Good film interviewers are storytellers, asking the right questions in just the right way, weaving together a seemingly spontaneous narrative. The best interviewers also make their audience think – they’re debaters, researchers, orators, and thoughtful listeners. Interviewing someone can feel as alien as, well, being interviewed. Capturing the process on film is even more daunting.
Consider Martin Bashir and Larry King. They may make strange bedfellows, but they are both examples of engaging interviewers, having built careers by asking poignant questions. Here are a few considerations to help bring out your inner Larry (or Martin) and ensure a smooth video interview.
Before the Interview
Your interview should start weeks ahead of time. Interview legend James Lipton employs his own researcher, and spends hours watching movies, reading biographies, and pouring through articles before coming up with hundreds of “blue cards” for his interviews. Interviewing someone on camera takes a good deal of forethought and preparation; great interviews are not the kind of thing you want to try to wing.
An interview is a conversation, but it is a conversation that takes some significant thought. Planning is an opportunity to think about your goals for this interview. These goals will influence your questions and will dictate the tone of the interview. Your approach in talking to your Gran-Gran about her childhood is likely to be different than that of an interview with a controversial city official. If your goal is to capture a fiery debate or provocative conversation, you are going to have to pay attention to the sequence and structure of your questions. Other considerations should be the setting of your interview, as well as your own role in the finished product. Whether sitting side-by-side on a couch or across the table from one another, different settings elicit different feelings and senses of formality. Much like the office of a therapist, the setting of an interview has psychological bearing on the behaviors and interactions between an interviewer and their guest, even helping promote self-disclosure. Further, give some thought to your own screen-time. 20/20 would not be the same without Barbara on camera. However, it is less common to see the interviewer in documentaries, as the subject is the main focus.
One of the biggest mistakes an interviewer can make is not doing background research. I recently watched an interview on a mainstream news station that shall remain nameless. During an interview with a scholarly author, it was apparent the anchor had not read his book. The interview was painful to watch. Become an authority on your guest. Research their background and experiences. If your interviewee is an expert or author, you should have an understanding of their area of expertise or at least skim their books/articles. If they are commonly interviewed, get your hands on those interviews. Remember, this person is an expert in some way, whether on their own life or a scientific subject. Once the cameras are rolling, you cannot fake the insights actual research will give you. Further, the best interviewers are genuinely curious about the people they are interviewing. Use research to spark your curiosity.
Write Questions Ahead of Time
Take time and put thought into your questions. That means writing them ahead of time. Let your research fuel your questions. A few common tips for writing thoughtful questions:
- Avoid asking yes and no questions. This is a golden rule of interviewing. Instead, write questions that make will make your interviewee describe an event, situation, or opinion.
- Write a few interesting warm-up questions that will get the interviewee talking and establish a baseline for the conversation. I was once on a job interview in which the interviewer neglected those important warm-up questions. I would have loved to be asked about my lunch, or my cat, or my background. Instead she jumped right to the situational, skill-based questions and I found my normally calm demeanor shaken and stirred. The same courtesy holds for filmed interviews. Even if you are pressed for time, do not skip these questions.
- Consider the order of the questions as well. Good interviews are well-paced, with questions building upon one another. Think about how your questions will encourage discourse and create a narrative.
- Write a handful of novel questions. This tip is especially important if you are interviewing someone who has become accustomed to doing a large number of interviews. Make your video stand out with unique questions that they have not been asked before.
- Practice your questions on someone. See if your questions generate the kind of conversation that you want. Take the opportunity to go back and revise questions so that they are polished.
Build Connections and Manage Expectations
Build your connection with your interviewee early. A lot of our interview-based anxiety comes from uncertainty. Help soothe these jitters by giving your interviewee an idea of what to expect. You do not have to invite them over for tea, but set the stage so that they will feel more comfortable disclosing information during the interview. This is an opportunity to let them know what to expect. For most interviewers, the goal is to film a natural conversation – a stunned, stumped interviewee does not make for great video. Providing specifics about the interview is another way to manage expectations. Let interviewees know what you want them to wear, what the set will be like, and how long you expect shooting to take. Finally, get some information from them. Do not be afraid to confirm their credentials or ask for fact sheets.
Plan Your Shoot
You have some decisions to make. Aside from impromptu street-side interrogations, interviews are incredibly staged. In some ways, filmed interviews are so difficult because of the unnaturally staged setting. The nature of interviews is not necessarily a bad thing, but does lend itself to a number of considerations.
- Furniture and placement: Give some thought to where you want to stand or sit, as well as the positioning of any furniture. Are you going to appear on screen or stand next to the camera? Will you be using chairs, sofas, tables, or stools? If using chairs, make sure to face them so that you can the faces of everyone in the shot. Consider if you want your interviewee looking at you or at the camera – are you filming an intimate conversation or do you want the interviewee speaking directly to your audience? Your set is going to dictate how closely you sit to the other person, indicating the level of intimacy and formality.
- Lighting: Thought should go into lighting, where you want lights to be placed, as well as what kind of lighting you want to use. Try to avoid placing lights in spots that can be harsh on the eyes or lighting that magnifies an artificial-feeling environment.
- Cameras: How many cameras do you need for the interview? Do you want to capture multiple angles or do you plan on going back to re-shoot different segments? Depending on the length of the interview, it could be beneficial to capture more than one angle to keep the video fresh and your audience interested. Planning your shoot will help you to determine if you need to enlist some talented volunteers or acquire a few more trusty tripods.
A few days before
Think about interviews as a conversation. You want to sound natural and be able to recall all of that research you did. Practice with a friend and try to keep the conversation going. You might be a video veteran, having logged hours in front of the camera, but your interviewee may not be – anticipate talking to someone that may not have a similar comfort level. Practice how you are going to get them talking, keep them talking, and move the conversation along when necessary. You should also get a sense of the pacing of the interview. Place a clock behind the interviewee so that you can keep an eye on the time and move questions along.
Contact your Interviewee
Provide them with detailed information about the time and location of the shoot. Try to avoid making them feel out of the loop. They will feel more comfortable talking to you on camera if you have been thoughtful and in touch prior to the interview.
Test your Equipment
Test, test, test – especially if it is just you and your tripod. Make sure everything works: lights, tripods, cameras, batteries. Do some test video at your location to make sure your set and lighting are creating the ambiance you want. Also, practice interacting with the camera.
As with all shoots, you do not want to wait until that morning to get everything together. Treat this as an international trip — pack ahead of time. Remember spare tape, batteries, and chargers. Bring camera-friendly make-up for your interviewee, as well as wardrobe options in case they show up needing a bit of help. Do not forget to pack bottles of water. There is a reason Leno and Letterman always have mugs for their guests.
Use this time to get your interviewee comfortable. This may be your first time meeting them in person – make a good first impression. Being friendly and personable before the interview starts can go a long way once the cameras are on. The camera is like a magnifying glass for tension, so even if your questions are written to encourage debate, you want the interviewee to feel comfortable, not intimidated by you. Also, do not be afraid to give them some direction. To ease jitters, give interviewees instructions about where to look, especially if you want them to avoid looking directly at the camera. Having a clear sense of what you want will not only make them feel more comfortable in front of the camera, but can also help save you a bit of time in the editing room. Another helpful trick is to encourage them to re-state your questions as part of their answer. Repeating questions aloud helps keep a nervous brain focused and on track.
During the Interview
This bit of advice seems like common sense, but after all the planning and research you may find yourself focused on the delivery of the next question. The best interviewers listen intently to their guests, letting them finish their thoughts before following up with the next question. Listening makes a huge impact, distinguishing a scripted interaction from a thoughtful conversation. Further, their answers can completely change the game, creating unexpected tangents and interesting paths of discourse.
Good interviewers are like cats. Howard Stern is a great, albeit controversial, example of an interviewer who can think on their feet. Stern not only asks interesting questions, but understands how to respond to interesting responses. Read: your interview will probably not go according to plan. Your guest will likely answer questions before they have been posed. They will make points that need clarification. They will tell stories that will compel you to find out more. Gran-Gran will have skeletons in her closet that you did not see coming. You will have to toss out prepared questions, editing as you go. Improvising is what makes interviews interesting. Go with it. Embrace it.
As the interview is closing, steer the conversation towards concluding thoughts and statements. This can be an overlooked interview element. You have just led your interviewee on a journey, and like all good tales this one should have a proper ending. Make sure that you leave time for concluding thoughts and summations, as well as final comments from your guest. Do your interview justice by giving it some closure.