Reviews, Views and Adventures in Content Creation

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Talking It Out: Documentary Interview Techniques

This is the first in a series of behind-the-scenes blogs about the story behind the making of a documentary - in this case, my film, "Life Online," the story of a family in Florida that's uniquely dedicated to the "YouTube" lifestyle.  

In today's blog, I share some of my favorite basic techniques in conducting an effective, "authentic" interview.  


Be prepared

This doesn't just mean that you should do your research - you need to be technically prepared as well.

Whether you are your own crew, or you have one, two or three people helping you on documentary shoot, it's imperative that you work with individuals that are experienced and/or motivated to prepare camera, sound and lighting as quickly and efficiently as possible.  There's always going to be a balance - some would say tension - between setting up a great shot, and engaging your subject as quickly as possible.

Interviewing Neil Parikh, one of the boys featured
in my documentary, "Bollywood Steps"
If you have an individual waiting to be interviewed, and the preparation process is too slow, they start to feel impatient - even rushed - and increasingly nervous.  A minor inconvenience becomes a major disruption.  Particularly in sensitive situations, this can impact the quality of the interview when it finally occurs.

Know why you’re there

Conducting an effective interview begins with trust.  This isn't necessarily the same thing as trusting your subject - but if you hope to create effective content, your subject needs to work with and feel comfortable with you.  

If you're interviewing a subject in their home, you and your crew need to be aware that your responsibility isn't limited simply to the individual - but to their family members and their home.  If you're working with a larger crew, they need to understand their limitations and responsibilities to the venue.  I've had crew members raid a refrigerator in a private home - or interfere with the conduct of a business.  Anything that makes your subject uncomfortable or impatient will have an impact  on the quality of your interview. 

Make eye contact

When conducting an interview, eye-contact is an important part of the accelerated trust-building process.  You may have notes - perhaps some questions, but don't depend so heavily on written materials that you don't give yourself the opportunity to look your subject in the eye.  This is not only important in trust building, but allows you to gauge your subject's emotional response, and might give you hints as to how the interview should proceed.  If you're more interested in your notes than the person you're interviewing, you will be perceived as distracted and uncaring. 

Assure the subject

Many interview subjects are nervous and/or uncomfortable in an interview situation.   Your job is to assure and reassure your subject, and let them know that they're doing fine, you have their best interests in mind - and that you'll present them fairly. 

Even if your subject is distinctly unpleasant or untrustworthy,  your objective is still to convince them that they can trust you.  That doesn't mean you'll lie  or distort the truth - though they may not see it that way.

Never give the impression that you're interrogating the subject.  If the individual feels that he or she is being verbally assaulted, you'll lose the opportunity to achieve anything of real value in the interview.  Always discuss and engage - never interrogate.

Ask questions that can elicit passion

Whatever the subject, your objective should be to obtain the most compelling content possible.  Each interview should have that objective, as well.   Make sure to ask questions that elicit emotional responses - not just the thinking questions, but the feeling questions, as well.

During the vlogger interviews that I've been conducting on YouTube, I not only ask individuals why they vlog, but why they like vlogging.  I might also ask what they think they will aways remember years down the line. Regardless of the subject, I always look for questions that will generate an emotional response. 

Repeat/restate when necessary

Your subject might speak your language - but don't be fooled - the way in which your questions are perceived depend on a host of factors:  education, location, mood, religion, ethnicity - there's a whole host of reasons why what you imagine to be a clear question might be misunderstood.   Within the space of one interview, how a person answers your question may change depending upon when you ask the question and how you ask the question.  

News reporters might stick a camera in an individual's face and ask them how they feel about the murder of a loved one, but the filmmaker will sit down with the individual and not only ask how they feel - but why they feel.


You can conduct an interview with dozens or even hundreds of questions exploring every last aspect of an individual's life or relevant situation - but don't depend too heavily on those notes.   They're only a jumping off point. Don't miss important clues in a subject's answer because you're focusing too much on the next question.  When interviewing an inmate at a youth detention facility in California about his involvement in an arts program, he confessed to me the reason why he was incarcerated.  The interview took a turn into areas I hadn't expected as we began to explore questions of abuse and neglect - resulting in a riveting interview that I might have missed or minimized had I been using my written questions as a security blanket. 

Make the subject feel comfortable

Your interview subject isn't a prop - or a puppet.  Have you ever had to pose awkwardly for a formal photo?  Imagine having to hold that position and answer questions for hours.  

You will likely not have the flexibility you might have in a narrative video to create that perfect shot.  That doesn't mean you compromise quality, but it does mean that you recognize that a comfortable subject is often a talkative subject.


Connect with your subject

The most effective interviews depend upon the interviewer's ability to connect personally with the subject.  Sometimes, you might have an extended opportunity to get to know a person over time.  Other times, you may meet a person seconds before your interview begins.  You may like your subject, or you might find them repulsive.   You may share a common background - or your subject may come from a background radically different in very possible way from your own life experience.

The fact is, most human beings are social creatures, and experience, during the course of their lives, feelings of love, hate, disappointment, joy and sadness.  Find the common ground you share with your subject, and you'll discover the connection.

Interview techniques may not be rocket science - but I actually learned a lot from interviewing a rocket scientist.  Thankfully, we weren't talking about rocket science!   Instead, we were creating a video about a volunteer community organization he led, so our discussion would focus on those activities.

Unfortunately, while you can take the scientist out of the lab, you can't take the lab out of the scientist.

As we arranged the interview, the scientist asked for a list of questions so that he could better prepare.  When the time came to actually conduct the interview, I discovered that he had taken my questions, and scripted extensively detailed answers, written in tiny lettering on a yellow legal pad.    As I attempted to proceed with the interview, he referred to his notes with such ferocity that he barely looked up.   He was nervous and uncomfortable.

Though I knew the footage would be unusable, I let him refer to his notes without restriction.   Once we finished those prepared questions, however, I quietly signaled the cameraman to keep the camera running.  I had a  casual chat with the scientist, asking him many of the same questions - but as someone who was personally curious about his organization.

Absent his fear of the camera and worry about the precision of his presentation, he was animated, happy and enthusiastic - selling his program as we had intended - all because he was talking to another human being. 


  1. You have a very good way of drawing people out. BTW... we still have an interview to do this week :)