The 3 Principles Behind a Story-Driven PBS Documentary

I recently had the good fortune to sit down with FRONTLINE documentary editor, Steve Audette, ACE, for an extended conversation about the theory and technique of editing powerful, engaging and entertaining documentaries for a national television audience.

In the previous post I pulled together some practical wisdom Steve had to share on the topic of re-cutting a documentary; how to handle controversial topics with journalistic integrity, how to keep the audience engaged the entire time, and what that actually looks like in the edit suite. This time around, Steve discusses how to make your documentary work.

The Essential Ingredients of Story

During our conversation, I asked Steve if there were any criteria by which he judged whether a story was worth telling in the first place? What makes for a compelling story that will actually work as a documentary? The answer came by way of Steve’s work on cutting short films.

Most filmmakers’ first opportunity to tell a story of their own devising is in the short film format. And this is equally true of most young editor’s first opportunity to cut something for an editor credit.

I know that Steve still edits the occasional short film in his own time, and I figured anything he was willing to invest his spare time into, after a hard day’s graft in the FRONTLINE edit suite, must be meaningful to him.

How did he decide the story was worth all the time and effort to put on film?

“I like the short form, because I can do it kind of on the side. I like to prepare for the future. Preparation meets opportunity, right. At some point, someone’s going to ask me to make a film. I need to be able to say I can.

“So when I’m deciding on whether to do a project the four things I’m looking for are:

A good story.

A good catch.

Can I get access?

And is there footage?

“With our most recent film, about the Nike Chariot earring, my wife knew of the story, which is about a priceless object stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts in 1960. At the time it was actually the most priceless artifact ever stolen from an American museum and the woman who found it and returned it to the museum. That’s my catch. That’s quite a cool idea.”

So you’ve got a good story and a cool sounding catch, but can you get access to the woman and is there even any footage to work with? I ask.

“Well, in this case we called her up and she was now 90 years old.  So we did an interview with her. And I’m sitting in the interview and I’m really worried because there’s no footage. There are some stills and a couple of newspaper articles but it’s really thin.

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“And she’s drifting, you know.  She’s tired and losing her thread. We had done a two and a bit hour interview already but I knew I didn’t have an ending. There is no final sound bite.

“So I sat in the chair and I berated this 90-year-old woman. I feel absolutely horrible about this, but I had to do it for the film.

“I said ‘Florence, you found the most precious artifact stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts. You’ve told me this changed your life forever, talk to me about it. Reach deep inside yourself right now and tell me…’

“And then she said just the most amazing thing. She said: ‘Anything that special deserves to be displayed for everyone to see, and that thing was special. You agree with me don’t you?’

“I thought ‘Boom! I got it.’ She just threw it back to the audience. And that’s when I knew I had an ending to the story.

“So the first things I’m looking for, in any film, is a good story, a good catch, can I get access and is there footage? And most importantly does it have a beginning, a middle, and an END!”

How To Know What To Cut

So if you do have those four things working in your favor, one of the most common problems facing documentary editors is whittling down all of the interesting ideas, moments and sound-bites into a coherent and concise final cut.

Given that Steve has shaped countless documentaries over the years, I wanted to hear how he tackles the thorny issue of knowing what to cut out and what to keep in?

“You back up is what you do.

“You back up out of the edit suite for a moment, out of the timeline, and go back to what I would call the ‘story boxes’. The figurative index cards of your story, and you make all those story elements work first.”

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For Steve, if removing a section of your film, whether for runtime or for better pacing, has the effect of upsetting the balance of the story, then you must restructure the whole narrative more concisely. The best way to do this is using what he calls ‘story boxes’.

These are 15 (or so) index cards that track the key ideas/beats in your story. It is essential that the ideas flow from one to the other, that the audience doesn’t get lost or bored, and that both sides of the conflict are presented respectfully.

“You must make the structure and order of the cards work; understanding the story beats of your narrative, then go back to the edit bay and work out the trims.

The Power of a Character-Driven Narrative

“Here is the thing, in an hour or in even two hours of documentary, you’re never going to encompass the entire picture of a certain event or subject. We made a film about how the FBI failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks. That’s a huge subject. Everybody in America wants to know that story.

“There’s no way you can get that whole story into 90 minutes or even two plus hours. Right? And no one’s going to watch a film longer than that. So you have to figure out a way to tell that story in 90 minutes or less. The big storytelling trick for that is to place the story in what we call “a character driven narrative.”

“The idea is to find a character who is going through the sphere of this large idea, in this case of how the FBI failed America before 9/11.

“The protagonist in a ‘character driven narrative’ is a single path, no matter how complicated and twisted, that goes through that sphere of the larger story. By telling that narrative, your audience, who are in some ways as knowledgeable as you are, will forgive the film for not covering the entire subject, because they’ll have a protagonist to follow. A person who did not know every detail of the larger story, but the larger parts attach to his/her narrative as best as can be fitted into the duration of the film.

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“So you have a protagonist like, John O’Neill, which is what we did for The Man Who Knew for FRONTLINE (which you can watch online). He didn’t know everything, but he knew something was up with al-Qaeda. He was part of the FBI and you could see the mistakes he made and the mistakes the FBI made around him. That structure helped that story but it didn’t tell everything because you just can’t.”

I wanted to know how Steve brought these two concepts together – the idea of a character driven narrative that frees you from having to ‘say everything’ and the discipline of using the ‘story boxes’ to structure the film – all while getting ‘to time’ for a TV scheduled slot.

“’Let’s build the boxes. Let’s do it on paper so we know it goes from here to here to here to here.

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“This is the part we’re taking out. How do we get from here to there? How does that cut effect the balance in telling the narrative of our protagonist?’ If the scene you’re considering cutting does not change the straight line of our protagonist, then it can be cut.

“To help me keep my eye straight on the narrative I have a plumb line in my edit suite. It creates a straight line down into the centre of the earth, and hangs between myself and the director. It is a visual metaphor of the straight line of the narrative. Often in a documentary there’s a very good story, an extremely interesting story but it’s off the plumb line of our protagonist tale. So cut it out. Keep with the ‘character driven narrative.’

“So, for example, if you’re making a film like we did called Trump’s Road to the White House, there were amazing stories about Hillary Clinton’s team on Election night. We had the interviews. We had footage of the night of the election, footage of young people and the celebrities celebrating. All the elements to tell a great story of the emotional upheaval as the night went on.

“But that has nothing to do with Trump’s Road to the White House. That’s the Hillary Clinton story. So as much as I wanted to [include] that scene, it was never going to be. How Trump won is not the story of how Clinton lost. As good a story as that might be.

“It’s one of those opportunities where you have to murder your darlings. That was one I wanted to nurture and build and it just never happened. Maybe some other time.”

Over the decades that Steve has been sitting in the FRONTLINE editing chair, I’m sure there are many other priceless stories that have gotten away. But from what I can tell, that’s what keeps him coming back day after day.

His hunger to tell stories that matter and to craft them in such a way that they can find and engage an audience has inspired me to keep doing what I love, and I hope it’s inspired and informed you a little too.

If you’d like to learn more from Steve, check out the full transcript of this interview, over on my own blog. In that post you’ll also find links to several other posts I’ve written over the years, drawing together a wealth of tips and teaching Steve has shared online.