Talking Heads to Storytellers

Fernanda Rossi January 27, 2010

Dear Doc Doctor: I have interviewees, talking heads that are making the story dull. I was told that in today’s market I’ll be better off with characters. Any way I can morph one into the other or is it too late?

Doc Doctor: Yes, you might fare better in today’s market if you have a character-driven story. In years of consulting and seeing how those films did in the market, I learned that if you don’t have characters, having people with any story function can be just as good. In documentaries people become characters when they participate in a dramatic arc or are explored in a multilayered fashion: hosts when they lead the narrative, interviewees when they convey information in a consistent form, and vox populi (or “man on the street”) when they make a short, random and often anonymous appearance to share their opinion. Other living and non-living forms can be characters too, from penguins to water, but I have yet to see them as interviewees. Being the complex living forms that we are, and since our speech is highly developed, it’s hard to distinguish absolutely between characters and interviewees.

Your situation is similar to Kryssa Schemmerling’s, producer and director of Our Hawaii, a documentary about the veteran surfers of Rockaway, New York. She had interviewees a lot of them, as she put it. Or were they characters? Or a mix of both? Our Hawaii was becoming our problem because too many interesting people were crowding the screen, making them unidentifiable and consequently flattening the story.

Kryssa, her editor Eve and I could have spent a lovely day debating whether the surfers were characters or interviewees, whether this film was a portrait or essay and whether it could be made into a supposedly more marketable character-driven story, all the while flaunting imaginary cigars in the air and adjusting invisible glasses on our noses. I can’t afford to indulge in such debates during a session. The issue at hand was very clear: there was a group of people in the film whom we needed to relate to and we weren’t.

As I did with Kryssa, I suggest you first analyze your interviewees’ predominant speech patterns and content to restrict their appearances on camera to distinctive functions. In Kryssa’s documentary we started with surfer and real estate broker James, who tended to speak in generalities. This trait made him a good candidate to be a disguised host and thus lead or wrap up scenes. Using him anywhere else would throw the scene out of balance. He also shared anecdotes and personal stories, but these we had to forgo to avoid diluting his function.

John, who not coincidentally always talked right after James when together, loved specifics and would re-enact situations with his body language. He was perfect to expand on whatever topic James had already introduced to the scene.

Bobby was interviewed separately and was the philosopher of the group. He liked to go deeper into the reasons for their choices. His personal stories were detailed, poignant, and sometimes hilarious, but they threatened to become a documentary within the documentary. Once Kryssa and Eve agreed that Bobby’s function would be to deepen the scenes, they chose to keep all his insights and only a few of the more important personal stories. How to choose which ones? They would keep only those which informed us about the historical moment, such as avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War by faking psychosis, and would stay away from personal details unrelated to history or surfing.

And so we proceeded with each person in the entire documentary throughout the day. Of course there was more to the film than surfers talking: amazing historical footage, some v‚rit‚ scenes, and incredible poetic montages were all nicely woven together by the expert hands of editor Eve. And I’m sure you also have other elements to juggle that will enhance whatever you do with your interviewees.

By thinking about what you have and how it is functioning, instead of what it could have been in a parallel world of filmmaking, you can transform each interviewee from a talking head to a storyteller. After all, a head that talks is not a talking head: It is a speech waiting to be shaped into a story.

Speaker, author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world; two have received Academy Award Nominations. In addition to private consultations, lectures and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at