A growing number of 'reality' filmmakers are members of the
Writers Guild, which provides protections for residual payments, as
well as pension and health benefits.
How, exactly, does one write reality?
That's the question being asked by close watchers of the credit
rolls at the beginning or ending of theatrically released
documentaries, which are increasingly featuring "written by"
While a documentarian taking a writing credit for narration
rarely raises eyebrows, nonfiction filmmakers are also beginning to
consider the behind-the-scenes structuring of their films to be a
type of writing. The trend, which is being shepherded by the Writers
Guild, a union representing television and film writers, has some
documentary film editors and directors worried that it threatens to
redefine their job descriptions and confuse viewers, who may believe
that a documentary that has been written is a less credible
depiction of reality.
"I fervently believe that the writer's credit has been too
loosely deployed by people who do what I do, which is to capture
unscripted reality in non-narrated documentaries," said Joe
Berlinger, who, with Bruce Sinofsky, directed three "Paradise Lost"
films (about a horrifying murder case in Arkansas), the last of
which was an Oscar nominee this year. "It can be a false credit. And
not only do I not take the credit, I fundamentally think it's wrong
to take one when there's nothing written in a film."
Unlike the fictional-feature-film industry, where job titles tend
to be more distinct (editors edit, camera operators operate cameras
and so on), nonfiction credits are more fluid. Directors wear many
hats, doing much more than directing their films. They often also
produce, edit, write and even provide the narration. The Oscar-
winning director Alex Gibney has taken a writing credit for adapting
or writing the narration for all of his films. And, like a growing
number of documentary filmmakers, he is a member of the Writers
Guild, which provides protections for residual payments, as well as
pension and health benefits.
In his documentaries the "writing is actually writing," Mr.
Gibney said, because he sits down to type out the narration. (Mr.
Gibney has won Writers Guild Awards for "Enron: The Smartest Guys in
the Room" and "Taxi to the Dark Side," in a category for nonfiction
films that was established in 2005.)
He is "not always wild about the idea" of a writing credit when
there is no narration heard or print seen on screen. The problem
arises, Mr. Gibney said, when a film is registered, through a
production company or a filmmaker, with the Writers Guild, which
prescribes that a writing credit appear if all of the benefits of
membership are to be achieved. "Even if there is no writing that
happens," Mr. Gibney said, "the guild takes the position that
someone has to take a writer's credit."
The Writers Guild, however, sees no gray area there. "Writing
story outlines, the way you frame a question, the arc you seek to
traverse through your questions? That's writing," said Lowell
Peterson, executive director of Writers Guild of America East.
"Writing stuff to structure stories is writing. And yes, I think
people should get a writing credit for that."
The guild's position has been less controversial for producers of
nonfiction television, where the writing credit has been commonly
applied -- from scripted reality-based TV shows in the nether
regions of cable to heavily narrated "Frontline" segments on PBS.
While writers once had low status in Hollywood, increased
awareness of the filmmaking process, as well as A-list screenwriters
like Aaron Sorkin and auteur writer-directors like Christopher Nolan
and Wes Anderson, have made writing a film more prestigious. …