Most documentaries have interviews in them: The
interviews add weight to the subject matter and offer expert
testimony or alternative points of view. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to research and select people to interview for your own documentary film.
Interviews move the narrative along and reveal information about subjects and events featured in the documentary. As a documentary filmmaker, it will be your job to research and source these interview subjects and to get them on film.
Who Should You Interview?
The decision-making process on who to approach for an interview is driven by the topic of the documentary and is fluid throughout the production process. As interviews are conducted and the need for different points of view arise, so you need to investigate other interviewees.
The Ideal Interviewee
Your ideal interviewee would be someone who adds something different to your production, someone with expert or personal knowledge of a situation or event. If your documentary has narration and you have a working script, then dig deep into that script and see where interviews and opinion would fit. If the script makes statements, use interviews to back up those statements or to expand upon them. If the script describes events, use interviews from those who were there, or if it’s an historical event, from people who have researched the event.
Can You Make Informed Questions?
You don’t need to know everything about your subject matter, but you do need to know enough to ask informed questions. The art of interviewing is about getting the other person to talk and share. You may, from your research, already know the answer to a question. And that knowledge should direct your questions to get the interviewee to share their interpretation of the answer.
The Internet has really opened up the opportunities for research. It’s the first port of call for most researchers. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll find everything online, however, and always back up what are presented as facts with further digging.
Let’s look at the thought process of some specific interviews and examples.
I recently worked on a history documentary about an explosion at a warehouse in Victorian England. The events had been well-chronicled, and the timeline of what happened wasn’t disputed. So the facts seemed to be pretty well-established.
We contacted local history societies in the area to see if we could interview local researchers to see what their take on events was and then we arranged appropriate interviews. The interviews that we got were well-rounded and added descriptive information and color to the narration, so it was a job well done. But there was still something missing.
The warehouse exploded.
The explosion and the events leading up to and after were well-known. But what wasn’t known was why it exploded, and this opened up a whole new area of investigation and interview possibilities.
We contacted a scientist who specialized in industrial chemistry. We told him about the explosion and we were even able to provide him with what was listed as being in the warehouse at the time. And then we asked to hypothesize on why the place went up so spectacularly. What we got was a fascinating new angle on a previously well-known story.
Our questioning brought us new avenues to explore and some very colorful footage to add to the film. When sourcing and researching your interview subjects, try to not tread the same path that has been repeatedly worked before, or if in the case of eyewitnesses, try to get new information, opinions and emotions from them. Having someone describe events is great, but adding into that the emotional aspect will add greater depth to your documentary.
Approaching Possible Interviewees
Approaching people to be interviewed is straightforward enough: You see who you would like to talk to from your research and then you ask them. They may say yes. They may say no.
If they do say no, ask them if they can recommend someone else willing to talk on the subject.
If someone is reluctant, offer to meet up with them first for a chat and a coffee. The thought of cameras and microphones and bright lights can be understandably terrifying to a lot of people. But if you meet with them first, they’ll get to know you, realize that you are a nice and normal person and that you’re really interested in what they have to say. One word of caution, though: Be wary not to conduct the whole interview at this chat stage or the first-time magic responses may be lost by the time you get them on camera.
Getting interviews on-screen will add color and variety to your production. They’ll offer new insights and send your audience off on differing trains of thought. If something can be said by an interviewee rather than by narration, use the interview every time. You may not have as much control over an interview subject as you would over scripted narration but that’s the point. Having the information relayed in a personal and sometimes emotive way is precious and it adds so much to your production.
Next time, we’ll be looking at environment, emotion, and impact. Thanks for reading!