Documentaries come in all shapes and sizes: Some long, some short, some lighthearted, some not so lighthearted. One thing they do have in common is a need to uncover the truth in an untold story. That untold story could be a memory of working with Richard Harris on Harry Potter, or how a CEO came up with an idea to reinvigorate a company. Regardless of the subject matter, the point is to make your interviewee feel free to share their story.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years: from Ringo Starr and Helen Mirren to CEOs and anyone with a great story. And I’ve done enough to know that there is always room for improvement. The following are helpful reminders of what an interviewer may consider when sitting down for an interview.
Prepare your questions in advance.
You already have an idea of what you would like to hear; that’s why you chose this person to interview. But we need to hear it in their own words. Normally you will have a script or outline on hand to keep you on track. What do you want to hear? Your research and preparation for the story and interview will be your guide. But be prepared with some questions. The average is five to ten.
There are plenty of creative ways to film an interview. Most of the time there is one person on camera. The typical style is to have them looking “off camera” at the interviewee (not the camera). If you prefer he looks off camera, you may need to remind him, especially if he is inexperienced. There are a number of ways to frame your shot. Check out this website on creative camera framing techniques: www.studiobinder.com/blog/types-of-camera-shot-frames-in-film Whichever your creative preference, let your DP/camera operator know or have her show you some ideas. Regardless, rehearse this creative before your interviewee walks into the room. Have your audio person sit or stand in position to audition your framing ideas. It’s best to work this out before your shoot date. If you add a second camera, work out that placement in advance, too. When I interview, I like to sit right next to the camera with my shoulder almost touching the tripod. But camera placement is a completely different subject. Just know that you need a plan.
Make the interviewee comfortable.
Making the interviewee comfortable begins the moment you call their agent or make the first contact to discuss an interview date. Be considerate of her time. Avoid last-minute changes to the schedule or location. Make sure the chair and room is comfortable. Have at least a sealed bottle of water available. Your lights, sound and camera must be set before she walks into the room. Put your interview at ease with light conversation after a greeting. Talk about “the weather”, or some quick anecdote that may be fun to talk about. Read them: they may not want any small talk at all! Remember: You set the tone.
Have a conversation.
Naturally, a regular conversation with family and friends needs no preparation. But making a film is business. Be prepared with questions but do not stick to a rigid laundry list. Have a conversation. Enjoy a back and forth exchange but let them talk. This is not about you. Let your interviewee shine and show her personality. Listen for new information and get them to expand. Remember that you are discovering interesting information for your audience. Listen closely: you may come up with new questions during the conversation!
“I need my questions in advance.”
Oftentimes the interviewee will ask to see the questions in advance. My concern is that the interviewee will try to memorize their responses and give stilted, rehearsed and bland responses that do not come off naturally. But you cannot say “no” and deny them something in advance. Really, they do need to have an idea of what you’re going to talk about. So provide a short paragraph on the nature of the conversation. Keep it in general terms.
Frame questions to avoid “yes” and “no” responses.
Avoid this dialogue: Question: “Is the sky blue?” Answer: “Yes.” This is basic stuff, but sometimes you may need to prompt your interviewee by asking “why?” in order to get them to elaborate. Don’t ask, “Did you like working with Richard Harris?” Instead, ask, “What kind of relationship did you have with Richard Harris on set?” (More on this below!)
“Please remember to repeat the question in your answer.”
We are telling a story; we need the big picture for context. Sometimes it can be tough to edit a film if the interview does not provide context in an response. Then again, the information could be given context when supported by other content in the film. With enough content and sound bites to carry the story, this works beautifully. It comes down to the art of editing. This becomes more complicated when your film does not have scripted narration to fill in the gaps. Oftentimes we’ll hear a director/interviewer off camera asking a follow-up question or filling in some nuance. This is because the editor determined the information needed support and used interviewer audio from the camera mic. And that’s okay if it happens once or twice. It could add texture to your film. But instead of asking, “Was the sky blue?”, ask “What did you see when you got outside?”
Don’t step on your interview.
Avoid interrupting the dialogue with unnecessary remarks or reactions. You’ll ruin a sound bite.
“Is there anything you would like to add?”
When the interviewee believes the interview is over, they tend to relax and become chatty. Keep the camera rolling. Sometimes a DP will cut the camera on their own when they sense things are wrapped. Don’t let this happen! (“Please wait for me to say cut!”) Time and again, I will see an interview run a third longer than expected because I’ve gained more trust. Now she feels like having a conversation. Exploit this opportunity. Don’t ruin it by cutting or taking off their mic and finding yourself reattaching it. Slow down and keep things rolling. Sometimes the best stuff is saved for last. Have you ever noticed in television crime shows where a detective will act like an interrogation is over and begins to leave but stops to ask one seemingly harmless question? Usually the interviewee will slip up and say something very enlightening. Watch an old Peter Falk Columbo and you will know exactly what I’m talking about. It works!
Chase Roberts is owner and operator of videocrew.com, a Los Angeles video production company specializing in video crews for documentaries, marketing films, red carpets, and corporate films. VideoCrew.com is owned and operated by VISIONSOUND FILMS.
Our reel: https://youtu.be/NVwZ7d9ZnIo