Before the Shooting Starts

At some point, you will have lined up a list of potential interviewees for the film. It probably doesn't include everybody you want, but it is the best you can come up with given the circumstances. Once you have decided who you want to interview and they have agreed to appear, it's vital that someone meet with the interviewees and go over the nature of the interview and the way the filming will be conducted. And the right person to do all this is usually the director, rather than an assistant.

There are a number of objectives to this meeting. The most obvious is to get to know the interviewees better and to explain, without all the pressures of the camera, what you want from the interview. It's also a time to let the interviewees get to know you and ask you any questions about the film or the interview. In short, it's a time to build confidence between the two of you.

It is important at this stage that you establish a few ground rules. These rules may cover anything from the way you want the interviewee to dress to questions that are off-limits. Such rules are generally minor, but occasionally they can be very important. For example, the interviewee may want a list of questions in advance and may agree to answer only those questions. Is this a limitation you are willing to accept? Again, the interviewee may demand to see the interview at the editing stage or may want to have the right of censorship afterward. You may or may not agree to all this. If any of these restrictions are likely, it is much better to discuss them before you come to the filming than at the filming itself.

This preinterview "getting to know you" does not have to be terribly formal. While half the time it is conducted at home or in the office, I have also gone fishing with the interviewee while discussing the filming. And in another case, I discussed matters while helping strip an engine. The time taken in the preinterview session can also vary. It can be half an hour over a business cocktail, or the interview could take days. There are no rules. The simple object is to know the interviewee well enough to get the maximum out of the filmed interview.

The most important thing in interviewing is to know what your objectives are and what you want to get out of the film session. You may want some very specific answers to very specific questions. Again, your main aim may be just to get a general feeling of the person, his or her attitudes, set of mind, likes and dislikes, prejudices, and so on. You may want interviewees to talk generally about a mood or a situation. You may want interviewees to detail their childhood, their divorce, the importance of their research, or why they committed a murder. The main thing is that your questions must have focus and direction. This means you must do your homework. Normally this will have been done in the research or the preinterview meeting. But if your filming is actually the first meeting, then make sure you know as much about the interviewee as possible. Know who the interviewees are, where they come from, their political attitudes, and their biases. Obviously, this is the ideal. Many of the documentary interviews you do will be spontaneous, with no time for preparation—in which case you just plunge in. Where possible, though, your questions should be thought out in advance. The interview itself may lead in all sorts of directions and open up interesting new paths of inquiry. That's fine, but make sure you have the main lines of your questioning preplanned.

Your choice of location for the interview depends on two factors that you hope will mesh easily. First, you want to choose a site for the shooting where the interviewee will feel totally at ease. This could be his or her home, place of work, or any quiet place. You have to be a bit careful because the most obvious may not always be the best. The father of five who is on the dole might be ashamed of his home and feel more comfortable talking to you in the park. The businesswoman may feel awkward talking to you in the office, where she knows people will tease her afterward, and may prefer the comfort of her home.

The second point to consider is the importance of background. If the story is about research, then you probably want to go for the laboratory background. If you are talking about the development of the modern university, then a dynamic campus backdrop is probably better than a dull home location. Some stories will impose the location on you. Thus, you take the general back to the French beaches to tell you about the D-day invasion of the Normandy coast, or you take Andre Agassi back to Forest Hills or Wimbledon as he tells you about the tennis triumph of his life.

At this stage, you must ask yourself three things: Will the background add to the mood and drama of the story? Will the interviewee feel at ease in the location, with the possibility of numbers of people around to interfere and distract? And is there any danger of the background being so strong that it distracts from the interview?

Wherever possible, I try to do the interview outside on location. This often eliminates lights, which make people nervous, and I think it gives them a certain physical looseness that is often missing in a room interview. Other advantages of the exterior location are that interview cutaways make more sense and that you can have the interviewee participate in the scene. I also like to get the interviewee to walk and talk at the same time, instead of filming him or her sitting passively in an armchair. This is difficult and doesn't always work, but it can add dynamism to the scene.

Should other people be present during the interview? Every case differs. The only criterion is whether another person's presence will help or hinder the interview. If somebody is talking about the end of a happy marriage and is obviously upset and on edge, I would say that the interview should be done with no one else around. If someone is talking about the loss of a father in a war, it could be that in this case the interviewee needs the comfort of a family member whose eye she can catch and whose hand she can hold.

However much you have discussed the film, people are always wary about being interviewed. Yes, they have talked to you before about their experiences, but that was in the privacy of the home. Now, suddenly, four or five other people are present. There are lights. There is a rather large camera on a tripod. There is a person going around taking light readings and someone else who wants to affix a small microphone to the subject's dress. In this situation, your main task is to make the interviewee feel relaxed. I try to do this by introducing the crew, briefly explaining what all the technical equipment is about, and then taking five or ten minutes to chat over a cup of coffee or tea.

The warm-up is the culmination of what you have been trying to do in all the previous meetings—that is, make the subjects feel that they matter, that you are concerned and involved in what they have to say, and that you care about their opinions. Try to empathize with the interviewee as much as possible; the more he or she feels this, the better the interview.

Normally, you are the one trying to put the interviewee at ease, but this won't always be the case. Sometimes you'll be interviewing presidents or prime ministers or the like, and it may be your turn to feel awkward or shy. Even in such cases, I'm not sure the rules change that much. The main danger here is that you may become too deferential and back away from the hard, awkward questions.

In most cases, it will be easy to create an atmosphere of trust because the interviewee knows that you are on his or her side. However, with the political or controversial interview, trust may not come so easily. In the difficult cases, you have to convince the interviewee that you are interested in his or her point of view and that you are going to be fair and nonjudgmental.

Besides breaking the ice, you should also use the warm-up time to let the interviewees know how the session will be conducted and to review the main topics. Also, you can let the subjects know that if they make a mistake, you have plenty of film and can shoot the question again.

Film Making

Film Making

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