Interview Techniques for documentary filmmakers

For those who work as documentary filmmakers you undoubtedly have thought about the importance of asking well thought out questions that not only provide you with the information you’re looking for but also questions that help develop trust and rapport with your subjects.

Lights Film School sent me to the Vancouver International Film Festival last month and I attended a 4 day filmmakers workshop. One of the workshops dealt with interview questions specifically. The interesting part was that the panel for this seminar consisted of a Journalist, a Psychologists and an Attorney. All of these people spend a lot of time in their day to day activities developing relationships with their subjects and clients and therefore must constantly think about how to ask questions that help their subjects open up.

Below are a few points to consider the next time you’re planning interview questions for your documentary.

1. Don’t start with the cameras rolling
Start instead with building trust. Discuss unrelated issues to help open up to the subject. A few preliminary interviews without a crew or cameras may also be necessary to help develop a friendship. In the end, you’re building a relationship and any relationship that has any weight to it is equal in its contributions. If you enter their home and force them to tell you their story without giving anything back, it’s hardly conducive to building a balanced relationship and this will show in your final footage.

When you do show up with your crew and cameras, get your subject familiar to the lights and the camera but don’t start running footage until you can see that they are comfortable with the people and the equipment around them.

2. Start by getting the basics
Ask questions about family history, their personal background, their educational background etc. This allows them a few easy questions to get started.

3. Ask permission based questions
When you get to asking more difficult questions consider asking “permission based questions”. You can start these questions with phrases like

“I’m going to push you today if that’s okay?”
“Do you mind if I ask you some uncomfortable questions?”

4. Don’t always fill in their pauses
When you’re interviewing someone you may feel like you want to “rescue’ them from a pause. However, it’s not always beneficial to fill in these pauses. Give your subjects time to think and explain themselves. This is where you often go beyond the basics and get access to deeper and more personal information. Watch a Werner Herzog documentary to see this technique in action. He uses it all of the time and it adds for some of the best interview responses.

5. Put your subjects in touch with pain or their hopes and dreams
If you’re looking for passionate testimonial then touch on the emotional buttons of pain and joy. However, if you’re not sincerely interested in the responses the subject will sense that and will withhold information. You must be genuinely interested in your subject for them to open up to you.

6. Use other peoples labels
If your subject is talking about their wife whose name is Amanda and he’s referring to her as Amanda then you should use those work markers as well. Don’t refer to her as “his wife” if he is referring to her as Amanda.

7. Ask questions in the same sensory metaphor
People often speak in sensory metaphors. The three types are

For example

You’re running away from the truth
Let’s go forward on this one
We’re heading in different directions
Look me up when you’re in town
I’m down in the dumps

8. Empathy
If people are reluctant to give you information you must think about empathy. What would you do if you were in their situation? What things would make you talk? Because only when you understand this can you unlock the key to that information. Again, often talking about yourself and similar experiences can help reduce the chances that they will think you’re judging them negatively.

9. Ask open ended questions rather than leading questions
Leading questions get your subjects to answer in “yes” or “no” responses. However, you’re often looking for much more in depth information. Therefore you need to ask “open ended questions”. These questions often start with “why” or “how”. Alternatively they may be phrased as:

“Can you tell me more about that?”
“I am not sure I understand”

10. Repeat their words if you want more information
If you feel you’ve almost unlocked a goldmine of information but your subject stops, you might consider using the last word in their sentence to prompt them to continue.

For example, your subject may end their statement about being fired by their employer of 20 years by saying “it’s just not fair”. You’re next questions could simply be “fair?”

This simple question will allow them to continue speaking in more depth about the issue at hand.

Good luck with your documentary interviews!

Folk to Folk

Tips for interviewing
Have them repeat your question (source)
This is a great idea, especially if you plan to have no narration for your documentary. Get the person to repeat back your question in their answer. This will help you with the video editing and storytelling later during the editing process. For example, you ask, “How are you feeling?” The interviewee says, “How am I feeling? I’m feeling excited!”

Keep your mouth shut
Stay quiet when the other person is talking. You don’t want to hear yourself in the background. (Watch out for the “hmmmm”, “Oh right..”) Just ask the question and then keep quiet. It’s good to nod, and make gentle facial expressions, just no sound. Unless of course, YOU are part of the story and the camera has both of you in the shot.

Additional tips:

More broad information about types of interviews

Great suggestions for camera work

Insights from another’s documentary

Question prompts for the Who What When Where How WHy