Here director Tamara Rosenfeld provides advice for getting the most from your interview subjects. Tamara recently returned from visiting Malta, Italy and Spain where she was directing documentary content for Coca-Cola on the company’s active healthy living and water sustainability initiatives.
What preliminary research do you do before meeting your interview subject?
Before visiting a location I will do as much research as possible. However sometimes the constraints of shoot mean’s that there will be limitations. This means making the most of the time available with your subjects. I want to know how to get them to open up. When they are off camera I try to learn about them. I want them to feel comfortable with them talking.
I try to have met them once before. Even it is for only five minutes if you have met someone before you are no longer a stranger. Now you are someone that they are familiar with. Ideally I try to interview them after I have met them already. I would prefer to have as much time as possible. But sometimes there are time constraints. This means that I may be chatting with them while I’m setting up. Unfortunately the nature of film-making is that the amount of time I might have with a subject is constrained by the time that is available rather than how much I would like to have with them.
How long would you normally spend getting to know your interview subject?
Generally I will spend about thirty minutes talking with the interview subject. With these small crews I will also be thinking about where to film it, sound wise, where to setup the interview, what cameras we need, if we want to do movement in the shot. There are many different things I need to consider when filming. In the forefront of my mind I am trying to make the subject comfortable but at the same time I’m trying to think of a bunch of different things.
How do you usually begin your interview?
I start by asking them about their family or their day. Especially if they are nervous I want to ask questions that are easy to answer. The problem is that is if there is anything emotional I don’t want to be asking them about it when they aren’t on camera. Now that we are using digital rather than film, there really is no reason not to capture as much footage as possible.
Part of the problem is that I have to interview people who speak over ten different languages – Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian, Hindi and all these different languages – that I don’t speak and so I need someone to communicate with the translator to make sure they are making the subject feeling comfortable. Probably about half the time I don’t speak the language of the interview subjects.
How do you overcome the problem of foreign languages?
I think smiling and body gestures provide ways to communicate when you don’t speak the language. It’s important that I’m still giving them eye contact. One of the subjects we had in Malta didn’t speak English but responded well to me. The subject of the video was very corporate and formal, but despite that he ended up crying. He said that it was the first time that he had ever cried in front of his wife. The truth is people want to open up and tell their stories.
One of the first people I learned about interviewing technique was homeschooled around the world. She learned to communicate with people when she didn’t speak the language. She taught me that it is about making them laugh. It’s about finding those small things which will either make them laugh or comfortable.
How important is that you have a good relationship with your translator?
With the translators I try to get them on board and have them part of the team. There was one time in China I had a really formal translator. You ask the question and then they repeat the question. It was almost robotic. The interview ended up looking fake with the interview subject saying what they think they should be saying rather than what comes from the heart. I make sure before the interviews now that they are on the same page and understand what I want. I try to make it more a personal story. I don’t have anyone looking at the camera but rather have them looking at the person who is doing the interview.
How difficult it is it to find something that will hook the viewer later on?
It’s really challenging. That is why for the latest interview out of Malta we had the interviews translated. We then went back to the same person three times. Sometimes it’s not what they say, but how it is said. One particular story which was particularly poignant came from an old man. He was short, little old man. But he said that “I’m not a tall guy, but I am a hard worker”. The way that he phrased that was touching. The translation that comes back is usually a summary which doesn’t necessarily show their personality. This is why it is important that you explain to your interviewer before meeting them what you are looking for.
Do you have any other tips for working with translators?
I explain to the translators how to do the interview. I stress that it is important that it is conversational. The last thing I want is if someone emotional is for the translator to turn to me and give a translation. If she had kept that contact with them and they can get emotional. Encouraging them to do their own follow up questions. Because I’m relying on them I need them to be not translating to not be breaking the pattern. They have something else to say but they pause.
If they know they what you mean. I think it is about making them comfortable and making them feel like they can keep talking. It’s tempting for the other person to cover it up. If they don’t start answering in the full sentence or if they aren’t using a noun. For example, using he, she, or it. Say I ask the question – do you like husband? If she answers I like him, then it won’t make sense once the question has been removed later on.
While I prep the subject you need to keep in your mind what you need from them. And for me it’s not always about rephrasing the question in the answer. Rather it’s about making sure that they are using nouns instead of he or she. Coca-Cola is a good example. You might have an interview subject say “yeah, they did this for me.” I will stop them and tell them they will need to rephrase that for me and say Coca-Cola. That’s because I know that we need to have that word in there.
Do you stop them from talking in order to get them to include the noun?
Sometimes if it is a more corporate part of the interview I will stop. In Malta we had to have the photographer to do one part of the interview. This was after camera person had to go to the hospital. She did a very good job but I also told the photographer to do one part of the interview. Sometimes when someone gets going they won’t stop. It is important to remember that they won’t to be shown at their best on film. It is like with actors they are looking for direction. Internally you might be thinking that you are criticising them but actually you are helping them to figure out what they need. That was one of the lessons I learned early on when I was working in post production and doing a voice over thing. We were doing voice over for a feature film and I would get the line but I didn’t know what I would do with that line. Even though this is for a narrative piece everyone wants a little bit of help or reassurance. If they seem nervous it is about letting them knowing that they are doing well.
Do you typically have a story or angle that you are looking for before beginning an interview?
Before you even turn up you are looking to construct a story. Before I even begin I have a story in mind. One of the early lessons is that whether it is a corporate video or a documentary, you have to come in with a point of view, but you still need to open to the direction that it in can go in if something amazing pops up along the way.
Sometimes it will be getting them to tell the story and summarize it. Sometimes people will talk about stuff. For example, with the Farmers, they will be talking about the farms and all of the technical stuff. Instead I want to keep getting back to make it more personal and more about their lives. I want to see if there are any sound bites that take the message back home rather than this kind of detached story. You are looking for that emotional content. You want to find those stories that are out of the ordinary.