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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
Best luck to you,