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Old April 29th, 2007, 11:50 AM   #1
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Interview questions: pre or post?

First post. I love reading this board.

This may be a stupid question and it really doesn't fit into any 'box' as far as categories go. But I know quite a few of you are experienced shooters here.

Question:

If you're doing interviews for a documentary job, would you give the questions to the interviewee BEFORE you have them go on camera? I'm just thinking that I might get some better responses if I don't blindside the person with questions they didn't know were coming and didn't have time to think about. The other side of this though is am I missing some of that spontaneity on camera by allowing the person to know what's going to be asked?

In my situation, I have a list of 15-20 questions I want to ask several of the documentary main characters. Many of the questions require a bit of deep thinking, as the answers are not black & white. The idea is to give the audience some insight into the minds of the characters. I'm afraid if I just ask them the questions on camera, it's going to either (a) waste a lot of tape or (b) they'll answer quickly, knowing the camera is running, without really thinking hard about 'their' answer.

I don't know what's general practice and what has worked best for some of you, so I thought I'd ask. Thanks in advance for any advice.
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Old April 29th, 2007, 03:05 PM   #2
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If its stuff that requires thought and you aren't doing an ambush style news thing then give the folks the questions in advance.

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Old April 29th, 2007, 03:07 PM   #3
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I've been doing documentary form since 1981 and I've never given the questions in advance. I've been asked on a few occasions, but have been able to talk the subject out of it. I believe that to do so gives the interviewee too much time to come up with a pat answer or to over think it. Since it's not live you have a great deal of opportunity to edit. Also I avoid specific questions. Instead I use phrases and terms such as "tell me about..." or "describe what happened..." On a few I occasions I've given interviewees a general description of what I want to cover. In one instance an interview subject insisted on reading from a teleprompter. I did want to do so, but we needed her appearance. We placed the prompter to one side of the camera and it worked fairly well.
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Old April 29th, 2007, 09:17 PM   #4
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I know makers who feel strongly both ways about it. A technique that is sort of in-between giving the questions ahead of time or asking them cold is to "pre-interview" them, if you have time. Talking off-camera, beforehand, gets the subject into the mode, and gives you an indication of what to expect so your actual taped interview might be more conversational and more revealing. You also might learn something you weren't expecting that can have a big influence on the piece or take it in a different direction.
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Old April 30th, 2007, 05:35 AM   #5
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I would agree with Benjamin. In fact I have a project next month in which I'll preinterview subjects to judge their attitudes and enthusiasm for the subject matter.
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Old April 30th, 2007, 09:55 AM   #6
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Very good advice guys. Thanks. I know the subjects personally, so I'm thinking about just giving them some general ideas to think over. That will get them thinking about the right areas, and keep the spontaneity of the moment on camera.
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Old April 30th, 2007, 10:09 AM   #7
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Great question, wish we had spot here on DVinfo where people could post questions like this
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Old April 30th, 2007, 10:37 AM   #8
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Moved to Open DV Discussion from Sony V1.

I suppose we could use a Techniques for Documentaries forum if there's enough interest.
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Old April 30th, 2007, 10:52 AM   #9
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Sounds like a good idea. I know there are a lot of techniques to be shared.
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Old April 30th, 2007, 12:43 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Adam Tirapelle View Post
... I don't know what's general practice and what has worked best for some of you, ...
I don't shoot docs, but I sometimes do interviews at weddings, (not my favorite thing, but if the client wants it...) for what it's worth, I'm looking for the emotion that goes with the response, so I try not to give any type of advance notice.

Just my 2 cents...

Mark
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Old April 30th, 2007, 01:48 PM   #11
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I do corporate work, not documentary - that said, I've got to tell you that you should expect that the approach you take to this will HUGELY determine the nature of the results you get.

I'm given "corporate approved" quesitions all the time - designed to highlight the stuff the company WANTS to say. When you're working on corporate video, you're being paid to successfully comminicate the corporate message. So the subjects are often coached with the corporate approved answers.

If the corporation is lame, or corrupt of makes crappy stuff - it's a nightmare because they have an interest in hiding the truth and "spinning" situations.

But you know, maybe I'm just lucky, but I hardly ever see that. Most of my clients, and happily, my largest clients reflect this MOST - honestly try to put out quality products and services at competative prices. They spend a lot of corporate money trying to communicate to the ranks to do the RIGHT thing, take care of the customers, and treat people - in and out of the company - with fairness and integrity.

So while my interviews often start off with a list of over analyzed, poorly worded, "corporate approved" questions. The trick is to take that list and make the questions more relavent and HUMAN. To get people talking with passion, rather than reading the corporate line.

I think this is the essence of ALL good interviewing - getting beyond the mere words and ideas and getting into the FEELIINGS of whoever's talking.

You can only do that by establishing RAPPORT with the subject. That's a stew of attentiveness, body language, expression, and high-level listening skills.

The truth is that at heart, everyone wants to be heard and to feel that someone is listening.

Good interviewing is learning how to make people feel comfortable about talking and then GETTING OUT OF THEIR WAY while they do.

For what it's worth.
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Old April 30th, 2007, 01:53 PM   #12
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Victor Milt (in his DVD on directing) has an interesting approach in that he asks questions designed to provoke a response in the interviewee. i.e. he was doing a doc on cowboys in Florida, and asks questions like... (loosely paraphrasing here):
"Suppose someone from the city were to tell you that the city is a much better place to live. What would you say to that person?"

And the interviewee gave a response saying something along the lines that they like the countryside better so their kids don't have to grow up around drugs, gangs, etc. This is a more interesting response than asking a lighter question.

2- Sometimes a good question is "Why?" If you feel that they did not answer your question fully / didn't really express how they feel, then this is a good question.

3- I also find that it's better if you ask a single thing in a question (not two or more), since they can only answer one thing at a time and they won't cop out by answering the easier question. You also don't need really long preambles in your question... let the interviewee talk, not the interviewer.
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Old April 30th, 2007, 10:06 PM   #13
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Two things to throw into the discussion...

First is kinda what Glenn said about Victor Milt, but if I have established a good rapport with the interviewee off camera, or at least they know I'm on their side, I'll asked questions that would normally be considered inflammatory. If your interviewing someone even mildly passionate, it really get them going. But, I've found the rapport/trust here is very important.

Second, I usually try to be well informed about what I'm interviewing a person about (I think that kinda goes without saying), but I often ask the interviewee to talk to me as if I don't know a thing about what's going on. "If you met me at a dinner party and I didn't know a thing about _____, how would you explain ____?" I usually get some really detailed answers that yield good footage from that one, but I often have to go back and say, "Great answer, that's exactly what I was looking for. Now tell me the same thing -- only shorter." Asking them the same question twice, once long answer and once short answer, can be a godsend when you hit the editing bay.

Just my bit...
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Old May 3rd, 2007, 07:36 PM   #14
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FYI: An excerpt of Victor Milt's DVD is up on Youtube (check the second half, it has the first half of the provoking question segment).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K15cViImOuY
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Old May 4th, 2007, 03:37 PM   #15
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Interview Questions: pre or post?

Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos, by Barry Hampe (Henry Holt, 1997), was very helpful to me on this subject (specifically, Chapter 21). Practical, ethical and down-to-earth.
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