August 21, 2014

What I Learned After Conducting 40+ Interviews for My First Feature Documentary

Oakley Anderson-Moore Royal Robbins Interview

You've got a great idea for film, and it just so happens to be a true story. Best of all, the main character is fantastic and you can't wait to get him or her on camera! But once you start rolling, and sit back and wait for the magic to happen -- pfft. Your interview is a dud. What went wrong? Getting a person's story on camera is an elusive process, and since I just spent over five years working on a short and a feature in which I conducted over 40 interviews, I thought I'd share a list of things that I picked up along the way that might help you.

Among other things, you may know me on No Film School for written and occasional video interviews I post. I've always enjoyed hearing what people have to say, and listening to people's stories. As fellow artists, maybe you feel the same. Over the years, I've gotten to hone that craft, from interviewing upstart inner city skateboarders for Nike's PlayCity or talking to astronomers scanning the dark skies in Northern Arizona. I started doing interviews in 2008 for my feature documentary Brave New Wild that I'm just now starting to show. (As in, one festival, where I received the Emerging Artist award from the festival director.) A huge part of the film's strength comes from the interviews. I'm certainly not saying I'm an expert, but there is some method to the madness! Hopefully the following tips can give you a head start on the learning curve for your next on-camera interview.

Decide on the concept of your film, and therefore, the concept for the interviews.

This sounds obvious, but all too often filmmakers think, "It's an interview, that IS the concept." Really? So just set up the camera anywhere and have somebody talking in front of it? This is partly why documentaries get such a bad 'talking head' wrap. Different interview strategies elicit different kinds of tone to your film. For my aforementioned film, which with any luck I can share with you by the end of the year, I did my interviews as single camera setups by campfire light, not only because it was organic to the world of the story (rock climbing outcasts of the 1960s), but also because it allowed for intimate conversations that transported both the person talking, and in turn, the audience, to a world from the past.

In These Birds Walk, the camera follows around a group of orphans at eye level with prime lenses to create the children's close-quartered world. In Yakona, the captivating underwater cinematography does most of the talking for the San Marcos river itself. And for numerous films including The Fog of War, clever bloke Errol Morris even went to far as to invent the likes of the Interrotron -- you know, that telemprompter-like contraption on which Errol projects his face so his subjects can talk to him directly and into the camera.

Are you the best person to conduct the interviews?

If you're the director, you're probably the narcissistic egomaniac for the job! (And in documentary, let's face it, can you really afford to pay someone else to do it?) However, it's worth thinking about. For example, Jose Antonio Vargas elected to have a tagalog-speaking producer interview his Filipino relatives in Documented to give them space to reveal anything they wanted, while Lacey Schwartz cross-examines her entire family herself to unravel a quixotic family mystery in Little White Lie.

Discuss the eyelines, framing, and camera setup with your DP ahead of time.

Treat it the same way you'd go over the storyboard or a shot list with your DP to direct a scene. This is when you let your team know, say, that you'll be shooting everything locked off like in DamNation. Or in a verité setting, maybe you can come up with shooting rules for your DP to establish the aesthetics of the film like Rodrigo Reyes in Purgatorio. You probably decided these kinds of details when you envisioned the concept, but just in case, go over it with your team. The last thing you want is to spend more time setting up for an interview than you do with the cameras rolling.

Prepare for what you want out of the interview.

Sure, in documentary the content is often discovered during production, but you should still have an idea of what the story is going to be, and how it might fit into a narrative arc. This doesn't necessarily mean doing tons of research with prepared questions for every interview. (I do because it makes me less nervous, but Warren Etheredge, who has interviewed about a million famous people, mentioned to me at a film festival that he never goes in to an interview with prepared questions!) Being prepared should mean knowing what role the person should be playing in your film, and what you need out of the interview. Do you need them to talk about a specific event or topic? Are they being interviewed in order to characterize another person? Are they meant to show you how they react with their surroundings? Stuff like that.

Don't do pre-interviews.

Some people may disagree with me on this, but in my experience, normal people only have one good 'take' in them when it comes to interviewing. Save it for the camera! Sure, when you pause for a bathroom break, your interview subject will suddenly blurt out the meaning of life. (Naturally, he/she was at that moment unmic'd and the camera wasn't rolling. Which reminds me, another good tip: keep the camera rolling.) Ask him/her to repeat it on camera. Otherwise, try not to have your subject repeat themselves.

Forget about the old adage of asking your subject to "answer in complete sentences." Instead, ask a question that will naturally elicit a complete thought.

Say for example, you want to ask someone about an instance you heard about that happened in 1994. In a print interview, it doesn't matter whether the answer is a complete sentence, but on camera, you need a complete sentence to edit with. Traditionally, if you tell a person to answer in a complete sentence, they will remember and answer like this:

Q: In 1994, you had your first encounter with a three-headed alien, what was it like?

A: In 1994 when I had my first encounter with a three-headed alien, it was really great --

What is this, grade school? Even when you ask a person to include the question in the answer like this, most forget pretty quick. And interrupting someone to ask them to start over can really mess up an interview. In my opinion, a better plan is to get in the habit of asking questions that demand a complete answer -- questions that are vague, yet going in a specific direction. For example, knowing that you want your subject to talk about that three-headed alien from 1994:

Q: What kind of aliens do you think are hanging out here on planet Earth?

A: Well, all kinds! I mean...I've seen three different kinds of aliens just myself.

Q: Really, what kinds have you seen?

A: I've seen the normal kind with big eyes like in the X-Files, the small green men, and I once saw a three-headed alien. Boy was I excited about that one! I was in my truck on the I-40, it was July 4th, 1994, and all of a sudden --

Don't lead with your toughest question.

Unless you are going for some kind of court-room exposé, and are trying to reveal how a person reacts under pressure, that is. Your subject has already agreed to sit down and let you interview them. That's already very generous. It's then up to you to earn their respect and their trust before you can expect to have a real conversation.

Watch out for runaway interviews.

Sometimes when the camera starts rolling, an otherwise very normal person gets the feeling they are supposed to be talking, so they start and never stop! This is a normal reaction. Most people aren't used to being interviewed. And then there are those people who just like to dominate the conversation and go on any tangent they see fit.

Say you wanted to interview Subject A about the architecture of the NY subway system, and he just spent 20 minutes on a rant about alien encounters! For either type of person, it's up to you to set the tone at the beginning of the interview that you will be directing this conversation. An easy way to do this is to start off your interview with interruptions. Right away the other person knows that the two of you will be having a conversation, instead of him/her giving a monologue.

Don't rush through awkward pauses.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is silence. As an interviewer, you are working so hard to make your subject feel comfortable that the last thing you want are awkward pauses. However, there are some people who need that silence.  They need it to think, and they need it to decide to tell you something that you otherwise might roll right past. There are some fantastic moments gotten this way in The Immortalists. I'm not saying you should purposefully leave quiet pauses during interviews, but be open to it.

Remember that people get tired.

After three hours of talking, an interview subject can become so exhausted that their sentences start coming out as if they've been throwing back a few too many malty Scotches (maybe they have) or their demeanor suggests they are premeditating murder to get you out of their house. That footage isn't useable! Just like you would schedule how many scenes you can film in a day, so you have to be realistic about what you can cover in one interview session.

Be brave enough to ask about what really matters.

If you're terrified, you're doing it right. It's hard! In the end, don't be discouraged if the interview bombs or you chicken out on some questions. Work up that courage for round two, and give it your best shot!

In the end, different filmmakers may have different tactics for interviewing, but these help me and I hope they help you!

My personal philosophy for interviewing is built on respect for people, even if I disagree with them, don't like them, or find them antagonistic. I never look at an interview as a way to expose or ridicule someone -- it's incredibly easy to exploit people on camera. And for what? The complexities of the human experience are so intricate that if art is not embodying that complexity or challenging it, then there's not much point.

Have you had positive or negative experiences interviewing people on camera? Have any tips of your own to add?

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28 Comments

All of this is great advice that I've found to be true over and over again!

How about avoiding questions altogether, whether open or closed? I find it works to use phrases that are more like commands or instructions: "Talk to me about...", "Tell me what it was like when...", "Paint a picture for me of what it looked like....", and so on.

Another technique is to go in with your own observations to seed the interviewee's answers: "I'm really interested to know...", "Wow, it must have been exciting to...", "In that situation, I'd be thinking..."

It's often the case that you have an idea what you would like the interviewee to say (keeping an evolving mental edit going in your head about how what they are saying will cut together with other material you have or are going to film) and I think these techniques work quite well to illicit those responses, so long as you can be quite sure that the answers are authentically their own.

August 21, 2014

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Graham Kay

Graham, that's great advice. In my limited experience commands seem to work best if you want to avoid the subject going off track.

August 21, 2014

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I think what you're saying Graham is really good. I spend a fair amount of time myself speaking during interviews, but I'm doing so in the hope that it will spark the person in a sense. If I tell a story, they'll tell a story...

August 21, 2014

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I like the "talk to me about x..." strategy. "Seeding" the interview with your observations can be ok, but can also go very wrong. For an example, watch a basketball or football game where an overly confident sideline reporter runs up to the coach and asks a long winded question full of assumptions. They will either end up with very short boring answers, or even an outright cold response from the coach who probably doesn't agree with those assumptions.

The best responses seem to come from open ended questions such as "What can the offense take away from the first half" and let a charismatic coach do the talking.

August 21, 2014

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Actually, much like in law, you want to ask subtly leading questions ... but without blurting out, "So, when have you stopped beating your wife?" ... unless you're interviewing Sean Penn or something ...

August 21, 2014

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DLD

"keeping an evolving mental edit going in your head" is a tip I should have included!

August 21, 2014

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Editor

Good stuff! Another tip I've found really useful is not being afraid to revisit certain question later in the interview. Even if the first answer was good, I've found that there's often a point in an interview when the subject starts getting more engaged, excited or emotional, and once that happens you can get some real gold by going back to an important question that had a good but not great response. You never know which question is going to tap into the subject's core, but anytime I feel shift towards more emotive answers, I'll always try and ride that back to a few of the most important questions.

August 21, 2014

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Ben Fullerton

Absolutely great tip!

August 21, 2014

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Editor

Exactly I do this myself, I even go so far as to say "Tell me the story about ..." Not talking too much off camera is good too. Often what happens when you do that is they'll say something like "as I was saying before ..." which sometimes can be a problem when cutting.

August 24, 2014

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Great article! I stumbled across your film a few years ago on youtube, never made the connection between the film and your posts here on NFS. Being a climber, I started scrolling down, and thought, "Hey, that guy looks like Royal Robbins...", then saw the other interview pics and put it all together. Looking forward to seeing the finished film!

August 21, 2014

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joe

Thanks for noticing, Joe! That's a positive ID on Royal -- good eyes 'cause that was snapped on my 2009 era dumbphone. It's fantastic to know there are some climbing-minded filmmakers on here!

August 21, 2014

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Editor

Great piece, can't wait to see the movie!

August 21, 2014

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
writer, director, dp

Thanks Micah! I can't wait to catch Menthol.

August 21, 2014

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Editor

Great advice! As someone who just shot their first documentary I am learning what works and doesn't work in the interview process. Some of my best sound bytes come at the end when I prompt them for the 'soap box'. I'll say, "OK, we are just about finished but before we do is there anything about (topic) I didn;t touch that you would like to add? If you get them talking, but not for too long, and they are comfortable, and they know it's almost over, you'll get some great stuff that hopefully you can use.

August 21, 2014

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Ooooh dammit one day too late. Just wrapped up a doco with tons of interviews!!!
What i would really want to know now is how do you start the process of post prod. The best workflow for 2 camera interviews plus hours and hours of Broll. How do you divide the topics in the timeline or bins.
Hope you guys can do a post on editing a doco.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience here. Really learned a lot. Good job Oakley!

August 21, 2014

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Oakley, great article here. I conducted 40-50 interviews for my documentary and learn most of what you have stated here. In the vein of not rushing the awkward pauses, I would also recommend leaving the camera on after the interview is officially over. You'll get some great comments sometimes. I did all of my interviews and found that making the subject comfortable and creating more of a conversation helps. You get honest, candid content and on screen it just looks more natural. I also kept my questions short and more open ended so the subject could tell the story without me answering my own question or leading the respondent to desired answers. I completely agree with you about pre-interviews and declined to interview people who insisted on getting the questions in advance. PR agents for prospective subjects particularly couldn't understand why or I guess they felt they were doing their job of protecting their clients. Lastly, make sure you transcribe your footage soon after shooting it. You'll want to stay on top of this so you have all your transcripts ready when you begin editing. Thanks for a lively discussion.

August 24, 2014

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I second this. Some of the most poignant comments come after what we have come to call the "false ending." It doesn't always work, but some people loosen up SO MUCH as soon as you tell them it's over - then they are free to be themselves and say how they truly feel.

September 1, 2014

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Ty

... To clarify, it's best to circle back later and get permission to use what they said. The point is, don't be dishonest. It's just that sometimes people are only able to give great performances when they aren't trying. There's so much more authenticity. There may be some more sensitive situations where the "false ending" method isn't a good idea. It's one thing I found works every once in awhile when shooting corporate work.

September 1, 2014

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Ty

"I never look at an interview as a way to expose or ridicule someone – it’s incredibly easy to exploit people on camera. And for what? The complexities of the human experience are so intricate that if art is not embodying that complexity or challenging it, then there’s not much point."

My favorite part :) These are great thoughts, Oakley.

August 24, 2014

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Great article, great tips, great comments, it is really refreshing not to talk about tech and camera sometimes, yes content will be always the king :)

August 26, 2014

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Fantastic article!! I loved the part about not conducting pre-interviews and being brave to ask what really matters...I couldn't agree more!

August 26, 2014

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Another tip is to sit quietly and let the person talk. We have a tendency to want to fill the silence so if you don't say anything, the other person likely will. Sometimes instead of asking questions you can just say we are here to discuss x and then wait until they start talking about it.

August 29, 2014

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Dandy

For the comfort of the people you are interviewing I found that LED lights are the best; because of the heat. People that are not professional being interviewed get more uncomfortable under the hotter incandecent lights. I have purchased a 56k panel for around 800 bucks; because I do so many candid interviews and it is so much better then when I was using a hot light with a chimera.

August 29, 2014

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paul

+1 on the LEDs. I sometimes use them for key, but usually for fill, and people seem to forget about them really quickly.

Also +1 @Dandy on silence. I shot some short pieces to go with an overall package on two twin footballers and their life without their parents from age 18 months.. Interviewed their sister, who is ten years older and remembers mom and pop, and her long pauses spoke volumes.

August 30, 2014

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Michael

Excellent guide to on-camera interviewing! Thanks. For me, there are circumstances when a pre-interview is very useful. In dealing with sensitive issues, if I'm at the stage where I'm looking for my 'main characters', I've found it useful and important to pre-interview. I'm looking for people whose lives are part of the issue I want to address and they are willing to talk about it, AND they must be willing to let me into their current lives, follow them around, see them interacting with their friends, family and community. And if we develop a sense of trust in pre-interview conversations, they'll be more likely to talk honestly and with feeling in the on-camera interview and to let me capture them interacting honestly with others. See my film "The AIDS Chronicles - Here to Represent" on www.snagfilms.com as an example.

I agree completely that it never works to ask a person to speak in complete sentences and echo the question in their answers. They just don't do it after the first question, and with good editing and lots of b-roll and cutaways you can get around this.

I look forward to seeing your film.

August 30, 2014

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Thanks for sharing your great insights and tips about getting the most out of interviews. I've been occupying an editor chair for a while and feel a little out of practice with doing interviews and this is a great boost to get back in the swing.

The point about deciding on an overall concept to determine the interview concept is excellent as is the point about silence. For emotional topics, many times I've seen the interviewer seemingly miss the building emotion in the subject and when the moment comes to be silent and drop back for a moment the interviewer misses it. They jump right in with another question. This could impact the rest of the interview, perhaps the subject holds back a little. Letting the subject 'sit' with the point they just made for a little bit can not only be great in the cut but could also positively impact the rest of the interview. Perhaps memories flood in or they feel safe.

September 2, 2014

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McNamara interview - very powerful!

September 2, 2014

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Bruce Bowers

Thanks for the advice

September 8, 2014

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Oladapo Bamidele
Director/Writer
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The part about not asking for complete answers was an eye opener for me! Thank you!!
Learning to not break those awkward but essential silent pauses was hard for me at first. Especially if it is a sensitive subject and the interviewee begins to break down and cry... You just got to let it breathe and fight the urge to say something.

October 30, 2014

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