“Did you enjoy it?”
“Oh, I need a longer answer.”
No, you need a better interviewing technique.
We produce and watch more videos than ever, on more platforms than ever. And while the platforms and formats may evolve and change, some basic techniques underpin a lot of what we as filmmakers produce, regardless of whether it’s a documentary, some branded content or a corporate film.
The basics may include framing the shot, editing, capturing audio — but more crucially, getting the right information from our interviewees.
I was recently sent two very long interviews and asked to edit them down to a 2-minute highlights piece for a client. It was almost impossible. Why? Two main reasons:
- The interviewer was unprepared — or maybe disengaged or distracted— and didn’t seem to correct some obvious flaws in the questions, resulting in a set of disjointed, random answers.
- The interviewer, perhaps inadvertently, dominated the interview.
I’ve been interviewing people professionally — first as a radio journalist, then as a filmmaker — for almost 20 years. Every interview is different, every situation throws at you a number of challenges and variables.
But you can overcome them — or at least minimise their disruptive impact — if you follow some very basic rules.
1. Define and understand why you interview that person.
It seems like an obvious thing to do, but defining why we want to interview someone is as important as defining why we want to create the video in the first place.
Who is the primary audience and what is the format of the final piece you’re producing? What does the interviewee contribute? Are you after some short soundbites? Or do you need a longer story? Will the answers be used instead of voiceover over some b-roll? Or is the interviewee the main focal point of the video?
If you define and understand these before you start interviewing, you’ll make your — and your editor’s, producer’s, audiences’ — lives easier.
Which leads me to the next point.
2. What happens in post?
Unless you’re producing a news item or recording a standalone interview, it’s highly likely that you or your producer will have a script, or a shot list and a pretty clear idea about how the interview — or some of its elements — slots into the rest of the film.
With that in mind, tailor your questions and even more importantly, brief your interviewee.
That’s particularly important if you don’t intend to keep the questions in the final piece. If the expected answer makes sense without the context the question provides, fine.
“What are your plans for the next year?”
“Next year we want to expand our international operations and open a new office in Berlin.”
If however the expected answer without the context doesn’t make sense to the viewer and you’re not planning to include the question and/or captions in the final piece
“What did you think of the presentations?”
“They were wonderful”
then you need to do two things:
- ask your interviewee to paraphrase your question or include it in their answer: “I think today’s presentations were wonderful”;
- or, even better, brief them in advance and explain how their answers will sit within the context of the piece you’re producing.
And that’s an important point. Your role is not just to rattle off a few questions you scribbled down on a piece of paper. Your role is to guide, facilitate and help the interviewee give you the right information in the right format.
Which leads us nicely to key point number three.
3. It’s not about you.
You help elicit some answers, but you’re not the focal point.
The edit I mentioned at the beginning was made difficult by the fact the interviewer kept telling their own stories in response to the interviewee’s questions. I could see it clearly annoyed the interviewee who was too polite to say anything and just nodded and smiled politely.
There is a very fine line between building rapport with the interviewee and throwing them off course with unnecessary comments.
Many people we interview on a daily basis don’t have media training. They haven’t been told how to deliver soundbites. They are often rushed, stressed or both. Or they don’t even want to do it, but were asked or told to.
We have to understand that and act accordingly. Putting them at ease and making sure they are comfortable with the camera and microphone, giving them some guidance and time to rehearse the answer — particularly if it’s, say, a corporate piece — is perfectly fine, even desirable.
But spending too much time talking about yourself (yes, it does happen) and sharing your thoughts about the subject is counterproductive.
The edit I keep referring to was impossible for one more reason. The interviewer kept jumping in right at the very end — or sometimes before the end — of each answer. “That’s great!” “Awesome!” “Lovely, thank you!”
Allow your interviewee to finish their sentence. Then count to three and start talking.
Pause. Embrace the silence. This way you give the editor enough room for a proper cut without the need to fade the audio prematurely or mask the edit with some B-roll.
Often when people finish giving you the answer and you don’t jump right in, they start talking again.
And often these are the best, more relaxed, personal, or honest insights.