3 Tips for Getting a Good Documentary Interview

“I think an interview, properly considered, should be an investigation.”

I’ve spent the past few years moonlighting as a local reporter.

My background’s in screenwriting, so it’s a job I came to kind of accidentally (someday I’ll write a book about it)! But in any case, I’ve learned a great deal – especially about the importance of a good interview.

Meanwhile, documentary filmmaking is a world I know well.

As a teacher with Lights Film School, I’ve had the opportunity to guide students from their first documentary proposals to finished products. And I’ve also found myself a collaborator with and champion of a particular documentary filmmaker, Garret Harkawik, to whom I happen to be married!

In 2011, Garret began making short documentaries, many of which are interview-driven. The more I’ve worked in my newspaper gig, the more insights I’ve gleaned into Garret’s films, and the more we’ve begun to discuss where our work intersects and where it differs.

And when it comes to interview techniques, I’ve found there’re far more intersections than differences.

Naturally, we’re here today to discuss documentary filmmaking. That is the heart of this piece.

But as I’ve grown and done my own research into the art of the interview, I’ve learned that there are a surprising number of interview tenets that hold true across mediums – film, television, journalism, podcasts, you name it.

What's the purpose of the interview? What do you want your subject to share?

Why interview someone in the first place?

A documentary interview can serve multiple purposes:

It may be an opportunity for an expert to share scientific, historical, or other information so as to educate the viewer and support a point. It may reveal someone’s feelings or reflections on an experience that’s significant to the bigger picture. It also may be an opportunity for someone to share their side of a story, if you’re presenting contrasting views.

Whatever the purpose, depending on the style of documentary you’re making, interviews will be central to your film. And it most likely will be YOU who conducts them. Which probably means you’re asking questions like, “How do I actually do this? How can I make sure I get a good documentary interview?”

In answer, I’ve drawn on my reporting background, teaching experiences, conversations with Garret, and advice from other professionals to provide a well-rounded overview of how to do a documentary interview. My hope is that you’ll feel empowered and excited to get started on the process!

To get the ball rolling on our conversation, let’s break down interview best practice into three points, beginning with:

1. BE PREPARED for your documentary interview

When it comes to a documentary interview, there are two elements to preparedness:

The first is your camera and gear. The second is the interview itself.

Regarding your camera and gear, it’s usually a good idea to check out the space where you’ll be conducting the actual interview.

As Garret says, “Knowing where you’re going to shoot and what the challenges are, that part is just like any other location shoot. What is the sound like? Will it be noisy? Will there be natural light that’s going to change? If your interview may last two or three hours, the light will be different. Pick a location where you’re not worried about that or sound.”

If you’re controlling the light, a whole new world opens up to you!

A 3-point lighting setup is traditional, combining key, fill, and back lights. You could go for a soft and gentle appearance or something much more dramatic and contrasty… It depends entirely on your vision, the location, and your tools.

Where will you be shooting your documentary interview? Know the location!

Whatever your lighting arrangement, keep track of “eye line”, which is where your interview subject is looking. Nine times out of ten, it should be consistent throughout the whole interview. Are they looking at you? At someone off to the side? Into the camera? Check in with this from time-to-time to make sure that it doesn’t change.

Garret also notes the importance of confirming that you have enough media to store your footage. “Pick a camera that will let you shoot non-stop,” he advises. You want to avoid swapping out cards every few minutes, since that can really interrupt the flow for an interviewee.

In terms of sound, you want to ensure a clean, high-quality signal. But also choose a setup that won’t impede your subject. “If you have them wired to a lav that runs into a soundboard, if they want to get up and walk around, it’s a whole production,” Garret shares. “Using a boom on a pole or a wireless lav is easier.”

In terms of the documentary interview itself, arrive prepared, knowing what you want to talk about!

This applies across mediums. Whether you’re interviewing someone for a news article, podcast, or something else, you should have some familiarity with their background and relevant topics.

How to make the most of your limited time

In my own experience, when I’m working on an article, I typically get just ONE SHOT to sit down with a subject. In that time – usually anywhere between a half-hour and two hours – I need to learn everything I can from that person, as it relates to my article.

So if I’m meeting John Doe to discuss his experiences as a state legislator, I need to spend the time I’m given asking him about – and being genuinely curious about! – his time as a state legislator.

And naturally, to make the most of the time we have together, I need to go in prepared. This often means considering any of the following:

  • Why am I interviewing this person? What unique perspective can they offer?
  • What do I need this person to explain?
  • If I’ve done a pre-interview, what have they already told or revealed to me that I want to get them to tell or reveal again, this time on-camera?
  • What facts do I need to come away understanding or capturing?
  • If the purpose of the interview is to have the subject recall something that happened in the past, how much of that event do I need them to recall?
  • How do I want them to reflect on the event? If it’s a historical topic, perhaps I want them to provide context. If it’s a personal topic (or if they lived through the historical event), perhaps I want to capture their feelings.

Personally, I find it very helpful to develop a list of specific questions that I plan to ask. Of course, the questions vary greatly, depending on who I’m interviewing and for what purpose! Here’s the key point, though:

That list of questions is just a jumping off point.

Remember, your list of interview questions is just a starting point.

In other words, I’ve never conducted a good interview that relied solely on my prepared questions.

My best interviews happen when I’m fully present with the subject. Yes, we’re having a conversation about a specific subject in their life. But if I stay too tied to that subject and my questions, I miss a lot. I have to truly listen to what that person is saying, and improvise questions based around that.

Which brings me to what I believe to be the most important aspect of the art of the interview:

2. BE CURIOUS during your documentary interview

I used to be terrible at making conversation.

I was at an awkward family barbecue about ten years ago, and I found myself talking to the husband of the friend of a family member. We were many degrees removed from really needing to take a serious interest in one another, but there we were.

Neither of us was particularly good at making small talk. Eventually, I remarked that it was a beautiful day out. A minute later, his wife came over to offer him a drink, and he said, “Oh, thank God! Someone’s here. We were starting to talk about the weather.” 😳

Arguably that guy was worse at making conversation than me. I mean come on, who says that? But since I started doing interviews for the newspaper a few years ago, I’ve definitely become an increasingly good dinner party guest. I also kill at wedding cocktail hours, wakes, funerals, and awkward family barbecues.

Why?

Because good interviewing relies on curiosity, and so does being a good conversationalist.

If you know how to get someone talking about themselves, and you know how to be — not act, but BE — genuinely interested in what they’re saying, then you’ll never find yourself talking about the weather again.

Oh, and your documentary interviews will improve exponentially!

Keep an ear open

One of my favorite TV writers, Emily VanDerWerff, interviewed American journalist Dan Rather about interviewing (metaaaaa)! I was exhilarated to find that Rather’s views on interviewing 100% line up with my own:

“The keys to doing a good interview are … the first three things are preparation, preparation, and preparation. Once you get past those three, the other key is to be a good listener. Often, the best questions come not from what you have prepared to ask, not from your list of questions in your notebook, but from listening to the interview subject very carefully and picking up questions from what your interview subject says.”

Bryan Glazer – a famous film producer who often collaborates with director Ron Howard – also wrote a book on curiosity. It’s called A Curious Mind, and in it, Glazer recounts his 30+ years of curiosity.

Over the course of his career, Glazer conducted what he calls “curiosity interviews” with people he found interesting. “The technique is the same – asking questions – regardless of the subject,” Glazer writes. “But the mission, the motivation, and the tone vary. The curiosity of a detective trying to solve a murder is very different from the curiosity of an architect trying to get the floor plan right for a family’s house.”

He goes on to claim that regardless of subject, regardless of who’s doing the asking, curiosity can serve nearly anyone well:

“One thing I know about curiosity: it’s democratic. Anyone, anywhere, of any age or education level, can use it.”

Or take it from Errol Morris, regarded by many as a master of the documentary interview:

“I think an interview, properly considered, should be an investigation. You shouldn’t know what the interview will yield. Otherwise, why do it at all?”

Follow your curiosity! Be open to where it may lead.

Be curious. Listen to and truly engage with your interview subject. And be YOU!

3. BE YOU throughout your documentary interview

So, be PREPARED. Be CURIOUS. And be YOU.

YOU are the one conducting the documentary interview, after all. Since an interview is essentially a conversation between two people, that means you comprise 50% of the atmosphere and play a large role in driving the results.

You set the tone for the interview.

If you want it to be serious, you should be serious. If you want it to be fun, loose, and free-flowing, then you should be all three of those things. Your subject’s tone likely will reflect yours.

Remember, too, that you can edit yourself out.

My reporting work winds up in print, so these days, I don’t have to deal with putting my voice out there for others to hear. But one of the most painful parts of beginning to interview people was hearing my own voice in my recordings. It’s taken me a long time to accept that I am not the story, and I don’t really need to be too concerned with how I sound in playback.

Some documentary filmmakers choose to include their own voices and selves in their documentary films. That’s their style; that’s fine. Others prefer to cut an interview into a film in such a way that it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone there at all asking questions. Also fine.

It all depends on how you want to tell your story. You may not love how you sound in playback, but please let that go when you’re doing the interview. You are not the subject!

Assuming it’s ethical and respectful, whatever you need to do and say in the moment to get your subject to open up, you should do. The best interviews are the ones in which both the interviewer and interviewee become unaware of the artifice of the interview.

In other words (and to reiterate), your documentary interview should be, more or less, a conversation.

Whatever the medium, a good documentary interview tends to feel like a good conversation.

Think about post-production

Even so, one of Garret’s most important tips for conducting documentary interviews is to keep an ear open for how your subject’s answer can be edited. Encourage them to answer questions in ways that will make sense if you were to cut out the question.

So for example, if you ask someone their favorite color, encourage them to answer with, “My favorite color is green” instead of just “green”. This will lend a lot of flexibility in the edit.

And finally, don’t forget that visuals matter in the medium of film! When you’re choosing a location, consider how you can reflect your subject in that location. If you’re interviewing a veterinarian, then it could make sense to interview them in their office or at a dog park instead of, say, a nondescript shopping mall.

Also think broadly around what elements of their life and surroundings you may be able to bring in and use as props. How can you help your viewer understand your subject more deeply? How can you manifest them in the environment? Basically, how can you leverage the power and subtlety of visual storytelling to convey meaning in your film?

In Conclusion

What do you think? Have you ever conducted a documentary interview? What are your favorite techniques? We’d love to hear about your documentary filmmaking experiences in the comments below!

Also, if you’re looking for examples of fantastic interviews in films and television to inspire you, a few come to mind, in no particular order:

Check out Errol Morris’ classic The Thin Blue Line; anything by Werner Herzog, who often inserts himself into his films; Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary, The Act of Killing; and The Jinx. Yes, that last one’s a television series, but it’s worth investigating, since it concerns the relationship between the subject and the interviewer.

Happy watching!

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