A new medium - write your own documentary

MY STORY - Nathan Penlington, writer, performer and co-creator of The Boy in the Book 

The Boy in the Book is a free, online documentary in which the viewer decides how it proceeds. It is effectively a new medium, released with the support of the BBC/Arts Council England platform The Space on July 16 at www.theboyinthebook.co.uk  It has been co-created by Nathan Penlington who was inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure books, created by Edward Packard and popular in the 1980s and 90s, selling more than 250,000 copies in 20 years. 

How did you come across the Choose Your Own Adventure books, and does Edward Packard approve of what you've done?

I loved the books as a kid. Like many others I was obsessed by trying to experience every path, running out of fingers as I tried to mark my choices just in case I reached a grisly end. 

We have Edward’s complete blessing for this project, and he exceeded my dreams by contributing something entirely unique - you’ll have to explore to find out what that is. He could be considered the largely forgotten grandfather of interactive fiction, so I’m happy that the project also helps document the impact his writing has had on so many people. 

Was there one in particular that sparked your idea?

I’m a huge fan of literature that experiments with form, and wanted to re-explore the Choose Your Own Adventure concept as an adult. I was lucky enough to find and win an eBay auction for the first 106 books in the series. When the books arrived I opened the first one, The Cave of Time, and out fell four pages of a heartbreaking diary written 20 years earlier.  It was an immediate “I wonder what happened to them?” moment, coupled with the thought that I should try and find the person who wrote it. I knew instinctively that finding them would have to happen in the form of the books themselves. I had no idea how that would work, or what form that would ultimately take. 

What is CYOD Ltd and what does it comprise?

The company consists of myself and film-makers Fernando De Jesus, Sam Smaïl, and Nick Watson. Our vision is to expand what can be achieved through interactive narrative, but in a way that keeps strong resonant stories.  Together we created, produced, and directed The Boy in the Book - a new digital documentary which is an adaptation of our multi award-winning spoken word theatre show Choose Your Own Documentary.  For the live show the audience are each given a remote control to decide what happens next. The show toured the UK, including sell-out runs at the Southbank and Soho Theatre, as well as being an unusual official selection at Tribeca Film Festival among others. 

What is your own background – are you an online technician or an artist, or both?

My background is in writing and performing, so the digital realm is something that has been a learning curve, but I revel in creative challenge.  The Boy in the Book has been co-produced by digital studio Joi Polloi, who have done the heavy lifting on the programming. It’s been a collaborative process of having a long wish list on the storytelling side - things we couldn’t achieve in the live show - that had to be coupled with the challenges of adapting a collective experience to the one-on-one dynamic of digital. 

We’re lucky to have found the perfect illustrator for the project in Jonathan Wilkinson, whose off-kilter surrealism perfectly captures a blurring of imagination and reality. 

Where does the documentary narrative start for The Boy in the Book, and how do you differentiate the actual life of documentary with fantasy when you are asking your audience to make up the narrative progress?

You join the story shortly after the diary has been found, becoming part of the documentary production team setting out to search for the author of the diary. It seems counterintuitive, but everything in the The Boy in the Book is true. What you learn as an audience, and the things you experience, affect how the paths unfold - but they all happened in real life as documented. Nothing was scripted for the film footage.  The hardest challenge we faced was ensuring whichever route is taken delivers a satisfying, emotional conclusion. Although it might not be the conclusion the you are expecting!

What does your discovery tell you about the importance of diaries?

Early on in the research period I visited The Great Diary project at Bishopsgate Institute. It is an extraordinary collection of ordinary peoples’ diaries spanning decades. The times may change but concerns don’t. Diaries are an important way of externalising our fears and emotions as a way to come to terms with those issues. In the digital age we’re in danger of not externalising with honesty for ourselves to read, but censoring our true feelings for a social media friendly image. 

How many possible scenarios are there for the documentary, and how many different elements have you had to put together? 

The live show had 1,566 different versions, but we lost the ability to calculate the possible permutations of the new digital documentary when it hit the hundreds of thousands. So the easier measures are that it contains 100 films, 30 characters, 100 original illustrations, and six distinct endings. Split over ten chapters you can play through in an hour and a half, or really take your time to explore the hundreds of archive photographs and documents, as well as go back to any of your digital ‘fingers in the page’ and explore alternative routes. 

How does your association with The Space work, and how has the project been funded?

After the success of the live show we pitched the idea of a digital version to The Space and were fortunate to have been commissioned with their full backing. It’s come a long way from the initial R&D funding from Arts Council England that allowed us to prove the concept of the live show would work - arts funding is crucial to give creators room to push boundaries, and I feel extremely fortunate that we’ve been supported in this way. 

The Space have really helped us bridge the divide between live performance and the digital realm, and were fundamental in getting the digital studio Joi Polloi onboard. The aim was to extend the reach of the original project, in all ways, and I really think we’ve achieved that. 

How will the launch happen?

We would have performed the show at a live launch as this was in production long before the pandemic. Obviously that is no longer possible, so instead The Boy in the Book will be available from the 16th July for people to begin to freely immerse themselves in it. www.theboyinthebook.co.uk 

Have you invented a new medium?

Multiple choice films have existed for a while, although many don’t have a reason for having audience interaction. The Boy in the Book is unique in many ways - it’s the only feature length interactive documentary with a strong emotional storyline. The combination of documentary, illustration, instant messaging, music, and archive material, creates a rich multi-faceted experience.  

I think people will find it is a documentary for the times we’re living through, or at least I hope so. You can play in short bursts, on mobile while queuing, or as a distraction. More than that - it asks you to consider every choice in your life: from what you might say to a stranger, significant life choices, to those things you regret not doing. It also asks you to think about how a decision you make today can affect someone else tomorrow.   

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