Interviewing Your Parents

If you could talk to your great-grandparents for thirty minutes, what would you say? Do you ever wonder how they met? What their first home was like? What happened on the days their children were born? Why did they settle in the town they raised their family in? Maybe you can’t interview them, but your interviews of your own parents today can help answer these questions for future generations to come. Why not start collecting your own parents’ stories and create a priceless document for your family now and your children and grandchildren in the future. It’s a fun and rewarding project that the whole family can work together on.

Before the Interview

Components of a Good Interview – There are lots of bits that go together to make a good interview. Along with preparation in research and formulating questions, you need to be able to piece together a sensible narrative in your editing. In order to do this, plan on a series of interviews that you can intercut between to tell your story these may involve:

  • Individual interviews with your parents
  • Interview with them both together
  • Interview with key friends and relatives
  • Important photographs
  • Any existing home movies

Equipment – Video is a profession that can get very expensive very quickly, but it’s also one that can be done very inexpensively if you concentrate on your storytelling and don’t get wrapped up in worrying about what basic gear you need. For an interview project such as this, at the very least you need a camcorder and a tripod. A three-light kit, or even a few reflectors can help make it look better, and off-camera microphones will capture good, even sound; wireless lavaliere microphones will allow your subjects to move around and are a great thing to have.

Find an Attractive Location – Don’t catch dad on the back porch surrounded by old paint cans and garbage bags, find a location that adds information to the story but doesn’t overpower the narration. Does your father prize his rose garden above all of his other endeavors? Sit him with the flowers in the background. Is your mother a championship bowler? Have her sit with her trophies behind her. You can also take them to multiple locations; have them visit their first house or apartment for example, or go to the place they first met. You can shoot hand held and stay out of the way while they reminisce (this would be a good opportunity to use your portable camera support). Don’t forget to get some b-roll – if you don’t have old home movies, you can get additional footage of places important to your parents story – the hospital you were born in, the house they used to live in or the place where they met.

During the Interview

Be Prepared, Be Organized – A little research will go a long way. Before you start, make a timeline of your parent’s lives starting from the year they were born and mark down important events along the way, news events, movies and musical milestones. Add family history in there as well as you know it – weddings, births, moves, military service, etc. Also be thinking about other projects that you could conceivably use this footage for.

You Want Stories, not Answers – It’s important to ask questions that let your parents tell stories, that invite them to reminisce, not questions that can be hastily answered. “When did you meet mom?” is a question that can be answered “1964” whereas “Tell me about when you met mom, what was going on in your life?” gives dad plenty of room to talk about where he was living, what kind of job he had, and other events surrounding their first encounter.

Don’t Talk Over your Subject – This isn’t a story about the interviewer so let mom and dad do the talking. Wait for natural pauses to ask followup questions, always keep the editing room in mind. Will you have enough space after their story ends to cut to something else with the right pacing?

Cast a Wide Net, Sort it out Later – There are two parts to a family history like this – the polished finished product and the original material. The polished, edited, final product is what most people will be interested in; your editing will make it direct, entertaining, swiftly moving, and to the point, you’ll cut out the digression, the rambling, the redundancy, but you may find later that other material is valuable for different projects. It’s not uncommon for video crews to interview actors or politicians or directors or sports figures and ask them about dozens of people, events, or films and later cut up the sound bites and insert them into any number of documentaries or commentaries. You might find yourself making any number of video productions that can benefit from these interviews. When your sister gets married you may insert a quote from your mother talking about the day she got married. Hopes she had for her children when they were born might lead off a grandchild’s graduation video. Take your blinders off.

Divide and Conquer! – Do separate interviews with your parents individually to get their side of important events – do they remember their first date differently? Different recollections of who did the most housework and who came up with the children’s names can be fun when edited in juxtaposition to one another.

After the Interview

Once you have your interview complete, it’s time to put everything together. This may involve following up on things your subjects talked about during their interview, finding photos, maps, old newspaper articles,

Edit! Edit! Edit! – Your raw footage is a gold mine of material but in totality it’s mostly likely not as gripping as Jurassic Park. Use the best parts in your final product and shelve the rest. 30 minutes is a good goal to shoot for. Use of graphics, titles, old photographs, and home movies will keep your video from being simply talking heads.

Package, Distribute, Enjoy! – After you’ve edited your video and burned it to DVD consider adding additional materials in your package. Templates for DVD labels and inserts are available on line. Include reprints of photographs and documents like newspaper clippings, letters, and birth announcements, everybody in the family is going to want one of these.


Sidebar: Example Questions

You can take your interviews in lots of different directions, but here are a few questions to get
you started:

  • Tell me about the day you first met.
  • Tell me about your first date.
  • Tell me about moving into your first house/apartment.
  • Where were you when you found out you were going to have a baby?
  • What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from one another?
  • What do you remember about the first car you bought together?
  • What things have changed since you got married?
  • When the two of you met, who were your best friends and what did they think of it?
  • What TV shows did you watch together in the (1960s, 70s, 80s)?
  • Do you remember where you were when: (Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the end of WWII or other notable events within their lifetime etc.)?
  • If you had it all to do again, would you do anything differently?
  • Imagine your great great grandchildren a hundred years from now are watching this, what would you want to tell them about yourself and what do you hope for them?

Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who exhibits regularly and has written books on technology and photographic art.

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