Interview Styles

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Interviews need to have an energy and immediacy about them, as well as a credibility. They also need to serve the story being told. Watch a range of interviews and you'll see that they can be very different. Is the interviewee talking about a subject from a distance, or is he or she speaking as if the event is ongoing? It's not only experts who talk about subjects; people often shape stories after the fact, especially if they've told them before, and it creates a kind of distance between the storyteller and the story, which is sometimes desired, but not always.

Filmmaker Liane Brandon discovered this when she made Betty Tells Her Story (1972). Brandon met Betty when both were consulting for the Massachusetts Department of Education. During a coffee break, Betty had told her a story about buying a dress and then losing it before she had a chance to wear it. The story stuck with Brandon; the women's movement was in its infancy, "and we were just beginning to think about women and clothing and culture in addition to the larger equal rights issues," she says. At first, Brandon thought of turning the story into a short drama, but soon realized that what intrigued her was as much the storyteller as the story.

On a teacher's salary, Brandon could only afford three 10-minute magazines of black-and-white film. "I borrowed Ricky Leacock's camera, and John Terry, who worked with Ricky at M.I.T., volunteered to do sound," she says. At Betty's house, Brandon set up the camera and lights and then asked Betty to simply tell her story. "The first version that you see in the film is the first take that we did. I never told her how long a magazine was, but somehow she ended the story just before we ran out of film." It was basically the story as Betty had first told it to Brandon; a witty anecdote about a dress she'd found that was just perfect—and then she never got to wear it.

To be sure she had what she needed, Brandon asked Betty to tell the story again, which she did. It was essentially the same as the first take, "but in the middle of it a truck stopped in front of her house," Brandon says, "and the horn went off, and it wiped out a couple of minutes of audio. I was really upset, but I knew I had one more magazine left."

They all took a break. Brandon worried that she was imposing on Betty, who'd never been on camera before, "but was being a really good sport." Out of curiosity, the filmmaker asked Betty how she felt when the events were taking place. "Betty's eyes opened wide and she said something like, 'I don't think I ever thought about what I was feeling; I mostly think about how I remember the story.' You know how people change and shape stories to make them good stories? Especially good storytellers."

With the cameras rolling again, Brandon asked Betty to try telling the story as she felt about it while it was happening, rather than as she remembered it. "Everything changed: body language, eye contact," Brandon says. "The minute she started telling this story, I got chills up and down my back. I was very surprised by the feelings that she talked about; I don't think she'd ever told or even thought about the story that way." Told from within rather than without, the story is no longer a humorous anecdote; it's the painful memory of a plain, overweight woman who found a dress that made her feel beautiful, then lost it before she ever had a chance to wear it.

This was before people routinely exposed themselves on national television, Brandon notes. As a filmmaker, she didn't know what to do with two very different versions, filmed in three takes. "I thought one of those takes would have to be the story, because I'd never heard of a film where you show more than one take," she says. She showed the first version to some college students, who thought it was "cute." She showed the third version to another group, who said, essentially, "Bummer. Get a life, lady."

Neither story worked alone. "I tried split-screening them, I tried intercutting them, I tried everything and nothing worked, and so I just let them sit. For a film that has almost no cuts, it took longer to edit than lots of films that have lots of cuts," she says. She finally got rid of the middle version and ran the first and third consecutively, with some black leader in between that reads, Later that day, the filmmaker asked Betty to tell her story again. The contrast between the two takes is what gives the film its power, revealing information about the stories we tell ourselves, the selves we present to the world, and the different ways there are to tell a story. For filmmakers (and others), it's a fascinating look at the way in which a shift in interview style can lead to a very different response.

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