We have a few tips and tricks for your documentary preparation, but you can also apply this for other projects.
Develop open and simple questions that are relevant for your story and relatable for your contributors. This is not about you and how brilliant you are, questions are a tool to get your interview partner to relax, open up and share the stuff that really matters to them.
We have a few tricks to relax people when thy get too excited and tense – remember what it feels like for most people to sit in front of a camera with lights shining in your eyes… If they speed up and start to ramble, use a pretext, like a technical error [battery empty, focus or re-framing needs] to interrupt them without casting doubt, fear or guilt.
For people who are overly confident and cocky, you can easily reduce their ego by asking them to offer a summary of what they just told you.
If they are interested in the film making process, you may tell them that you can only use a small portion of what they are sharing. Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t work that often, as people may feel told-off and shut down as a result.
Prepare your team to be flexible and compassionate – and do your research, know enough of the issues and your contributors interest that you are able to follow them into their world as they share.
For our ‘when does the light turn on?’ project for Federation Square in Melbourne we developed a series of very simple questions together with our media trainees from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. We asked a group of Australians from a wide range of backgrounds about racism which is a tricky subject to handle.
These examples may help you to come up with your own questions for your interviews:
What is racism?
What brings us together?
What pulls us apart?
Do you have any lived experiences of racism?
What are they?
Do you have any daily experiences of racism or discrimination?
How does your community deal with racism?
What do you do when your confronted by racism?
Do you experience any persecution in your life?
Where are you from, where did you grow up?
Have you ever done anything to confront a racist or racism in a social situation?
How did that make you feel?
The aim was to ask all our participants the same questions so we could easily combine them into a narrative for the public screen.
Key is not to get trapped with your questions on paper. Brainstorm and develop them with your team, write them down, but try to work without the paper when you are sitting down for the interviews.
It makes a huge difference if you can engage your contributor into a real discussion – and not just rattle through your interview questions…
The difference will be that they will feel much more taken seriously and may offer further inside.
The other problem can be, that you get so stuck in your list that you won’t be able to listen deeply.
And this is where the real value sits: being able to ask follow-up questions, that allow your contributors to go deeper and reflect more personally on the issue.
Good standard follow up questions are:
How did that make you feel?
What was going through your mind when you were doing xyz?
Can you elaborate on this?
Before we finish our interviews we usually ask the contributors if they have anything else to add. This gives them a chance to relax and give you a nice wrap up comment, with the added benefit that you have opened the process to them. Remember, you are making films with people, very seldom against them…
Do you have something else that you want to share?