documentary filmmaking May 19, 2023
Jonny von Wallstrom Interviewing

Many filmmakers are naive when it comes to the power of interviews. Politicians used interviews to disseminate their messages and shape public opinion in the early days. Sound familiar? Think back to statements like "I am not a crook" or "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." These notorious soundbites still echo in our collective memory.

But if you're looking to make an impact with your interviews, if you want to go beyond the surface and truly connect with your subjects, then it's time to dive deep into this art form. Ready to elevate your filmmaking? Let's explore the five fundamental reasons behind conducting interviews.

Firstly, interviews allow for personal connections. They go beyond just gathering information; they create a profound bond between the subject and the audience. Whether capturing a victim's raw emotions or unraveling influence motivations, interviews becomes a vessel through which stories are shared and empathy is forged.

Secondly, interviews hold the power of propaganda. As filmmakers, we must be conscious of this potential and strive for objectivity and fairness in our storytelling. Through carefully crafted questions and selective editing, interviews can be manipulated to further a specific agenda. We are responsible for navigating this terrain with integrity and presenting a balanced narrative.

Thirdly, interviews serve as a platform for public relations. From aspiring actors seeking exposure to established professionals aiming to maintain their image, interviews provide an opportunity to control one's narrative and shape public opinion. However, as filmmakers, we must remain mindful of potential biases and approach interviews with critical thinking.

Fourthly, interviews exist to be helpful. Whether offering advice, sharing expertise, or shedding light on important issues, interviews can serve as a valuable resource for viewers seeking guidance or understanding. As filmmakers, we should strive to provide meaningful content that adds value to the lives of our audience.

Lastly, interviews can sometimes be driven by ego. Some individuals crave attention and seek the limelight. As filmmakers, we are responsible for discerning between those who genuinely have something important to share and those who want their fifteen minutes of fame. Doing so can ensure we give a voice to those who truly deserve it.

Let's explore their historical context to understand the evolution of interviews over time better. In the mid-1800s, informational interviews gained popularity. However, this was also when the police interrogated harshly, leading to wrongful convictions and false confessions. Crime reporting was introduced to address these issues and forever changed how interviews were conducted.

Unfortunately, this era was plagued with prejudice and corruption. The police struggled to eliminate false convictions, corrupt officers, and mishandled evidence. One infamous case is the execution of Charles Hudspeth in 1886. Rebecca Watkins accused Hudspeth of murdering her husband, only for her husband to be found alive months later. This serves as a chilling reminder of the devastating consequences of flawed interviews and the need for rigorous attention to facts.

As filmmakers, we possess the power to shape narratives and influence testimonies. Yet, often, we need more education and awareness to handle situations responsibly and present the truth without distortion. Over 43,950 years of innocent people's lives have been lost due to misrepresentation and manipulation. It is a stark reminder of our immense impact and the need for ethical conduct within our craft.

So, do you consider these aspects when creating your films? I admit, when I began my filmmaking journey, these were not concerns at the forefront of my mind. However, as I gained experience, I realized the importance of ethical storytelling and the weight of responsibility that lies with us.

To become a better interviewer. Ask open-ended questions, and become their confidant. Only by building trust can we unearth genuine stories. Listen attentively to what is being said and heed what remains unspoken. Conduct interviews not just with the main subjects but also with those surrounding them. Be an investigator, digging deeper to uncover hidden truths.

Furthermore, be prepared for surprises. Life is unpredictable; sometimes the most captivating stories emerge from unexpected places. Great storytelling isn't solely about words – it's about capturing the essence of life, the intangible emotions, and the untold stories that reside in the shadows. Here are some more tips on interviewing:

Preparation is Key: Conduct thorough research on your subject and their background before diving into the interview. This will allow you to ask informed and engaging questions and build trust and rapport with your interviewee.

Craft Engaging Questions: Open-ended questions are your secret weapon. They encourage meaningful dialogue and allow subjects to share personal stories and insights. Avoid closed-ended questions that elicit simple "yes" or "no" responses.

Set the Stage: Choose a visually appealing location that complements your film's overall tone and aesthetic. Ensure the background is free from distractions or unwanted noise that may hinder the quality of your interview footage.

Create a Comfortable Atmosphere: Establish a relaxed and supportive environment for your interviewee. Make the setting conversational rather than interrogative, allowing for authentic and genuine responses.

Active Listening: Pay close attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues during the interview. Listen to your subject's answers and respond accordingly to delve deeper into their experiences and emotions.

Capture B-roll Shots: Consider capturing supplementary B-roll footage while conducting the interview. This adds visual interest and context to your storytelling, offering a more immersive experience for your audience.

Empathy and Respect: Treat your interviewees with empathy and respect throughout the process. Show genuine interest in their stories and experiences, allowing them to feel comfortable sharing intimate details.

Adaptability: Be prepared for unexpected moments or revelations during the interview. Embrace these surprises and follow the organic flow of the conversation, as they can often lead to the most powerful and authentic moments in your documentary.

Technical Considerations: Pay attention to lighting, sound quality, and camera angles to ensure a professional final product. Experiment with different interview styles, such as the "off-camera" approach, to capture candid and intimate moments.

Post-Interview Reflection: Take time after each interview to reflect on what worked well and areas for improvement. This self-reflection will help refine your interviewing skills over time and enhance the overall quality of your documentaries.


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