Revision: at the request of Mr. Pray we revised this post a bit and changed the title. He is planning to write a book in which he will expound on these techniques and we look forward to that. 
The St. Louis International Film Festival hosted a talk by documentary filmmaker Doug Pray called “Master Class: Documentary Interviewing Techniques” this past weekend. If you’re not familiar with Pray, let me assure you that he has made some amazing documentary films like Hype, Surfwise and Art & Copy among others (IMDB) and if you happen to be lucky enough to live in one of the cities where his current film Levitated Mass is screening you should go see it. Here is the trailer:

In addition to being a talented filmmaker, Pray is an engaging speaker and teacher. The masterclass was informative and insightful. He confirmed many of my own ideas about conducting a good documentary Interview and articulated some things that, as a filmmaker myself, I already instinctively did (but haven’t seen them described) but also introduced a couple of new things that I plan to try out. So this list is sort of Pray’s list as interpreted by Bill Streeter. And like any filmmaking advice–these aren’t really rules. They’re just some things that work for Pray and that I have found many of these ideas to work for me. There isn’t any single way to do any of this stuff of course and if you know of some better ideas than these please share them in the comments. Also sorry about the “listicle” post, but I promise this isn’t fluff. I honestly think a list is the best way to format the notes from his talk.

1. Know your audience and your purpose

Essential knowledge going into an interview:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the purpose of the interview?

This seems obvious, but it bears saying anyway. You need to know these things to know what to ask. It also keeps your questions focused. Of course you need to research your subject before hand too, but don’t feel like you need to be an expert. Often simple naive questions are the best.

2. Sound is more important than the picture

Documentary interviews are about audio more than anything else, the visual of a person speaking is totally secondary. The point of an interview is about what a subject says, the stories they tell. Everything else is secondary. When you edit an interview just listen to the dialogue and cut it almost as if it were a radio interview. I often will hide the picture and just listen to the words when I cut an Interview. I constantly ask: “what is really important here?” or “what does the speaker say that is relevant to the entire film?” or “is there a surprise here or new information?” Worry about the visuals later. Often, in many documentaries you might only briefly see the interview subjects speaking on camera even though they may be talking throughout a much longer portion of the film.

3. Eyelines

Think about how you’re trying to portray your subject. Are you aggrandizing them? By looking up at them? Diminishing them by making them small in the frame or looking down at them? Or are they equals with you by looking at he camera dead on? If you’re using a second angle what is it showing? Are you doing a profile? Why? (A side note here: I personally have a problem with the profile shot–not only is it not an attractive angle on almost any subject, but it kills the eyeline that can take an audience out of the moment). A good technique for getting an expressive face on camera is to sit close to the camera so both the subjects eyes are visible to the audience. Some filmmakers, like Errol Morris, use special apparatus called an “Interrotron” to shoot their interviews with the subject looking directly into the camera (and thus directly at the audience.) This can be very powerful too. But how ever you do it, make sure you’re consistent within the interview. If your subject doesn’t know where to look they can come off as being untrustworthy or unstable.

4. Make sure your Subject is Comfortable

Here are some tips to making your subject comfortable which is key to getting a good interview. Pray says he directs his interview subjects the same way he would direct an actor. Make them comfortable and build trust and a rapport with them. And if you think about it, that’s so true, an interview is a performance just as in any other film. So with that in mind, here are some way you would treat a performer so they will deliver a great performance:

  • Make Small Talk
    Make small talk while the camera is rolling. Don’t ask serious questions up front (this is covered more below in number 8.) This helps to warm your subject up.
  • Be courteous
    Doing an interview is a big ask and they’re doing you a big favor. Act like it. Being courteous isn’t just basic human kindness, it helps to ingratiate you to the subject which will only make your job of getting a great interview easier.
  • Ask for the release last
    Nothing puts people on guard like signing paperwork. Do it last.

5. Order your Questions

The order of your questions can have a big effect on your interview. Basic simple questions can help relax the subject and get them warmed up for the bigger more emotional questions to come later. So start with simple obvious questions “what day is it” “who are you” “where are we?” etc. and then move on to progressively more difficult questions or emotionally challenging questions. Opening with the tough questions is almost always a bad idea.

6. Do not ask the subject to restate the questions in their answers

Doug thinks this is a terrible idea and I couldn’t agree more. It’s just such an unnatural thing to do and asking a subject to do this can make your interview even more nerve-raking for the subject. Asking them to speak unnaturally is the worst thing you can do for their comfort level. So  then the question becomes, how do you deal with the situation where the subject tells a great story but never really says what that thing is? Doug’s solution is to simply follow-up by asking “what are we talking about again?” You can always dialogue splice that answer into place later.

Bonus Tip! (from me)

This isn’t something Doug discussed at all, but something I’ve found to be helpful is to form your questions in leading ways like “tell me the story about …” or “explain how this happened …” so for instance if simply you ask “What did you have for breakfast?” The answer will almost always come back as a single word like “pancakes” or “eggs” etc. But if you ask “explain what you had for breakfast this morning” or “tell me about your breakfast this morning” you’re more likely to get a story.

That’s it. I hope you enjoyed our recounting of some of what Doug Pray had to say about the art of the interview. It really is something that requires a skill and a well thought out approach. We hope this helped you think more deeply about how you do them yourself. And if you have some additional or better ideas feel free to tell us about them in the comments.