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Old February 8th, 2010, 02:50 PM   #1
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Staying on target with documentary interviews..

How do you guys go about staying on target with your interviews? For instance lets say you set out to make a film about the invention/history of the "sprocket". You do your research, write up some outlines/treatment and work on interview contacts in order to put your script together. You would like to find some people who worked in the early days of the sprocket industry, perhaps people working in the sprocket industry today, maybe the author who wrote "the sprocket: building of an industrial empire", etc. However as you start to make contacts with the historical widget society (which at first seem helpful), but then you start to get pushed into taking interview/contacts which don't directly apply. Perhaps they are pushing you to feature interviews on the making of the "cog" instead. You politely thank them but explain that you are focusing on the sprocket-side of the widget industry, but then you sense resistance... I have had this problem a number of times now...

How do you go about staying on target and dealing with these situations? Has anyone had experience with this? I feel like I'm having the terms of interviews dictated to me, or controlled by an outside party for whatever reason. It is very frustrating and I try to be more direct but then I sense a resistance on their part, and an unwillingness to assist me any further... I'm generally quite good with people so I don't think I'm being overly gruff with them, etc.

Any advice is appreciated...
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Old February 8th, 2010, 07:49 PM   #2
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Sometimes you just have to let them get it out of their system. Other times it may be that they are focused on current events & issues, and asking them about historical things either bores them, or is outside of their current knowledge base. For example, asking a 25 year old videographer about cameras 20 years ago probably isn't going elicit a great informative answer. So you might have to re-phrase your question to give their answer perspective (i.e. Things used to be that way, and now we do them this way, what do you think of that? how do you see the evolution of the industry? based on that, where do you think it's going? etc.) Part of the getting good answers is to keep the interviewee in their "safety answer zone", then throw them a curve ball once in awhile to keep things interesting. At the beginning of an interview I let the interviewee lead, and just follow so I can get an idea of what they are really interested, passionate, and knowledgeable about. Then later on, I'll loop back and work in their previous topics and try to connect them better with the point of the interview (if there is one).

My favorite interviewer is Charlie Rose, watch a few of his shows online and see him wrangle some of his more difficult guest, fascinating to watch if you're into that sort of thing.
"Ultimately, the most extraordinary thing, in a frame, is a human being." - Martin Scorsese
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Old February 9th, 2010, 03:25 PM   #3
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When you are asking someone to sit down and do an interview - quite often you MUST allow them to 'dictate the terms' of the interview... at least SOME of them.

Working around their schedule and perhaps at THEIR location is often something we must do. We'd like a full two hours, they are only going to give us twenty minutes. We want to talk about Sprockets but they don't 'do' sprockets anymore, they are much more interested in WIDGETS...

The point being - you need an interview - and they have some relevance to your topic. Sometimes it's what they DON'T SAY in answer to a question that can be a powerfull moment. "You want to talk about that? " - Teary eyes, and a shake of the head. "Where were you during the great Sprocket recall of 87?" - "I TOLD YOU NOT TO TALK ABOUT THAT!"

Blindside 'gotcha' journalism is an easy - cheap shot - and I don't advocate it. ESPECIALLY if you have to interview several 'sprocket moguls' - it's probably a small circle - if you screw over one -you're not likely to get an interview with another. So don't be too quick to burn those bridges.

"I wonder if you would mind speaking to that?" Is one of my favorite questions. It's not a directo interrogatory -it leaves the terms of their comments to the speaker - and opens the door to follow up questions.

"I know the great Sprocket recall is a dark time in the industry, but I also know that you were a junior officer at the time - the atmosphere must have been intense - I WONDER IF YOU WOULD MIND SPEAKING TO THAT?"

This is really where the skills of the interviewer are paramount. Starting from the outside and working in. "What were sprockets like when you were a kid? compared to now? "

Asking the same question, in different forms can work too - but you have to be carefull not to annoy the subject.

Good luck.
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Old February 10th, 2010, 12:20 PM   #4
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Thanks to both of you for taking the time to reply. You've given me some things to think about as I move forward. I guess one of my main problems isn't the interview itself, it's 3rd parties dictating the terms. It's not so much a scheduling thing, but I can't quite put my finger on the problem. I think the trick for me is probably talking directly to the people themselves. As whenever a 3rd party is involved it causes issues (controlling access, frustrating progress, etc). Maybe the key is to be better with the research so I'm not needing 3rd parties (as most of the individual people I interview are very happy to participate but for whatever reason that 3rd party frustrates things).

Like for instance if you wanted to interview retired execs from the sprocket company. You could go the easy way and contact the companies and ask if they have connections (or the sprocket historical society) or you could do the leg work yourself and send a letter directly to the retired exec requesting their interview (researching old press releases from the "hay-day" of the sprocket industry in order to find names and then using a people finder to find their address). Using the historical society could have it's benefits but you may also run into problems with being granted access.
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Old February 10th, 2010, 04:25 PM   #5
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It seems like you are talking about quite a particular example ie by making a film you are effectively helping to write the history of the sprocket industry.
So all the players are going to want to try to get that made in the best possible light, the way they see it. A political minefield perhaps (with a small p).
The best idea I can come up with is to try to interview everyone. Or at least the majority. If you can stomach it and find the time. Be inclusive not exclusive.
That way you are maybe more likely to get co-operation and the interviews you want.
You may even get another take on the film that you hadn't anticipated.
And then you can decide what to 'leave on the cutting room floor'.
Nobody will know what is going to be in it until you have finished the film.
As long as your are trying to be objective and open-minded I don't see anything unethical about this approach.
How does that sound?
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Old February 15th, 2010, 07:38 PM   #6
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sorry: what does sprocket mean?

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Old February 16th, 2010, 06:27 PM   #7
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@Marcus: A sprocket is a mechanical part - like a gear (usually looks like a wheel but with teeth or grooved edges - often found in clocks/watches. The sprocket and the cog were famous in the "Jetsons" cartoon series - Cogswell Cogs and Spacely Sprockets.

@Richard: I think that sounds like very good advice and I appreciate it (it certainly wouldn't hurt to shoot extra material and who knows I may need it later - my focus has changed a couple times). I think you hit the nail on the head as far as the political aspect (lots of people/advocates for their specific component of the story). My only real fear with doing extra interviews is possibly misleading people into thinking they will be part of the documentary (as they seem to get quite excited at the prospect), or when I have to travel to do these interviews... As I'm generally working from a very limited budget (as most of us probably are). However, if possible I think I will do just as you suggested and shoot all the interviews offered to me and worry about what is included or not during editing. Most people should realize that not everything shot will make it into the doc.
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Old February 16th, 2010, 07:05 PM   #8
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When I do an interview - part of putting the subject at ease - is to tell them that if they sneeze or make a mistake or lose their train of thought - they can start over. BECAUSE IT WILL BE EDITED LATER. Most people are savvy enough to understand that, and it makes them more comfortable about taking their time to speak, or to speak more freely. WHEN I MENTION THIS - I also mention that "We won't use the whole interview - just the parts that are most relevant anyway." This helps to cover the fact that out of a thirty minute interview - I might use fifteen seconds of THEIR comment about how important the sprocket was in that time and place.
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Old February 17th, 2010, 08:25 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Marcus Martell View Post
sorry: what does sprocket mean?

Apart from being found on other mechanical devices, they're also found on film equipment. The holes in film are called sprocket holes, these are where the teeth on the sprocket wheels pull the film at a constant speed.

It's common for interviews to be shot but not used in the final production. This could be for various reasons, but just because you interview someone you don't actually have to use them. For example another interviewee might give a much stronger answer, or it could be a very weak interview that doesn't add anything to the production.
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Old February 17th, 2010, 05:24 PM   #10
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Marcus the word 'sprocket' as used in this case is simply a generic word for an imaginary product. Like saying "Gizmo" or "Thiggamajig". It's often used in business discussions as a placeholder 'product'. "Let's say your company produces SPROCKETS or WIDGETS. You may need someone to ship them - that's what MY company does..." It's simply an English idiom. Not sure of the direct correlation in Spanish.
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Old February 18th, 2010, 08:56 AM   #11
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I always like to start off with light personal talk to get them at ease. A lot of people are just nervous or don't necessarily trust you. I think the goal is to make them forget they are being filmed.
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Old July 14th, 2010, 12:23 AM   #12
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If you are making an objective and probing film, you should listen to them because you will often find new nuggets of info. You always need to be ready to change your focus or look deeper into something. Very few topics are as you think you see them.

But then for all the others......

Sit them down let them talk until they run out of ideas then ask them what ever you want. Most people have a lot less to say than they think.

Don't ever refer to what will and wont be in the doc. #1 They wont remember what they told you. #2 if they signed the release form which they should have, it's none of their beezwax anyway and #3 They don't care, they just want to feel like someone is listening.

Which leads to......

People who want to steer you typically are the most nervous or have the least to offer. So be wary. The number of people whom I have been told are "Great Talent/talkers/characters" are in fact pretty droll and boring or have no real idea about the topic but just can't get past their ego to appoint or suggest a real expert.

All these truths are subject to change without notice or reason.
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Old September 1st, 2010, 05:10 PM   #13
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For me, producing a documentary or extended feature is all about 'Agenda Setting'.
By that I mean you need to set the agenda for the production and have a clear idea of what you want and where you are going. That's where the prep or research phase comes in.
I tend not to use the interview or the camera as a research tool.
I try to be very focused about what I film in terms of interviews - I guess that comes from years of being an on-the-road news reporter when long interviews meant lots of transcribing and editing.
If you prepare thoroughly you'll know what sort of thing the interviewee will say - or what you want them to say - and you can focus on that.
Going out on a fishing expedition with the camera and shooting half-hour interviews when what you actually want is a couple of powerful comments just makes for a hard slog when it comes to editing and in my book smacks of lazy journalism or story-telling.
However, expect the unexpected. Be prepared to run with the interviewee if they are saying something surprising or unexpected.
The art of editing is just that - leaving stuff out. Anyone can film everything in the hope that 'something' happens. The skill I guess is being able to judge what not to film, or in an interview what not to ask. That way you end up focusing on what you, the producer, wants to focus on - and that way you are 'setting the agenda'.
(oh yeah, asking the right questions helps too...but I'll save my thoughts on that for another time!)

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