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Art of the Documentary Interview
Eliciting a Story from Your Interviewee
by Anthony Q. Artis
Interviews are a staple of documentary projects. Interviews seem
simple enough to the novice docmaker… You simply point a camera
at some interesting person, pop off a few questions, and they
will elegantly tell their personal life story with emotion, depth,
concise detail and in logical order. The reality is that a good
interview involving personal subject matter requires some careful
thought, planning, social skills and even a dose of psychology.
A great interview is a lesson in the art of eliciting a story
from your interviewee. Not just any story, but their story. Told
in their own words, but in a manner that is focused, engaging,
and has a clear beginning, middle and end.
Brainstorm & Write Out Your Questions
How will you actually get your subject to talk about or explain
the topic at hand? Don’t just wing it the day of your interview.
Think about and write out your questions in a logical order. If
you have thoroughly researched your subject, this part is easy.
I recommend brainstorming and writing down every question that
anyone might possibly want to know about your subject or the topic,
then going back to identify the questions that most pertain to
the goal(s) of your interview. Once you’ve identified the key
questions, put them in a logical order that will help your subject
narrate a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
These questions are now your “map” to guide your subject through
a successful interview. However, don’t stay married to them, because
you really want your subject to be free to tell you the story
in their mind. These written questions are just to help you keep
things focused in the right direction if the interview gets too
far away from your goals or skips over vital parts of the story
PLAN AND WRITE OUT YOUR QUESTIONS IN A LOGICAL ORDER AS
A GUIDE MAP TO HELP YOU KEEP THE INTERVIEW FOCUSED.
The type of questions you ask will largely determine the quality
and depth of your interview. Avoid asking leading questions or
questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Remember,
you want your subject to paint the picture, not just color in
your preconceived lines.
Leading questions are okay as follow-ups to your main questions,
especially when your questions will remain in the edited piece.
But be careful they don’t undermine your intention of having the
subject tell you what they have to say in full glorious detail.
Questions that begin with words such as how, why, where, and what
will elicit the stronger more in-depth answers from your subject.
While questions that begin with words such as: did, are, will
and was, will likely get you short, general, one and twoword answers
– the interview kiss of death.
ASK OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS TO AVOID SHORT LAME ANSWERS.
Lay Out the Ground Rules
On interview day, remind your subject of the focus of your interview
and approximately how long the interview is going to be. Be mindful
of any time constraints they’ve laid out, especially if they are
V.I.P.’s. When a major government official, CEO, or celebrity
grants you 15 minutes of their time, they very often have no-nonsense
“handlers” that watch the clock and pull them away promptly at
the agreed upon time.
Try to be forthright and honest about your approach and what is
expected of the subject in terms of answers and candidness. If
there are sensitive or very personal issues at hand, discuss how
those issues will be treated and why it’s important for them to
share it with the audience. Remember these are real people you
are asking to publicly open up about painful memories, hopes and
dreams, traumatic events, personal secrets, private shames, embarrassments,
ambitions, and family business. They need to trust you. And you
need to respect that trust.
If complete spontaneity is not necessary for your interview, you
might even tell your subject a few of the specific questions you
will be asking ahead of time to allow them time to think of how
they will answer. The more they know in advance the less likely
they are to be nervous. Just before the interview starts, you
want to give your subject some basic instructions that will help
them relax and, more importantly, keep you from pulling out your
hair in the editing room.
Also, don’t forget to ask your subject and everyone else in the
room to turn off their cell phones. Above all, don’t forget to
turn off your own cell phone, or you could be in for a very embarrassing
interruption… I know. If your subject does not turn off their
phone and they take a call – keep the camera rolling. You never
know what you might capture in that little human moment… an angry
tirade to a lawyer, a tender moment with their kid, a big deal
going down, good news, bad news… drama.
BEFORE YOU SHOOT GIVE YOUR SUBJECT INSTRUCTIONS THAT WILL
HELP YOU TO SHOOT AND EDIT THE INTERVIEW MORE SMOOTHLY.
Warm ‘Em Up
Start off with a few “softball” questions to get your subject
warmed up. Remember, you are trying to get your subject to tell
a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Make sure your questions
logically lead them through each part and build up to the main
Warm-up questions should be easy factual questions about the person’s
general background as it relates to the topic… something that
doesn’t touch on anything too emotional or deep. (That will come
later. Ramp up to the heart of the matter by covering some background
questions that will lay out the context for the main topic. If
you were interviewing someone that survived a plane crash, you
would want to first establish the airport they left from, where
they were flying to, why they took the trip, what airline, on
and on, leading up to the emotional moment of going down. Be sensitive
when dealing with emotional subjects.
Okay, here’s where we get to the heart of the interview process…
your questions and conversation with your subject. Everything
you’ve done up to this point… lighting, setting mics, framing,
etc., will all have been for naught if you don’t handle your questioning
It is now up to you and you alone to elicit your subject’s funniest
anecdotes, most painful memories, long held secrets, detailed
explanations, candid opinions… in other words, to elicit the story
in a way that your audience will find compelling, whether your
interviewee is talking about their first knockout or their last
insurance seminar. But how does one actually do this? Browbeat
them? Trick them? Ask them for “the real scoop”? No, to all of
the above. You simply have a real and candid conversation with
them. It’s a little like a first date, only with notes and more
to the point. You employ many of the exact same social skills
and gradually probing questions to consciously lead your subject
to relax, trust you, reveal themselves and tell their own story
and forget about the camera and lights.
ASK QUESTIONS, LISTEN & RESPOND TO YOUR SUBJECT’S
ANSWERS, ALWAYS KEEPING THE STORY IN MIND.
The Soap Box Question
Once you’ve exhausted all your questions, I strongly suggest you
give your subject a “soapbox question”. Essentially, you’re going
to ask them, “Is there anything else we didn’t cover or anything
that you’d like to say to people about [the topic]?” This is their
chance to get up on their soapbox and deliver an opinion or commentary
about any aspect of the topic they want to speak on.
I have found that the soapbox question is often the most passionate
part of the interview with the best quotes. Sometimes it will
even lead to a whole new segment of the interview and a new even
more candid conversation once you’ve struck a chord with that
Even with a great set of well thought questions, you are inevitably
leading the conversation from your perspective. Your subject will
probably still have at least one or two things they’d like to
say that they think is important or may have been missed in earlier
conversation. And ultimately, their perspective is what you really
want to capture. The soapbox question also provides an opportunity
for them to further explain any answer that they gave earlier
that they feel was unclear or incomplete.
Before You Call a “Wrap”
The wrap out is the last step of production where you pack up
everything and tie up any loose ends. Before you officially instruct
your crew to wrap, you want to make sure that you got all the
coverage that you’ll need to edit. Do you need any reaction shots?
How about an establishing shot of the location? Did something
come up in the interview that suggests a cutaway or B-roll shot?…
Take a moment, check your shot list and notes, then take a moment
to think it through before you give the okay to wrap. If it is,
call it a day. Thank everyone profusely, especially your subject.
Tell them how you will follow up when the project is complete.
Leave the place exactly as you found it or even better. Check
all of your gear. Go home and begin the real work of editing your
This article may not be reprinted in print
or internet publications without express permission of StudentFilmmakers.com.
Photos may not be copied or reproduced.
Check out this article in the October 2006 print edition
of StudentFilmmakers magazine, page 44. Click here to get a copy of the October 2006 Edition,
so you can read and enjoy all of the excellent articles inside.
About the Author:
Artis (prn. Ant-ny Art-iss) (http://downanddirtydv.blogspot.com/)
is a veteran guerrilla filmmaker, television producer, and author
of the new guerrilla filmmaking handbook, Down and Dirty DV –
Vol. 1: Documentaries. He is the creator of a new instructional
series of guerrilla filmmaking books, DVDs, and workshops. Anthony
is based out of New York City where he manages the Film and TV
Production Center at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His website
StudentFilmmakers Magazine & StudentFilmmakers.com
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