Interviews are the bread and butter of your documentary film. Whether you’re interviewing the President of the United States or your grandmother, your ability to provide lucid, insightful questions and direction to your subject is essential to the success of your documentary. If your documentary doesn’t have a focus, chances are you’re line of questioning won’t either. Be sure to know what the objective of the interview is and what you expect to get out of it before you shine a light on your subject.
Just like every person you talk to, every interview will be different. Some will be straight-forward while others will require a certain finesse that can only be learned in the awkward heat of the moment. Though there are certain situations where it pays to make use of the element of surprise, more often than not it’s in your best interests to prepare the person being interviewed. Nobody wants to look stupid on camera and it helps to be sensitive to the needs of your participants. Some people like to see questions ahead of time in order to rehearse and prepare answers. Others barely have time to sit down with you in the first place so you’re lucky to film them at all. Even though every situation is unique and has its own individual requirements there are a few universal tactics that you can employ to make sure everything runs smoothly. Most of us don’t subscribe to the Fox News method of interviewing and would prefer to have a mature and reasonable dialogue about the topic. Unless your objective is to provoke a confrontation, it’s generally worthwhile to warm up your subject. Small talk or personal observations prior to the interview are a good way to loosen someone up and open the dialogue before diving in. Nine times out of 10, footage from an engaged and interested subject will make the final cut over a frigid performance.
Don’t be afraid to stop the interview in order to correct course. It’s important for both of you that the recording is useable and better to pause and restart than leave with a bunch of useless footage. Have the subject include the question in their response so that their answers are self-contained, otherwise you could end up with fragments that are hard to incorporate naturally into a larger narrative. If you’re lucky, your collaborators will likely be excited and passionate about their subject matter, sometimes so excited that they’ll talk at length about every detail of the topic at hand. That’s why it’s important to listen and take notes during your interviews so you can go back and ask the speaker to sum up a particular idea again in under 30 seconds. Asking for a nutshell version of an answer is a great way to crystallize the perfect sound bite. Shooting the revised statement from a different perspective will let you cut between the two versions when necessary.
There’s no closely guarded secret to crafting the perfect documentary other than research, repetition and trial and error. Tell stories with a beating heart at the center and stay true to your subject matter. Every important thing you need to know you’ll probably learn the hard way.
Watch: Fog of War
In the ultimate interview, documentary legend Errol Morris grilled former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for 20 hours about Vietnam and other wars through a device called the “Interrotron” which allowed Morris to sit in another room while his face was projected onto a screen which McNamara spoke to. The camera lens located behind the screen recorded McNamara’s face head on so that in the final piece the viewer is looking directly into McNamara’s eyes as he breaks down the tragedy and lessons of the Vietnam War for which he was one of the main architects.