Ken Burns stopped.
The legendary documentarian typically plows forward with the relentless tenacity of a cragged New Englander picking rocks from a bony potato field and arranging them in an ordered wall. After making 30 or so films and defining a genre with a gift for reflecting our best and worst selves back to us in the gently poignant style that has made him a cultural institution, Burns has now meticulously plotted out his next decade of projects. He speaks in carefully crafted run-on sentences that mesmerize as they meander, delivered as if the very ticking of the clock depended on his delivery of precise information.
But a response made Ken Burns hit pause. Once.
“I was interviewing Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow, for our 18-and-a-half-hour series on baseball that came out in ’94,” said the director. The famous PBS project, Baseball, spanned eight intermissions, one for every break between innings. “And I have been in front of a lot of extraordinary people who have made very extraordinary statements, who have made my films what they are. But Rachel made me cry, talking about the grief she felt after Jackie passed at so young an age—53 years old.
“She told me how she had carried, wandering from room to room, a photograph of him stealing home—and for the first time ever, I sat up. There were tears streaming down my cheek. I looked around and everyone else on the crew was crying too, and I just had to shut down mid-roll… it was something I had never done before, or since.”
Those are the moments that all of us in the documentary business live to unveil. But how?
“You start by trying to pick up on your subject’s immediate interest,” says filmmaker, journalist and master interviewer Daphne Barak, who has traversed the globe for the past quarter century in pursuit of in-depth on-camera conversations. “It begins with small talk. Then I start peeling the layers until there is something new and exciting in the air—something which is a revelation for me, but sometimes also a true moment for the interviewee. It can be about facts being revealed for the first time, or dealing with a certain feeling for the first time. There is this climax, which is hard to describe, that both the interviewee and myself—and therefore the audience—can share.”
It’s not difficult, when pointing a camera at a subject, to instantly recognize a special moment as it happens. Audiences, too, know the magic when they see it. Yet eliciting those certain responses in a way that inspires ticket buyers and underwriters to come back—or, in Burns’s case, watch for hours on end—requires a skill set, discipline and sixth sense shared by few.
“What makes a great interview?” I asked that question of talents from Academy Award-winners Burns and Errol Morris, to Sundance darlings Kirby Dick and Ondi Timoner, as well as a new entry to the documentary game, Barak, who is betting that her penchant for scoring sit-downs with heads of state and Hollywood A-Listers will soon transfer to public television and the silver screen. Despite the diversity of that line-up, I discovered a (mostly) common ground of collective wisdom which beginners and seasoned professionals would do well to emulate.
“People express themselves in radically different ways. It’s almost like a fingerprint,” said Morris, who has made a living behind the camera for nearly 40 years. “No two filmmakers approach it in exactly the same way, yet we’re all after essentially the same thing.”
1. Find Your Way In
Whatever the premise of your documentary—whether you’re creating historical reenactments, enlightening the masses about an environmental or social atrocity, or playing a camera-carrying private dick conducting an in-your-face investigation—you first need to figure out how you’ll score your interviews.
“You’ve got to find your way in, some way, somehow,” says Timoner, the only two-time winner of the Grand Jury prize for Best Documentary at Sundance (for DIG! and We Live in Public), and director of the new film Brand: A Second Coming, which opened South by Southwest in mid-March. “Without the interview there is no movie.”
In 2007, Timoner approached cult leader Raimund Melz for an interview for her 2007 documentary Join Us. She had already spoken with three families attempting to break from his grasp, including children who had been savagely beaten under the justification of Melz’s twisted distortion of the Book of Revelations.
“I felt like I was meeting a monster,” said Timoner, who led Melz to believe she was simply there to discuss his 2002 book, Revelations Simplified. “I did have to play it off. I did feel like I was deceiving him to some extent, but at the same time I had real questions about his view of religion. By getting down into the details with him, he admitted that he felt you needed to beat the devil out of your children; otherwise they were going straight to hell. It didn’t feel great when I was doing it. It felt dangerous, too. Before I went in, I told my mom that if she didn’t hear from me within three hours, she should call the cops.
“It’s not that we’re vigilantes, but sometimes—without outright lying—we need to use whatever elements of the truth we have at our disposal to work our way into those situations. In the case of Join Us, I felt a movie needed to be made, because cults were becoming more and more of an epidemic.”
2. Anonymous or Up-Front?
With your interviewee chosen, whether by mutual agreement or by ambush, a key consideration is your own role in the interview proceedings. Will you be an active or passive presence?
Morris, Timoner, Dick and Barak have all made a conspicuous decision to keep themselves front and center in their films. Without Dick’s all-out, on-camera pursuit of the Motion Picture Association of America’s anonymous ratings team, This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) might not have had nearly the same authenticity. For Barak, her own unmistakable persona has become part of a personal brand she’s been able to sell to television executives in more than 50 markets worldwide. When she banters with her subjects she sends signals, to both the interviewee and the audience, that she’s enjoying a relaxed conversation—and they should be, too.
For Burns, the decision to remain completely off camera evolved from his early training.
“I was very moved and tempted by a good deal of what was happening in the 1960s with self-referential filmmakers like Ed Pincus and others, who were showing themselves on camera,” he says. “Yet art is also discipline, and I had just chosen to not do that, so I accepted the limitation of that discipline to remove myself from it. It’s part of the tradition that I came from, taught by social documentary still photographers who were more photographers than they were filmmakers.”
3. Are You Friends, Foes, or—?
Embedded in Burns’ signature style is a remarkable lack of the very thing that drives many other documentarians: a level of confrontation.
“I’m not Mike Wallace; I’m not holding their last 10 years of tax returns to challenge my subjects,” says Burns, for whom an upcoming two-part, four-hour film on Jackie Robinson constitutes a “short biography.” “I’m grateful that they’ve given the time; they’ve given the time because they’re willing to talk.”
For a modern-day muckraker like Kirby Dick, the task can be exponentially more difficult. In The Invisible War (2012) and this year’s The Hunting Ground, both about the American epidemic of rape, he encountered a vast, sophisticated culture of denial and evasion—even as he and film partner Amy Ziering spoke to hundreds of victims who were facing their own on-camera fears.
“[Administrators and faculty] were afraid that if they spoke out honestly about what went on at a school, they would be let go because they would be branded as troublemakers,” says Dick. “Then you have survivors of sexual assault. Their reluctance stems from their fear that if they talk about this, somehow it will profoundly hurt them.
“We say, ‘Your comfort is most important. You can say whatever you like. If you say something and you decide you don’t want it in the film, we won’t put it in the film. You can stop and start, you can go into as much or as little detail as you’d like. You have complete control of this interview.’ I think that really works.”
In other situations, however, giving an interviewee too much control creates its own issues. For her new film about Russell Brand, Timoner wrestled final cut privileges from the comedian, who ultimately boycotted the film when it opened SXSW on March 13.
“Remember that we don’t work for the person sitting across from us. We work for the truth; we work for the movie,” said Timoner. “If you slip and start working for the person you’re interviewing, then you’re not making a documentary. It becomes a different animal.”