Interviews

Your objective in research interviews is to talk to as many participants and experts in the field as possible. Again, as in print research, you have to make some shrewd guesses. Because time is limited, you try to assess which people are the best, the most important for you, the most knowledgeable, and the most open and then allocate your time accordingly. You should look for people seriously involved in the subject. But exactly who are they? They can range from technical experts and authorities to the ordinary people who have undergone the experience documented in the film. For example, if you want to look behind the scene at the Australian Olympics, you might find yourself talking to security men, suppliers, members of the Olympic committee, first-aid workers, and builders. Your perspective and the breadth of your subject will dictate to whom you talk, and your questions will obviously range from the general to the specific, depending on the topic.

When I meet potential witnesses or informants, I like to outline the project to them in general terms, but I rarely go into too many details. I want to intrigue them into helping me and try to tell them honestly why obtaining their cooperation and making the film is important. This introductory meeting serves both to obtain information from them and to audition them for a possible appearance.

Generally, I try to do this face-to-face, rather than through a researcher, so that the personal bonds are established early on. However, when face-to-face interviews are impossible, as they are in many cases, you will have to rely on your researcher. I avoid two things in these meetings. First, I take everything down by hand rather than using a tape recorder. I know many people rely on tape recorders, but I find they add a very subtle barrier, at least in first meetings. Second, I make no promises about filming a particular person or particular scene.

Approached correctly and sympathetically, most people will be willing to talk to you about your research. Occasionally, however, you will run into difficulties if the subject is personally painful or controversial. Do you then go ahead, or do you back off? Everyone has to sort that dilemma out personally. Several years ago, I interviewed Sue McConnachy, one of the principal researchers for the television series The World at War. Because she was investigating not just memory and experiences but also possible participation in war crimes and atrocities, she experienced some difficulties in interviewing Germans for the film. Her comments are very interesting:

Initially it was quite difficult to get people to open up. However, once the Germans agreed to see you and talk it was all much fresher than the English people's reminiscences because it hadn't been told before. They'd never been asked or questioned about the war by the younger generation. There was a feeling that whereas it was acceptable for dad in England to talk to the kids about when he was in Africa, India, or wherever, it wasn't acceptable in Germany.

The problem was getting to the shadow figures and the possible criminals. This was often done through a series of contacts. One was in the position of being given confidential information which one was not supposed to broadcast or pass on. You were only allowed to go and see these people on the understanding that you gave nothing away.

Now once you'd got into a position of trust, once you'd got on to the "circuit," you were handed on from one to the next. And it was almost an impossible situation as a researcher (and as a human being) because I was dealing with people who, in the period of their lives that we were talking about, had not operated with the same code of behavior, morals, whatever you call it, that I by nature and upbringing operate on. (Alan Rosenthal, The Documentary Conscience [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980])

About the time I met McConnachy, I also spoke to Peter Watkins about the making of his famous antinuclear war film The War Game. Among other things, the film discusses civil defense procedures in England and the psychological aftereffects of the dropping of a nuclear bomb on a civilian population. Watkins commented:

The more films I do, the more research. It's a growing pattern. I tend to put more and more emphasis on the solid basis of research. With The War Game I had to do a great deal of original research because nobody had collated all the information into an easily accessible form. . . . There is an extreme dearth of literature about the third world war. What literature this is is stacked up on the shelves of the American Institute for Strategic Studies and is never read by the public. So it was an extremely esoteric subject for a filmmaker to delve into and quite hard to find basic facts.

As far as research went and talking to people, you have to differentiate between people in general and government bodies. The experts, professors and so on, were extremely cooperative and very interested. A few were a little skeptical of an amateur blundering into their domain but they freely supplied what little information they had. The government bodies were different. In general they said no. (Alan Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971])

The Home Office, responsible for internal affairs and security in England, refused to help Watkins in the making of the film. In fact, it not only refused to give information but also withdrew all official help and tried to hinder the research by preventing the Fire Service and the police from giving Watkins details of their plans in the event of a nuclear holocaust. He noted that the only group that helped me voluntarily at that time was the Fire Service, which appeared to me to be the only group in England that had a realistic approach to the effects of a nuclear attack. They were the only (semi-official) group willing to talk to me. And they did it unofficially. Officially there was a complete clamp-down.

Reliance on only a few interviewees for anything controversial has its dangers. In those cases, it is best to interview, or try to interview, a broad range of people so that you can contrast opinions and estimate how much of what you are being told is biased or partisan. Obviously, you have to rely on common sense. You are not aiming for balance. You are aiming for truth, and it could be that the extreme, one-sided view just happens to be the truth. During the interviews, you should ask both easy and awkward questions. Naturally, your technique will differ from subject to subject. Sometimes you may have to play the probing investigator, but more often you will ask commonsense questions that any interested person would ask.

In a technical film, you may want to accumulate facts, find out about problems, systems of work, production difficulties and successes, side effects, and results. In human or portrait film, you will probably want to find out about human experiences, memories, change, thoughts, and the consequences that certain actions have wrought on people's lives, and so on. Often the interviewing will be difficult or painful as you touch on emotions and sensitivities. You are not just collecting facts about a subject but trying to gain a perspective that goes beyond the facts. An adjunct to this is that you always have to keep in mind whether you want the emphasis to fall on facts or on emotions, because each may pull you in a different direction.

It is also important to be open to stories and think how they can be used. Remember that the stories you have may be more powerful than any facts you dig up. Assume, for example, that you are doing a film about refugees from a South Atlantic hurricane. You could say, after your research, that thirty thousand people were evacuated and five hundred homes smashed. But it would be better if you could also use a personal anecdote: "I was at home. The wind smashed everything. First the upstairs roof collapsed, then the wall. Finally, the wind lifted my bed and threw it, with me in it, into the garden."

As usual, there is a warning. A tremendous difference exists between interviewing someone about the current scene as opposed to about the past. In both cases, you have to be aware of bias, but in talking about the past, you also have to be aware of the pitfalls of memory and romanticism. Sometimes, of course, the events of the past are etched more strongly on the mind than are the events of yesterday. But not always. Whether impelled by love, or hate, or age, or even romanticized recreations, as in the recent Leni Riefenstahl film biography, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, the memory can be a strange, distorting mirror. So beware.

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Film Making

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