Interviewing can be one of the most intimidating, mysterious, and least talked about parts of documentary video production. I don’t mean the technical part – where to put the camera, how to set up a mic, what lights to use and where to place them. I’m talking about the actual talking to someone part. It’s one of the dual edged swords of documentary film – where technical and equipment considerations can often overshadow the power of human connection.
To me, the interview is the most crucial part of the production. You could have captured the best visuals you had hoped for – but without an accompanying interview, you’ll be left with little more than a music video of cool shots. A lot of the “documentary” videos we see online today are just that – beautiful images, but with not much story or human interest.
Where Do I Start?
The first place to start in preparing for the interview is your story board. You should review the scenes you have planned, and the subjects you anticipate the speaker will talk about during those scenes. Just as it did with our visual shot lists, this will form the basis of how we begin to build out our questions for the interview.
A slate of questions – everything you intend to ask during the interview – could be as long as a full page, double spaced. But, it’s also important to not over do it. Many times, when I am preparing questions ahead of time, I think of them as the skeleton of what we’ll actually talk about. You can start out by simply listing the topics you need to cover, and build the questions out below those subheadings.
The real takeaway here is if you haven’t put in the work in developing your story board and the associated planning, it’s going to make it harder to complete every other aspect of the production, including the interview, all the way through editing.
This is another simple documentary, focusing on a single subject and his hobby. But, in that story is also a look at his career, family, and other aspects of his broader life. In order to paint that more rounded picture, we need to cover all of those aspects in the interview.
Now, the final video is short – 3 minutes – but, the interview itself would have taken 30 to 45 minutes. That may seem like a long time, but in order to cover all of the facets of the story, that was an appropriate length of time. Pushing an interview much longer than that can be a challenge, though. You’ll want to think about pacing in your planning.
What follows are the questions I prepared in advance of this shoot. It’s important to note, these were by no means the only questions I asked. They really are a skeleton of the things I wanted to cover:
Tell me about your day job.
What is the community like here?
How did you end up here?
When you’re not working, how do you spend your time?
Tell me about your craft
How do you describe this to people you meet?
Is this a quiet, solitary hobby? Or is this about the communal gaming?
How would you describe the typical gamer?
What are the misconceptions about gaming?
Why do you keep doing it?
If you weren’t gaming, what would you be doing?
Tell me about your family.
How would your wife describe you?
What do you hope for your son?
How would you describe the current phase of your life?
What do you hope is the takeaway from this story?
How Do I Order My Questions
One could think it might be important to ask the most important questions first. But, we have to remember that even the most low key of video productions can be intimidating. Standing in front of lights with a camera pointed at you will make all but the most seasoned TV stars nervous.
Once everything is in place, the room and equipment are ready to roll – there are actually a few things you should do BEFORE you ask any questions:
- Hit Record, and let the audio and video roll while everyone stands as quietly as they can. This section of recording is called “room tone” and will be an important part of your editing process. 10 to 20 seconds is fine – much longer and people get fidgety and more nervous than they were.
- Have the person tell you their name and spell it. This way, no matter what happens, you will have a record of that information on the recording for as long as you have it.
Once you have done these things, a good first question – or first few questions – are total “softballs” that a person really doesn’t even need to think about to answer. Chances are you won’t use these responses in the video, and that’s important to know from the outset. Often whatever form of nerves a speaker will have will come out right at the beginning.
You’ll see in the list of questions for the video above, I start off with fairly open questions like “Tell me about yourself” or “Tell me about your day job”. I probably won’t use these answers, and they may elicit rambling responses or very short ones. But, they let the speaker shake off some cobwebs, and allow me to listen to the response and follow up with more pointed questions.
How You Ask Matters
Thinking about your phrasing is another reason preparing a list of questions in advance can be a really useful tool. I can ask the same question – in terms of content – several different ways, and it will elicit completely different types of responses.
If I want to find out about someone’s job, for example – I could ask:
“What do you do for a living?” This is a fine question, but is likely to elicit a fairly short response. That can be OK, but it will require some quick thinking on your part to formulate your follow up if all they say is “I’m the communications director for a small town in Oregon.” Great. But, what else?
If we reframe that question, and think about the way we phrase it – we might get a better result. In this case, I might try “Tell me about your job.” While subtly different, this signals to the interviewee that they can tell you more than their job title.
If you find yourself getting short, matter-of-fact answers to your questions, that’s not necessarily bad. But, you’ll need to focus on technique to draw the person out.
The Follow Up
If you’re truly listening when a person responds to your question, you’ll often find ample room to ask follow up questions. The more thoughtful these questions are, the better you’ll connect with your interview subject. Try to reference something they’ve said in their previous responses, to let them know you heard them. Often you can use this technique to dive into a specific area you think you have good footage of, and will certainly want to use in the video.
In thinking about how to follow up a question from my list, I almost always try to move toward increasingly philosophical points of view – as they can be more revealing of who the person is, and make for more interesting content:
“Describe the hardest part of the work you do.”
“Tell me what a good day at work looks like.”
“Tell me how you know you’re doing a good job.”
You’ll notice these follow up questions aren’t actually phrased as questions. What that does is again cue the speaker what you’re asking them to do. In this case, I am asking for a more complete thought – not just the facts, but more about the “Why?” in the journalistic “Who, What, When, Where and Why”. This will often illicit an anecdote, or other interesting framing of the response.
Once you feel like you have a subject area covered – you can jump back in to the prepared questions. This helps keep the momentum of the conversation rolling, without the interviewer having to pause and think of the next question to ask. Not knowing what to ask next as an interviewer can really put a damper on the flow of an interview, and lose the connection you build with the interviewee.
When Do I Interview?
Exactly when to conduct the interview portion of a production can be different depending on the type of work you are doing. That said, almost every production I do, I try to schedule the interview as the very last thing we do together.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s important to build a rapport with the person you are working with and will be interviewing. If you’ve spent the better part of a day together shooting your visual scenes, there is more opportunity for that to happen. You’ll learn more about who they are, and have a better understanding of the blindspots you may have had when you initially prepared your questions.
In addition to this, there is the very practical technical aspect of setting up for the interview. Depending on how complicated the equipment you are working with is, it could take 30-40 minutes to set up and then again to take down. When you interview at the end of the day, this allows the interviewee to take a break, do something else, or otherwise relax while you set up.
How Do I Prepare my Interviewee?
When I talk about interviewing at the end of a shoot – this already includes the most critical part of preparation of the person you interview. That is, simply putting in the time to get to know the person a little, build a rapport, and put them at ease with you.
You might ask, should I send the questions I will ask to the person ahead of time? Almost always, the answer is “No.” It’s not that you’re trying to be secretive, or catch them off guard. But, I have found time and again that people will worry about the questions, and even script answers. Or, they’ll fixate on specific questions and overthink it. It just doesn’t work well, and it’s not a good use of their time. You can certainly share the broad topics you’re interested in talking about, and that is fine.
There is also the question of how to prep the person. Do I ask them to rephrase the question I ask before answering? Do I tell them how to stand, what to wear, things like that? Do I stop them if I feel like they aren’t doing well?
I tend to think if you spend a lot of energy on “do’s” and “don’ts” or even correcting things someone does during an interview, you’re only adding more opportunity for nervousness and confusion. Even if things aren’t going perfectly, it’s always better to project the feeling that they are going great. From there, you lean on your preparation, technique, and eventually your experience, to make it work.
A good interview, well conducted, will often have a cathartic effect on the storyteller. This is one of the great joys, and also responsibilities of the documentary filmmaker. While I might have done this same work hundreds of times, it’s important to remember that for the person who will tell the story, this may be a once in a lifetime experience. They are entrusting you with their story – and that’s an honor and a privilege, no matter how small the production.
I work hard every time I have the opportunity to make a film about someone and their story to make it a good experience. The shoot experience is just as important as the final video. That’s why we have spend so much time and energy talking about how to be prepared in our pre-production work.
A Quick Exercise
Go back to your initial story board. If you haven’t done one already, now is a good time to go back and review that post and get started.
Start by creating a simple list of the topics you want to cover, based on the elements you have laid out in the story board. Under each of these subject headings, you can begin to lay out your questions.
Remember, you want to start with some basic stuff. The overall flow of the questions won’t necessarily be from easy to hard – but, more like factual to more subjective. Other words we could use for “subjective” here are philosophical, open ended or even existential.
The last two questions I ask are “What do you hope people take away from the story I create?” and “Is there anything I should have asked you about that I did not?” You might be surprised how people respond.