Some documentary filmmakers do interviews while others perfer to observe people and eschew the interview (in the traditions of direct cinema and cinéma vérité) while other filmmakers prefer informal interviews (very often used in personal documentaries); this is a matter of style that is up to each filmmaker. There is no right or wrong here, good or bad, simply different schools of thought. I like to mix things up, and choose the approach that seems to make the most sense for the subject at hand. In documentary, most decisions start with the topic and subjects, always tempered by matters of personal style and budget. I’ve collected many tips and rules of thumb over the years, here’s my collection. I never apply them all at once, rules were meant to be broken, or at least applied selectively.
Interviewing Tips and Rules of Thumb
Preparation is key. Some knowledge of the subject is important. Be familiar with your subjects background and their work and whatever is relevant for your specific film.
Pre-interview on the phone to determine if this person is right for your film. Sometimes spontaneity is more important and you will not pre-interview. Make this decision on a case by case basis, or depending on the specific topic of your film and the nature of the interviews.
Rehearse your questions out loud to make sure there is no room for misunderstanding.
Don’t forget to get the personal release form signed and make sure you have name, address, phone, email, etc. in order to be able to contact them and stay in touch. Do this before the interview starts, no release, no interview. You need to have the rights to everything that ends up in your film, otherwise, you may run into trouble later. It’s simpler and easier to ask for a release to be signed than to track them down what could be years later.
Consider putting people together to talk, sometimes couples or groups give you more; sometimes disagreements yield good.
Keep your list of questions in a notebook.
Primarily good interviewing is about observation, empathy, and preparation (knowing as much as you can about the subject to start with)
Design questions carefully give the specific issues you want to discuss. Research and Preparation is key.
Decide what setting is best for your interviewee, their home, office, in the park, in their studio?
Explain clearly to your interviewee why you are filming them.
The first 10 or so minutes are usually a warm up period, even if you’ve done a pre-interview and have spoken with your interviewee during the lighting set up, it’s a new setting, a new context, give your interviewee time to warm up. Start with some pleasant, warm-up questions, but don’t make them trivial or seem light throw-away, it should feel like a warm-up, not a throw-away.
Depending on your stylistic choices, instruct interviewees to include questions in their response, speaking in full sentences, this will make things much easier to edit. You may have to coach your subject on this, and approach it that way, rather than telling them they are doing something wrong, explain how it makes the editing easier.
Be natural in your interviewing, this comes from practice and genuine empathy for your subject.
Depending on your stylistic choices, if you are going to redirect or interrupt interviewees let them know this in advance, make it conversational, organic.
Listen actively and carefully to make sure answers can stand alone. This gets easier the more you interview.
Listen not only for what you want, but what the interviewee is really saying, don’t rush to the next question, if you don’t have something complete or coherent, ask the question again, or take another angle on the same question. It has been my experience than very often the second time around the answers are more coherent. This, of course, depends on the nature of the interview.
Avoid vague and general questions. Ask for details, specifics, examples, etc. as this makes the interview more interesting.
Ask interviewee not to look at the camera unless you are doing first-person address (see section below on the Interrotron).
Showing people in their own environment is often my preference, some people are better when they are walking around their own space and talking to you, the walking and talking interview can be very effective, especially with artists and craftspeople who work with things.
Don’t forget to cover the environmental context, this B-Roll can be very important.
Start with factual questions and keep the more intimate or emotional information for later when the subject is more comfortable with you and relaxed and with the situation.
It depends on the kind of film you’re making and the purpose of the interviews, but most of the time I like to elicit stories, rather than information. Of course, if the purpose of the interviews is “expert testimony” that’s one thing, but stories are usually most interesting and reveal a lot.
Try to cover each issue in more than one way to give you the ability to cut in and out of the interview in order to tighten the material. Let people talk at their natural pace, avoid too many interruptions, but for important things you want to cover again, circle back and ask the question again in a different way or ask for expansion. Working with 3″ x 5″ cards makes this easier, questions you want to revisit stay in the middle of the pile, things you don’t want to revisit can go to the end.
To get into a delicate area, you can use the devil’s advocate approach, for example, saying “some people would say there’s nothing special about the river dam project” and let the interviewee respond…
Another way to get into a sensitive topic is to start with a general question and then ask for specific examples.
Practice active listening: Getting deeper: try gentle “And…” and “Yes, go on…” and even silence. Don’t be afraid of silence, sometimes it’s the best way to get more from the interviewee. Sometimes if you allow some moments of silence after an interviewee has finished adding a question, look at them, approve with your gestures, but be quiet for a moment, they might be thinking and go into something else. And if they don’t, your sound editor will appreciate having little pieces of “room tone” that match closely what was said (ambient noise often changes over time, so recording room tone an hour later yields a very different sound).
As the interview has wound down and you feel you’ve gotten all that you need, I suggest you ask: “is there any question I should have asked that I’ve not asked today?” Sometimes people will go on a whole other tangent that relates to something important to them, and sometimes this is great footage, often people have nothing to add. But just in case your subject has been wanting to say something, give them the chance, it may turn out to be what you needed for the interview.
It’s important to remind your subject that they should not edit themselves, and that you will cut out any “bad bits” and it’s your job in the editing to take the best parts of the interview and make sure they end up “looking good” or coming across “credible.” In most cases, you should be empathetic and respectful to your subject, you want to bring out the truth and the best in people, unless you are doing an adversarial interview.
Always acknowledge what was successful about the exchange at the end of the interview.
Be very positive and thankful, yet don’t lead your subject to believe they are going to be in the film, if they ask, explain to them that the interview was successful, but it’s eventually up to the editor what ends up in the final film, but express you’re happy with what you’ve got. Basic respect is key in managing these relationships and situations.
First or Third Person Interviews?
The subjects gaze vector (where they are looking) depends on Placement of Camera, Intervieweee and, Interviewer. Determine the audience relationship with the interviewee and choose on-axis or off-axis interviews as appropriate, a.k.a. third-person and first-person address. Third Person Address: Interviewer off camera slightly to the left or right, or under the camera lens, interviewee is talking to an off-screen presence. First Person Address: Interviewer right in the camera lens (see Interrotron below), interviewee is talking right to the audience
Movies like The Fog of War (2003) and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) feature interviews with a very unique quality in which the interviewee is looking straight into the camera, with facial reactions that are the result of very intimate communication with the interviewer. This is accomplished through the use of a device Errol Morris calls the “Interrotron.”
The Interrotron is basically a teleprompter, but instead of projecting text in front of the camera lens for the subject to read, it projects the face of the interviewer in the camera lens. This way the interviewer and interviewee can make direct eye contact with each other and the interviewee is reacting directly to the interviewer’s facial gestures. This results in interviews with a piercing sense of intimacy, as if the interviewee was talking not just into the camera lens, but directly to us, the viewers of the film. This is often called first-person address interviews, and with the Interrotron first-person interviews achieve their most intimate and direct expression.
I have used this approach for customer testimonial interviews with two cameras capturing the close-up and medium shots simultaneously. The customers speak directly to the viewer rather than an unseen third person as is typically done in most documentaries, industrials, and broadcast news magazines. This works for some films, yet there is a reason most films don’t use it, it’s the cinematic grammar of salespeople and hucksters, however, in the right context, it can be engaging and intimate, giving the audience the experience of people talking to them, rather than to an off screen presence.
Formal or Informal Interviews?
There are many different styles of interview, when it comes to formal interviews, lighting, the setting, and composition are important. I’m reminded of the following quotes:
“The image is the basis of the visual language of motion pictures … the camera can actively comment upon or interpret what it observes, making each frame a picture worth the proverbial thousand words … the camera is to the filmmaker what brushes and oils are to the painter” – Saul J. Turell and Jeff Lieberman (from notes for the series “The Art of Film”)
“…good close-ups radiate a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-the-miniature, a warm sensibility. Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.”— Béla Balázs in Theory of the Film
“Much of life becomes background, but it is the province of art to throw buckets of light into the shadows and make life new again.” — Diane Ackerman in The Natural History of the Senses
Which I include here because they explain better than I could why I try to carefully light, compose, and design the setting for formal interviews, when I do formal interviews (they are not always the right way to go, but when they are, I feel they should be beautifully lit).
A good filmmaker is a lifelong student, it’s a journey that never ends. Take advice, listen to criticism, it’s the path to learning, and always teach something to others as well, you learn best what you have to teach the most.
These notes were originally compiled in June of 2004, revised and posted January 23, 2006.