Filming the Interview

There are three basic set up possibilities for the interview:

1. The interviewee looks, or appears to look, directly into the camera.

2. The camera catches the interviewee obliquely so that he or she seems to be having a conversation with an unseen person off-camera left or right.

3. The interviewer is seen on-camera with the interviewee so that we are quite clear who is the second person involved in the conversation.

Each of these setups has its own rationale.

Position 1, in which the interviewee looks directly into the camera, adds a certain authority to the interview. In effect, the subject is making direct contact with the viewer, and the straight-on look tinges the shot with the magisterial conviction we associate with the World War I posters that proclaimed "Uncle Sam wants you!" It's the direct-contact pose that politicians give us when they want to assure us they are our friends and not a pack of liars.

Position 2, the oblique angle, relaxes the quality of the interview, making it less authoritarian and more anecdotal, informal, and friendly. This is the interview position I prefer. For a very intimate but nonauthoritarian feeling, you can make the angle less oblique and sit or stand very very close to the camera. This avoids the glaring in-your-face contact with the viewer but makes the connection very sympathetic.

Position 3, the two-person interview, is used mostly for news or when a documentary series is being conducted by a famous host such as Bill Moyers, Ted Koppel, or the late Ed Murrow. The two-person setup is also used when you are deliberately aiming at or expect a confrontation.

When considering which position to choose, keep one elementary point in mind: How far do you want the viewer to be drawn into the film? Normally, this is a function of the tightness of the shot and the directness of the approach. If the shot is tight and direct, the viewer will usually be more involved than when the shot is oblique and the subject framed in a looser way. Once you have decided which approach you want, direct or oblique, then you arrange the seating accordingly. If you want the interviewee to appear to be looking straight at the audience, then you, as interviewer, should sit slightly to the side of the camera lens. If you want the oblique shot, you should move further away from the camera.

Though much documentary filming can be left to the cameraperson's judgment, I think you are wise to check the suggested interview frame. Does the person appear as you want him or her to appear? Are the clothes in order? Is there anything disturbing in the background? If the interviewee gesticulates frequently, is the frame wide enough to take in all the gestures? It is also necessary to tell the cameraperson not just what frame you want at the beginning of a shot but whether you want any camera movement in the middle of the answer. You have to indicate that at the beginning, because after your question is asked, all your attention will be focused on the interviewee and not on the camera.

The experienced cameraperson who has worked with you for some time should know roughly what to do even without your instructions. He or she will know that you can afford to take a camera movement in or out on a change of topic, that you probably want to vary the size of the subject in the frame with different questions, and that you probably want to zoom in slowly on an intense answer.

Besides considering whether you want the interviewee to appear directly or obliquely in the frame, you also have to consider how you want the interviewee to appear. Do you want him or her to appear formal or informal, serious or funny, relaxed or uptight? Because your very framing will induce a certain attitude of acceptance or rejection on the part of the audience, your capacity to manipulate the interview, deliberately or accidentally, is very high.

Susan Sontag's 1974 film, Promised Lands, is largely dependent on two interviews, and it is interesting how Sontag directs those sections. One interviewee is filmed in an open-necked shirt, sitting very relaxed on a sofa in a pleasant living room. His gestures are wide and open, and even before he speaks, we like him and trust him. The second interviewee is filmed in a dark suit and tie, standing up with his arms folded in front of dead-white sterile walls. We feel an instant dislike for the man, although he has yet to say something.

The lesson is simple. Your interview is going to make its impression not merely by what is said but also through all the film techniques you use, from closing in on bad teeth to making the interviewee look like Dr. Strangelove. So be careful!

During the filming, all your attention and eye contact should be on the interviewees. You are the person they are talking to, and you must make them feel you are interested and completely with them. You are the friend to whom they are unburdening their souls about the revolution, the battle, their first love, or their last fight, and you'd better be interested if you want anything to come alive on the screen.

One thing you have to do before the interview starts is decide whether your questions will be heard after editing. If they are to be cut out, you must ensure that the interviewee gives you statements that are complete in themselves. If you ask, for example, "Where were you when the John Kennedy was assassinated?" and he answers, "Walking with my girl in the woods, wondering whether we should get married," then the answer, without your question, will make no sense by itself. Instead, you should have told the interviewee that you need a self-contained answer—for instance, "On the afternoon Kennedy was assassinated, I was walking with my girl in the woods." Should you interrupt an interviewee? I try not to, even if I realize the answer won't help the film. If the answer is going nowhere, I try to terminate it gently. Sometimes I try to warn the interviewee in advance that I may want to cut occasionally if I think we are going down the wrong trail. But I say this with caution; although most interviewees will understand the necessity to cut here and there, others may find their pride offended and turn off. Many interviewers set out with an elaborate list of questions to which they keep referring during the interview. I hate that technique because it breaks any spontaneity between the interviewer and the subject. Instead, I try to get the questions well planted in my head and then take everything from there. When the interview ends, I glance at my list to make sure that I haven't missed anything vital. I also ask the interviewee if there is something I've left out that seems important to him or her and that they would like to add.

What do you ask first? It's best to start with a fairly simple question that will ease you into the interview but that will require more than a one-sentence answer. For instance, "Tell me where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news that you had won the lottery? What was your first reaction?" Or, "What was the reaction of your friends and family when you came back from Vietnam? Were they sympathetic to what you had been through, or did they blame you for all the killings? How did your girlfriend react?" I have in fact put several questions here, but they are all just variants of the question, What was it like when you returned? Putting the question in different forms allows various ways to ease gracefully into the interview.

Keep the questions clear and down-to-earth rather than philosophical. Don't ask about the problems of humanity in the twentieth century; instead, ask what it felt like to be thrown out of work on a day's notice after forty years. Also, don't bother too much about the order of your questions unless there is something you particularly want to build up to, because you will do all your final ordering in the editing room.

Remember that you are not just looking for facts but trying to bring out emotions, drama, and a story. You must therefore encourage the interviewee to give you details of sights, tastes, recollections, smells, feelings. Usually, the more specific the interview, the better it is. If you ask, "What was it like being a child in World War II?" the interviewee might answer, "It wasn't very nice. We didn't have many things. My father was away, and then I was sent away. When the German planes came over, we went into a family shelter." That's vaguely passable but not really very good. With a bit of encouragement, you might elicit the following:

We didn't have anything. No sweets, no meat, no eggs. I didn't even know what an egg looked like because they gave us dried eggs. The only bananas I saw were made of wax in the fruit stores. My father was away in Africa fighting, so they sent me to stay with an old farmer in the country. He had this shelter; we called it a Morrison shelter, and it was like a table, but made of steel. When the German bombers came over, six of us slept under the table, like sardines.

A good method is to start with straightforward questions and move into the more complex and emotional questions. In a program on divorce, you might start with questions about the couple's first meeting, the attitude of the parents, and the difficulties of the first years. When you are well into the interview, you can try the riskier questions, for example, "Tell me about the night she said she was leaving."

One of the most difficult things to assess is how far to press the questions when you are getting into intimate and sensitive areas. One way to overcome this difficulty is to acknowledge from the start that you might be venturing into dangerous areas and that if the questions are too painful or too sensitive, you will leave them aside. But you may risk self-censorship if your questions are too restrained from the start.

Silence itself can be a tremendous prod and encouragement in an interview. Rex Bloomstein, an English filmmaker who specializes in films about prison life, uses this technique to great effect. Rex has interviewed single murderers, mass murderers, and all types of criminals, from the gentlest to the most violent. He gets them to say the most amazing things, and his weapon is silence, as on the following interview from his film Lifer:

I saw the old woman lying in bed. When she wouldn't give me the money I hit her with the brick. [Rex stays silent for ten or fifteen seconds and the prisoner continues.] Well, actually she looked like my mother, so I hesitated at first, and then she said, "Call yourself a man, you're just a child," and that's when I hit her. I'd already bruised my knuckles on my girlfriend earlier that evening, so that's why I used the brick.

Another filmmaker who knows when to keep silent is Kate Davis. Her 1988 film, Girl Talk, is about the experiences of three teenage girls who leave home. Davis established a tremendous bond of confidence with the girls so that the interviews are fresh, intimate, and tremendously poignant. Many of the interviews are quite long, more like monologues than interviews, but clearly show Davis's ability to get her subjects to talk. As an example, I have extracted Davis's interview with one of the girls, Mars, as she talks about her life and her work in a striptease club:

He asked whether I wanted to stop by a mutual friend of ours 'cause he wanted to pick up some cocaine. I said sure, and he asked me whether I wanted to go up. . . . He parked the car, and we went up, and he had six of his friends waiting for me. I remember them like having sex with me. I don't remember them hurting me, like physically beating me up. I guess after the third or the fourth one I passed out, and when I came to, they had put me in his wife's running path in the park and left me there. She loaded me up in her car and took me to a hotel room, and one of her friends was a doctor, and he checked me out. She got round-the-clock nurses and bodyguards for me. Three weeks later my eyes got to where I could see. They were still all black and blue, but they weren't swollen shut any more.

She asked me if I wanted lawyers. I told her about my stepbrother and how when my mom had gone to court, they had said that I had led Michael on and it was my fault . . . that you couldn't put the star of the track team on trial for rape.

Though you know where you want to go, strange things happen once the camera turns on. Some people freeze, and others become very free and eloquent. In the latter case, you may find an area opening up you hadn't even dreamed about. If it's interesting, take a chance and go with it. The freshness of this new area may well compensate for any problems you have fitting the answers into your well-laid film plans.

It's useful, when you've finished, to ask your subject if there is anything you have missed or whether there is something they would like to add. At that point, they are warmed up, know roughly where the film is going, and may surprise you with a story, anecdote, or observation that you hadn't considered and that is helpful for the film.

If you know or suspect a question can be answered in a better way, and the circumstances seem appropriate, don't hesitate to go back and ask the question again. While making Year of Decision, about the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, I asked Israel's foreign secretary, Abba Eban, to describe the cabinet meeting when the decision was taken to go to war. His first take was cold, dry, emotionless, and dull. I then asked him to try and reach inside himself and tell me more about the atmosphere and people's conflicting emotions. How did he and the others feel, knowing their decisions, though justified in their eyes, would result in the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of young men? This time the take was wonderful; it was alive, warm, and compassionate.

Film Making

Film Making

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