Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.





Guest Blog by Karen Everett

Here's a guest blog from our DOC TALKS expert interview for March 18th, Karen Everett of

Advice to Filmmakers: Reverse Engineer Your Psychobabble

I had the pleasure of having a former psychotherapist in my recent weekend seminar, "Structuring the Character Driven Documentary". When we began our story focusing exercises, he was picked to be the guinea pig. One of the documentary story exercises involves filling out three simple sentences, which provide the skeletal backbone for acts one, two and three.

For example, the first sentence reads, "When _____ happens, _______ (the protagonist) wants ___________. The idea is to try to pinpoint act one’s inciting incident, protagonist, and quest. For the film "Man on Wire", for example, the sentence might read "When he sees a picture in a magazine of the Twin Towers, Philippe Petit (the protagonist) wants to walk across a tightrope stretching from one tower to the other."

My former psychotherapist, let's call him John, read his first sentence to the class. It went something like this, "When he becomes depressed, the protagonist seeks a deeper meaning to life." Then the class members took turns commenting on this sentence in terms of its ability to help him focus his story. As you may expect, most of the critique focused on how vague the sentence was. An inciting incident is just that: an incident, or event, that is a catalyst toward a quest. So “becoming depressed" needs to be more specific. What caused him to become depressed? Was it a breakup? Was he not meeting his business goals? Of course depression does not always have a trigger event, and in that case the storyteller needs to find what editor Ken Schneider calls a "representative anecdote".

The problem with the end of this sentence is that it is equally vague. Seeking a “deeper meaning” could mean many things. The more concrete the goal or quest, the better it works in terms of focusing and engaging the audience. So what would a sense of a deeper contact with the vitality of life mean for this individual? Is he a 50-year-old man contemplating fatherhood for the first time? Is he seeking a mystical experience, but this time without the help of a drug trip?

As we class members started thinking like screenwriters, concocting events from our imagination that would satisfy the structural mandate of finding a specific catalyst event and then a concrete object of desire, I noticed that John was looking a bit puzzled. It dawned on me that this thought process was a bit foreign to him. He was used to dealing in the realm of feelings and the language of psychotherapy and transformation.

I shared my insight with the class. I explained that although I didn't know much about John, I suspected he needed to reverse engineer the thought process that many therapists go through in their work. (Having watched several shrinks do this to me, I feel I can comment on this.) Therapists listen to the events in their clients’ life and then draw meaning from them. For example, my therapist heard about my breakup, and then clarified my own need (quest) to be more self-sufficient. Or they heard me complaining about being stuck in a dead-end job, and determined that I was in need of transforming into a more self-confident person.

What John needed to do was to start with the language of psychotherapy and then think backwards to the concrete and sometimes mundane life events that generated his “diagnosis”. Rather than seeing just his protagonist’s depression, he needed to pinpoint the concrete life conditions and events that gave rise to it. Likewise, the desire for a deeper sense of meaning in life will look differently for different people. So what could it look like for his documentary’s main character?

Reverse engineering the language of psychotherapy or transformation is not only for therapists. Many of us tend to think in terms of the inner meaning of our characters life events. But when plotting out a story, we need to then think back to the specific life events that uproot our protagonist’s world and set them on a quest toward a concrete goal.

For more information from Karen on how to structure a character-driven documentary, click here.


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