Art is long, life is short
Celebrity documentarians such as Michael Moore, Louis Theroux and Werner Herzog have pressed their way onto our screens over the years. Labelled somewhat unflatteringly as les nouvelles égotistes, these documentary filmmakers often conduct interviews in ways unrecognisable from traditional, studio-based ‘talking-heads’ which have become the defining feature of documentary. The decision to interview someone then, is as much an artistic choice as a strategic one. This applies to documentary filmmakers and content creators working in the Third Sector. Here we discuss options for different interview styles and their storytelling merits.
The talking head
The first of these has already been mentioned, and is probably the one most readily associated with documentaries. This is the classic ‘talking head’, which purports to do nothing more than show someone talking. A further distinction can be made between a ‘piece to camera’ and ‘off camera’. In the former, a subject looks directly at the camera as they answer questions. The audience thus feels as if they are being spoken to directly, whereas it’s obvious that they’re not when a subject is looking off camera. Here, the subject faces the interviewer at a 45-degree angle.
A notable exception to this rule is the genre-defying work of Errol Morris. Beginning with Gates of Heaven, Morris begun a tradition of interviewing his subjects with his head right up against the camera lens. Although he would later revise this technique in the form of the ‘Interrotron’, the idea remained to give his audience a true first-person perspective on his interviewee. For Morris, this created greater intimacy between the two parties because it gave them the illusion of eye contact with one another. Were they to have faced off camera, such an “essential part of communication” would have been lost.
The self-reflective style
Still more was missing from the talking head, however. Nick Broomfield thought as much when he linked the style to stage production, where a not dissimilar amount of constructed sets and artificial lighting was present. According to Broomfield, this meant “destroying the very things that you should be filming.” His solution was to show people in their element by capturing all aspects of the production process, however ungainly. You’ll often see him with a minimal crew, holding nothing but a sound boom and tape recorder.
The conversational mode
This minimalist approach has proven especially useful when attempting to make people feel relaxed. Doing so forms a large part of Broomfield’s work, as he and many others believe that interviews ought to read more as conversations. This, after all, is what enables people to open up. One way of achieving this is to adopt a faux-naïf appearance, as several of les nouvelles égotistes stand accused of having done. Among them is Louis Theroux, who defends himself by arguing that ‘know-it-alls’ likely struggle to elicit much audience engagement.
The confrontational mode
Theroux began his career on Michael Moore’s TV Nation, a satire TV show whose brand of ‘gonzo journalism’ remains present in both documentarists’ work today. Moore in particular has often come under fire for his ambush-style interviews, with a commonly cited example being that of Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. Even though Moore had in fact received verbal consent to conduct the interview the prior day, very aggressive questions do leave some viewers with a bad taste in their mouth.
Our tips for great interviews
1. Explain to your interviewee that you may ask similar questions or you may ask repetitive questions, it just helps to have answers worded differently so you have a choice when editing. Preparing your interviewee will help them understand.
2. Keep your questions brief! Often times beginning documentary filmmakers will ask long winded questions that are more about proving they know a lot about the subject matter than getting real answers. Although there’s a cliche in documentary filmmaking that an interview is “just a conversation,” the truth is it should be a conversation where the interviewee is doing 90% of the talking– not just 50%.
3. Stay silent when you think the interviewee is done answering a question. People instinctively want to fill silence especially in uncomfortable situations so they tend to talk a bit more. You can use this human nature to your advantage. If we had a dime for each time that an interviewee finished talking, paused, only to say something truly insightful just because we paused before asking our next question, we’d have a lot of dimes.
4. Act stupider than you really are about the interview subject. If you prove your knowledge too much, the interviewee will unconsciously feel that they don’t have to explain a lot to you and so their answers will be more as if they were talking to an expert in their field rather than a general audience. But your audience for your documentary film (most of the time) won’t be subject matter experts that have done four months of pre-production and research.
5. Get something wrong in your questions. This is a neat trick if you can swallow your ego for long enough to do it. There’s an old adage on the internet that the quickest way to figure out how to do something is by going online and posting in a forum and giving incorrect instructions on how to do whatever the task is. All of a sudden you’ll get dozens of people tripping over themselves to correct you. In the same way, if you give your interviewee something to “fight” against or a straw man, it can result in a much more passionate answer from them.
6. Start with small questions, end with big ones. When you’re asking an interviewee the really big questions like asking them to reflect on their experience with the subject matter, or what it all means, or what they’ve learned or how they’ve changed (if it’s a character based film), it’s best to save those questions for the end of the interview. Especially in circumstances where you’re asking a subject to remember events from many years ago, it helps to have them freshly thinking about the relevant matter, and then ask them to summarize their feelings or thoughts at the very end.
7. Only ask one question at a time. You’d be surprised how many beginning documentary filmmakers don’t do this. If you ask more than one question, expect only the last question you ask to be the one that the interviewee actually answers.
8. If you’re struggling to get detailed answers from your subject, ask them to back up and “tell you the story of when…” When people feel like someone wants to hear “a story” they’re more likely to give richer details. Similarly, asking an interviewee to “Paint a picture for me of that moment…” can also achieve great results.
9. “What’s the best/worst case scenario for how this will all turn out?” Films that take place in the modern day as the events are unfolding need stakes. So asking your characters to day dream or speculate can help establish those stakes.
10. “Why?” Never be shy about asking the additional “Why” question at the end of one of your interviewees answers. Even if you already think you know what they’re going to say.
There is no right or wrong way to tell a compelling story, but over the years we’ve found some things work more than others. Here’s our first Cheat Sheet on crafting great stories.