The Art of the Interview: 10 Essential Tenets of On-Camera Conversation

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4. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare—Then…

If there’s any cardinal rule about great interviewing, according to our panel, it’s this one: Make it a conversation. Find out absolutely everything you can about your subject; yes, even prepare a list of questions as part of that exercise. Then, when you sit down and the camera rolls, burn the list.

“It is not about a bunch of questions and answers,” said Barak, who has interviewed more than 300 vastly diverse subjects in the past two decades, from Mother Theresa and Prince Charles, Luciano Pavarotti, Hillary Clinton, to Charlton Heston, Mia Farrow, Bono, Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, and even Barak Obama’s grandmother. More often than not, she eschews standard formality in favor of friendly banter. “I believe in detailed research prior to the interview. Sometimes I ask my team to do it, even before I interview friends or people I have spent time with. Yet I never come with list of questions. I operate in front of the cameras like I would do over lunch.”

Ondi Timoner interviews Pastor Raimund Melz for her 2007 documentary Join Us. Courtesy of Interloper Films

5. Respond Organically

As with good acting, the filmmakers are in agreement that it’s imperative to actually listen, then react to what you hear.

“There are lots of interviews—usually interviews that I do not like—where the interviewer comes in with a list of questions,” said Morris, who is known to conduct filmed inquisitions across multiple days and weeks. “And he has a list of answers that he expects to hear. The interviewer isn’t there to learn. He’s there to hear what he already knows, or thinks he knows. If you already know what the person’s going to say, why bother interviewing them in the first place?

“As a result of careful listening, and responding to what I’m hearing, I’ve heard really surprising, amazing things that were completely unexpected. They range from Emily Miller’s admission that she had failed to pick Randall Adams in a police lineup (in 1998’s The Thin Blue Line), which was a very important element in overturning Adams’s conviction in Texas, to a whole range of amazing things that I could never have conceived of.”

6. Craft Questions that Open Doors

To capture those types of responses requires careful attention to the way questions are asked in the first place. That’s especially important to Burns, whose spoken voice is absent in the movie.

“Errol is among the best at being in the moment and asking the right question. His questions are in the movie, and that dynamic is a huge part of it,” said Burns. “My questions are never in it. So I have to design and ask those questions to elicit an answer that anticipates. If I say, ‘Do you like chocolate ice cream?’ and you say, ‘Yes,’ it doesn’t help me. But if you say, ‘I love chocolate ice cream and I remember a time when…,’ that’s all I’m looking for. How do you ask a question that doesn’t get a ‘No’ or a ‘Yes?’ How do you ask a question that opens them up, rather than providing an easy opportunity to answer and shut down?”

Kirby Dick keeps his schedule as open as his mind.

“Be prepared to let the interview go for a long time,” said the two-time Academy Award nominee (Twist of Faith, The Invisible War). “If I need to take it to two or three hours, I go ahead and do that. Because sometimes it takes that long for somebody to feel comfortable, to really trust you, or to get to a point where they feel like, ‘Yes, I’m going to say this, something that I didn’t really plan on saying when I first came.’”

7. Go for the Gray

As the questions are being crafted, it’s most important to think not just about the answers they might elicit, but what those answers might prove. Some found Morris’s 2013 film, The Unknown Known, unsatisfying because it failed to pin the debacle of the Iraq war squarely on Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration. But the compelling truth is rarely black and white, nor should we want it to be.

“Rumsfeld made me think very deeply about the nature of interviewing and an audience’s expectations of what an interview should achieve,” said Morris. “What do audiences want, as opposed to what audiences get? I myself initially wanted some deeper insight into so many questions. ‘Why did we go to war? Was it really necessary?’ The whole nature of the story shifted as I was doing these interviews with him, moving from the war question to ‘What is going on in there? Does he ever even bother to think about what he is saying?’ At times I felt he was like a squid that lays down a thick cloud of ink to prevent anyone from ever seeing anything.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris’ 2013 The Unknown Known. Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

“Part of the goal if you’re doing any kind of interview or profile is to capture that person—not in a simple way, but in a complex way—and their response to the world. The Unknown Known achieves that. Rumsfeld possesses an almost overwhelming vacuity and arrogance. My movie may not solve the war question, but to me it suggests something far more terrifying: that we were controlled by a group of self-satisfied, narcissistic people who didn’t really bother to look at anything. As such, I think the movie is one of the very best things I’ve ever done.”

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