Problems and Cautions

Good interviewing is the hallmark of the best documentarists; indeed, some have taken interviewing into the upper realms of filmic art. In

England, one of the best practitioners of the form is Alan Whicker, whose series Whicker's World was essential and delightful viewing for years.

Whicker was the urbane, soft-spoken, dark-suited interviewer who could go anywhere and ask the most outrageous questions. He got away with it because his questions were witty and down-to-earth, and wherever he went, he seemed to show a genuine interest in his subjects. He had the knack of establishing immediate contact, disarming his interviewees, and getting them to talk in the most intimate and frank way about anything from hippies, sex, and drugs to Kentucky race horses or millionaires' yachts. Like Bill Moyers, Whicker was the participatory interviewer who would do anything and try anything. He would ride in the cross-country hunt and then interview the master of the hounds, asking the hard questions about fox hunting as a blood sport. What characterizes Whicker and Moyers is that their questions are straightforward, not convoluted gush. This leads me to the following cautions:

Caution one. Stay away from gush. Many interviewers think they have to demonstrate their wisdom and intelligence to the interviewee, so they trot out a knowledge of higher physics that would have an Einstein gasping. Gush is not only unnecessary but also quite off-putting.

Caution two. Keep the question simple, which is not the same as asking a simplistic question. In a program on the atom bomb, you could ask the following: "Everyone knows that there are tremendous intellectual and moral problems arising from the creation of the atom bomb. But then mankind through the ages has been beset by moral dilemmas. Bearing in mind the quantum leap of evil that Hitler represents, and also remembering the power and the influence of the Japanese militarism even after the Meiji restoration, was Oppenheimer spiritually and theologically correct in forwarding the Manhattan Project?" As I say, you could ask something like that—but I would resist temptation. It's dreadful rubbish. Instead, you could simply say, "What were the pros and cons of making the atom bomb, and do you think our attitude toward atomic weapons has changed over time?"

Caution three. Keep your questions open rather than biased toward a particular answer. I go crazy when someone opens a television interview with "Don't you agree with me that . . . " or "Wouldn't you say that Roosevelt was the greatest politician of the century?" Occasionally, you may want to be deliberately provocative or to play the devil's advocate, but it's a tricky business and best avoided until you are fairly experienced.

Caution four. Avoid interrupting the interviewee. This is one of the most common faults in interviewing and shows that you are uninterested in the answer. It also wrecks the pace of the interview and is apt to throw the interviewee off stride.

Film Making

Film Making

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