. If I feel they need to gain confidence that there is a way out, I might recommend a film of a fellow filmmaker who has a film with similar structure but very different topic. In that way, they can see their issue resolved without comparing themselves to the other film. In terms of general viewing, I learn from every documentary. I think what’s important is the discussion afterwards. That’s why what you are doing at Docs in Progress is so important.

Q: The focus of your May 12 workshop will be specifically on trailers. Can you tell us a little bit more about what the workshop will involve?

Besides the theory where you get the chance to ask questions regarding your particular case, people get clear points on do’s and don’ts and I show lots of trailers to clarify these points with before/after versions, successful trailers and the like. Also two or three trailers are chosen from the audience for discussion. It’s very interactive and entertaining, the day goes by fast! Many filmmakers write to me weeks later saying they finally started to make or finished their trailer.

Q: To get people started to think about trailers, what would you say are the most common mistakes documentary filmmakers make when approaching the trailer?

Thinking that it needs to be a flashy music video cross with movie preview. Far from that, a fundraising trailer is more like a short film without an ending.

Rossi will present an all day workshop on trailers on Saturday, May 12, 2007 in Washington DC.


© April 2007, Docs In Progress®
This article may not be reprinted without permission.