I’ve been lucky to meet thousands of interesting, talented and informative people in my career – and even luckier to have interviewed lots of them for different films. Whether you are talking to film stars, captains of industry, TV celebrities or people just like you or I, here are a few pointers for making interviews more enjoyable and productive for everyone.
1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
If you are talking to someone famous, or senior in an organisation find out about them beforehand so you can chat with a little more insight into them as people – and I mean “chat” – you’re supposed to be their ally, not Paxman. Google and social media makes this ridiculously quick and easy to do – just be sure that your sources are accurate! If you have an interest in common, use it to make a connection – you’re only with them a short time and it will really help create a relationship.
If you’re not relaxed, imagine how they feel on the other side of the camera? So chill, smile reassuringly and make appropriate small talk with your subject. It doesn’t matter who it is, you need to strike up a rapport with them that will encourage them to perform confidently and comfortably. That applies to your crew too – reading personalities and disarmingly warming up the interviewee should be essential training for camera and sound technicians, most of whom are brilliant at it. If they aren’t, I try not to use them.
3. MANAGE YOUR CREW
There’s no point in you creating the right environment for a great, insightful interview/conversation if the crew undermine it by being thoughtless. So, don’t let the lighting cameraman insist that that particularly bright lamp needs to shine directly into your subject’s eyes or allow the sound recordist to start directing a somewhat nervous and reticent interviewee to speak up like they are on stage at the Albert Hall (I actually heard this, I kid you not). The crew are just as important as you are in creating an atmosphere that will enable everything to flow more easily and deliver the kind of interview gems that make for memorable programmes. At the same time it’s up to you to earn the crew’s respect; being understanding of their problems really matters and everyone prefers to work with people whose company they enjoy, so BE NICE to them – they will repay your kindness and make sure everything works as it should.
4. KNOW YOUR SUBJECT
Directing the BBC’s legendary Jon Humphrys interviewing a leading figure in the City made a lasting impression on me when I was learning my trade – his command of the subject and ability to engage on an equal footing was effortless and exemplary. Experience helps of course, but anyone can take the time and trouble to research the subject and thus appear more knowledgeable when talking to a real expert. People appreciate this, just don’t be tempted to use your new found knowledge to take over the interview yourself – it’s their show, not yours!
Sitting in a room with 4 or 5 strangers surrounded by complicated looking equipment in the knowledge that everything you say is being recorded for posterity can be unnerving. You need to understand this – what you do for a living is not a facet of every day life for most of the people you will ever interview. So be understanding, make friends with them, empathise. If someone is nervous the chances are you can gradually talk them around in the course of the interview – they might even start to enjoy the experience. When this happens don’t be shy of revisiting the earlier questions at the end of the interview, when they are warmed up and much readier to talk openly.
Everyone appreciates being listened to, and listening properly is possibly your most important tool as an interviewer. So don’t rigidly stick to those 5 or 6 killer questions that you hastily scribbled down the night before or in the train on the way to the location. Use them as a basis by all means but adapt your interview to what your subject has to say. If you listen carefully there may be a route that you had never thought of that will result in a much more insightful piece. Remember, you are trying to create the feel of a natural conversation, to achieve that you need to actually have as natural a conversation as possible. Some of the best answers come from unscripted, unanticipated questions. By the same token, ideally the interviewee should answer the questions afresh, without over-preparing. Sending questions through in advance encourages the dreaded scripted answers, which are ALWAYS transparently unconvincing. Far better to agree in advance broadly on the content required and chat through the structure of the interview while your cameraman is checking lights and sound recordist checking levels.
7. USE OPEN ENDED QUESTIONS
Always pose questions that will provide more than minimal answers. “Yes” or “No” answers don’t work, especially when your voice will not be heard in the finished edit. You need people to open up, so use “How?” “Why?” and What?” questions. Much as it bugs me on radio interviews in particular, the use of “Tell me about…” is actually not a bad way to get an interview subject to tell their story and the same applies to the familiar, slightly cringe-inducing “How did it feel…” question.
8. LET THEM TALK
Apart from being a bit rude, interrupting someone in full flow can mean you miss out on the single telling phrase or magical insight that would have massively embellished your finished interview. So let them talk, and keep nodding and mutely reacting as this will encourage them to keep talking. A producer colleague described it as “drawing the stuff out of them with your eyes” which sounds a little dramatic but is actually not far from the truth. Also, advise your crew up front only to interrupt verbally if something technical happens to stop recording. For instance a battery goes, or card is filled.
Making eye contact with the sound recordist can quickly establish with a nod or shake of the head whether that plane taking off, crashing door in the background or rumbling truck noise will make the statement you just heard unusable in the edit.
9. RECCE AND CHOOSE YOUR LOCATION CAREFULLY
Part of enabling an interview or series of interviews to flow nicely is making sure the physical environment doesn’t get in the way of the recording. Constant interruptions are not just a pain , they stop you capturing natural responses and if you or your subject are on a deadline they can actually prevent you getting what you need. So, where possible recce the location in advance for annoying air conditioning hums, traffic noise, adjacent kitchens, telephones – all the predictable things that sound recordists hate. Direct sunlight or changing ambient lighting can also be problematic for exposure so try to pick a location where this will not be such an issue. If you don’t have the luxury of a recce be prepared to move fast and decisively elsewhere if the room or outdoor location chosen are going to cause problems.
10. THINK ABOUT THE EDIT
There is nothing more frustrating than sitting in the edit suite, and hearing a perfectly composed answer that is not introduced, so you have no way of building it into your film. So while you shoot you need to be mentally logging the sections of answers that will find their way into your finished film. If someone else can be ticking off these, even better but not every shoot budget allows for a PA who could do this. If a client is sufficiently confident and experienced with video production it’s a job they can do for you – but only you know if what you have recorded will ultimately work, so it’s your job as interviewer/director to get it nailed on the day. If you are uncertain at all then apologise and pose the question again, asking the interviewee to frame their answer as a statement – maybe even get them to re-state the question itself to introduce it.
One of my toughest interview assignments was the CEO of a well known multi-national whose PA had given us just 15 minutes to get a crucial interview. Once he had answered a question he was (to say the least) not keen on having to answer it again, but I knew I hadn’t got what I needed so I politely but firmly talked him around and the finished piece was far more effective and usable than it would otherwise have been. My Marketing Manager client understood what his boss hadn’t – it was all about getting the message delivered convincingly and reassuringly. The top man was still out of the door in 15 minutes but the rest of us could move on knowing we had got the very best out of that precious dedicated time.