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November 17th, 2017 @ 9:17 am by Kevin
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February 1st, 2012 @ 5:29 pm by admin
For the past several afternoons I’ve been teaching documentary writing to a class in Perth, Australia. The interesting thing is, I’ve been doing it from my office in Abbotsford, BC via the oft-overlooked miracle of Skype. I’ve never done this sort of thing before, but I think it’s a great solution to what is often a punishing travel schedule.
As we’ve worked through the fundamentals of documentary writing, something I’ve pounded into them is the importance of coming up with a strong premise, a story question that’s compelling enough to make viewers stick around and see how things turn out. This is where every film succeeds or fails, in my view. The premise is the foundation for everything that follows. So if the premise is weak, the story will fail.
Because dramatic feature films typically deal with hypothetical situations, the premise can be phrased in the form of a “What if?” question. For example:
What if a quarreling couple goes on a romantic cruise as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, only to have the cruise ship overrun by zombies?
I’ve never written that film, but I think it would be a fun one. The premise is strong because the stakes are about as high as they can be–life or death. And if that cruise ship ever makes it back to port, it could spell doom for the entire world.
And let’s not forget the couple’s marriage. If this film is done right, the only way to save themselves–and the world–is to overcome whatever problems led them to take the cruise in the first place. So you have a nice internal struggle exacerbated by an external struggle. Probably one of them (let’s say the wife) really wanted to go on the cruise, but the other one didn’t. So there’ll be a blame game going on at first, but then the sheer desire to survive takes over, and by the time it’s all said and done, they have a new perspective that enables them to see their past problems as rather insignificant now that they have a new lease on life.
Or, if you want to give it more of a tragic (and comedic) ending, they reconcile just in time to prevent the ship from getting in to port, but then they have to sacrifice themselves in a last-ditch effort to stop the zombies and save the world. So the postscript involves the coast guard boarding the ship and finding all of these dead people lying around and determining there must have been something wrong with the egg salad.
But I digress…
When it comes to documentary films, you’re not dealing with hypothetical situations, you’re dealing with actualities. To be a bit more specific, I like to think that documentaries help you move from perception to reality–or at least to another point-of-view on reality that is (hopefully) a better approximation of what is actually happening.
Another way of thinking about it is that documentaries are really studies of human behavior. They seek to help us understand why we do what we do.
With that in mind, rather than phrase a documentary premise in terms of a “What if?” question, I find it’s more helpful to phrase it in the form of a “Why?” question, a “What on earth would compel someone to do such a thing?” question, a “Will he/she/it/they survive?” question or something along those lines.
Example #1: Bowling for Columbine – Why did Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacre their classmates at Columbine High School?
Example #2: Grizzly Man – What on earth would compel Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend to risk their lives by living among the Alaskan grizzly bears?
Example #3: Big River Man – Will whiskey swilling Slovenian long-distance swimmer Martin Strel survive his attempt to swim the entire length of the Amazon River?
Which brings us to Hellbound? So far my elevator pitch for the film goes like this:
A growing number of Christians are challenging the traditional Western view of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment. Are these people a bunch of heretics, as we’ve been told, or are they onto something?
I think that’s fairly effective, but it’s pretty long compared to the examples I gave above. So as I was teaching this yesterday I thought perhaps I should take my own advice and see if I could do a better job of distilling the film down to it’s essence. So I came up with this:
Why is the doctrine of hell such a contentious issue?
It’s succinct, but it’s also kind of flat. How about this:
What on earth would compel a growing number of Christians to defy 2,000 years of church history by challenging the traditional Western doctrine of hell?
That’s a little better, I think. It’s more character-driven, and the stakes are higher. Let’s see if we can raise them a little more:
Will the growing number of Christians who are challenging the traditional Western doctrine of hell survive their attempt to overturn 2,000 years of church history?
Hmm… Not bad, but I think it could be bordering on the absurd. After all, this isn’t an armed conflict–at least not yet.
I’m still not sure I’ve nailed it completely, but this sort of exercise certainly helps me keep my focus as we pull this film together.
With that in mind, back to the editing room…