Inside the WGC Awards with nominee Barry Stevens

The screenwriter, who is nominated in the Documentary category for his Prosecutor script, talks to Playback about writing for docs and the future of screenwriting.
barry stevens

Leading up to tonight’s Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Awards, Playback will catch up with some of the nominated writers to talk about their craft and what’s up next.

Barry Stevens is a screenwriter whose writing credits to date include the documentary Prosecutor, and iconic TV series including Wind at my Back and Street Legal.

Here Stevens, who is nominated for a Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award in the Documentary category for Prosecutor, talks to Playback about his nominated script and the future of screenwriting.

PB: What does it mean to be nominated by your peers?

BS: It’s nice, because the WGC Awards used to be called the top 10 Awards. The first time they were held, all these writers were just hanging out at the bar and they whipped through the awards in about 20 minutes. They didn’t take themselves seriously, and that’s why I think it’s the best kind of awards evening I’ve ever been to.

It’s good because the people who are judging you are writers. This isn’t untrue of the Gemini Awards, but the WGC is our union, so it is very nice.

PB: How do you approach writing the script for a documentary?

BS: The elements you’re writing with, of course, are different. They’re blocks of footage, they’re interviews, they’re archives, and in some cases narration.

The difference between writing for documentary and writing for drama is that almost all of your writing for drama is done before anything goes to camera, whereas most of the writing for a documentary comes after you’ve started shooting and usually in the cutting room.

But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good idea to write a script, an outline, a treatment or something of a documentary, even if you don’t know what’s going to happen. Think about the dramatic questions that are alive in the story you’re going to film.

You don’t know how it’s going to go, but you should have an idea of how you expect it to go and how you might deal with that. Drama should be real and documentaries should be dramatic.

PB: How, if at all, was this script a departure from your comfort zone?

BS: It was more complicated than any film I’ve ever looked at. It was legal, political and global, and it was difficult, so that’s why I tried to filter it through the experience of this one man, who is the key active person in the International Criminal Court.

PB: The film is going to be on TV again and is set to make rounds at film festivals. Did you have other platforms in mind when putting it together?

BS: I think it’s available for purchasable download at NFB and also on DVD, and it’s sold in foreign countries. I certainly like new media.

PB: Is a transmedia approach something screenwriters should be getting more involved in?

BS: Screenwriters can do whatever they’re comfortable with or whatever they like, but you can’t ignore the fact that the world of filmed entertainment has been upended and is constantly changing.

But one thing that isn’t changing is the idea of filmed entertainment or documentary.

Obviously the forms, styles and delivery methods change, but there are still people watching something that someone has put together, visually and with sound, that tells some kind of a story – whether it’s two minutes on YouTube or a drama series on HBO or a TV documentary.

PB: How will recent government cutbacks effect how you do/get work?

BS: I don’t know. People have been crying ever since I’ve been in the industry in Canada that we’re going to die, but somehow we don’t.

Certainly what’s happened to the CBC is a shame. If public broadcasting is destroyed that will be a tremendous blow to our sense of nationhood, and that looks to be the process we’re in.

But somehow, Canadian filmmaking will survive.

PB: What’s up next for you?

BS: I’m producing a series for History Television called The Faces of War, which is, oddly enough, without narration. If there’s anything I’m known for, it’s writing narration.

These are interviews with veterans of conflicts ranging from Somalia to the Second World War, and they’re 30 min shows for History.

It’s good, because we’re recording all these old guys. We’re really focusing Second World War veterans at the moment, and this is the last hurrah for these guys, the last time they’ll be interviewed.

PB: How will you celebrate if you win?

BS: I’ll have a glass of alcohol in an appropriate price point for a screenwriter. So it won’t be French champagne, it’ll be Spanish.