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On Being A Good Interviewer

A documentary filmmaker shares tips for being an effective interviewer
Still from a live interview
A BTS still from a live interview in front of a studio audience. Being an effective interviewer means that you must wear a lot of different hats, be a good listener and be willing to think on your feet, especially as your subjects respond to your questions.

It occurred to me on a shoot a few weeks ago that I’ve been shooting on-camera interviews with a pretty diverse range of people for over two decades. I’m a documentary filmmaker and the interview is the basis of my documentary storytelling. The interview, in much of my work, becomes the foundation on which the entire story is built upon. I’ve shot interviews that were amazing, I’ve shot interviews that were perfunctory and I’ve shot interviews that turned into a disaster, regardless of what I tried to do to fix it.

Since this is a blog entry and not a long how-to book, I’m going to cut to the chase as it would probably add the most value if I categorize some of the bigger takeaways I’ve learned conducting so many interviews. As the interviewer, it’s smart to approach each interview with a sense of knowing, in an ideal situation, what kind of material and answers you want to walk away with. It can be an effective strategy to work backward in a sense. If you know what kinds of responses and soundbites you want to walk away with, this gives you a good framework to begin working out what you’re going to say to the subject to get them to open up to you and give you the material you’re looking for.

Image of a pre-interview
Here, an interviewer pre-interviews the subject before stepping in front of the camera. Pre-interviews can often be conducted on phone or Zoom, if time permits, before the cameras roll. This is the essence of doing your homework as an interviewer.

Do Your Homework

In my opinion, the key to getting a good interview is to do your homework. If you’re interviewing an actor, at the very least, take a look at their IMDB and familiarize yourself with their work. Same with directors, writers, DPs, whoever. If you’re interviewing a research scientist, it really pays to brush up a bit on their work, what it centers on and what’s unique about it. In my experience, interview subjects expect their interviewer to at least have a passing knowledge of what they’re there to talk about. It builds your credibility too with the subject if you appear to have taken the time to learn about what makes them unique. 

Image of interview footage
Often, you may only have access to a subject for a few minutes, so it’s important that you make your questions and the responses you gain from them count. Short interviews can often yield very powerful stories and responses, but you have to make sure every question and minute count.

Your Questions Count

With a lot of higher-profile people, you may only get them in your interview chair for 10 minutes, so make each question and each minute count. It’s essential that you get all that you can from them in the time you have them available, so don’t make your questions a “fishing expedition,” get right to the point and then you can circle back to the bigger picture, more thoughtful subjects if you have time. In this way, if they’re whisked away by their handlers unexpectedly, run out of time or are late for a flight, you’ll already have their most crucial soundbites.

Photo of an interviewer speaking with parents
Here, the interviewer is speaking with the parents of a child who is having a major surgery to change the child’s life and well-being. In this sort of context, it’s usually best to engage the subject in conversation and at least warm them up before attempting to record the desired soundbite. It’s important to be empathetic with your subject and ask the questions in a way that will be appealing to them to respond to.

Soundbites Vs. Conversation

The decision on how you want to try to shape their answers will often depend on the type of piece the interview responses will be used for. If the project is someone’s life story or a feature-length study of a subject, soundbites could come across as trite and shallow. Conversely, if you’re trying to fit this subject into a fast-paced three-minute promo trailer, any response that’s over just a few seconds probably won’t work no matter how well-crafted it is simply because of time limitations. It’s up to you, as the interviewer, to know the types and lengths of responses that will be useful and usable depending on the needs of the finished piece.

Interview Experience Of The Subject

If you’re shooting an interview with an experienced subject, they’ll often ask you what you’re looking for. Soundbites, anecdotes, stories? I’ve shot interviews with many experienced subjects who know how to craft a good, usable soundbite and will often do so with very little guidance or prompting. Conversely, if the person you’re interviewing is scared, nervous or inexperienced, you may need to try to draw out what you need or are looking for from their interview.

Image of a nervous subject
This subject was a bit nervous because he has rarely, if ever, been interviewed and he was at a loss for words. Engaging him about his employees and his job warned him up and his responses were then much more usable.

Scared Or Nervous Subject

Interviewing a subject who’s scared or nervous is a real test of the interviewer’s skill set. Most often, people are nervous or scared because they fear the unknown. If you can reassure them that “there are no wrong answers” and that they can say their responses however feels comfortable to them, these actions can often disarm the subject and put them at ease. Speaking softly in soothing, calm tones can also be helpful. These types of people need to trust that you’ll guide them through the interview process and that they’ll say things that make them seem however they want to appear. Especially for these types of people, I like to tell them that we’re going to just have a conversation and to forget the camera, lights and crew, make eye contact with me and let’s just talk and see where the conversation takes us. 

BTS shot from a documentary shoot
A BTS shot from a documentary shoot on survivors of the Las Vegas Route 91 shooting. The subject acted as a hero, saving lives and took a bullet in the process. Very few questions were needed to be asked to get him to open up and share his experience on camera. A very deep and dramatic interview.

Think On Your Feet

It’s your job as the interviewer to have a destination for the interview. It’s imperative that you be a good listener. One of the most useful tips for an interviewer is quite simple. Ask a good question. Then SHUT UP and listen. Often, subjects will respond with an answer or response that’s so good, so compelling and interesting that it bends the mind. Remember, in almost all cases, the interview is about the subject and not the interviewer, unless it’s a multi-camera news magazine interview where you’ll appear on camera with the subject. This is a different type of interview, more like a talk show format and is the subject for another day.

It’s good to have your interview questions written and to ask them and record good responses, but in listening, you may hear the subject say something that triggers another thought or question in your mind as they respond. Great interviewers are able to get a subject to open up and expand on what they’re talking about. I’ve done interviews where I had my little list of questions, but after the subject responded, their responses opened up completely new questions and subjects and the entire interview veered into new and uncharted territory. You have to be careful with doing this and know that what you’re getting is usable and will fit into the piece, but if you become skilled at it, you can end up with an interview that’s groundbreaking and very interesting. 

Image of an interview on location
Always let your subject know that you appreciate their time and them sharing their story and personality with you. Shooting interviews is one of the best parts of our job, allowing us to quickly form deep connections with people we’ve often just met. Be grateful you have the chance to do the same.

Be Gracious

When a subject sits down with you for an interview, I always think of it as a gift. This person is giving me their time, attention and thought, so it’s important that I make them feel appreciated that they’re doing so. I choose my words and phrases with thought and let them know that it’s been an amazing experience spending time in their world.

These points really just scratch the surface of what being an effective interviewer is all about. There’s a lot more to it than I have room to cover in this article, but I hope these tips and tricks are helpful in you learning how to become a better, more effective interviewer. Practice makes perfect, and the more interviews you do, the better you’ll become doing it.

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