What Directing Documentaries Taught Me About Adaptation, Drama and Truth


A good story is a good story.  Fiction, non-fiction it doesn’t matter.

I love a “page turner”.  I love to be compelled to turn the page or “scroll down” to find out what happens next in things I read — one more chapter even though it is already midnight.  The Other Boleyn Girl – was an example of this. (book, not movie – not going there…)  I read that book in a weekend AND it was 672 pages AND I knew the ending! No wonder it was adapted for the big screen.

The same goes for visual mediums — I have a love/hate relationship with cliffhangers at the end of an episode or season. It brings out the sado-masochism side of me — uhm, LOST anyone!?! I find my worst old habit resurfacing when watching a compelling documentary. I bite my nails hoping against odds that maybe, just this once, our environment isn’t being destroyed – Gasland.  I know a movie is good when I squirm in a darkened theater because I’d rather be uncomfortable than take a bathroom break and miss even one minute of the film – Inception, Black Swan – there have been so many wonderful films I’ve sat in pain through.

Architect Frederic Schwartz discusses
9/11 memorials in The Art of Memories

Good stories come from conflict. Fiction, non-fiction it doesn’t matter.

Conflict comes from opposing views clashing, obstacles appearing to be insurmountable and all around uncomfortable situations. Dramatic situations are never NICE.  I am going to be straight up honest right now: If someone tells you your script, film, TV pilot or documentary is “NICE” — you have failed.

When I undertook directing and producing my first documentary, I watched a lot of documentaries. I was already a huge fan but I viewed and analyzed them in a different way.  Why was one interesting and informative but another riveting?

Sculptor Noah Savett selects steel at Hangar 17 in The Art of Memories

Good documentaries are not just records of an event or a behind the scene looks at a person’s life.  Good documentaries revolve around conflict and goals – two things that go hand in hand in good storytelling.  Children dream of a different life from prostitution and crime but the world appears to be stacked against them –- Born into Brothels.  Indigenous peoples fight to be heard when their land is poisoned and demand financial compensation from the company they hold responsible — Crude.

Like a good narrative, documentaries have “loglines” — that single sentence that announces what the conflict, obstacle, goal will be.  A good documentary will make the bad guy, be it “big oil” or a “serial killer” or “poverty” or “cancer”, even more terrifying than any alien invasion in a blockbuster will ever be.  Why? Because it is real life and the “truth” of this follows us out of the theater when the lights come up or into our bedrooms after we turn off the television. It haunts us.

“Uh, Oh. My documentary doesn’t have a bad guy,” I say to myself.  I get worried, The Art of Memories is on steel artifacts from the attack on the World Trade Center.  My second documentary on “inanimate objects.”   My first, Following the Angels, is on Tiffany stained glass windows.  Of course they were lost, then found and seem to be cursed.  Neither documentary is really on the actual inanimate objects but lives of the people they touch.

Actual news clipping of Annie Londonderry courtesy of Peter Zheutlin

There doesn’t always have to be a “bad guy” in a documentary, but like all good narrative, there must be something nearly impossible to overcome or an important goal to attain.  Will hearts be broken? Or will hard work and determination make dreams come true for these adorable children? — Mad Hot Ballroom.  Are we going to learn something terrifying about our favorite junk food that will change what we eat forever? Is this man really willing to risk his life to show us? Super Size Me

The most important thing needed to create drama is to make sure the audience is invested in the story.  I think that is best done by building a connection between the audience and the characters.  Strong protagonists are the same in fiction and non-fiction.  They must be relatable – note this is “relatable” not LIKABLE.

I don’t know who came up with “likable” but it is not a good benchmark for a successful character.  Was Javier Bardem’s character likable in No Country for Old Men? No, but we couldn’t take our eyes off him.  Audiences can be fascinated by the motivations and actions of even a child molester or arrogant lawyer, especially if they remind us of that creepy teacher or jerky boss we once knew; even better if they provide a glimpse into a dark psyche we never imagined existed.

We will cheer for the underdog or hero if we see ourselves, a friend or family member in a character.  We are secretly in love with our best friend — My Best Friend’s Wedding. They may have different goals but their fortitude or convictions must align with ours or touch some part of our hearts.  We hide from our mistakes — Crazy Heart.

The best stories are driven by drama, conflict and goals, even comedies. A group of guys must retrace the previous night’s event so their best friend’s wedding isn’t ruined –- The Hangover.

When I watch my documentary’s raw footage I search for the story over and over. I equate this with the cardinal rule in screenwriting, “Show, don’t tell.” Think of a personality like Monk — watching him cut his food into precise symmetrical pieces tells us more than a proclamation of him declaring he is OCD. The holds true for documentaries.  Personalities and “truths” are more often revealed in a person’s actions not in their interviews. I want my “characters” to have personalities with definite goals and opinions.  They don’t have to all agree and nothing needs to be easy or even go the way they planned –- I’m not making family home movies.  They can show perseverance and strength in reaching their goals and overcoming obstacles and we can cry along with them if they fail.

What I’ve learned is if I can find drama in real life, with real people I can’t control, I better as hell be able to find it in my narrative projects.  My characters must suffer, be made to fail and fall, fight with their best friend, their lover, their boss, perhaps lose everything or at least teeter on the brink.  If there is a “bad guy” let them be one evil bad-ass mother f*@ker, even better if I can make them multi-dimensional.  A psychopath loves to brutalize and kill women but man can he pick out a suit and look like a million bucks while doing it — American Psycho.

Documentaries deal with “truth” (This is not an article debating “Reality TV” or Michael Moore style filmmaking) and truth is a tricky thing I found when it came to adaptation.  I think anyone who adapts from original material, especially from non-fiction, feels beholden to stick with the “truth.”  I had to struggle and push through this idea of truth about what happened in the source material, especially Londonderry as she was a real person and the book’s author, Peter Zheutlin, is her relative — talk about feeling a heavy weight of burden to be “truthful.”  It was better with Her Letters, maybe because Kate Chopin is long gone. I do remember thinking I didn’t want to disappoint her fans.

It is noble to want to find truth and have integrity in your work.

But the truth is you must still find the drama.

Example: In real life, a person pursues their dream over the course of twenty years with long periods of nothing much going on but you have to tell that life story in a hundred and twenty two minutes.  He is a struggling artist who becomes famous despite his alcoholism….sound familiar? Pollock.  You must forget the “truth” of the toiling years and wrap them all up together, combining all the events leading up to his “break” into the magical moment when his life changes, we route for him to overcome his obstacles. In this case, alcoholism.  In this case, [SPOILER ALERT] he fails. Drama and conflict do not need to be an invasion of planet earth.


Actor Peppe Holmsten in Her Letters

While making documentaries, I’ve learned to be patient. Days, weeks, months sometimes years go by with nothing happening. But it should NEVER FEEL that way to the audience in the end product.  Many people spend years writing and polishing a script but damn you still want it to be a “quick read.”

Have courage and aim always for “edge of the seat” and you’ll hopefully at least end up with engaged and interested.  If you start with “engaged and interested” as your goal for the audience, you are pretty likely to end up with snoring or even worse — NICE and they will say, they “LIKED it.  Period.”


Amanda Lin Costa is a graduate of Emerson College’s film program and has worked for twenty years in the film and performing arts industry.  Starting as a production coordinator, Amanda moved on to working in the “vanities” on Broadway as well as in film and commercials. She is currently directing and producing The Art of Memories, a documentary on World Trade Center steel. Her short documentary Angels Restored is currently on tour at museums across the country.  An experienced crafter of words, Amanda recently completed an adaptation of Peter Zheutlin’s book on Annie Londonderry, the first woman to go around the world on a bicycle.  And in a bold “Film Courage” move she just directed her first short film since college, Her Letters based on a short story by Kate Chopin.

Amanda can be found on Twitter as TheLoneOlive and you can keep up with her projects at TheLoneOlive.com.