The art of the interview
Human first, filmmaker second
I was a video journalist for over fifteen years. In the course of that time I had the opportunity to interview countless people as part of my job. These interviews were usually a basic sit down style interaction.
I had a reputation of being able to get great sound from people and in turn add impactful elements to the story. My style is really no great secret, I simply take a different approach to how I connect with people. There has to be a true sense that you care about a person and what matters to them. If you fake your interest in someone, they will usually pick up on it. If you don't care, how can you expect your audience to care?
Always strive to make the person feel as comfortable as possible in front of the camera. After all, they have been gracious enough to grant you time with them. Always respect the person in front of your lens.
points to consider during your next interview
living room over waiting room
You want to try and create the most comfortable environment you can when you begin your interview. Try and make sure everything is ready to go before you have the person sit down. This means the tripod is up, the camera is mounted, lights are on, and all mic checks have been done.
You don't want to lose any energy from the person, so when they are brought into the room, you want them to settle in and be ready to get started. The more time you have them wait while you fumble around, the more anxiety is going to build. Think about how anxious you get sitting on the butcher paper waiting for the doctor!
There you are sitting face to face and now you're ready to begin the interview right? Wrong! Don't jump right into your first question. Begin by commenting on the office, asking their plans for the weekend, even explaining again that your interview is going to feel very much like a conversation and not a tax audit. Don't ever forget that the interview process is a tremendous tool in your documentary work. This is a chance to find out information, fill in the gaps, and also produce key reactions to other elements of your story.
Engage with knowledge but proceed with wonder
I've heard it said before that everyone loves to talk about themselves. I don't necessarily believe this is true when it comes to the interview process. I think it's better to say that everyone loves to know that you're actually interested in what they have to say! You must have a connection with the person as you share this experience. Trust is key.
Don't ever sit down to do an interview without first knowing something about your subject, and what you're going to be talking about. This may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many producers expect the person they are interviewing to do all of the heavy lifting during the process. There are going to be key points that you want to cover, and it's not fair to expect your interview subject to hit all of those points that make a great story without some guidance from you.
Once you've done your homework and you feel confident in starting the conversation, let your subject speak from the heart and allow them room to think through their response. Explore each topic on your notes in a very conversational way. Your notes serve as reminders for you, not a grocery list.
Remember to listen! Don't always stare at your notes and think about what you're going to say next. This will break your connection with the person! Structure your notes as simple bullet points, and glance down every once in a while. Your main practice should be listening and continuing the conversation.
The hand holding approach versus interrogation
Your subject is always going to feel a bit uneasy when they know that they are not only being recorded, but also that they are being asked a series of questions by someone sitting directly in front of them. It's your job to make this person feel as though it's a friendly conversation. No one likes to feel like they're being questioned regarding a crime investigation.
all Board the anxiety train!
Talk about your organization.
Talk about yourself.
Talk about what you're doing.
If you throw one of these duds out there, you can count on beads of sweat forming on your interview subject's forehead! This will in turn result in fear, anxiety, and overall fumbling for a response. You don't want this. Don't put the burden on your subject. It's your job to lead the interview and determine where you're going. You would be better served to try a more delicate approach which leads your subject into what you would like them to talk about.
I feel relaxed...let's talk!
I know that your organization focuses on feeding the hungry, and that you offer the homeless two meals a day. How has that impacted the homeless community in your eyes?
You've dedicated your life to helping those in need. You've traveled the world feeding the hungry, and even been homeless yourself for a short time. That had to be a difficult time in your life.
There is a line outside the shelter every morning, and your success rate with job placement has increased year after year. What's behind it all?
enjoy the silence
Ever notice those moments of uncomfortable silence between thoughts when you're interviewing someone? Believe it or not, those are good. Let your subject think through what they are trying to say. These are also the times when someone may tear up and begin to show emotion. Please resist the temptation to jump in. What you will end up with is sound from you, off camera, explaining what they mean all because of that uncomfortable feeling, and your subject nodding and simply saying "exactly!" This doesn't make for great sound.
Let them find their way, and only jump in if they get completely lost for words and are feeling uncomfortable. Don't speak for them, but rather get them back on track. You'll know when it's time, it's an instinct you will learn. In these times of wandering off, your subject will thank you for a gentle nudge.
That's a wrap!
The interview is finished and everyone came out alive! Don't get up just yet. Before you do break that connection and it's time to pack up, let the person know that you want to just do a quick check of your notes to make sure that you got everything you needed.
This is also a great time to go back and have the person say anything that you felt didn't hit the mark the first time, or if you just want to attack a certain point one more time. Sometimes the way a person says something the second time just sounds better. Don't be afraid to say something like "You know, I just want to go back and touch on this one more time..."
Finally, always remind the person that they did a great job, and let them know how thankful you are that they took the time to sit with you.
- Remember to be a human being first and filmmaker second!
- Do your homework and know your subject, but always keep it conversational!
- It's an interview, not a police interrogation, make it comfortable!
- Don't be afraid of that uncomfortable silence. It makes for great, natural feeling sound!
- Before you leave and lose that connection, double check yourself for any final pick ups.