Telling tales

Rain forests recede and species vanish, but wildlife and natural history films just keep coming. In this saturated market, it's survival of the fittest, and the
August 1, 2001

Rain forests recede and species vanish, but wildlife and natural history films just keep coming. In this saturated market, it’s survival of the fittest, and the winners must have all their components fully formed. That includes a well- plotted, well-executed script – one of the last elements to fully evolve in this genre.

When Ellen Windemuth, managing director of Off The Fence in Amsterdam, and her team delved into the culture of the San people of the Kalahari and their ritual hunt to the death, they knew only a professional scriptwriter could properly communicate the drama and nuance of the story. ‘In order to write the script of The Great Dance, Jeremy Evans read hundreds of transcripts of interviews with the San people, and lots of history. He approached it as a feature scriptwriter. He had to get into the head of the character and think how that character would talk about his world,’ Windemuth says.

The Great Dance has been scooping up prizes at festivals around the world, some just for the writing. But even with the handshakes and the back patting, scriptwriting isn’t considered a dominant factor in a film’s success.

‘Little attention has been paid to natural history scripts other than to check them for factual accuracy,’ says Evans, whose many credits include Endurance: Shackleton and the Antarctic and Living With Dinosaurs. ‘Obviously, there are a few writers, like Sir David Attenborough, who are spellbinding storytellers, but often programs are simply lists of species, or a cycle of the seasons with observations on animal behavior. The scripts are written by producers who are highly qualified biologists or zoologists, but not primarily tellers of tales. You wouldn’t want to sit next to them on a long flight.’

Producers who give a nod to good writing by hiring an experienced professional admit that writers are often expected to contribute something significant without a lot of time or compensation. ‘You can write a draft in a day or two. But you need to give writers eight or nine days to polish it. That’s compared to 100 days of filming,’ says Jeremy Bradshaw, managing director of Bristol-based Tigress Productions and series producer for ‘In The Wild,’ which includes the award-winning Operation Lemur with John Cleese. ‘The script is given probably less than one percent of the budget.’

Part of the problem for wildlife film writers – and ultimately for the script itself – seems to be confusion or disagreement about the writer’s role. Should they give voice to a fully formed story, or help to sculpt the story itself? Kevin McCarey is a former freelance scriptwriter and director, and now the supervising producer for Nat Geo TV’s Natural History Unit. He believes in a broader definition of the writer’s role.

‘Writers are good storytellers first and good wordsmiths second. I think it’s best to bring the writer in as soon as possible. Nothing is lost and there is much to gain. Often a producer or director is very close to the material. The writer doesn’t know the filmmakers had to endure 100-degrees-plus for two weeks in the desert to get that shot – he or she only knows whether it’s interesting from a story perspective. The writer can also help the producer and editor see the clichés in terms of story structure,’ McCarey says. But McCarey also acknowledges that some projects are dictated by the footage, and for these a writer may only be needed to add a few words.

Dione Gilmour, executive producer of the Australian Broadcasting Corp’s NHU, says a limited amount of visuals call for the highest caliber of writing. ‘Pictures are sometimes restricted. Where you can be flexible is in the writing. That’s why you need a terrific writer,’ she says.

But, Gilmour senses a shift to less scripting altogether. ‘People are moving away from ‘Voice of God’ narration. Social docs with different voices keep people entertained longer. We are finding that we prefer a multiplicity of voices,’ she says.

At Nat Geo, McCarey has noticed a similar preference. ‘Often we look at a film and think it could be helped with human involvement – from scientists or even the filmmakers themselves. Good narrative is as much a creative component as good music and good pictures – until the day when animals start telling their own stories.’

Advice from the pros

‘Most natural history scripts are dead. We wanted to give it life,’ says Jeremy Bradshaw, speaking of Tigress Productions’ Operation Lemur. The film features host John Cleese as an integral part of the process, a factor that would make any picture lively, but there are other dos and don’ts.

‘Pretension and written English are the curse of the natural history doc,’ says Dione Gilmour of ABC’s NHU. ‘Make it direct. It’s spoken English, not written English. So much of it sounds like it’s just been handed out and read. Use the present tense. And don’t have too much writing, for God’s sake.’

National Geographic’s Kevin McCarey agrees. ‘Less is more, and in natural history films, less is a lot more. Set the stage, then get yourself off it.’

Everybody has a list of dreaded clichés. Gilmour’s are: ‘Fragile ecosystems’ and ‘As the sun sinks into the veldt, suddenly the night comes alive with creatures.’ McCarey cites: ‘The eternal drama between predator and prey.’

But McCarey points out that it’s not just the narration that can lapse into cliché, the structure can too. ‘God, please spare us from any more films that start with the sunrise and end with the sunset,’ he says.

Jeremy Bradshaw says a good script is one that gives the nod to classic structure. ‘Use all the traditional storytelling methods, whether that is structuring a story in three acts, using dramatic cliffhangers, or making sure that you have a protagonist – land, animals, whatever.’

Bradshaw’s best advice to natural history writers is to look beyond their own fields. ‘Watch any and all kinds of television, except the genre you’re working in, and figure out why the stories work.’

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