9 Tips for Shooting a Documentary Interview - Raindance

These are meant as guidelines not rules. Everyone has their own interview style that works for them. But it is good to keep them in mind.

1. Be prepared, but adaptable

This is a point of contention among documentary filmmakers. Some filmmakers prepare a list of questions to give them direction. Others prefer to wing it, feeling limited by the rigidity of pre-set questions. However either way, it is important to have a general concept for your interview. This depends not only on the type of filmmaker you are but also on the tone of the documentary.

2. Avoid yes and no questions.

Ask questions that will open your subjects up and force them to elaborate.

For example rather than “Do you enjoy painting?” ask “What made you want to paint?” or “What first inspired you to pick up the paintbrush?” This invites your subject to tell a story rather than simply answer a question.

Some interviewers prefer to avoid questions all together and simply use statements such as “Tell me about your art…” or observations that keep the conversation rolling, “That must have been incredible to be part of…” It feels more natural than asking a series of questions, which can make an interviewee feel nervous and on the spot.

3. Do not do pre-interviews

Make sure you keep the questions you want to ask for when the camera is rolling. Otherwise your interviewee might tell you an incredible story off camera and when asked to repeat it might be unnatural and forced.

4. Try to avoid speaking or exclaiming out

This may seem obvious but it is a natural reaction to make noises when in a conversation especially when you are trying to make your subject forget it’s an interview. There is nothing more annoying than trying to edit out ‘um’ and ‘oh right’ over and over again. The footage is more stilted and ruins the flow. To make your subject feel comfortable communicate with a smile or a nod.

5. Be energetic, curious and animated

The interviewee will respond to your charisma and feed off of it. This will motivate them to continue with their story, knowing that they have a receptive audience.

6. Keep filming when the interview is over

Often you can get your best shots post-interview. The pressure is off and the conversation might continue with your interviewee more relaxed, that mights be when you get your best footage. If it was a really emotional and tense interview it is interesting to see the subject wind down and regain their normal composure.

7. Make sure there are no background noises

Less about the interview technique but just as important. Noises that your ears are able to block out will be picked up clearly on the microphone and can block out what he interviewee is saying or puncture a cathartic moment. The coffee machines and blenders in a cafe are not your friends, or the honking from nearby cars.

8. Embrace the pauses

Pauses are not necessarily awkward or unwelcome. Some of the most powerful interviews have long silences where interviewer, interviewee and audience reflect on what has just been said.

With a difficult subject, reluctant to share, it can act as a subtle power-play.

9. Follow your instinct

Each person is different. You may have to draw them out of their shell by being sharing some of your stories first. Or make sure they do not veer too far from the original theme/subject (although if you have the time, such tangents might bring up some gems).  Also don’t shy away from tough questions. If the subject is reluctant to answer, don’t push it too hard. Maybe approach the question in a different way. It will seem less probing and more like a choice they made.

But all these rules can be broken to great effect as long as you are aware of them. Keep in mind the type of film you want to make. Some filmmakers may want to interact with their subjects, draw attention to the camera and to the documentary being made. Then the interviews tend to be more conversational. Others want to stay concealed, allowing the attention to focus entirely on their subject.

Learn how to make documentaries that make a splash. Find out about the Documentary Foundation Certificate