Jazz, Interviews, and Penmanship: Five Tips for Successful Interviews

Photo by Marc Fuyà

I’ve talked a lot about questions in both of my previous posts: the last (and most important) question you should ask in an interview, and the ongoing questions that should be with you throughout the development, production, and post of the work you’re making. Now, it’s time to talk a bit about answers. Here are the five key principles that guide me through the interview process, be it a five-minute interview, or a five-day one.

1.) The camera is there.

It’s ludicrous to try to convince your interview subject that the camera isn’t there. It is. It’s omnipresent. To say otherwise is disengenous to you, your project, and most importantly, your interviewee.

When I published the Multi-Hyphenate blogazine last year, I was fortunate enough to have the incredible Frederick Marx (maker of “Hoop Dreams” and the astonishing “Journey From Zanskar”) pen numerous posts for me. Among my favorites of his was “15 Rules for Truth and Authenticity In Documentaries.”  All of the rules were fantastic, but the one that stuck with me the most was #15: “‘Forget the Camera.’ ‘Pretend It’s Not There.’ NONSENSE.'” Marx says the camera is “ME.” And because I’m there with the camera, it’s safe.

You’d do well to remember this. There’s nothing worse than two people trying to forget a camera’s there when it’s obviously there. It becomes the elephant in the room, and that does not lead to a cocktail of interview perfection.

2.) Go in with questions, but know that your best material will come from the unscripted moments.

I was lucky in my musical training – I went to Berklee, and had a healthy heaping of jazz theory on top of my classical training. I approach interviews (and filmmaking in general) like jazz. The prepared pieces are simply my chart, with the melody, chords, and structure there. But because it’s there, and because I have a road map, I can improvise, go off target, and find more truth in the interviewee through their off-topic moments than in their on-topic moments.

Your prepared questions are merely your notes and chord diagrams. Your interview as a whole? That’s what’s on stage.

3.) Your interviewee is a character.

On the topic of off-scripted moments, one of my favorite interviews went from talking about the ins and outs of the JFK assassination to the quality of pens. In the middle of the interview, my subject noticed the pen I had, and commented on it. We went through a full tape talking about pens, writing, and the lost art of penmanship (which I lost long ago). The interview ended with me giving him the pen, and a wonderful character moment that stayed in the interview and with me for years.

4.) Reveal things about yourself

Nothing too revealing, of course, but don’t be afraid to show that while you are in control of the project, that you are a human being. You have to be humble and grateful to your subject – after all, you need them more than they need you. Let them see that you are just two people in a room chatting – with a camera of course.

5.) Play Devil’s Advocate, but only when necessary

With documentaries, it’s a little different than a piece of journalism on the evening news or 60 Minutes. I have been known to challenge my interviewees, but not angrily. If I disagree with what they say, I usually move on. Remember, you’re making a film. You’re going to have other interviews. Let the other interviews contradict what the other interviewee says. It will create tension in the film – which is where tension is most important. Not when you’re in a room with someone discussing their work or their views – the story of your film is a story of learning and exploration, not an interrogation scene.

I hope these five simple tips help you get the best answers you can ask for in your own work!

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