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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

••◊ Tips For Documentary Interviews

Sorry, no pictures again this week.  I'm in post on a short film, so perhaps I'll have some pictures to share within the next two weeks.  Until then I'd like to talk about what I've learned after a few years or doing documentary interviews.  I certainly wouldn't consider myself an expert on par with a national news reporter or Oprah, but I have learned some things that may be useful to others.

The first thing I start off with is letting the interview subject know that we have plenty of time.  Non-celebrities aren't used to talking in front of a microphone or camera, so their first reaction is to rush the nerve racking experience to get it over with.  Tell them it's OK to start over when responding to a question.  Computer memory is cheap.

Then let I let the interview subject know that they should answer all the questions by repeating the question in their reply.  For instance, if I ask the subject to introduce them self and say what they do I often get, "Burt, Teacher."  The response they need to be coached to say is, "My name it Burt Smith and I'm a third grade teacher at Witmer Elementary School."  It's my job as an interviewer to watch for these gaps in their responses and have them start over if necessary.

When the questions start, I use one or two "fluff" questions to start the dialog.  Unless this is five minute celebrity I-don't-have-time-for-you interview you want to take the conversation from 0 to 60 in a few minutes.  As an interviewer, I don't really care what the responses are.  These questions are to allow the subject to gain their footing while talking in front of a microphone and to get them to calm down.  Look at the person when they talk to you, not at the paper/tablet that has the questions.  They are talking to you, not the microphone.

So how do you decide what the "first question" really is?  The "first question" is the one with the keyword of emotional attachment.  "My mother", "my father", "rape", "murder", "tragedy", "loneliness", "abandonment"...etc.  If I do nothing else right, I must listen for this conversational keyword trigger.  There are lots of interview techniques I've seen, but this is the main one for me.  After you hear the response to the "first" question" you quickly re-order your question list to adapt to that path, postpone the question list, or throw it out altogether.  It's my job to know how much time we have and the required responses I need for the edit.  If I need the interviewee to not be an emotional wreck, then I might postpone my "second question" until the very end of the interview.  That or take a break mid-interview to let emotions settle.

After the "first question" you know what the the person you're interviewing really wants to talk about.  Go down that path with the "second question".  The "second question" is likely to be an ad lib question that explores the answer to the "first question."  That's going to give you the audio bites that are the heart of the story.  Respect what they say and let them explain their rationale and emotions.

The added benefit of this technique is that interviews tend to be shorter.  You get what you need to tell the story more efficiently and avoid wearing out your interview subject.  I've done interviews in 20 minutes and sometimes it's taken 3 hours.  There's no real rule of thumb when it comes to conversational exploration.  Hope this helps.

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