In documentary filmmaking questions are king.
I could write for days on this subject. Interviewing people is a beautiful privilege. Recording someone is transformational. Leading people to their emotions is not only healthy but it serves the deeper hunger that we all have to connect. It is such important work.
Stories matter. People matter. I believe that if people told more of their stories to one another that we could create a more compassionate world. Anytime one can humanize an issue, we are one step closer to creating understanding across cultural, social and economic boundary lines. Have you ever asked the homeless man you pass every day to tell you his story? If you did, how might that change your view of that person? This is why I love my work. I get to ask these questions. I get to be curious for a living.
Storytelling is an ancient art. We have evidence of it's impact on ancient societies through language, art and artifacts. Ancient cultures passed down their traditions through oral storytelling. I think stories are part of what makes us human. It is a form of expression. We love storytelling so much we have made whole industries out of them. Film, photography, social media are all bi-products of our desire to tell stories. Stories start with questions.
In screenwriting class my instructor, the kick ass female director Jennifer Reeder that you should totally look up, always told us that if you feel stuck, start with a question. "What if?" If that didn't lead you anywhere, become an expert eavesdropper. Listen to people. Ask questions.
When I first set out to be "filmmaker," I thought I was going to make narrative films. Before that I thought I was going to be an "animator." I wanted to make disney movies. It took years for me to arrive at the conclusion that what I actually wanted to do was to tell people's stories. It was the stories that inspired me. When I arrived at working on documentaries for clients I discovered that I felt most alive when I was asking questions and letting my curiosity guide me toward getting to know someone. It just so happened that I had a wonderful product of that curiosity in the form of a film.
So ask questions. Ask lots of them!
Then think about the kind of questions you are asking. They set the tone for your film and your relationship with it's subject.
Here are five tips to nailing thoughtful, emotional and story rich interviews.
1. Research, Write and Prep. The internet is an amazing place. Google your subject. Chances are there is public information that you can find out before the cameras come out. This will save time and help give you information to go deeper with your subject. Find out about their passions, tastes and lifestyle. Use this information to craft thoughtful questions that help your subject relax. I will sit down and make copious notes on a persons interests. I may or may not use all this information in my interview session but I will hold it in my mind in case I need it. Knowing if someone is a middle child versus an older child can help you discern personality traits and styles of questions. Then put together a plan for your interview and start writing your questions. In my work with clients I go as far as to write a script. I won't be focused on getting my words exactly, unless I run into a jam, but I will be able to see my whole story at once.
2. Word questions carefully. Language matters. Use questions that inspire people to answer with a story. Be aware of your own bias in a question. This will show up in how you word the question. You can still choose to use your bias toward the goal of your film but be aware of how it works.
- DO: Describe to me what it felt like to ________. Tell me about ___________. What drives your passion for _________?
- DON'T: Were you upset? Do you like ______? If you can answer a questions with "yes" or "no" it is not a good question.
- DON'T:"How do police infringe on peoples rights when they scan cell phones during a riot?" Leads the subject to answer based on your believe that they are in fact infringing on rights.
- DO: Describe how you feel about police listening to cellphone scanners during a riot?
Wonderful TED talk on conversation analysis.
I love listening to smart people talk about their work. This talk applies to interviews and communication. There is so much information in how you ask a question and how one responds.
3. Ask subjects to respond using "I" statements. Third person storytelling only works if there is a narrator talking about the subject. If you are letting your subject tell the story, they should use the phrases "I feel," "I think," "I know," versus "You feel," "You think," ect. With upsetting subject matter I like to remove myself from the upset and I might start to speak in third person. Good storytelling asks the subject to say "I." It is a small tweak that can make the difference between a story that inspires and one that falls apart.
4. After you ask your question, listen carefully and pick out themes. Scan for words that are repeated. Listen for words that create feelings. Notice when the person across from you decides to not explore a topic. It is all data. Listening is a key element to getting a great interview. If I can pick out a theme from a story I can lead my subject deeper and gain trust. It is like getting a wonderful gift - it is affirming for the subject to understand that you care and are paying attention. This creates trust. It will also allow you to see where you can lead your subject deeper.
5. Ask about feelings. I consider this to be the most important tip. Try this at home and with friends: Ask about feelings. While you are listening to your subject pay attention to your own emotions. Chances are if you are feeling something, your subject is feeling it too. Ask about them. "I noticed when you talked about ________, I felt sad. Is that true for you? Why do you think that is?" This is a skill, you can learn it. Notice and ask. You will be amazed with where this simple tip will lead you.
BONUS TIP: Did you notice that only two of my tips are about writing the questions? The other three are about how you behave when you ask them.
Yes, you need questions that are crafted to get the type of stories you are looking for. However, the key to getting a thoughtful, emotional and story rich interview is how you are with that person. How you feel listening to them. Feelings and relationships are a big part of my work. Don't run from them. Embrace them, feel them and talk about them WITH your subject. If you haven't "fallen in love" with the person you are interviewing by the completion of your film, you have not done your job and you can not expect your audience to fall in love with your film either.
And seriously, look up Jennifer Reeder and her new film #crystallake