The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

Peter Jackson’s Beatles mistakes - “Eight Hours of TV so aimless it threatens your sanity!”

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Successful stories don’t require a great structure necessarily. There are many reasons for them working - timeliness, wonderful characters you want to spend time with, astonishing imagery.

And era-defining music emerging before your eyes.

These story elements, combined with passion, can take you a long way.

I‘ve worked on many films where I never really considered the story's structure while creating the documentary. I have been making them for such a long time that I’ve internalised the questions that I know I have to ask myself.

When things are working, it means I might vaguely think about making sure that I have an emotional throughline to the story; otherwise, it might feel one-dimensional. If I lose my way, I will think about where the film is heading - does it feel like a resolution? But not every documentary I work on is like this. There is a more methodical approach.

I don’t mean that these other documentaries aren’t valuable. It’s often that there are many other people involved, and the motivation to produce them comes from someone else.

I have to be able to see the story through their eyes. It means trying to understand what they want their story to achieve and fixing, or redesigning the structure to do exactly that. In those cases, I can, and have to be, far more objective. I can see the problems for what they are. I have the emotional distance to see the structural mistakes that are being made. It‘s an incredibly useful skill, and I wouldn’t have developed my approach if I hadn’t spent time making other people’s passion projects succeed. Where it really comes into its own is when one is able to analyse ones own work objectively, even if you are smitten by the subject matter.

Coming back to Peter Jackson, it does seem as that he gets lost in the love he has for his material.

The Hobbit films were interminable. The introduction to the characters took an hour. King Kong had a chase scene in the middle that went on, once again, for almost an hour. (It’s one of the few films I walked out of). And his Beatles documentary suffers from the same thing.

A review - from a music reviewer who loves The Beatles - has a headline:

“Eight hours of TV so aimless it threatens your sanity.”

That word aimless gets to the heart of the problem. Wonderful if you are completely emotionally invested in the subject matter. But if you are not the story seems to disappear completely. Jackson seems to think that the Beatles themselves are interesting enough just to observe. Even with astonishing material you should always be able to view what you are making objectively.

It’s a technical skill. The objectivity comes from the tools you use - which is actually a pretty good definition of science. In the case of story analysis it means you can look at a film you are making and at any stage use your skill to see if any of the choices you are making are causing problems.

These tools let you look under the surface.

Once you have resolved those issues, you can then go back and work on it using your creative imagination.

I have loved Peter Jackson's films. His early film Heavenly Creatures was beautiful and ran for just under 100 mins. The shorter cut of King Kong ran at close to twice that - over 3 hours. It seems like a problem for him. But, as I’ve said earlier, great storytelling isn’t essential for success. But I know it can always help.

And if don’t have subject matter that is inherently so fascinating that the world is bashing a path to your door, then great storytelling is absolutely essential. Our goal is to help you to internalise this approach - so it becomes instinctive and quick. A system you can rely on when you need it.

We work with a range of documentary makers; hugely experienced film school graduates, self-taught video makers, Sundance directors and those for whom this is their first attempt to turn their idea into a documentary.

They are all here for the same thing - to quickly develop the fundamental skills to consistently turn their ideas into a complete, meaningful, beautifully told documentary.

If you want to know more, arrange an appointment as we can talk about how this approach can help you. I’ll do what I can to help you with any struggles you are having.

All the best - Nigel