Be Unafraid: 10 Tips for Documentary Interviews

Interviews: love them or hate them, they often provide the emotional, human-centric gems that make a documentary engaging and relatable. How can you extract said gems from your subjects—who are in fact real people and not actors—even if they’re camera-shy? Marcie Hume, a seasoned filmmaker who produced and co-directed the feature documentaries Hood to Coast and Magicians: Life in the Impossible, shared her know-how on the topic at this year’s Oregon Doc Camp, a filmmaker retreat sponsored by Women in Film Portland. We were lucky enough to attend Doc Camp and Marcie's talk, and in this post, we'll share what we learned about documentary interviewing with you.

Marcie has over ten years of documentary interviewing under her belt. She got her start working with the BBC, diving into journalistic doc-making, and has since gone on to produce shows for Discovery, National Geographic, and Channel 4.

From those 10 years of experience, Marcie shares 10 practical tips (and her personal manifesto) to help you get great interviews for your documentary:

1. Why interviews matter

Interviews add a ton of value to a story, says Marcie. “Interview for me ties into everything about documentary making, including the storytelling, narrative, and ethical aspects of it,” she says. “We think of interviews as factual elements that help us tell a story. But I think it’s really important to think about the bigger themes of the film and how your interviews can play into that.” Ultimately, an interview can help your audience relate to your characters, and the story that you want to tell, on a human level. With interviews, you give your characters a voice to tell stories in their own words.

2. Make interviewing a choice, not a default

Because interviews add so much emotional relatability, they sometimes become a default storytelling mechanism, making their way into a story even if it isn’t the time or place for an interview. Each interview should be intentional, advises Marcie. Before beginning a film, she has some foundational questions she recommends using to guide your interviews:

  • What do you want your subjects to reveal on camera?
  • What purpose do you want the interviews to have in your film?
  • Do you want your interviews to form the narrative basis of the film? To tell a chronological story or a thematic story?
  • Do you want the interviews to give insight to the subjects themselves and their characters?

Then, she recommends thinking through the look and feel that you want for each interview, and asking more questions:

  • Do you want your interviews to feel glossy and produced?
  • Do you want them to feel run-and-gun and observational?
  • Do you want the subjects to look at the lens or to look at you on camera?
  • In general, what do you want your interviews to add to the film in terms of both content for the story that you’re telling and the bigger theme?

From there, you can go into each interview with a plan to make sure you leave with what you need for your film.

German Illusionist   Jan Rouven   and his manager and partner,   Frank Alfter, are featured in  Magicians: Life in the Impossible

German Illusionist Jan Rouven and his manager and partner, Frank Alfter, are featured in Magicians: Life in the Impossible

3. Different types of interviews

There are a few types of commonly used interviews that can really add to your film. Here are Marcie’s go-tos:

  • Expert interviews: asking a professional or expert to talk about a subject to provide factual information.
  • Sit down interviews: these tell the viewer who the subject is in a produced way and can help illuminate a theme 
  • Interviews within a scene: talking to a subject while they’re in action can help the subject relax while showing more of their character
  • Unique interviews: a la Errol Morris’s Interrotron, you can always add twists to your interviews to keep things interesting—while still getting what you need. Get creative!
Interviews should be thought of as supplementing a greater picture rather than forming the film itself.
— Marcie Hume

4. Supplementing your visuals

Poster from  Magicians: Life in the Impossible

Poster from Magicians: Life in the Impossible

Film relies on images, and Marcie likes to use supplemental graphics or illustrations to make talking head interviews more interesting. “Because film is a visual medium, it’s always worth thinking of other scenes or graphics or whatever that is that will build out your picture,” says Marcie. “Interviews should be thought of as supplementing a greater picture rather than forming the film itself.” Along the same line, Marcie likes to use interviews to show audiences more of a theme, rather than use talking heads to directly tell them what’s happening in words.  

5. Set your subjects up for success

The best way to get good interviews out of your subjects? Make sure they’re comfortable. “Comfort is hugely important and it’s harder to achieve than you would think,” says Marcie. “Being on camera for most people is a very strange experience...They’re so vulnerable in that situation, and they’re going to look to you for guidance.” You can steer them in the right direction from the start by establishing a conversational tone before the interview begins. Marcie literally tells her subjects what to expect. “I say, ‘I really want this to be a conversation between us,’” she says.

Emotional mirroring also affects interviewing. That means that if you’re warm and positive, your subject will likely respond in a similar manner; if you’re stressed and rushing, your subject will likely close up. “Whatever you do sets a tone,” says Marcie. “Staying as relaxed as possible really helps that person get it that you want to be conversational.” This isn’t easy to do as a filmmaker, but it’s key to getting great interviews. “To really practice this skill, I think it is worth challenging ourselves to go into uncomfortable situations and decide to make the situation really comfortable,” says Marcie.

6. Shape your environment

The other big part of making subjects comfortable? Putting them in a safe and familiar environment. This is up to you as the filmmaker, says Marcie. “There will always be outside influences, but you can control what you want to happen on your shoot,” she says.

7. Communicate with your crew

If you’re working with a crew, it’s crucial to communicate your expectations about shooting interviews. Express to the whole crew the tone you want to establish, and make sure that people know that if a subject is sharing a deeply emotional moment that they should keep rolling no matter what.

Poster from  Hood to Coast

Poster from Hood to Coast

It’s also key to make sure subjects aren’t overwhelmed by the gear and crew in front of them. “The most important thing that I have learned is to not draw attention to when you’re rolling and cutting,” says Marcie, “because for all humans it cues them to go into another mode.” To avoid this, she uses conversational words as cues. Why is this so important? “You want people to feel like they can talk completely as themselves, because that’s the only way you’re going to get anything amazing out of them,” says Marcie.

8. Use memory tricks to recall questions

Reading questions from a list is a sure way to make an interview feel rigid and formal—and like you as the interviewer are distracted. To maintain an engaged, conversational tone, visualize your questions as connected themes or even images to recall them more easily—that way, you won’t have to interrupt the flow by looking down or stumbling. “It’s important, especially for a doc film, to think about the themes of your film and figure out how to ask questions that will raise interesting answers on those themes, not just ‘what happened,’” says Marcie. Keeping a list of questions on hand never hurts—sometimes, you need to make sure you hit everything on your list. “There’s still always going to be a practical element of getting what you need for the film,” says Marcie. Trying to keep interviews as natural as possible is what counts, and what will ultimately give you better answers.

9. Overcoming obstacles

Things happen, especially on film shoots. A common interviewing obstacle occurs when subjects freeze up and just won’t talk. You can keep rolling while you try to get back to a conversational tone, but sometimes, an interview will truly go south. How can you get the conversation back on track? Switch up the environment, says Marcie. “I’ll just give up on whatever visuals I was going for and sit on the sofa with them,” says Marcie. “I’ll have the camera next to me to make it feel like a different environment that’s not so intense.”

Another common obstacle that’s easily avoided: technical difficulties. Marcie advises to keep rolling during an interview even if the visuals aren’t perfect. “Don’t stop the interview because you don’t think it looks good enough,” she says. “The most precious thing is that emotion and that intensity or whatever it is that you’re trying to get from people.” On the other hand, if audio is really suffering, it is worth pausing to figure out the problem. When it comes to technical saves, Marcie advises being prepared and educating yourself on quick-fixes. “Hopefully you never have to bail on an interview or bail on a shoot for technical reasons,” she says.

The most precious thing is that emotion and that intensity or whatever it is that you’re trying to get from people.
— Marcie Hume

10. Be Unafraid: The Interviewing Manifesto

Marcie presented an interviewing manifesto—and it’s something any filmmaker can use. Keep this in your back pocket to read before an interview to get yourself in a good headspace. Here it is:

Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid of what people will think of you.
Do not be afraid of what they will think of your questions.
Don’t be afraid of how they will react to a question that you really want to ask.
Figure out how to be unafraid.
People have made the choice to talk to you because you’re giving them a voice.
This is the unbending power of the camera.
All voices are small and singular until they’re projected on the screen.
Ask what your mind is burning to ask, ask what you’re afraid to ask.
The more that you can break through that wall and dig deeper,
the more you will be rewarded in your interviews.
— Marcie Hume

Wise words indeed. Now, go forth and interview, friend! With these expert tips from Marcie Hume, you can leave with what you need to craft an engaging, moving documentary. If you want some more interviewing inspiration, check out this Vimeo post on how to get better answers from your interview; we also have over 20 tutorials on interviewing available at The Academy of Storytellers

Do you have any other documentary interviewing tips? Share your own mantras with us below!

Cover image from Magicians: Life in the Impossible courtesy of Marcie Hume.