Everyone has a story
By Tyler Weaver
When I took my first airplane ride at the tender age of six (to Disney World), I was nervous. My father pointed out the window and said “see all those lights? Those are stories. Everyone has a story.” I kept myself busy from Ohio to Florida making these stories up, and upon landing, didn’t even remember why I was so nervous in the first place.
I bring this lesson, “everyone has a story,” to everything I do. When I left music and went into film, my first stop on the road was documentaries. Applying this lesson to interviewing people for documentaries, and by taking a jazz-influenced approach to the interview process (a subject I’ll explore in future posts), I found the best material came not from the questions I had prepared, but from the steady loosening up of the subject to the point that their response to my final question, the most important question, made up the vast majority of “the good stuff” that ended up in the finished film.
“Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to talk about?”
I know this question is talked about a lot in books, by documentarians, and by interviewers. It’s important, and has been since the advent of the form. In my own work, I found it to be a line in the sand between having the interviewee help me tell the story I wanted to tell and them telling me the story they had within them – the light in the window from the airplane.
By asking this question, I learned how the subject matter affected them, such as learning about a party in Georgetown (near Washington D.C.) following the assassination of John F. Kennedy where the subject, now a professor of history, then a young boy, heard the party-goers refuse to talk about JFK – they only wanted to talk about Lyndon Johnson and the future. This shaped my subject, and gave a whole new – personal – light to the historical events and controversies we had discussed in the more guided (some would say guarded) questioning.
There is one key caveat to this question – you must make the interview subject feel comfortable with you. You cannot go in with an agenda. I’ve made that mistake (let’s face it, sometimes people just don’t get along), and I received the single most disheartening answer to that final question: “no.”
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to this problem – be a human being. Open yourself up. Be fascinated by what the subject is telling you. With a camera on them, the interview subject is vulnerable. You have to help them not “get over it”, but to overcome it by being vulnerable yourself. It’s through that shared vulnerability that consensus and understanding is found – an understanding of that immortal lesson, “everyone has a story.”
It’s our job to get them to tell that story.