9 Filmmakers Tell Us What Makes The Perfect Documentary Character

We like to think that the people that capture our hearts and minds as subjects in documentary films are just like us. Regular folks who just so happen to have cameras in front of them for extraordinary reasons. The fact is the filmmakers making those films have very specific reasons why they have selected these individuals, and it’s not solely because of the issues they support or the work they do. Here we asked nine topflight docmakers to explain what makes the prefect documentary character. Here, in their own words, are their fascinating criteria. 



Kati With An I, Fake It So Real, Actress

I’m allergic to quirkiness in documentary subjects, so that’s the first test for me: is this person a normal human being? Too often documentary filmmakers fetishize unusualness in their subjects because that’s what the marketplace seems to demand. But to my mind, too often one subject’s quirk can be too easily swapped with another’s. Whether the subject is a wacky inventor, an impersonator of a famous person or woman with an impossible dream, the film’s end up feeling like repeats of the same thing. Quirk may sell, but it can also bore.

Beyond that, I’m always looking for people who have inherent layers to their personalities, tiny things about them that betray a performative nature that can be detected by a focused observational camera. We are always performing aspects of social identity, with or without cameras on us. I kind of see this fact as a basic building block of society and culture. Certain people at certain (often transitional) stages in their lives (for me this has been a girl about to graduate high school or working-class dreamers who strive to succeed at professional wrestling or an actor dealing with the role of stay-at-home mother) show a certain kind of performance in their everyday being. Training the camera on them and structuring their characters in the editing can reveal an essential quality of being human.




Our Nixon, NUTS! (in production)

For me to say YES to a subject, I have to say YES to these questions:
Do I really, really, really want this movie to exist?
Does the subject seem so good that it's like... “Duh, why hasn't anyone already done this?”
Will this subject still be interesting to me 2-8 years from now?
As I think about it more and more, do I think of more and more reasons it is interesting?
Am I the right person to make this movie?
Do people's eyes light up when they hear me talk about it?
Does it seem like it has a high likelihood of failure?
Will I be forced to learn a lot of new things?
Does it not sound like a lot of other movies I've seen?
Is there actually a story—a fairly complicated one, where things change over time?
Do I not quite know how to feel about the subject/the story?
Do I wake up in the night paralyzed with fear that the subject/the story is so good that I will never do it justice?




Speedo, Full Battle Rattle, The Overnighters

If I immediately placed the burden of carrying a feature film on a subject, I’m not sure anyone would pass the test.  
Initially, I look for several things: One, do I simply like the person and find them interesting enough to want to spend a lot of time with them. I can’t imagine making a film, and expending this much effort, on a film about someone I disliked.
Secondly, are they engaged in some meaningful journey that intrigues me? My criteria are expansive. It could include the demolition derby, role-play in the US Army’s Iraq War simulation, or ministering to broken men in the North Dakota oilfield. Passion and obsession are infectious. You know the old sayings from the screenwriter’s wall: “character is action” and “drama is conflict.” They’re useful to consider. Of course documentary can very successfully dramatize interior life. But I am drawn to characters engaged in both external and internal struggles. Which leads to my final point.
I am drawn to conflicted characters, typically men, wrestling with strong contradictions and impulses. Finding subjects who are natural performers helps, but the real interest is locating the deeper motivations, and measuring the distance between the public and private self. Of course screen presence or charisma is essential, but this is hard to define or quantify. But you tend to recognize these qualities when you find them—or perhaps you have no business making feature documentaries.




Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman's Journey

I never really know if a subject—in this case I’m talking about characters—can carry an entire film until I do a test shoot. It tells me a couple of things, the first is does the camera love them? Do they take on the light, do they pop? It is an ineffable quality but you’ll recognize it when you watch the rushes—you won’t be able to take your eyes off of them. A casting director once told me that she knew when a certain person was right for the role because she couldn’t see beyond them when they read their lines, they took up the entire space in front of her. So the characters I'm thinking of building a film around should do the same, they should invade the frame, in a tight shot, in a wide shot, and everything in between. The second thing it’ll tell me is if they’re good storytellers. They may have a great story to tell but if they’re not compelling, then I have nothing. Now the question is, do I believe their stories? Not necessarily. I’ve found through the years that very few people are truly reliable narrators of their own personal histories, especially in the presence of a camera.   But the bottom line is that they are fascinating, and you’ll parse out what’s real and what’s not real as the filming progresses.

So when you do a test, make sure you shoot your potential subject in varying ways and in as many situations as possible but most especially film them in silence—meaning to say film them doing nothing and ask them nothing. How they handle silence is really very telling.

Beyond this, what I’ve found over the years of shooting famous, not so famous, and about to be famous people is that unpredictability is really key. Hopefully the person you’ve chosen to spend the next two, three years of your life obsessing about will surprise you—in both good and bad ways—and will take you places you never even imagined.




Dont Look Back, The War Room, Kings of Pastry, Unlocking The Cage (in production)

We don't have exact rules about choosing a subject because one never knows how things will turn out. But we do look for certain things. And of course sometimes we'll make a film about someone simply because there's funding. Usually our subjects select us. Well, not the subject exactly but someone else who has seen our films will say to us, "You should make a film about  xxxx."  Optimally for us, this person is totally passionate about what they are doing and about to risk all to pursue a dream. 

Next we'll meet the person and see if we like each other because making a film together is a relationship. And like any relationship, in the beginning you don't know how it will turn out. You don't know if you will like each other through thick and thin, for "better or for worse." It comes down to trust. For access, they need to let us into their lives and we need to respect the privilege of going on the adventure with them. And if we're lucky we'll stumble upon Bob Dylan or James Carville. 




The Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp, Detropia

I mostly make character-driven films, so choosing that character to hang your hat on is a big, big deal. Like so many things in filmmaking this is mostly a gut  decision. You just know a great documentary character when you see one—which is not that often actually.

Still, there are specific things I look for in a documentary personage, when debating if he or she can carry, or at least partly lift up, a film. For starters, a great documentary character is someone who is exactly the same no matter if the cameras are rolling or not.  A person who lights up only when we are shooting and suddenly feels performative in some way is definitely a red flag for me, and my frequent collaborator Rachel Grady.  It’s like, “If we want to cast we’ll just make fiction already!”

A robust ego is also a bonus, someone who feels they have something important to say and that people should listen up when they walk in a room…but yet doesn’t give a damn if you agree with them or not. That does not preclude them from depth or a level of human insecurity, but I find I am drawn (and I think audiences are too) to people who have more extreme personality traits than the rest of us.

A good doc subject needs to be unsettled in some way, actively searching for something in their life they have yet to attain (an education, a relationship with their father, salvation, etc.). Passivity just doesn’t carry a film (although one could argue that in Searching for Sugar Man things mostly happened TO the main character, Rodriguez, as others sought him out, but that was such an epic and incredible tale that it didn’t matter).

I rarely see another film and wish I’d made it, but when I do it’s because the character was so well chosen and did all the right things to keep us watching. Great examples include Billy in Billy the Kid, Philippe Petit in Man on Wire and Mr. Vig in The Monastery, which if you have not seen, you should. Like right now.



The List, What Tomorrow Brings (in production)

Meeting someone who I believe has a story worth sharing with the world—specifically a story I want to help them share with the world—is so exhilarating and intense it once made me hop on a plane three days after giving birth. I have the sense that everything before in life has led me to this moment. And that’s exactly how I felt when I met Razia Jan, the woman featured in my new film, What Tomorrow Brings.

Razia saw the desperate need to educate Afghanistan’s daughters, and opened the country’s only free private school for girls. Through the sheer force of her will and passion, she keeps the school open in a strongly patriarchal society that has little regard for women’s rights. Razia is a mother in every sense of the word: loving and compassionate and tough; wanting the best for her girls, the best for her school, the best for her country.

For me, Razia is a great character because she’s someone I admire and who makes me question my own contributions to humanity. She challenges what I know about the world and asks me to connect more deeply to it. She teaches me something about life and love and death and suffering. She helps to give voice to the voiceless and dares to hope in the face of adversity. And like all great characters, Razia inspires action through example.




Inside Out: Portraits of Children, Growing Up Fast, The Supreme Price

My documentaries thus far have involved female characters who defy expectations and shatter stereotypes in ways that often surprise, amuse, move and engage audiences. I have worked with women and girls ranging from six to sixty. Across that entire spectrum I am looking for incandescence, something intangible but luminous that emanates from within and is visible onscreen. Voices are the threads that weave the internal world of subjective reflections with the larger overarching narrative, conversations, scenes and exposition. From my first conversation with a potential subject through the final sound mix I pay close attention to many details related to how voices sound and to how listening to someone speak makes me feel.

Honesty is key, along with authenticity, self-acceptance, humor and spontaneity. For me as a filmmaker, the messiness and discomfort of the truth is preferable to the lies that are perpetuated when it comes to some of the roles women and girls are socially conditioned to play, the illusions they are expected to uphold without even having a forum within which to question them, the myths they are pressured to reinforce and the sometimes impossible ideals they struggle to conform to at the expense of their integrity. If a subject presents a highly calculated, carefully pruned and polished version of herself, I as a director along with the editors will have fewer dimensions and nuances to work with. I prefer to work with subjects who are willing and able to access and express a broad range of affects and emotions while being filmed both in public and very private settings in a wide array of circumstances.  This involves risks for the subject and a leap of faith because in order for someone to be unselfconscious she has to be fearless. 

Audiences around the world who watch documentary films are diverse and not everyone is going to like—let alone agree with—women and girls who are iconoclasts, revolutionaries, fighters, outsiders and dreamers. As a director, I am intrigued by the delicate balance required when it comes to shaping the portrayal of female subjects who are secure enough not to need approval or validation from the mainstream—but still vulnerable enough to inspire identification and empathy. Most of the women and girls I find most engaging on screen own their anger and use it as a catalyst rather than repressing it. The resulting energy and determination can inspire activism and spark animated interviews and dynamic interactions. These elements help keep the audience alert, thinking and engaged with what’s at stake as they watch a film.   




The World Before Her

My favorite part about making docs is finding great "characters." In fact, that is how I started off in this business. My first jobs were to find compelling "characters," for various docs and series. I always felt like a detective—chasing leads, sleuthing, making umpteen phone calls—all to locate that perfect someone who had an incredible story to tell and who embodied the ideas that one was trying to convey. Over the many years I've been doing this, I've come to realize a few things.

1. Finding a great doc subject is essentially casting. Yes, this is documentary and a lot of people are fascinating and live incredible lives, but a great doc subject is someone who is entertaining—and by that I don't just mean charismatic (though that certainly helps) but someone who is open, complex, articulate, and for me, they have to be someone I like—regardless of whether I agree or disagree with their choices and/or what they stand for. When you spend a number of years making a film with people, a relationship develops and that closeness and affection is often what we are witnessing on screen.

2. The people I find most compelling are those who have a goal and are willing to let me follow their journey to reach that goal. When I was making my first film my editor gave me a brilliant piece of advice (though sadly after I'd finished shooting), he said, "Action is character." Finding subjects who are after something and following their process is a near guarantee that you will uncover truths about who they are, far more interestingly and fully than by simply interviewing them.

3. The most fascinating characters for me are always those whose lives, choices and conflicts help us articulate something about the larger world. This has always been a guiding principle. The idea that we can extrapolate from the specific to the universal and that one, lone person on the other side of the planet actually holds up a mirror to all of us, that is extraordinary to me. I want constantly to be reminded that all of us are in fact a mass of swirling multitudes. Characters who speak to that are the ones I gravitate toward.

[Photo: Dont Look Back]