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Conducting a Successful Documentary Interview

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Last week TPH at Home launched a documentary series in partnership with Magnolia. (This week’s film is RBG with exclusive access to a Q&A with the film’s directors.) In keeping with that theme, we’re sharing a couple of great links for budding documentary filmmakers.

Our documentary filmmaking classes are perennial favorites among middle and high school students. One of the most important skills we work on is conducting a successful documentary interview. According to renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, getting a perfect interview is easier said than done. Here are a few of his recommended tips and techniques:

5 Tips For Conducting a Successful Documentary Interview

You’ve prepped for the interview and have your list of questions. Here are some other things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your interview:
Make your subject feel comfortable. Many subjects go into their interview nervous, especially when in front of a camera crew. Most people have never had to speak in front of video cameras before. Reassure them that there are no mistakes, and that there’s plenty of time.
Establish clear expectations. Set up clear expectations for how the interview will proceed: whether to look at you or at the camera, how in-depth their answers should be, and how to elaborate beyond a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. Throughout your conversation, affirm that they are doing a great job.
Don’t interrupt. If someone seems to be getting off track in their storytelling, try not to interrupt them mid-sentence. Instead, use your body language to actively listen, and subtly steer the conversation. For instance, you can nod when you want someone to continue with their train of thought, or you can break eye contact and look down if you wants someone to wrap up their story.
Have the subject repeat your question. Having the interviewee repeat your question in their answer. This will help provide context for their response and will make your storytelling clearer. For instance, if your question is “when was the first time you went to a film festival” have your subject begin their answer by saying “The first time I went to a film festival…”
Take breaks. Interviews can be exhausting not only for the subject, but for the interviewer, the crew, and the video producers. Make sure you budget enough time to take breaks when necessary.
Learn more about documentary filmmaking in Ken Burns’ MasterClass