Interviews are often a key part of documentary-style filmmaking. Speaking with an expert or other person with intimate knowledge of the film’s main subject area can add substance, depth, and credibility to your film. Of course, if your project focuses on one specific person or group of people, capturing their thoughts and reflections is a key part of the narrative process itself.
While it might seem that your interview subject should be doing most of the heavy lifting, you’re still in the hot seat for coming up with thoughtful questions that will hopefully elicit the kinds of responses that elevate a story and push forward the overall narrative. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when formulating questions.
- Consider the overall project narrative or topic. Ask yourself what you’d like to learn about this person, what you want to understand about their work or life experience, and how their story fits into your larger narrative – what role do they play in the finished film?
- Do your research! Subjects can tell if you study up on them and understand their role or work by the questions you ask. While you may need to ask some basic questions (i.e. that kind that are easily answered by research) to capture their response on film, a deeper study of your subject will offer the opportunity for a more thorough conversation.
- Ask open-ended questions. Closed questions are the kinds that elicit very brief, even one-word answers – i.e. “Where are you from?” Conversely, open-ended questions prod your subject to explore a bit further (and speak in complete sentences). A simple fix for the previous question would be to instead ask, “Can you talk a bit about where you’re from?” or “Can you describe the place where you grew up?”
- Remember – leave some room for spontaneity. While you definitely want to have a prepared list of questions on hand, it’s also important to follow any interesting topics not covered by your initial list. Leave room for spontaneity; you never know where these side conversations may lead!
Here are a few questions to keep on deck when you’re preparing for interviews – or for those awkward silences that can sometimes happen right in the middle of one!
- What inspired you to __________?
- What surprised you most about __________?
- What was the biggest challenge in __________?
- How did you overcome that challenge?
- What motivates you to continue __________?
- Can you describe the moment you realized / knew / discovered __________?
- If you could change anything about __________, what would it be?
- What do people typically misunderstand or get wrong about __________?
- What would you like for people to know about or take away from __________?
- What is your next __________?
- Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you think is important to discuss?
- Who else should I speak with about __________?
INTERVIEW TIPS & TRICKS
Over time, you’ll develop a style or routine that you follow while conducting interviews on film. In the meantime, here are some general tips and tricks to ensure you experience a smooth ride during the process.
- Keep your subject comfortable. This covers both physical and emotional comfort. Ease into the interview with some “softball” questions (it’s fine if these are unrelated to the project) to help them get comfortable on camera – “So, how’s your weekend going?” or “What are your favorite hiking trails in the area?” for instance. Offer breaks and time off-camera, provide water and something to nibble on, and check in frequently. On the emotional end of things, be aware of any potential triggers or traumatic events connected to your subject’s experience of the topic and handle with care.
- Keep it conversational. The more relaxed you appear, the more relaxed your subject will feel. Try to familiarize yourself with talking points and questions well enough so that you aren’t simply reading them from a card throughout the interview. Think of this experience as if it’s an everyday human interaction – just a regular conversation that just happens to be filmed!
- Ask subjects to repeat your questions. This might seem a bit awkward, but by asking them to repeat your question before responding, you’ve just opened up additional options for the editing process down the road.
- Don’t interrupt! It can be hard to avoid interjecting, but it’s important to let the subject finish talking before responding. Unless you are on camera with the subject, this means being totally silent while they’re talking – avoid any sounds, including common conversational interjections like “Hmm” or “Uh-huh.” This not only helps keep your audio clean for later editing, but it also ensures you’re not stopping the subject in the middle of a potentially great thought!
- Ask for clarification. This offers an opportunity for the subject to clarify any statements that might have seemed muddled or incomplete. “I’m not sure that I understand – would you mind rephrasing that?” or “Can you expand a bit on XYZ?” are great options in this situation.
- Ask follow-up questions. Simple phrases like “Tell me more” or “How did that feel?” allow space for storytelling to expand.
- Keep the camera rolling. Most filmmakers who’ve conducted interviews will tell you that the moment you stop rolling is when your subject suddenly relaxes and begins sharing the really good stuff. One practice that ensures you won’t miss any stellar banter or insights is to let the camera roll for a bit after you’ve announced the formal end of the interview.
Good luck and happy interviewing!
top photo by Harli Marten