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The Camera and the Pen: Documentary Writer Mark Monroe

Mark Monroe (photo by Braden King)

Over the past 15 years, documentary writer Mark Monroe has almost silently built up one of the most prolific and successful careers in nonfiction film. His credits include Louie Psihoyos’s Oscar-Winning film, The Cove (as well as the brand-new Racing Extinction), the award-winning Sundance films Chasing Ice, Who is Dayani Cristal? and The Tillman Story, Foo Fighter Dave Grohl’s  Emmy Award-Winning HBO series Sonic Highways and Ron Howard’s upcoming Beatles documentary.

I recently sat in on some of Monroe’s work in New York (which included a feedback screening of Nanfu Wang’s upcoming doc on Chinese activists, The Road from Hainan) and then discussed with him his career path, his relatively unique place in the nonfiction world, and the implications of his position on the ever-evolving form of documentary film.

When people ask you to define what you do, how do you do that? The main thing I tell people is that I try to structure documentaries in terms of the way most people take in entertainment, and that is with a narrative feel. People bring up the three-act structure and all the classic tropes, and it is that, but it’s more looking at it like a puzzle, and trying to figure out how to draw out the strengths of that thing so that it feels like a film. Now, that film you saw last night [The Road from Hainan], it’s not like I looked at it and said, “Okay, where is the page 26 inciting incident….” I didn’t do that. All I did was look at all of the material and try to figure out the most entertaining way to tell the story.

Let’s talk about your background a little bit. Did you study screenwriting? Do you have a background in that? I have zero background in that. I did not go to film school; I went to journalism school. I went to film school like a lot of people went to film school: I watched a ton of movies, and I was affected deeply by a lot of them. And then, I thought, “I can do that. I can figure that out.” I watched a lot of DVD extras, when DVDs first came out and they still had a lot of director commentary. That was film school for me.

Let’s talk more specifically about trying to define documentary writing. The first thing that probably comes to mind for people is, “Oh, he writes the narration,” but that’s not what it is. For whatever reason, I got that credit early on, and I’ve stuck with that credit. But most people, when they see that [“Written by”] credit or ask me what I do, they assume that I’ve just written the narration. But most of the films I work on don’t even have narration. I guess I could take the credit “structuralist” you know, story structure guy, because what I do is a lot like editing. Editors do the job I do all the time. They deserve writing credits; it’s an editor’s genre. I was an editor for many years. Editors are great at dealing with minutiae and making something magical happen in a matter of seconds, making scenes play in a big way. What I do is to try to look at the overall scope. How do you introduce the characters? How do you introduce the grand scheme, the narrative? It’s always kind of a fine line between keeping people caught up and interested, and yet not giving away the whole kind of shebang.

As I was watching the discussion take place last night, I was thinking about the triangle between you, the director and the editor, and how both of those other people inherently, because of their immersion in the film, can’t have the kind of perspective that you can. A lot of times, directors try to regurgitate their own specific experience of the day they shot the guy saying something and how it gave them chills. They’re trying to replay that experience exactly on the screen, and it’s almost always impossible to do. What they are not remembering is that they had years of time with that person or in that situation that led up to that moment and years afterwards. And then, what editors are doing is working quite hard to make that one moment great. They’re not so much thinking about what’s going to happen down the line. So I kind of become the number one cheerleader in terms of urging the editor to do the best work on that one thing. And then, I’ll think down the line: this will come next and then that will come next. None of it’s prescriptive — I’m going to get it wrong, but I’m going to take that load off of the editor a little bit.

Is there a stage in the process that you usually start your collaboration with a given team? It’s different all the time. When I first started out, I got onto a lot of films late in the game. There’s a cut, it’s not quite what everyone wants, the investors are worried, the director is frustrated, the editor’s trying, it’s just not quite there. It’s not that I’m Mr. Fix-It, but I think that coming in and going, “What if we tried this?” — everyone’s usually open to it. Nowadays, probably half my business is like that. On the other hand, I do get called to be there at the beginning. I write treatments. The treatments catch the attention of investors and then the film goes and I’m writing questions for interviews and making suggestions about what’s shot. I’m starting from scratch with an editor. We’re going to go on a six-month journey to make a rough cut of a film, and then we’ll make it better and better and then screen it.

How does your fee structure work? Is it per film? Is it hourly? Well, the one thing about this business is it’s a bad business model. [Laughs] There’s four or five [documentaries] that make some money each year, and there’s probably 10,000 that get made. I can’t drown a production with my fee. So I have a very basic fee structure. It’s not hourly; it’s by the film. For films that can afford me, it’s in the WGA scale range. And for films that can’t — films that I love — I’ll defer salary, or I’ll agree to a much smaller rate. I do get ownership equity occasionally.

Tell me more about your path into this work. My path was completely by accident. My father was a newspaperman and a journalist. That’s what I wanted to become. But by the time I started, it was more television journalism, so I studied broadcast journalism. And out of school, I went to CNN and wrote the news for about five or six years, which I think was probably the best training ground for what I do now. The news is distilling the important information down into a palatable 25 seconds. It’s taking a two-page Associated Press article about a tax bill or revolution in Syria and figuring out the five sentences you can say that give you all the information you need to know right now about what’s happening, and doing it under deadline pressure, 25 to 35 times a night. I was in my late 20s when all this went down. And eventually, I thought, “Maybe I should not be the one explaining the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” you know? I’m chasing girls and drinking at night and getting into a lot of young man trouble. And so, I was having these existential moments: “I should not be the guy. This is ridiculous.” I got out of the news, and I started working on a little children’s television show in Atlanta. It was very creative, and you could do anything you want.

Meanwhile, a buddy of mine had moved to Los Angeles. He said, “Come out and visit me.” I went out for two weeks, and the next thing I know, I’m living in Los Angeles. I bounced around making documentary-style television, like Beyond the Glory, Behind the Music. I became known as a Predator — a producer, writer, editor, director — so I could get all the money, basically. I also would get paid for the eight-week edit, because I could edit. I could do two or three of these shows, and then I could go to Europe for a month. Then, reality TV swept through the industry, and I was like, “I can’t do that. That’s not going to be my bag.” About that time, my buddy Paul Crowder, he got the Dogtown film as the editor and started getting offers for films. And one of the films he got was a fix. And he was like, “Come and do the same thing you do on Behind the Music. Read the transcripts and let’s figure out the story and make the film.” One of the guys I did that [for] was [producer] John Battsek of Passion Pictures. He’s had a long career and [does] five films a year. The other was [director] Fisher Stevens, who I worked with on his documentary. At the end of that — and I don’t even remember what credit I had been promised — they said, “You should take the writing credit. You wrote the damn thing.” And from that point on, I just take the writing credit because I feel like if I want to work on the story and how the story’s being told, that involves more than just writing 10 lines of narration.

Well, it certainly brings up some really interesting questions about the very definition of writing. Is writing only words on paper, or is writing actually something else? Don DeLillo defines writing as “focused thought”… People have said that I write good emails. And I think that skill is trying to literally take the thoughts out of your head and communicate them to someone else in a very direct way, right? With these documentaries, that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t believe so much that the way to make a good documentary  — and a lot of people make great documentaries this way — is to put everything in the edit bay and work on all the scenes, and then suddenly you have a seven-hour rough cut, and then you whittle it down and say, “Oh, that moment’s working good. Let’s put that here.” I prefer something with a lot more intention, which is like writing an email. Accidents will happen, and the story will turn, and that’s all great. It makes it better than you can ever imagine it being. But I’m being informed first by an initial conversation with a director who’s spent their life trying to tell this story.

The paradox is that it’s often not actually about making a film, it’s about the maker’s experience and journey and being in the world in a very specific way. And that can be a very hard thing for the filmmaker when you get to the edit. You come to a point where you have to say, “Here’s my experience and what I got out of this personally over here in this box, and here’s what everybody else can actually watch.” Right, exactly. And here’s where I may start to sound a little bit defensive, but bear with me. Twenty years ago, there weren’t that many writing credits on documentaries. It’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that the WGA recognized the credit, and that more people within the industry recognize the credit. Because again, I think there’s this idea that the documentary director is supposed to be the sole author of these films. People assume, “Oh, why would a director of a documentary need a writer?” Like, that’s silly, right? The director should be the writer. They should be the authors, right? They’re filming — sometimes for years. They’re chasing something. And I think that is an unbelievable skill, one that I frankly don’t possess that well. Louie Psihoyos does this as well as anyone, I think. He has the ability to go somewhere, get in the middle of something and get it so it’s beautiful. It’s an amazing skill. Why does he also have to have the skill of figuring out exactly how the story goes? Is he not a good director if he doesn’t have that specific skill? I don’t think that’s correct.

This brings up so many interesting ideas about how a medium evolves, how we move forward, what our preconceptions are. I look at the way these films are being made today, which is different, I think, than they were five years ago. You have this new thing going on, where you have two or three younger editors who will be working on a film for months on end, and then a bigger, more established editor will come in and close. So there are a lot of hands that touch these films, a lot of brains and a lot of ideas that are brought to the table by a lot of different people. Whereas I think, maybe 10 years ago, it was a much more solitary road for the director. They’d get one editor, and they’d sit there and make it.

This may be going out on a limb, but one could also argue that to a great extent, fiction and nonfiction are almost secondary delineators and that cinema is really about experiencing different uses of the form. There’s an end point where these terms and roles and credits fall away and you’re just making a really good film. Here’s what I would say about that: The world of docs got really exciting about 10 years ago, when you had some of these films that used narrative devices and experimented with the form. But I think there’s also a segment of the audience that either wants a narrative film or they want a doc, and when it falls somewhere in the middle, they’re a little uncomfortable. They’re not sure what they’re watching. So there were several films in the past I thought would do extremely well and they did do well. But I thought they would have been even bigger than they were. I think part of the audience these days has not caught up with that idea of, is it just a great film? I wish more people looked at it like that, because that’s really, in the end, what we’re working for on these films.

I think part of the rebellion you find in audiences has to do with the fact that, by and large, we use stories to process our experience and orient ourselves in our lives, if you will. So when a film bends the rules and isn’t all nice and tidy, it’s almost like the audience’s psychic antibodies team up against it because it’s adding confusion rather than distilling experience. When you tell the story of how your first child was born, you almost always tell it the same way. You have shaped that story in your mind, with certain words and certain phrases and certain moments that are clear and vivid for you. And when you told that story 10 years ago, and when you tell that story 10 years from now, you’re going to tell it almost exactly the same way. We like certainties in our storytelling. We’re very regimented. And so, when you get these films that push that, that make us question that, it is unnatural for us. It makes us feel something. Is this real? Is this truth? When you get a chance to work on one of these films that’s more experiential and it’s pushing those boundaries, it’s very exciting. But now, having done it a few times, you have to know what you’re getting into and what you want out of it.

It does seem like you have figured out a way to get access to all the best parts of making these films without all the years of pain involved! That’s exactly right. I’m the biggest cheat in the world! People say, “Hey, why don’t you direct these films?” It’s a combination of a couple of things I’ve brought up already: the business model is the worst thing in the world. I mean, it’s unbelievable how anyone can survive anymore just making documentary films, unless you are prolific. And there are people out there, we all know their names, who are prolific. They’re industries unto themselves. But if you’re just someone who’s rubbed up against a story and figured out that your only defense mechanism is to film it because you’re there, and if you don’t, who’s going to tell that story — this is something you can live with for two, three, four, five, six, seven, 10 years, literally. There’s no budget in the world that’s going to pay you for that. And so, part of the reason I don’t direct films or try to direct films that much anymore is because I live in Los Angeles. I have two kids. You know, it wouldn’t be possible for me. I’d have to take other jobs at the same time, and I don’t want to do that. So I do get the best of these films.

I’m curious about your life outside of film. What life outside of film?

It seems to me that you are bringing a certain amount of experience that’s different from the way most people approach the problems we’re talking about. I’m curious about what that’s informed by. To be honest, I would say that I am immersed in it, probably too much. There is a fear factor going on at all times about paying the bills, and that fear factor has led me to say yes to almost everything that comes my way. For quite a few years, to the detriment of other aspects of my life, I probably worked too much. At the same time, it is addictive. Not just the actual end product, not just the moment you show it, but actually to work on [these films] is addictive. I get up early in the morning, and I just cannot wait to get to my computer because I’ve been thinking about something that I’m working on. I can’t wait to try it.

How many films do you work on at a time? A lot. They’re all in different phases, but everyone who wants to make a documentary wants to go to Sundance. Sundance is the bar, and even if [a film] is not necessarily what you might call “a Sundance film,” the [postproduction] schedules are set by the Sundance [deadline]. People think, “Well, we’ll try for the Olympics, and if we don’t make the Olympics, we’ll go somewhere else.” And so, right now, I’m working on five films that are all going to be submitted to Sundance and they’re all in various forms, but they’re all coming down the stretch to a cut that’s watchable, that’s submittable, that’s in the neighborhood of “done.” And then, at the same time, I’ve got three more that are targeting the spring, so they’re behind the Sundance films, but they’re still being worked on.

And as you said, the fee structure is based on the project, so it’s not an annual thing. You’re not re-upping with each production every year. I mean, maybe you spread it out over time, but it’s not, “Okay, it’s going to be X per year for me to consult with your project.” So if the movie goes on for 10 years… It doesn’t matter. That’s part of the promise or the contract I make. If I say I’m going to work on your film, I’m going to see it through, and if that means it takes five more years, we’ll take five more years. But I set fees that have triggers. We get to a rough cut, and then I’ll get a little bit more of the money. We’ll get to a finished cut, and then I’ll get the last check. So I just kind of space it out so I’m always hitting a deadline of some sort, hopefully.

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