How to Guide Your Documentary Interviewee

I spent a great deal of time early on in my career giving the interviewee too much power. When I would do question-and-answer sessions, I would be afraid to push where the interview was going, or I would be afraid to lead the questions in a direction that better fit my story. The truth is that when you’re interviewing, you have a choice: be a producer or be a director. Although some people argue there is no director in documentary filmmaking, it’s a much grayer area than that. Consider again Michael Moore, perhaps the greatest example of a man who directs his pieces with an admirable precision. His work may cover popular topics in reality, but they do so from a stance he believes in. Many argue that an opinionated stance is antithetical to the documentary process.

Many filmmakers (that is, directors) don’t like to be called producers, even on documentaries where they are putting much personal style into the pieces and are hardly just producing them. This battle exists on projects of every size.

So how can you tell if you’re directing or if you’re producing? The answer can be as simple as your personal choice or as complex as dissecting how much and to what extent you are shaping the piece. If you lead the interviews, craft your story, isolate characters, and progress your story visually through your shots, then you are directing. If you simply show up, ask a provided list of questions, and hire someone to capture what is happening, then you are producing.

When it comes time to go after your interview with a strong goal and purpose, as a director would, you will need to think of your talent almost the way you would think of actors. The catch is that you can’t


Photo by: B Rosen

speak to an athlete interviewee the way you would an actor, so you must be clever and considerate. As you bring up topics you want to dive into, and as they begin to answer, you should identify the key elements of the answers that best fit your story, then ask them to go deeper in that direction. If you are creating a specific vibe or tone in your piece, then help bring them into that tone by setting the tone yourself. If you are rushing and speaking quickly, to keep an urgent feel to your piece, they’ll likely follow suit.

When I shot interviews for Harnessing Speed, I wanted several of my key interviewees to get their tone and attitude back to how it had been months ago for the subject they were discussing. So off camera, before I started asking questions, I had them go back to that day and talk a little about what had happened. This allowed them to freely revisit the emotions that they had felt early on, and then maintain that tone and feeling during the actual interview.

Now granted, there’s a fine line between guiding the interviewee and putting words into their mouth. It’s a line that you have to ride delicately and cautiously if you want your piece to be a real documentary. A truly compelling interview actually requires you to get into someone’s head and help bring out of them the details and emotion that you won’t get when you stick to the surface questions.

Another interesting technique is to consider what tense they will be answering in. Most sit-down interviews happen after the fact, and are more or less recaps of an event from the past. This can give the viewer a more distant feeling of the event—a feeling that can work both for and against you. In some cases, you will want to try to re-create the power of what actually happened in the past. For this, I will sometimes have an interviewee outline what happened off camera, then, on camera, take me play by play through that event as if it were happening right then. For example, if an athlete landed an incredible trick for the first time, and you have ample B roll of that day to cut away to, then shoot for sound bites. Here’s an example: “I’m staring at the rail and thinking, ‘I can do this,’ but I know if anything goes wrong, especially with that drop on the other side, I could really hurt myself.” This technique can be very powerful for putting your viewer right there in the moment. It does, of course, require that you have enough footage of the subject to cut away to for most of the interview—such as shots of them looking at the rail, preparing to try it, noticing the big drop, and then going for it.

Every interviewer faces a delicate balance of pushing and getting compelling material without offending your subject. Especially in action sports, it’s critical that you maintain a friendly, easygoing relationship with the athletes you shoot. If you don’t know them personally, then go easy in the first interview (or at least the first interview questions), and feel out how far you can push things before you risk ruining the interview or the connection. Most athletes are used to interviews and the basic questions that most interviewers ask. They may not be used to more-meaningful or more-intense questions, so it can be helpful to prep them before the interview with what direction you plan to go in, to make sure they’re okay with that. Nobody likes to be blindsided on camera.

I encourage you to push the boundaries of what’s normal and accepted. Be it for skate videos, documentaries, commercials, reality shows, or webisodes for the Internet, in the ever-changing medium of film and digital content, there is no right and wrong way to do it.

Excerpt from Shooting Action Sports: The Ultimate Guide to Extreme Filmmaking by Todd Grossman, © 2008 Todd Grossman. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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