10 Hot Tips for Conducting Interviews

One of the integral parts of any documentary filmmaker’s canon is his/her ability to conduct an interview. After all, the interview is one of the critical components to nearly any documentary. However, the truth is that very few journalists or documentary filmmakers are completely unflappable in the face of any situation or interviewee. (We can’t all be Werner Herzogs or Alex Gibneys). But there are things we can do to give us the best chance for success with an interview. Zillions have gone before us and therefore paved roads that we can all do well to follow.

Through the years we have adopted some of our favorite filmmaker interview tips and techniques and have fashioned a sort-of best of list that I would like to impart to you today. A number of these you are no doubt probably already practicing, but I’ll bet that there are at least a few that you might be able to adopt yourself.

So with that, I’d like to give you ten hot tips for conducting interviews for your documentary film!


1. No Yes or No Questions

This is Interviewing 101. I mean, everyone knows about this rule, right? Well, that’s what I’d always thought as well. But I can’t tell you how many shoots that I’ve been a part whether as a PA or as a DP where before you know it, we’re ten minutes into the interview and the director has asked about ten questions, and gotten either the most stale of responses or simply gotten basic yes or no answers. And the director is just kind of sitting there uncomfortably, unsure of where it all went wrong.

It’s not like you can’t understand how this happens. Asking a yes or no question is an everyday part of daily conversations. But, of course, if you ever want to be able to cut your film properly and have anything of substance being said, you’ve got to probe for better answers.

An easy way to do this is every time you find yourself having a ‘yes or no’ moment, stop and rephrase the question with a how, what, or a why. For example, if you were interviewing a government administrator about their particular policy about, well let’s say gay rights, in honor of our fellow #doclifer Sofia and her current documentary project. And say that the policy was one of not awarding certificates to same sex couples. You wouldn’t ask this government administrator if they stood behind the law prohibiting gay marriage in the city, especially if you knew that they, in fact, were in favor of the law. They might simply say ‘yes, they do’. Instead, if you wanted to get a more in-depth answer, and perhaps conversation going, you might rephrase this question to be “Why is it that you stand behind this particular govt policy of not allowing for gay marriages in the city?” What happens here is that you’ve basically made it impossible for them to only have to give a yes or no answer. They practically have no choice but to think about and then supply you with a more thoughtful response.

You are there to elicit responses that are engaging. So, remember, no ‘yes or no’ questions.


2. Include Question in Answer

Along the same lines is having your subject include your question in their answer.

Why is this important?

Well, if you’ve made this mistake in one interview and then gone and tried editing that footage, you’d make sure to never make that same mistake again. Because what ends up happening is that you have answers to questions but no context for these answers. So when you sit down to edit your film it makes it very difficult to fashion soundbytes from this interview, because it all sounds like incomplete thoughts.

To go back to our governmental administrator, if say, you’ve asked him what the name of the particular law is prohibiting same sex marriage and he merely says the name, as if he’s just quickly answering your question, well you’ll never have the “The name of the law that prohibits same sex marriage in Costa Rica is blah blah blah.”. You might just have him saying the blah blah blah part. Does that make sense?

It’s important to remember that this is often how people have conversations. Someone asks them a question and they give the shortest possible answer. You almost never include the question in an answer. That would be awkward in a conversation. So to make sure you have an interview that is edit-worthy, it’s important to recognize when the subject is giving these types of responses and quickly correct.

We like to prep interviewees as we sit down to do the interview and let them know we’ll need them to include the question in their answers. You may have to remind them at points, but most people will comply with your request.


3. Allow for Breathing Room

This is something that early on – and even sometimes still today – I have to remind myself to do, allow for breathing room.

In essence, don’t just rip through the questions.

Let the conversation enfold at an easy pace, allowing for the subject to relax and find their way into the answers. I have often found myself worrying for my subject that I was taking too long with the questions or that their answers weren’t sufficient enough and I was often compensating by going through the interview quickly. Or trying to make them feel easier about the interview. But what ends up happening is that you can end up with a fairly stilted interview or you might risk losing some spontaneous answers.

We think that often you’ll find that some of the best moments in interviews happen during the quiet moments in between questions. The idea here is to allow your interviewee to have a moment for their thoughts and then to answer. If you’re quickly responding to one of their answers or moving on to the next question, you’re almost letting them off the hook. You’re encouraging them to be brief with their answers.

Sure, no one wants to weed through hours of a long-winded conversation, but you also don’t want to sell the interview or interviewee, for that matter, short. Remember, the idea here is to be encouraging thoughtful and thorough answers. You want to go home feeling that you’ve got more and not less than you need.


4. Keep Pre-Interview Talk to Minimum

Oh, have I made this mistake before. And it can be a painful one. You’ve had a lovely, deep discussion that covers precisely the ground that you want to cover for your interview. Maybe 30 minutes of just tremendous conversation that you can’t wait to get on film. And then you sit down to conduct the interview and suddenly things don’t come out as fluidly.

Maybe your subject is camera-shy.

Maybe their tired from having already talked for a half hour!

Or maybe, unlike the pre-conversation, the interview just came off in too formal a fashion.

So you end up, again, with these stilted types of conversations.

There is nothing wrong with giving your subject a brief range of topics that you’ll be covering, but you don’t want to go too in-depth. Save that for the spontaneity of the actual interview. And save the gem answers for the interview. Also, you don’t want to give the subject a chance to explain questions away or censor the questions that you’ll be asking.

Remember, you want to have a fresh conversation, with lots of room for detail, candid responses, and off-the-cuff answers. Having a sort of pre-interview risks watering those responses down or taking away the beauty of a spontaneous answer.


5. Have List of Topics, Not Just Questions

You want to do your due diligence and research for any interview – preparation is paramount – but you don’t really want to sit their with a list of questions in which to conduct your interview by. Otherwise, it quickly becomes clear to your subject that you’re just reading the questions from a prepared sheet. This can make the subject either nervous or bored, if they sense that you’re not up for an actual conversation.

You want to make your interviewee feel comfortable – well, unless you’re having a Michael Moore sort of moment, haha – and to do that, it’s important to at least give the impression that you’re interested in having a conversation that allows for both parties to have their say.

What I like to do in order to get around the old pages with a list of questions is to instead put together a one-sheet with a list of topics that you’d like to cover. In this way, you are forced to pay more attention to your subject than your sheet of questions. You’re more likely to encourage and engage in eye contact. And you’re more likely to come up with questions in a much more natural state. Answers beget questions, right?

So when you’re more engaged with the actual conversation, you’re far more likely to come up with a line of questioning that is not only more natural, but also enables you the opportunity to probe for more in-depth and thoughtful answers. It’s in these types of moments that really really nice moments can occur.


6. Hand Signals for Your Crew

This next one doesn’t really involve the actual the conducting of the interview itself, it instead involves the mechanics of the crew working within the interview itself. As you already know, there are a zillion ways in which a delicate conversation can be interrupted by a moment or situation that could often have been avoided if some hand signals with the crew had been gone over prior to the interview.

The most obvious advantage of hand signals is often between the director and the DP (or DoP, as they say in Europe). Maybe the boom mic has fallen into frame. Or you want the DP to re-frame their shot. A couple of quick and easy hand signals can quickly avoid having to actually stop an interview while it’s taking place.

One of the key crew members that should always be looped into the hand signals conversation is your sound person. I say this because your sound person is hearing both the entirety of the content, as well as the quality of the sound. A good sound person – especially one who is keen on documentary films – can often times help the director know when a sound byte was clipped by some other sound, without interrupting the flow of the conversation. They can quickly signal the director that sound was an in issue during a given moment, and then the director can decide whether or not to repeat the question. This may come as a surprise, but if the sound person is a keen one, he/she might also be able to signal if they’ve caught one of those moments where the subject didn’t include the question in their answer. Of course, tread lightly with this one, as you wouldn’t want to give the sound person too much power. They are, afterall… um, you know, just sound people. Hehehe. (Totally kidding, a little director joke at sound’s expense there).

But seriously, work out a few quick and easy hand signals before your interview. Remember, if it’s good enough for baseball, it’s good enough for you.


7. Be Friendly, But Not Their Friend

It’s, of course, almost always important to make your subject feel comfortable with their setting, in order to get the best results from your interview (unless that’s not the type of interview you’re looking for). But you don’t want to make them too comfortable by being their best friend before the interview even starts. I find that it’s important to maintain the interview and interviewee relationship as much as possible. Being nice and friendly and polite, but not overly so.

One reason that I say this is that you don’t want to give your subject a reason to feel that they can easily not answer a question should they be made uncomfortable by it. Of course, it’s entirely up to the person whether or not she wants to answer a particular question, but you can at least not make it easy for them to do so.

Another reason for not being the subject’s best friend is that it often can come across on camera that the relationship has been compromised somehow. And that the questions and answers can end up a bit softball in nature. An audience will read this and, like I said, it just compromises the interview, and the perhaps, even the film.

Lastly, if a subject senses that they can run the interview to their advantage – say a politician, lawyer, or salesmen – you’re in trouble. You’ll be getting the worst kind of unusable answers possible.

Again, you must – within reason – keep control of the interview as much as possible. Make sure it breathes, right? But also make sure that you don’t become someone else’s voice for their views or product.


8. Make Sure the Critical Questions Get Answered

There’s nothing worse than looking through your footage long after the interview has happened, only to realize that you’ve not got any soundbytes that are very important to the message of your film.

This is a pretty simple solution, of course. Make sure that you’ve asked the questions that are at the heart of your film. Write down a few of them on your topics sheet so that you can make sure you don’t miss them.

Now sometimes you’ll find that you’ve gotten through the entire interview only to see that one of your critical questions didn’t get asked. This is the moment where it’s so easy to say “oh well, I don’t want to bother my subject with another question, I’ve already taken an hour of their time.”

If you have this thought, remember this: all of the time and money that was spent putting today’s shoot together. The crew, the lunches, the research, the time spent coming up with questions and topics, etc. And then on top of that, imagine yourself editing the film and having the thought “If only I had asked that one question. It would be perfect for this section!”

When you have these thoughts, I can promise you, you won’t think twice about politely saying to your subject, “I’m sorry, but I’m realizing that I did have one more question that I wanted to make sure that I covered before going…”

Also, don’t be shy to re-state a question towards the end of an interview, if you don’t feel like you get enough of an answer or were hoping for a better delivery. You’ll be happy that you did this when you enter the editing room.


9. Any Additional Comments?

Along similar lines is making sure to give your subject an opportunity to ask a question themselves or to add anything additional to the conversation. I think that you’ll find that often times the subject has something that they’ve wanted to say on camera that they’ve not yet had the chance to.
It can be a nice opportunity for your subject to re-voice their opinion on something already covered or perhaps bring up something entirely new and fresh… a thought or idea that, perhaps, you hadn’t even thought of. It also gives the subject the feeling that they’re truly able to say how they feel on a given subject or topic.

In fact, after maybe particularly controversial or touchy topics, you might even ask your interviewee if there was anything else that that they wanted to add on the subject. Again, you’re increasing your subject’s comfort level in having a conversation with you, which can only lead to better soundbytes for you to use later on.


10. Keep Rolling Camera After Interview is Over

Some of my favorite moments in an interview actually happen after the interview was over. That is to say, I’d asked all the questions that I had, covered all of my sheet topics, and then, afterwards, I ended up with sometimes another half hour of footage.

In fact, I’ve had one or two interviews where the subject, for whatever reason – they were camera shy, they were concerned about being politically correct, whatever – but the last question had been asked and the interview was basically over… and suddenly they relaxed and started telling me some story related to the very subject matter I’d been struggling to get them to open up about!

And I’m not suggesting that you intentionally trick someone or tell them that the camera is no longer rolling, so that they give you the whistle blowing scoop that you’d been seeking. If you do this, you’re opening yourself up to a lawsuit, and really, you’re not being fair to the interviewee.

What I’m talking about, is kind of combining a couple of the items that we’ve already talked about today, like allowing some breathing room, giving a signal to the crew that you’re still rolling – actually this last one shouldn’t really be necessary since all crew members should always assume that you’re rolling until the director has called cut.

You might politely smile and say something like “Well, that wasn’t so bad, right?” Just give it a moment, and sometimes you’ll get lucky and the person will feel relaxed because the pressure of the ‘interview’ is over… and then they might just start talking. And they might just give you a really nice anecdote that you can use. Or they might just say something that makes up for what had looked like a pretty damn lackluster interview.

Believe me, I’ve been burned enough times when I didn’t keep rolling and suddenly the subject has said exactly the entire thesis of the film, which I’d been unable to get the whole previous hour we’d been rolling. And that is a very painful thing.

You will always want to get permission to use the footage you’ve captured if it was deemed to be outside of the actual interview. Just follow up and get confirmation that it’s okay to use.


We hope you have found these interviewing tip useful. Share with us in the comments below your interviewing experiences and some techniques you use to get the best from each experience.


Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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