Home of Professional Cinematography since 1996
Published : 2nd September 2003
I have the following 10 tips for taping documentary interviews:
1) Talk to the interview prospects off-camera long enough to determine if they are likely to make a good interview. You want to guess right at least four out of five times. If you consistently guess wrong and shoot interviews that are not worth using, give up documentary producing and stick to cinematography.
2) Think hard about where each prospect fits in your plans. Make the tough decisions and narrow down the list of names. It is almost always better -- both financially and creatively -- to spend your tape on a smaller number of long successful interviews than it is to shoot a larger number of shorter interviews.
3) Do not ask the prospects off-camera the questions you plan to ask on-camera. A couple of test questions are usually ok, just to help you make the casting decision. Otherwise stick to the broadest kind of chat about the subject, or explore subjects other than the critical one. You want the prospects to have talked with you enough before shooting that they feel comfortable with you. You do not want them rehearsed.
4) Allow ample time for setting up the equipment. You do not want to be rushing around and battling with the crew. Any tension that does arise from the difficulty inherent in making films and television programs should never be communicated to the waiting interview prospect.
5) Shoot more than one roll. The interruption at the end of the first roll usually brings a sense of relief on the part of the interviewee. The break to reload is also a terrific opportunity for you. This is the time for you to say : “This is going great, exactly what we need. Thanks again for taking time for this. It’s going to be a great help to our show”. You say this even if you have just sat through the worst interview beginning ever. The next roll could be quite different.
6) Do not ask the person being interviewed to answer in such a way that the answers will make sense to an audience after the questions are cut out. Many amateur filmmakers try this. It is counter-productive and almost never works. Most people are nervous enough without having to think about repeating your questions at the beginning of their answers. Besides, editing is your job. It is supremely lazy to ask the interviewee to edit for you. When you make a request such as this, you violate one of the most important principles of good interviewing: Do nothing to remind the interviewee that this is a television performance, not a real conversation.
7) Remain alert and interested and use notes as little as possible. If you do need to refer to your written list of questions during the interview, appear to be writing notes on what the interviewee is telling you.
8) Instruct the other members of the crew to be as interested as you are in what the subject is saying. A sound recordist, for example, even if he or she is not in the subject¹s direct line of vision (and he or she should not be), can sabotage your carefully cultivated atmosphere of curiosity & encouragement by sleeping, reading, or nail-clipping during the interview.
9) Don’t interrupt the interviewee. Let the person finish. If the interviewee interrupts your questions, that is, starts answering before you finish asking, stop talking immediately. Keep yourself off the soundtrack, unless you are an on-camera or a voice-over character in the film.
10) Whether you are happy or sad at the end of the interview, never burn your bridges. You never know when you may need more of this person’s time. And you never know whether another hard working documentary maker will be calling this person tomorrow. Do not make the next person have to explain that he or she is different and not like you and some other rude members of The Media.
Good luck on your project.
Pacific Palisades, CA
Get a researcher to do a pre-interview a week or so in advance. Get someone who will not be doing the actual interview so the subject doesn't feel like they are repeating the story twice, also doing it a week or so before allows the subject to kinda forget what they told you. With a good pre-interview in hand you know roughly what they are going to say and you can pare your questions down to what you know you need. This also allows you to decide if this person has anything to contribute to your film.
There are lots of valid ways to approach non-fiction but if shooting ratio is important then this is a good technique.
DP; Have Camera, Looking for Subject; Nashville
Well, when I was shooting film for docs, our standard film saving trick was to ask the question of the subject before we rolled, get a sense of what the tone of the answer was, stop the subject and then roll. Then the subject would begin the answer again (and usually a more detailed version of the answer). Also, make sure you're putting the time code on the film (AatonCode, etc) 'cause it really helps to not have to hit a slate in front of the subjects. If you're restricted on the type of camera, then get a tc slate (or tc number generator), leave it on during the interview and pan onto it when you start to roll.
We wouldn't give the questions to the subject ahead of time, but we would lay out what we would be doing ahead of time (whether that meant an hour ahead or a week). This isn't to say we'd give them the exact questions, but the subject matter to be covered is important to relay ahead of time so the interviewee can pull together pictures, notes, incidents, any related helpful bits. Also, to save film, if the subject went off track, we'd have a signal (subtle) to cut camera and then we'd pick it up again (normally leaving sound rolling after the camera had cut - might as well get the voice over...)
Best luck to you,