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Interview for Documentary: Full Guide for Filmmakers

Making a documentary film is a time-consuming and complex process. You must understand the filmmaking process from start to finish and have access to the resources and equipment you need to make a compelling film. Learning how an interview for documentary (or other types of video production) works is an important part of the process. Not only will this give you valuable information for your documentary, but it’ll also help you tell a cohesive story about your subject.

Having conducted and directed hundreds of interviews for documentaries myself, including many for feature-length documentary films, there are some important things to keep in mind if you want your interview to be compelling and exciting.

The Most Important Skills You Need to Master in a Documentary Film Interview

Successful documentary interviews can be broken down into three core areas:

1. Interviewing Skills

The first skill you need to master is the art of conducting a good interview. There are some important aspects you need to keep in mind, which we explain below.

2. Technical Knowledge

The second skill is knowing the equipment and technology involved in filmmaking and how to set it up for different interview styles. Even if you have a team, it pays to know at least some technical things.

3. Story Awareness

The third skill is awareness of the story you’re telling. You need to be able to clearly identify and define the story you want to tell in your documentary, and you need to know how the interviews you want to conduct will contribute to it.

If you align these three skills, you’ll be able to conduct a meaningful and skillfully structured interview.

Reading the Interviewee

Conducting a good interview is an art in itself. It requires a good understanding of body language, psychology, and the technical aspects of a film.

As a documentary filmmaker, you need to be able to “read” the interviewee to understand what he/she’s saying. If you aren’t able to do this, you may not understand some of the key points they’re trying to get across.

The most common mistake first-time documentary filmmakers make is assuming that if they just ask the right questions, everything else will fall into place. Unfortunately, many documentaries end up being a boring, uninteresting mess this way.

General Preparation You Need to Do

You need to keep in mind that interviewing for a documentary on camera is often a one-time thing. It’s important to make the most of it. Before you start the interview, you need to do the following things:

1. Make sure you’ve all the necessary information (logistics, parking, phone numbers of the interview subject, necessary permits for the location, release forms for the interview, etc.).

2. Ensure you have the necessary equipment (spare batteries, video camera memory cards, etc.).

3. Confirm that you know what questions you want to ask (more on this below). I usually do this in bullet point form.

4. Carefully plan the approach and structure of the interview. Make sure you know what your top priority is in the interview.

5. Decide if you need to take B-roll shots during the interview. For example, if your interviewee is performing an activity or task.

6. You may want to play some footage for your interviewee to comment on. Or you may use other props. Make sure you’ve them on hand when you need them.

Think about the background of the interview and how it’ll fit into your film and story arc.

Research Your Subject and Interviewee Thoroughly

There’s no excuse for not knowing about the person you’re interviewing.

Do your research. Use Google, read books and blogs, and find out about the person’s background and history. This will help you build a better relationship with your interviewee.

The interviewee will know that you’re interested in them as a person – not just a piece of your documentary puzzle – and that’s an important foundation for a good interview.

You need to know the following things about your interviewee:

  • What’s their background and history?
  • What’s their personality like?
  • What’s important to them?
  • What’s their motivation for doing the interview?
  • What’s relevant to them? (For example, he or she might be a fan of the artist you’re interviewing. Or you might want to ask them about a particular event or topic.)
  • What points do you want to make?
  • What’re their motivations for bringing up those points?
  • If they’ve written a book, be sure to read it!

You need to know as much as you possibly can about the topic you are addressing.

The reason for this is simple: it makes for a better documentary and also much better interviews.

When you actually conduct the interview, you’ll be able to ask the right questions and make the most of the conversation.

How to Conduct a Pre-Interview

Sometimes you’re advised not to pre-interview the people you want to interview for your documentary project for fear that you’ll spoil the actual interview when you film it. This advice is nonsensical.

The best interviews are the ones where you spend time getting to know your subject before you start filming.

This preliminary conversation, usually lasting at least an hour or two and ideally, face-to-face lays the groundwork for what you’re going to film and gives your interview subject a chance to get to know you. This element of “bonding” with the interviewee and building trust is critical to success.

Ask yourself: Would you share something important or sensitive personal information with someone you didn’t trust?

Exactly!

In most cases, the pre-interview allows you to:

1) define the purpose of the film,

2) make sure you’ve prepared the interviewee for the questions you’ll ask them, and

3) build a relationship with the interviewee that will make them feel more relaxed and open during the actual interview.

It’s true that it’s important not to ‘talk out’ the interviewee on an important topic or story before you run the camera. Otherwise, you may miss the freshness of a story being told to you for the first time.

To avoid ‘talking out’, discuss the topic or general story of your film with the person you’re interviewing so you can get a sense of where they’re at their best when it comes to the actual interview.

The trick is to determine where they want to bring up a story or critical point, and then stop them from unpacking it in the pre-interview (while also pointing out that this topic or story will be explored in-depth on camera).

Sometimes it’s necessary to tell the interviewee directly that a particular story or revelation is best kept for the camera. In my experience, this has always resulted in an understanding and willing agreement from the interviewee.

Settling Into the Interview

It’s usually a good idea to start with one or two simple, open-ended easy questions to warm up the interviewee.

You want him to relax and gain confidence as he talks to you on camera about the topic of the interview. It’s easy to forget how much pressure lights and a film camera can put on someone.

Give them time to settle in. After that, you can go into the most important questions you want to ask.

This two- to three-minute warm-up period also gives your team a chance to check focus, framing, levels, etc. Of course, this should be done when you’re preparing for the interview – but you’ll be surprised how often a little mistake creeps in when the interview actually starts. The last thing you want is for a mistake to occur at a critical moment when the interviewee is revealing something with emotion!

The exception to this rule is VIPs who’ve very little time and are very experienced at giving interviews on camera. In this case, it’s usually better if you go directly to the “main event” in order not to waste precious time and not to unsettle the interviewee.

The Questions to Ask

The reason I listed Story Awareness on the list of core competencies for documentary interviews is that it’s the foundation for all the questions you ask in your interviews.

This is true even for the most casual, impromptu interviews.

The specific question you always have to ask yourself is, “What’s the story here? How does this fit into the larger story of my film?”

Context and perspective are critical to making a good documentary. That’s why you often alternate between micro-stories told by your interviewee and broader insights into what happened that they were somehow involved in.

Structuring the Interview

When structuring the entire interview (I’d usually just list 10-12 points on an index card), try to think about how the interview can flow naturally, like a conversation. Try not to jump back and forth between topics so much that the interviewee (and you) get lost in the material.

Don’t share your questions with your interviewee in advance. It’s fair and often useful to give him/her a sense of the likely flow of the conversation – but if you pass around a list and stick to it, expect rote and boring answers.

You also shouldn’t allow your interviewees to take notes or keep a memory log during the conversation. Gently take them away and let them speak from their experience and memory – and as humanly as possible.

Take Your Time

Remember that sometimes it takes a little time to bring people to real memories and insights. I can’t remember ever doing an interview for a documentary that took less than 30 minutes for this very reason.

Keep your questions open-ended, but narrow enough to get an answer with focus. You don’t want “yes” or “no” answers to your questions, of course.

It’s usually a good idea to limit a question to a single point; be careful not to bundle multiple questions into one question. Otherwise, you risk a confusing answer from the respondent that won’t help you in your editing.

Unless you’re making a movie in which you yourself are a character, you should try to cut your questions out of the parts that will be used in your final movie. You don’t have to adhere to the interviewee incorporating your questions into his/her answers (although you can do this a few times to “tune” him/her into the topic).

But you need to listen very carefully to their answers and have some kind of inner editor in your mind asking, “Can I use this in the edit? Or do I need more here?”

The ‘Tell Me About’ Technique

Often documentaries work very well when there are stories that illustrate the themes and messages of the film.

This means that you need illustrations and stories from your characters to complete the story you’re telling in your documentary.

A good way to do this when you’re conducting interviews for documentaries is to use the phrase “tell me about.” You can ask the interviewee to say something like, “Tell me about the time you first…” or “Tell me why you believe that…” and so on. There’s a good variation on this phrase, which is “Tell me briefly about…” if you need a shorter version of the answer.

The reason this technique works is that it puts the respondent in the mode of storytelling.

Did I Miss Anything

Another tip you can use with almost any interview is to ask “Was there anything I forgot to ask?” or “Was there anything we didn’t address?”.

A variation on this technique is to ask the interviewee if he’s any final thoughts on the topic you’re talking about. This, too, can lead to him or her digging deep into his or her insights and experiences and coming up with something completely unexpected as an answer.

The Documentary Interview Puzzle Palace

Shooting a documentary is like putting together a puzzle – with the caveat that you also cut out the puzzle pieces before you even start!

The challenge and beauty of documentary filmmaking are that your understanding of the story you’re telling almost always changes as you research, film, and edit.

If your understanding of the story doesn’t evolve, you’re probably doing something wrong!

The Art of Listening in Documentary Interviewing

That’s why the most important part of a good documentary interview is that you listen carefully and think about the answers your interviewees give. You need to listen not only on a factual level, but also pay attention to their tone of voice, body language, and emotions.

The questions, comments, and direction of the interview often depend on what the interviewees say and how they behave.

In most cases, you’ll respond to statements or points the interviewee has made, or he/she’ll bring up a new topic on his/her own.

Again, the art of the interviewer is to listen carefully to what the interviewee is saying and then develop a productive line of questioning that builds on the answers and treats the interview subject as a real person.

Pay very close attention to what is not being said but that you sense the interviewee wants to share. It’s usually these moments that allow for true revelations and magic in a documentary interview.

Silence Can Speak Louder Than Words

It’s very important that you allow your interviewee to completely finish his or her answer to a particular question. Unless he or she completely deviates from the topic and you need to redirect the interview.

There’s often a moment of silence before they signal to you that they’ve fully answered. Make sure you allow that moment. It may be a little awkward for you, but it can make for an immeasurably better film because it’s often at this moment that an interviewee brings up an important revelation that they were holding back before.

The same kind of pauses exists in the flow of an answer. Allow them. Remember that you’ll be editing later; you’re not in the land of TV news soundbites when you’re doing a documentary interview.

While we’re on the subject of silence, it’s very important that you don’t overlap your voice with that of the interviewee. If you catch yourself doing this, make sure you restart the question. Otherwise, your recording may become unusable during editing.

The Importance of Engagement and Encouragement

Remember that about 70% of human communication is nonverbal.

When conducting an interview for a documentary, you need to use visual cues and be aware that your interviewee is on the right track and that you’re really engaging with what they’re saying.

The most important of these is, of course, eye contact. If you’re engrossed in a list of questions or notes, you’ve little chance of maintaining proper eye contact.

You can use your face as a canvas for your emotions when someone is telling a good story. That doesn’t mean you’ve to be artificial but allow yourself to smile and respond visually. Make sure you don’t talk, though, or it’ll cut through the interviewee’s audio and make editing much more difficult.

Where To Put the Camera

You’ll often get the best shots if you set up the camera a bit away from the interviewee (and the interviewee away from walls, etc.) to use the telephoto lens to change the depth of field a bit.

In this case, it’s even more important that you accurately set the “eye line” of the interviewee in relation to the camera lens.

Unless you’re shooting a very mannered or styled shot, you want the audience to feel that the interviewee is addressing them. The best way to achieve this is to position your head right next to one side of the camera lens.

Always check what the eye line looks like – preferably on a field monitor; if not, then through the camera viewfinder. You can also use your fist to simulate where your head will be if you don’t have enough crew members (in a documentary, usually a camera operator and a sound recordist) to stand in for you.

Make sure also that if using a gun microphone that it is positioned close enough to the interview subject, while also remaining out of frame. You may sometimes have to tighten a medium shot a little in order to attain this.

One Camera or Two?

Usually, most interviews in documentaries are done with one camera. Not least due to budget restrictions on the number of camera crew you can have on location.

If you want a reverse angle on you, the interviewer, you usually do it after the interview.

However, that’s rather unusual in documentary filmmaking. It’s more of a technique used in news and current affairs television.

If you decide to use two cameras, you need to make sure that the angles and framing match when you edit. This usually means that the two cameras are at a 30° angle to each other and that the image sizes either match or are different enough so that the transition in editing is smooth.

Also make sure that the camera types match when editing, especially in terms of color grading. You’ll sometimes find that different cameras look very different in terms of image quality and color representation, so you’re better off not splicing them together.

Sitting, Standing or Moving?

The location and setting of an interview can play an important role in your finished film, but you also need to think about logistics.

There isn’t always a simple answer to this question. You can get great shots by filming people in their familiar surroundings. You can get a sense of authenticity by shooting on location.

Whatever you decide, you need to be aware of the logistical and filming challenges that come with shooting in a particular location.

Using a tripod is sometimes not an option in crowded or active environments.

Thinking About Light and Setup

Lighting will always be an issue to consider carefully. You need to make sure you light your interviewee well. This can be difficult in natural daylight: the main reason being that you’ll probably have to edit one part of the interview with another; if it’s the same person in the same environment, a very different lighting condition from one clip to another on the subject or in the background can make editing difficult.

You’ll need to consider when it’s best to record the interview to avoid background noise and activity.

When all is said and done, you can use these things in your film – but you need to be careful that viewers don’t lose focus on your interviewee because they’re distracted by visual or audio cacophony.

Will You Need to Use the Interview in Voiceover?

Keep in mind that if there’s distracting background noise, you’ll probably have to cut the interview footage “in vision” – you won’t be able to use it as a voiceover under other footage, such as archival footage.

A small side note: Avoid swivel chairs for the interviewees. Not only do they interfere with the line of sight as the interviewee moves back and forth, but they can also cause a creaking noise on the soundtrack that can’t be removed!

Filming in vehicles is a popular choice because it’s not only visually interesting, but it’s also interesting for the story; plus, with the windows closed, the ambient noise is usually acceptable.

Pay attention to safety aspects – if the interviewee is behind the wheel, you need to make sure that you don’t distract their attention from the road. Therefore, you should choose a quiet road and keep the speed down. Another advantage to low speeds is that it’s easier to keep the camera steady.

How to Deal With a Nervous Interviewee

Sometimes you’ll encounter an interviewee who’s very anxious or nervous. You can deal with this by getting them to focus on you, in a conversation, and diverting their attention from the lights, tripods, cameras, etc. around them.

The nervousness may have to do with thinking they might get something wrong in their answers. It’s easy to counter this fear: just tell them they can answer a question as many times as they want because everything will be edited later. So it doesn’t matter if they get something wrong.

If you turn a job interview into a structured conversation, you also have a lot more chances of overcoming nervousness and inhibitions. That’s why ethics and confidence are so important in documentary filmmaking.

When someone really opens up in front of the camera, they trust you as a filmmaker to respect that openness.

Record a Room Tone

A professional documentary film crew knows that at the end of an interview, you need to record a room tone, also called a buzz track.

This means you need to record about a minute of absolute silence, where everyone in the room is still and standing or sitting quietly while the recording is made.

If it’s possible, you should make this audio recording right after the interview is over, before you sign the release forms, and so on. Otherwise, I can guarantee you that the interviewee and perhaps other people nearby will be making various noises at the time you’re trying to record your room tone.

Recording the room tone is useful because when you’re editing the interview parts together, sometimes you need the room tone to cover up the cuts.

Use All the Means At Your Disposal

Sometimes you find yourself in a culture or environment where it’s better to use a local person as an interviewer rather than yourself.

If you do, you must be careful that the interviewer’s gaze doesn’t wander back and forth between you and the facilitator. The easiest way to do this is to stand directly behind the person conducting the interview.

The same principle applies if you have a translator who translates the interviewee’s words after each answer. Make sure that this person is either standing directly behind you or is in another room communicating with you via some kind of in-ear tailback (to avoid the translator’s voice bleeding onto your interviewee’s soundtrack).