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Interview Tips Every Documentary Filmmaker Should Know

Johnathan Paul

The interview is an important aspect of documentary filmmaking. Check out these must-know interview tips before starting your next project.

Top image via Pat Mills

The importance of conducting a solid interview can’t be overstated when it comes to documentary filmmaking. But every filmmaker is different in terms of how they approach and capture that interview. The way Errol Morris conducts an interview is vastly different from the way Werner Herzog conducts an interview. With that said, let’s run through a few interview tips every documentary filmmaker should know.

1. Prepare Accordingly, but Remain Adaptable

Interview Tips Every Documentary Filmmaker Should Know: Laura Poitras ResearchingImage: documentarian Laura Poitras researching, via The New York Times

Research is an absolute must before ever attempting to produce a documentary film, let alone an interview. For example, I researched my last documentary film for nearly a year before we ever rolled on a camera. By researching your film, you’ll be better able to intelligently adapt your questions to match your subject’s responses.

2. Avoid “Yes” and “No” Questions

Interview Tips Every Documentary Filmmaker Should Know: Nel Shelby on SetImage: documentary filmmaker Nel Shelby and crew during interview, via Nel Shelby Productions

With research and planning done, it’s time to craft questions for the interview. For this you’ll want to ensure that you have a solid dialogue going with your subject before the interview. Just be mindful not to prep them — you want their responses to be real and authentic, and that doesn’t happen if you conduct a preinterview.

Develop your questions from your research and correspondence with your subject. The key to creating these questions is to ensure that they aren’t “yes” or “no” questions. Your questions need to be structured and framed in such a way that they invite the subject to talk and give quantitative responses. We also want to ask them to restate the question before answering.

The secret to asking revealing questions is to ask about the subject’s “feelings and emotions” and to ask the subject to tell you a story full of details. – The Wild Classroom

3. Ensure Your Subject Is Comfortable

Interview Tips Every Documentary Filmmaker Should Know: National Gallery Doc PrepImage: Fredrick Wiseman’s crew before filming National Gallery, via DVDExotica

With a foundation based on research and expansive questions, you’re ready to actually conduct the interview — and while you may be completely comfortable around running cameras, your subject might not be. Because of this, you need to ensure your subjects are comfortable before you ever start rolling.

I’ve found a technique learned from filmmaker Scott Thurman to be helpful for this. Thurman recommends giving your subject your undivided attention while the crew prepares the gear and set. Make small talk and chat about anything. Ease their mind and make them feel as comfortable as possible. When you’re finally ready to go, they’ll feel much more at ease with the process. Be respectful of your subject and remember they are accommodating you, so be sure to accommodate them.

4. Be Engaging With Your Subject

Interview Tips Every Documentary Filmmaker Should Know: Errol Morris on SetImage: documentary Filmmaker Errol Morris during an interview

Your subject is feeling positive, confident, and ready to roll. You hit record. Now, it’s absolutely crucial for you to remain engaged with both energy level and eye contact. If your energy level is good, your subject’s is likely to be as well. Having an engaged subject can make a huge difference for your interview.

One quick note about eye contact. I like to maintain eye contact with my subject throughout the interview. There will be moments when you write a note about something they said, but try to bring eye contact back immediately. If the filmmaker doesn’t maintain eye contact, the subject’s eyes will drift around the space and likely become disengaged.

5. Leave Spaces to Breathe

Interview Tips Every Documentary Filmmaker Should Know: Clio Barnard on SetImage: documentarian Clio Barnard on set of The Arbor, via IMDb

Finally, we have solid questions, an engaged subject, and rolling cameras. This is the perfect mix for a great interview, minus one thing — breathing room. When conducting an interview, you need to make sure you leave plenty of space for edits. I like to tell my subjects to give me a beat or two before starting in with their answer. Then when they finish, I’m going to let there be an awkward pause — a place for the interview to breathe.

This technique is, of course, for the editing phase of the film. Don’t feel that you need to stop recording immediately after you finish your questions. I’ve been able to capture some of the best bits of my interviews during post-question conversational moments.

What approach do you take to interviews? Share your thoughts in the comments below.