Documentary and the Interview Subject, Part II

Last week we raised the question of how to get the best information out of an interviewee while filming. (A JSF-vet. filmmaker had reported that interviewees were increasingly telling him the best stuff off-camera.) I floated the question to some other JSF vets and they came back with some interesting responses. Some are common sense, but some are a bit more illicit.

Try to avoid conversations with your subject about the material you intend to discuss. If you talk about the material off-camera, the subject might end up spouting off essential details at that time, and then forget about the juciy details once it comes time for the formal questioning. I guess most people rarely tell a story the same way twice, after all. When you are actually doing the interview, play it casually. Making the subject feel comfortable is pretty key. Or, if you are setting up for the interview, prep the interviewee with what you plan on talking about without posing any of the actual questions. Give them an idea of what you want to talk about, but don’t give them too much time to start forming answers ahead of time.

He also advises having your camera ready, in case the subject starts talking without prompting. Another filmmaker offered the following:

Everyone, it seems, has an “on screen” and “off screen” persona. People naturally feel freer to say what’s on their mind when they know the camera isn’t rolling. Sometimes they are justified. Sometimes they are just shy. One way to circumvent this dilemma is to keep the camera rolling. Start shooting before you say “action” and keep the camera going after you say “cut.” Video is cheap enough.

One more trick: Tell your on-screen interviewee that this is “just a rehearsal.” But tape it. And, if it’s better than the actual interview, use some of the footage.

That’s right, he went there. He admits that you’ll still need to get the person’s approval, afterward. Both of them stress that it’s important to make the interviewee as comfortable and relaxed as possible.

One of the publisher’s friends, a guerrilla historian, offered this:

. . . the first thing that jumps to mind for me is you HAVE to make sure that the person being interviewed trusts where the documentary is going and that the information that is being searched for will be treated respectfully and honestly.

. . . The film maker needs to empower and embolden the interviewee by assuring him/her that by telling the truth, the larger truth can be seen, explained, understood. As long as the person being interviewed trusts that the documentary will achieve those ends, then maybe more honesty can get captured on film.

What seems kind of obvious is actually pretty complex. Among other things, interviewing is a combination of camera tactics and logistics, psychological nuance, and establishing trust. Some of this stuff can’t be learned in film school. Experience helps, so get out there and start making mistakes.

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