In this, the second of two posts, I'm sharing field-tested tips to capture compelling interviews. Be sure to check out Part 1: Set the Scene for Great Storytelling, with tips to improve your interviews before the cameras roll.
Part 2: The Art of the Interview
*"I sometimes find that in interviews you learn more about yourself than the person learned about you" * -William Shatner
Once the camera gets rolling and you’re underway, there are some methods you can employ to keep the good feelings going and ensure you’ll have the content you need for your finished program.
1- GIVE IT TIME. Often, it takes a bit to unwind in front of the camera, and giving your subject the time they need at the outset of your interview to get comfortable can really help bring out their best. Be sure your schedule isn’t too rushed.
2- DON'T DISCLOSE YOUR QUESTIONS IN ADVANCE. If you can help it at all, don’t provide your subject with a list of questions before the interview. They will naturally create answers to your questions ahead of time given the chance, and this often results in a stilted, emotionless reply. So if you’re asked for questions in advance, address your subject's concerns, but in general terms. You might say something like: “During our interview, I'd like to ask you about the history of the work you’re doing, what inspired you to keep going during difficult times, and what you see for the future, going forward.” You've helped to put them at ease, but also kept them from calculating their answers too far in advance, which is a conversation-killer. Remember, your goal is conversation, and conversation is where you’ll find the best sound bites.
3- AVOID THE CUE CARD SLIPPERY SLOPE: If you're looking for real audience connection, insist your subjects abstain from using notes of any kind. But be prepared to explain your reasoning, as I've had to do numerous times, in conversations that, without fail, go like this: Subject: Can I use a prompter? Me: We'd really like your answers to be spontaneous and natural-sounding, so it would be best if we just have a conversation, without prompting. I think you'll find that, once were underway, you won't miss them at all. Subject: Well, I have a few notes I’ve taken. How about if I read from those? Me: I understand your desire to make sure your message is clear, but it just won’t look very natural to have you looking down at your lap during our conversation. Why don't you let me phrase the questions, and I can lead you through the interview in a more conversational way. I promise, it will make you look great in the end. Subject: Hmmm. How about if we just put a few bullet points on a piece of paper off-camera, so I can be sure to hit all of the points I need to? Me: I understand where you're going, but I'm concerned about how you will look to viewers. We want you to look your best on-camera. But if you're reading, your eyes will always give away that you’re scanning lines of text, and you won't look natural doing that. No matter how insistent your subject is, remember that it's in everyone's best interest to hold out and avoid using written words in any form. When a respondent insists, I’ll offer instead that we work together and shoot a few takes using nothing more than the subject’s powers of memory, and not cue cards or notes. They may resist at first, but I've had great success working this way, often to the surprise of interviewees who marvel at their own abilities. In my experience, this is the only method that ensures you’ll have natural, conversational footage in the edit. So don’t let yourself get on the cue card slippery slope with your subject. Be firm, and offer to help them out with some quick memorization—it will make them look much more natural in the end.
4- TAKE A DETOUR. Sometimes your subject will go off-topic, meander, and lose the thread of conversation. Try to resist the urge to get back on track too quickly, because pursuing a tangent from an unexpected comment can uncover meaningful new plots or details. You’ll need to condition yourself to listen for these hidden pearls from your subject as the interview progresses, but your patience could yield great rewards.
5- CHECK IN. Once you’re underway, don’t push your subject too hard to reach the finish line. Extending a simple courtesy by asking "How’s it going for you?” or "Do you need a drink?" can go a long way toward supporting friendly and open communications with your subject, and get you the answers you’re looking for.
6- PARTNER. If you can ask “how did you like your response?”, you can enlist the help of your subject, making the interview a collaborative effort, and they will appreciate your concern for making them look good. They may ask to have another crack at their response, and that’s good for you, because it will get them vested in a better outcome, and also endear you to them so that they’ll want to help you by providing a successful and insightful interview.
7- EDIT ON THE SET. Depending on the production, you may need to get a more succinct answer from your subject. It’s far better to ask your subject to deliver a more concise version of their long-winded answer than to have to chop their thoughts up into a shorter answer in post. Try to work with your subject on-set to get shorter answers in real-time.
8- STAY FLEXIBLE. Plan to shoot compelling visuals to support what’s being said. Be prepared, as this usually involves shooting additional b-roll that is germane to the story that is unfolding before you. Staying flexible when it comes to last-minute b-roll shooting is one of the best ways to improve the impact of your storytelling.
9- ASK ONCE, ASK TWICE. Once the interview ends, I often re-ask the first two questions, and am rewarded with responses that are much more natural, owing to the fact that my subject has warmed up, is in tune with the Q and A process, and is feeling more relaxed.
10- KUDOS. After the recording, let them know they’ve done a nice job. If requested, I’ll sometimes show them a clip of the interview so they can get an idea of how they did (it’s usually surprising to them how nice they look).
It’s not always easy, but taking special care of your storytellers during the interview can yield fantastic results onscreen. If you can unlock a great story, you can create something that sparks original thinking, contribute to the human dialog, and build bridges from our past into our future with words. Did I miss anything? What tips can you share from your interviewing experiences?
In case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1: Set the Scene for Great Storytelling, with tips to improve your interviews before the cameras roll.