The Doc Project

What do you do when the story you pitched isn't the one that's unfolding?

As documentarians, we know we can't control what we'll discover when we're in the field. Sometimes the story we find diverges from the story we anticipated. And since making a doc is a negotiation between recording life accurately and rendering it artfully, it's dangerously easy to put up blinders to the reality of what's occurring in front of the microphone.

As documentarians, we know we can't control what we'll discover when we're in the field. Sometimes the story we find diverges from the story we anticipated.

Jess Shane is an emerging radio producer and freelance multimedia storyteller, and she has recently begun working with CBC Toronto as a production assistant for As It Happens.
Circumstances change, interviewees' opinions shift. And since making a doc is a negotiation between recording life accurately and rendering it artfully, it's dangerously easy to put up blinders to the reality of what's occurring in front of the microphone – especially if it's not what we're looking for.

In September, I pitched this doc:

A recently retired teen gymnast's 13-year-old sister is beginning her own promising career in competitive sports. Although her sister is preparing for her biggest competition yet, our protagonist has a vested interest in her sister slowing down.

This first-person documentary is a young ex-athlete's warning, and love letter, to her younger sister about the thrills and dangers of the world she is entering.

Jess Shane's documentary

"I was a gymnast. And then, I wasn't." Saying goodbye to your dream at 16. Listen →

The finished doc ended up looking more like this:

A teen ex-gymnast struggles to come to terms with, and move on from, her decision to leave a sport and community to which she devoted her life.

So, how did a pitch about sisterhood evolve into a first-person narrative about regret and self-discovery?

When I hit the ground running with the doc I pitched, the subject and I quickly came up against a wall. The story my protagonist said she was telling wasn't the one that was happening before me, and I was so committed to the original story that I didn't notice for weeks.

When I realized that I would have to do a U-turn and rethink the piece entirely, I wondered: does this happen to other doc makers? How could I have recognized this situation earlier? And most of all, how do I know the 'real' story will be as good as the version I'm hearing in my head?

I turned to some seasoned doc makers to gather some advice.

Chris Berube — podcast producer & host, Slate

My original pitch:

I went to a cat cafe for CBC Radio Q. I was planning to play music for cats made by a scientist and composer who studies the way animal brains interpret musical frequency.
Chris Berube is an audio producer at Slate magazine and he previously worked at the CBC. (

The doc I actually made:

Most of the cats I met didn't like the music, or more confusingly, didn't respond to it at all. Listen at 10:30. You hear the sound of wildly disappointed interview subjects. The story actually turned out to be funny in the end, much more entertaining than if the cats had actually liked the music.

What changed?

Cats are monsters, that's why it happened. You can't tell them to do anything. All of civilized history has told us that cats do not bend to our will, and yet, I tried.

Meeting the challenge:

I am terrified every single time something doesn't go as planned in the field. You have to fail a lot of times to realize it is normal to change course in the middle of a story, though. When I was a daily reporter, this used to happen constantly. You learn tricks and skills and cope with it. More on this below.

Tips and tricks:

When things change, one option you always have is to make the story about your journey as a journalist. What expectation did you have at the beginning of the story, and what happened? How did that affect you? I would advise everyone to listen to Sean Cole's amazing Marketplace story about the real life Simpsons.

Sean looked for a family named "The Simpsons" to serve as an average American family — he wanted to do a story about how even average people consume way, way too much electricity and resources every year. Turns out, this family was made up of conservationists who lived very simply.

The way Sean tells this story is instructive — he tried one thing, the conclusion he found was different from his expectation, and he made something great with that material. And then there's another crazy twist at the end of the story.

Ashley Walters — producer, CBC Radio & Pacific Content

My original pitch:

There was a 22-month strike that had been going on, one of the longest strikes in recent labour history. I pitched a doc about the anatomy of a strike. What motivates people to go on strike for so long? How does a strike disrupt the workers' lives? What did strikers think they'd gain?
Ashley Walters is a freelance doc producer for CBC Radio. Her work has aired on The Sunday Edition, Ideas, and Living Out Loud. (

The doc I actually made:

My doc explored the aftermath of a strike. [Listen to More Powerful Than God.]

What changed?

My second day doing interviews, the strike ended. When the dust settled, people's lives had been really disrupted. Everyone was asking: "What did we do this for? Was it worth it?" That's what it ended up being about.

Meeting the challenge

I knew there was still a story there because people were really devastated by the situation. But I had to take it slow and get connected with the people who were at the center of the story, and listen more than I spoke. I had to let that dust settle and then watch what people were doing. If I had tried to control the situation and construct the story immediately, I might have missed it.

Tips and tricks

I never really know what my story is about until I'm in the middle of reporting, and then it starts to solidify. I think it's important to always be questioning yourself. Do I really understand this? What perspective and biases am I bringing to this? Am I looking at this in the most inclusive way? It's good to keep these questions in mind so you can stay open towards areas where you might naturally blind.

Gord Westmacott — senior producer, Day 6

My original pitch:

I pitched a doc about a Canadian who had come close to being radicalized and gone to fight with ISIS, but who had pulled back. I wanted to show why and how this happened.
Gord Westmacott is the senior producer for CBC Radio's Day 6. (CBC)

The doc I actually made:

For two long years, Rick Rogers had been on a mission to get to the truth about his daughter's death. She was a 27-year-old Lieutenant in the Canadian Armed Forces when she took her own life. Now, Rick's search for answers could end up changing the way the military investigates a soldier's death. [Listen to A Question for the Military.]

What changed?

It's not like the story morphed or evolved, it was just a completely different story. And the reason was simple: we couldn't find the characters we needed within the timeline.

Meeting the challenge:

I had spent days chasing and hadn't even come close to finding the characters I needed to tell the story. I was working with Steve Wadhams, and eventually he came in with an article from the National Post. He said, "I think there's a story here." It was about a soldier's family trying to get answers about why they couldn't get information out of a military inquest into their daughter's suicide.

So I reached out to the parents and that's the story we ended up telling. It was completely motivated by chance, but the story ended up really strong. Having Steve Wadhams to run interference for you goes a long way.

Tips and tricks:

You have to be realistic about what you can achieve within the time you've got. If it's becoming clear that you're not going to be able to do what you set out to do, find something that is achievable and take it on. I'd still at some point very much like to make a version of that other doc. But I'm glad I didn't lose the opportunity to make something.

Marc Serpa Francoeur — co-founder, Lost Time Media

My original pitch:

Developmentally delayed Angelina and quadriplegic Orandina have spent a half-century living together in a remote corner of the Portuguese island of São Miguel. The Head & The Hand explores the powerful relationship of two women who have confronted great adversity with an inspiring symbiosis and remarkably positive attitude towards life.
Marc Serpa Francoeur is a multimedia doc maker and co-creator of the interactive documentary, The World in 10 Blocks. (Darren Calabrese)

The doc I actually made:

While the basic narrative remained, I had to explore the narrative mostly in the past tense.

What changed?

One of the film's two participants passed away unexpectedly during the production of the film, which is currently in post-production.

Meeting the challenge:

Initially, I was knocked off-balance in terms of the purpose of the film and my relationship to it. The way forward lay in confronting some of the perspectives I'd adopted, and discarding certain presumptions that were no longer sound.

While the initial premise was grounded upon the mutual co-dependence of the two participants, the new reality compelled me to broaden both the scope of the film and my understanding of the subject matter. When it's completed, the film will no doubt be overshadowed by heartache and loss. Will it be what I'd imagined it to be? No, but it will be honest.

Tips and tricks:

Endeavour to remain as flexible and responsive as possible until the tape is in the can. There's something unspeakably crass about trying to force a narrative upon realities that don't match the mold you've designed, and the outcome will surely suffer for it.

David Gutnick — documentary producer, CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition

My original pitch:

I was sent to cover stories on contemporary slavery in West Africa. One of them was to come out of Mauritania and be an examination of how slavery had continued right through the early 2000s. My original pitch was pretty vague as Mauritania is a long way away, Francophone, and so it was difficult to nail anything down.
David Gutnick is an award-winning doc producer and currently a senior producer for CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition. (CBC)

I struggled for three days on the ground. I did several interviews, but nothing was jelling. Often radio documentaries fail because they are just long news stories. I wasn't hearing the story in my head, had no main character, and didn't feel the emotion at the center. And I could not find a slave-owner to talk to.

The doc I actually made:

I ended up telling the story using my fixer (a local journalist hired to help arrange a story) as my main character. The story was about how even a very urbane, sophisticated fellow could not manage to admit — or even see — that he owned slaves. [Listen to Freedom From Slavery in Mauritania.]

Meeting the challenge:

When I realized that my fixer could be my main character, it was an epiphany. He seemed to be anti-slavery, had lived in the U.S., had a job at an American school in Nouchott, and owned a computer. I started gathering tape of him reacting to various scenarios.

On my last morning, my friendship with him gave me a gift. The fixer asked if I wanted to see his new home. I did. And that last scene made the story.

Turned out that my fixer was a slave owner. The sympathetic guy I had grown to like over three days was, in fact, one of the slave-owning monsters. Or was he a monster?

Tips and tricks:

Being sensitive in the field is really exhausting work. One goes out thinking someone is a hero, and then through watching, you realize this person is maybe a scumbag or a fool, so you have to be ready to change gears.

When getting tape, remember that it may be used in a few ways, so make sure you are conscious of that. For example, I got my fixer involved in his emotions out in the field — I could always cut that out if I did not use it, but if needed, there it was.

Don't gather endless amounts of tape thinking a story will emerge if you find yourself struggling. Stop and think: Okay story #1 is not working, why not? Okay then, what is the story? What is my new focus? Sit and write focus statements until you have something to work with. And then go.

So go! Shifting your focus, confronting your biases, or doing a complete 180 happens to the best of us — and strengthens our adaptability and honesty as storytellers.


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