Long ago, a seasoned film editor shared with me his MO for finding the story in a documentary. When all the shooting is done, where do you begin to shape a coherent story from hours of unedited footage?
How do you string all that unscripted material together, actuality, interviews and visuals, to craft a story that brings insight and understanding — a story that takes the audience on a journey? My mentor’s advice was to start with the interviews.
He would print out the interview transcripts and highlight the best clips then cut out the highlighted sections and tape them together into a logical order, an organization of extracts from the interviews that told a story. This paper edit was his blueprint for editing which he always started by first laying down the interview or voice tracks, “the backbone of the story” as he called them.
Instead of relying on bridging narration to connect segments or to give context, directors are shaping stories from the accounts of participants, the interviews and the voice-overs themselves.
Except for directors of sweeping essay-style documentaries made for television, most independent doc makers are abandoning scripted commentary to explain what’s going on in their films. Instead of relying on bridging narration to connect segments or to give context, directors are shaping stories from the accounts of participants, the interviews and the voice-overs themselves.
Entire textbooks have been written about interviewing techniques and best practices. Here are a few you can put into your doc making toolkit right away.
Know what you expect interviewees to bring to your film. Identifying the role your subject has in the doc — subject matter expert (SME) or main character — will prompt the type of questions you will ask. No use conducting a close and personal interview with your SME if her job is to provide specialized background information, and no use asking technical questions of your main character when a SME has the facts at her fingertips.
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You’re making a documentary because you have a burning interest and curiosity about the subject matter. Come to the interview wearing your dunce cap — your “I don’t know anything” hat. Don’t show off what you know about the topic during the interview, rather lead with genuine curiosity. This usually produces the most honest and compelling answers. If you’re in doubt about how to structure an interview, chronological interviews are best, where the subject is unraveling events according to a timeline. This gives you plenty of opportunity to encourage storytelling and ask, “what happened next?” or, “why was that?”
The decision not to use narration in your film has important implications for conducting interviews. You will be listening for content and how that content can be shaped into a non-fiction story.
Yes, come to the interview well-researched and with a list of questions, but know that your job is not to get through the list; your job is to listen closely to the answers. You’re in discovery mode. You’re learning who your characters are and how their stories will inform your doc. As interviewees unpack their tales you’re also listening for clarity and understanding. If something is not clear to you, you know your audience will be scratching their heads as well. Time to ask a follow up question for clarification. If you zone out just waiting for your subject to finish his answer so you can ask the next question, you’re going to miss opportunities to explore more deeply.
For example, if your interviewee is speaking in generalities, whether it’s about hardship or good fortune, it’s your job to ask for specifics: “Can you please give an example of that?” Have a conversation with your subject, not a question and answer session. Listen for complete ideas expressed in a way that they stand on their own. You’re listening for content, for context and for places to get your scissors in--opportunities where you can make a clean audio edit. The decision not to use a narrator requires the interviewer’s full attention and listening skills. For example, directors who want to edit out their questions in the final film will have to train their subjects to include a reference to the question in their answers to make sure the audience can follow along.
If a subject goes on a tangent with their answer, let them go. It could get scenic and interesting. And if you want to get back to the original question, it’s ok to ask it again. The best way is to encourage your interviewee to tell a story: “Earlier you said you were fired, could you please tell me what happened?” In fact you can make it an interviewer’s rule of thumb that if you want to probe deeper beyond the facts, places and dates, ask your subjects to tell you a story, an anecdote and to give plenty of examples.
Feeding the Questions
There’s a lot of debate about whether a director should provide questions to interviewees ahead of time. Be prepared; some interviewees will insist on it. For subject matter experts this will be most useful as they can dig up the necessary information to give you a confident and accurate account by the time they sit down in front of the camera.
If your interviewee is one of the main subjects of your documentary, submitting a list of questions might not be the best approach for mining authentic and emotional responses. If the interview turns out to be an engaging exchange, chances are your question asking will be more organic as you discover your subject’s story and your curiosity will likely take you beyond the line of questioning you had in mind.
John Sawatsky, the renowned journalism teacher and interviewing guru currently training ESPN reporters, has this advice: “Keep questions short, to the point, open-ended — “yes” or “no” should not be a possible response.”
Open-ended questions help put your interviewee in explainer mode and avoids short, unusable answers. Sawatsky gives this example: “Instead of asking: ‘It must have been tough in the early years,’ ask: ‘What were the early years like?’”
Here are some of Sawatsky’s other suggestions for avoiding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers: How do you know that?
- What makes you say that?
- What happened next?
- What does that mean?
- Can you give me an example of that?
- What’s that like?
In most documentaries, especially character-driven docs, interviews indeed represent the spine of the film around which all the other story elements are organized. Conducting interviews that bring insight and understanding is a skill that will come with time and many sessions of sitting down with engaging subjects whose stories make you want to learn more, to ask just one more question.
A seasoned script-to-screen television and video producer and trainer, Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.