Conducting an interview for a documentary film can be difficult for a new documentary filmmaker, and there are many mistakes that new documentarians make. Getting a bad interview can result in unusable footage or create headaches in post-production as you try to cobble your footage together in a way that makes sense and tells the story.
There’s truly no substitute for experience when it comes to documentary film interviewing technique, but we’ve assembled a list of common documentary interview mistakes to avoid.
Don’t interrupt your interviewee
This probably sounds basic and obvious, but you’d be surprised how often first time documentary filmmakers interrupt the people they are interviewing, right when they’re in the middle of answering a question. Filmmakers are sometimes subconsciously eager to demonstrate that they know about the topic too. Filmmakers often tell their subjects that the documentary interview is “a conversation” and they sometimes forget that it’s supposed to be a one-sided one.
The filmmaker may also want the interviewee to say things in a certain way so interrupting them can happen before the filmmaker even realizes they’re doing it. In turn, interrupting a subject as they speak can make them more nervous and hesitant to speak and it may prevent them from getting into a rhythm.
The solution: Bite your tongue and let your interviewees talk. Tell them ahead of time that you may ask them repetitive questions and you may ask them to repeat themselves if they don’t’ answer questions in a way that makes the context clear (no “yes” or “no” answers please!). Learning to listen is a skill. Even if it means you have to wait until the person is done speaking so you can ask them to repeat their answer again, incorporating context.
The exception: The one exception where it’s okay to interrupt your interviewee is if they’re speaking about something that’s off topic for your film and you know you won’t use the footage. Sometimes people (especially those not used to a lot of attention) can go on long tangents without realizing that you’re paying for crew every minute that you’re shooting and you probably only have a limited time to film with them. It’s okay to interrupt someone, tactfully, to refocus the conversation by interrupting and saying something like “I want to hear more about that when we turn off the camera. But for now, tell me about…”
Don’t forget to get “takes” of explaining key events
When you’re editing, it can be incredibly helpful to have multiple versions of people telling key stories or explaining critical concepts. Getting subjects to explain things multiple times may also have the added side benefit of exposing different aspects of the story, and get new details out of your interviewees.
The solution: For instance you might ask an interviewee to tell you the story of discovering they were adopted. They might give you a long winding explanation which is great but will be a lot of work to edit down to a succinct explanation. Afterwards they give you their natural answer, you might say “That was great. Now can you tell me the gist of that again, but a lot shorter? We need to have a choice for the edit so a compact version of what you said will really help us.”
Don’t interview someone without building any rapport with them first
You don’t need to make friends with your film subjects. But if you want to get a good interview performance out of them, it helps massively to build some trust and a personable relationship with them first. Especially if you’re asking them about sensitive subjects like their own personal stories. But it’s also useful to build a rapport with your film subjects even if they’re “only” an expert on the subject matter because they may be nervous about being interviewed or nervous about public speaking.
The solution: Doing a pre-interview over the phone or meeting with them in person a few days before the interview (possibly as part of a “location scout” if you’re interviewing them at home or their office) can help build rapport. Try to be warm with your interviewee, and reassure them that the story you’re trying to tell here will be so much stronger with them in it. Telling them that “they are the expert” for this story, no matter what kind of story it is (even if it’s a personal story about one of their life experiences) can help too.
It can also help to slip into conversation like “oh I want to ask you about that during the interview!” or “this is something I really want to hear your opinion on when we do the interview.” If you show enthusiasm for telling the story and show that you look up to them as an expert on their own experience or their part of the story, it will help. You can also try to find areas where you share common ground with the interviewee by making small talk.
Don’t forget to ask your interviewee to define jargon
Sometimes an interview subject may use obscure technical terms that you’ll understand because you’ve done lots of research but your viewers may not know. There’s nothing worse than banging your head in the edit suite wishing you had a clip of someone explaining what a particular acronym stands for.
The solution: Ideally, you’d want to arrive to the interview with a list of concepts or ideas or acronyms you know you want your interviewee to define. Otherwise you can also make a list while the interview is taking place, noting each weird term as they say them, and ask them to quickly explain each one at the end of the interview. By the point you’re doing interviews you will already be much more knowledgable than the average viewer of your film will be. You may want to ask your camera crew if they had any questions or if there were any terms they didn’t understand at the end of the interview, because their level of knowledge might be similar to the average viewer. Similarly, if your interviewee mentions people’s names who aren’t appearing in your film, you’ll want to get a quick soundbite of them explaining who the person is.
Don’t forget to ask the interviewee if they have anything else to add
Sometimes an interviewee will have something bubbling inside of themselves that they want to share but feel intimidated on camera to bring it up when you don’t end up asking about it.
The solution: After you run out of questions for your interviewee, ask them something like “Is there anything else you’d like to add? What did I forget to ask you about?” It’s also a great idea to ask your camera crew and anyone else in the room if there’s anything they didn’t understand or wanted to hear more about or any other questions they had. Sometimes a boom pole operator will have the best question, or a production assistant might have the dumbest question which actually leads to a very useful soundbite.