Most people, I think, already know what an interview is but I’m going to explain it anyway. An interview is when you sit someone down whose opinion you are interested in and you ask them questions and record their answers and use the answers in your film.
Interviews will become the spine of your documentary so treat them with as much care as you would your own spine.
Ok so that’s the what, but there is more to interviews than just sitting someone down and filming them. Before you get them in that hot seat you’re going to want to do a little preparation.
Before going to interview someone you should have some preparatory work done. The first and most important thing is to have your questions prepared. Write a list of the kind of questions you want to ask of your subject and then pick the best five or so.
Ensure you have the phone number and contact details of your interviewee in case they don’t rock up or you need to tell them to wear the same shirt for the continuity of a re-shoot. Also, make sure you have enough time for everyone, a ‘quick’ 10-minute interview can easily blow out into a full hour, so make sure you schedule appropriately.
The other part of preparing for an interview that is really important is making your interviewee feel comfortable. Firstly, make sure you have their permission to interview them (seems like a no-brainer but it happens) and make sure you have a location that suits them. When selecting a space to shoot your interview in, make sure it has as little ambient noise as possible.
Try to make them feel comfortable. Comfortable is relative concept here, its hard for a lot of people to feel truly ‘comfortable’ in front of an array of cameras, lights and ‘fancy’ looking kit. So it’s your job to really make them feel special. Which brings us to the actual interview…
So you have your questions prepared, you’ve done a bit of research on your interviewee, you’ve arranged a comfortable setting and now they’re sitting in front of you, ready to spill their guts.
The first thing to do is to make them feel good, tell them that whatever they say will be brilliant (you’re ‘sure of it’) and that it’s going to be just a nice, structured chat. You might even want to have the camera rolling while you chat as they may launch right into an anecdote. A good trick is to turn the red recording LED on your camera off so that they can’t tell when the camera is rolling. Sneaky media people huh?
Start by asking them their name and what it is they do. You probably won’t end up using this stuff in your documentary (you’ll display most of it as a lower third) but its good practice to have that information recorded and at the beginning of your interviews. It gives them a chance to relax and talk about something they feel at ease talking about: themselves.
Use your prepared questions if you must, but you will get much better and more authentic answers if you can ask the questions more spontaneously. Everybody wants to feel special – you need to show your interview partner that you are really interested in what they have to say. Listen really intently and give them continual eye contact and affirmative nodding. You can’t go through the whole interview saying ‘yep, ‘uhuh’ the way you would in normal life; the microphone’s won’t be so forgiving. So keep quiet, keep listening, and give silent gestures like thumbs up to communicate. Interviewing well can present a unique set of problems, so make sure you talk with your team about who is best suited to be the interviewer.
When you near the end of the interview, ask your interview subject if ‘there is anything else you would like to add?’. This way you often get the most concise and vibrant statements without too much waffling on. Hopefully.
I was tasked with interviewing participants for our recent ‘When Does the Light Turn On’ project. It was emotionally quite draining as we were going to some deep, dark places with some of our subjects. Maintaining active eye contact and continuing to be emotionally engaged hour after hour with varying degrees of pain and joy was a draining experience. Listening intently and providing the interview subjects with respect and engagement really helped them feel comfortable though, and as a result they were more inclined to open up and share the kinds of stories the project needed.
When recording interviews, frame the shot so that the speaker has breathing space on the side they are talking towards. Otherwise it might look as if they are talking against a wall. The same thing applies if someone is walking in a shot, give lead space, so they are not squashed against the edge of the frame.