In a recent post on POV’s blog, Tom Roston posed the question “Do Documentary Filmmakers Deserve Screenwriting Credit?” With the upcoming encore broadcast Better This World, I decided to check in with directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, whose documentary screenplay for Better This World won a Writer’s Guild Award last year, to get a brief overview of their doc writing process.

Katie Galloway (right) and Kelly Duane de la Vega, the director/producers of the award-winning documentary "Better This World."  (Photo: Greg O’Toole)
Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega won the WGA Award for Best Documentary Screenplay in 2012. (Photo: Greg O'Toole)

What is your response to the typical question: “But it’s a documentary! What do you mean it was written?”

Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega: We don’t use narration in Better This World, so the “writing” happens through the composition of material we draw on to stitch the story together — mostly characters own words in interviews, but also jailhouse phone calls, surveillance footage, courtroom testimony, newscasts and more.

Writing without narration is incredibly difficult, and developing the screenplay for Better This World was a long, involved process where many different structures and narrative elements were woven together, sometimes kept, often discarded. It was a heavily collaborative process. as most docs are – producer Mike Nicholson and editor Greg O’Toole were deeply involved in the process as well.

You won a Writer’s Guild Award for the film. What was it like for a doc that doesn’t have any voiceover narration to win?

While we understand that we are writing our stories – the no-narration doc has only recently been recognized as a contender for such awards. Hats off to the WGA… The Emmys still don’t consider no-narration docs “written,” but we expect they will come around eventually to recognize such docs are among the most painstakingly written.

What do you think fiction writers can take away from doc screenwriting?

In the end, there is not such a great divide – good writers can learn from both. It really comes down to when and how to deliver information (based in reality or fiction) to create the most compelling narrative possible.

Better This World airs Thursday, August 30, 2012 on POV. Check local listings.

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POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 400 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.