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Film Independent Wed 11.28.2018

The Doc Life: Ensuring a Successful Interview with Style and Substance

NOTE: this entry in our monthly The Doc Life column originally ran in January of this year. The 2019 Film Independent Documentary Lab is now accepting submissions. The Non-Member deadline is December 3. The deadline for Film Independent Members is December 17.


Interviews are a central component to practically every documentary. Whether watching a cavalcade of experts offering well-educated opinions on a particular subject matter, or marveling as an eclectic cast of characters share their POV about a famous friend or family member, one thing is certain: on the other end of the camera is a documentary filmmaker doing his or her best to elicit a torrent of candid responses to their interview questions.



‘The Fog of War’ (2003, dir. Errol Morris)

Documentarians often seem to develop their own unique style of interviewing. Some opt for a participatory approach, stepping in front of the lens like Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Fahrenheit 911) or Josh Fox (Gasland, Gasland 2). Others utilize inventive technology, like Errol Morris (Fog of War) and his Interrotron. And then there’s Academy Award winner Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight, Inside Job) who has a well-earned reputation for antagonizing his interviewees.

It can be exciting to see a documentary filmmaker putting the screws to a person who the audience sees as a villain. And even more so when the person slips up or cracks under the pressure on camera. But! The tips I’m offering here are geared more towards a kinder/gentler interview approach, creating a comfortable space, building trust and allowing your subjects to open up to you.

Interviews are useful, but don’t let yourself default to them. Each interview should be chosen with a specific intention. What do you see each interviewee adding to your project? Are they there to help inform the narrative? Provide supporting information? Give balance to your project in the form of an opposing viewpoint? It’s important to know.



Booking interviewees can be tough, but it never hurts to ask.

Of course, the next logical question is: How do I go about booking interviews? How do I get someone to say “yes” to an interview? Is it as simple as just asking? Well, yeah, it can be. But a good tactic is to explain to potential interviewees what your film is about and specifically how they fit into your vision. Be conscious, however, to not over-share. You’re just aiming to get them to agree to an interview, not become an investor or your co-producer.



Do your homework!

Okay, interviews are lined up. Awesome! Now it’s time to prepare. Researching the person and the subject to be discussed is critical. Award-winning TV producer Larry Warren suggests that doing research allows you to show interviewees you are well informed and that you won’t accept just anything by way of a response—you demand the facts. It can also motivate the subject to offer more than just the base level of information.

One the other hand, filmmaker Deborah Attoinese (On Directing) believes that going in over-prepared can be almost as bad as being under-prepared. “You need to remain open,” she says, “Leaving room for those ‘I didn’t know that’ moments to happen.”



‘Mighty Ground’ (2017, dir. Delila Vallot)

There are two distinct schools of thought regarding the pre-interview. Some strongly believe that you never want to interview (or even speak to) your interviewee before talking on-camera. The thinking being that you loose spontaneity—that your subject will offer up some perfect moment that is impossible to re-create on camera. Others believe just as strongly that in certain instances, a pre-interview is invaluable. Delila Vallot, director of 2017 LA Film Festival selection Mighty Ground, did pre-interviews with almost all the experts in her last documentary, which she says helped her organize questions according to their specific areas of expertise.



‘Dig!’ (2004, dir. Ondi Timoner)

Interviewing can consist of a single session with a person or it could entail months (or even years) of time spent with your subject—see Ondi Timoner’s Dig!, which was born out of seven whole years of interview footage. In either case, it’s your job to establish, as much as possible, an intimate level of trust which will, in turn, hopefully result in honest and engaging on-camera moments.

If what you seek is authenticity from your interviewees, then it’s up to you to first be authentic with the people you’re going to interview. A great example comes from Mark Hayes, director of this year’s LA Film Festival Jury and Audience Award winner for Skid Row Marathon, about a running club made up of the homeless who live on LA’s skid row. Hayes would meet the running club at 5:00 a.m. a couple of times a week! “I was running six miles twice a week with them,” he says, “Experiencing the same aches and pains. When it came time to do interviews, the subjects felt very comfortable with me. I had earned their trust.”

Something that requires less of a commitment of time and more of a commitment to memory is maintaining eye contact with your subject throughout the interview. Seasoned director and producer Marcie Hume (Hood to Coast) believes that reading questions from a list can make an interview feel rigid and formal. Instead, she recommends memorizing your questions and connecting them to themes, so that you can more easily recall them during your interview.



Think: what environment makes sense for your interview?

So, where to hold your interview to achieve the best results for your project? Do you set the interview at the subject’s home or office? Or perhaps a location associated with your theme would be most effective. Maybe you should try a walk-and-talk interview. First thing to consider: if your interviewee is an old hat at on-camera interviews or is it their first rodeo? A familiar setting is maybe just what the person needs to feel comfortable. Walking with the interviewee might be just the kind of distraction they need to forget they’re being filmed. It can also visually communicate a progression within your story.

Be sure your cameraperson gets much-needed cutaways during the interview: reactions from both interviewer and interviewee, close-up images of hands or feet, key elements of the environment that connect with the theme or what’s being talked about.

These are just a handful of useful tips to ensure your interviews give you great material to work with during the editorial process. Interviewing can be stressful, but also extremely exciting and rewarding, illuminating the complexity of human beings and their motivations. Sounds like good storytelling, huh?


Are you a nonfiction filmmaker with a project currently in production? The 2019 Film Independent Documentary Lab is accepting submissions. Learn more here. Non-Member deadline is December 3, but Film Independent Members have until December 17.

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