When shooting interviews for documentaries, films, television, etc; producers will usually compile a list of questions for the subject, many times with marginal background on the subject themselves. These cookie cutter questions will result in uninspired and lifeless interviews. California Radio Personality Colin Marshall suggests ditching the note cards and having a conversation instead.
I, as did every super-novice interviewer except maybe Michael Silverblatt, started out by scripting elaborate sheets of questions ahead of time. This is death. Work from a question sheet, and you kill any chance of organic exchange, of real, vital intellectual back-and-forth. You just tick off the boxes and grind awkwardly forth.
As Jack Paar told Dick Cavett, “Kid, don’t do interviews. That’s clipboards, and David Frost, and what’s your pet peeve and favorite movie. Make it a conversation.” I once thought of this as a dichotomy between two equal and opposite hosting strategies. In the “facilitated speech,” the host’s goal is simply to elicit maximally interesting and detailed responses from the guest, minimizing their own presence. In the “conversation,” the host both contributes and seeks contribution, potentially even mirroring the guest’s role.
The article lists many great points and examples, but one in particular resonated with me:
Get to the human. And get past the boilerplate. The boilerplate is your enemy. If you’re talking to a media veteran, someone who’s been interviewed countless times before, they will have boilerplate. Behind this boilerplate is a fascinating human being, so you’ll need to get around it or punch straight through it to produce so much as a reasonably interesting conversation. Your only tools are your questions.
This has actually been a recurring problem in the productions I’ve been working on for years. I mainly work on action sports films and documentaries. This results in us working with the same athletes/subjects year after year. In many cases, these guys repeat the same stories over and over again. They can only tell their personal story so many different ways. Many have almost memorized their stories word for word. In one example that comes to mind, the only thing that changes in his story are the sponsors, as it’s retold in interview after interview. These films and videos have a pretty dedicated following, so you can almost guarantee that the audience has heard this all before too.
So how to change it up? During this article, I kept thinking about Jon Stewart, who I think is one of the greatest interviewers today. Post-Daily Show, I could see him hosting hour-long interviews a la Charlie Rose. Stewart is incredibly informed on all his guests. If they have a book out, he’s read it. He’s also very good at following the lead of the interviewee (as the article suggests), and I’ve seen him just tear up his note cards numerous times because the interview has gone off on a great tangent that’s more interesting than his pre-written questions would have gone.
I also couldn’t agree more with the final line of the article…