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The Art of Documentary Interviewing: Strategies and Techniques

Documentary interviewing is a process of gathering information and stories through conversations with sources. This type of interview takes place in either an informal or formal setting, depending on the nature of the project. During this process, filmmakers will use techniques such as open-ended questions and visual cues to encourage candid responses from their subjects.

Documentary interviewing is an invaluable tool for filmmakers, enabling them to gain insight into stories and capture authentic footage. But it can also be a daunting task for those without experience in this field. Before you start interviewing, there are several strategies and techniques that you should consider to ensure a successful outcome.

Before we start diving in, check out Key Elements to capturing docustyle interviews.

The importance of documentary interviewing

Documentary interviewing is an essential part of the documentary filmmaking process. Not only does it help filmmakers capture meaningful interviews with their subjects, but it also enables them to gain a deeper understanding of the stories being told. Through this process, filmmakers can uncover new perspectives and find compelling stories that could otherwise have gone unseen.

Documentary interviews are a powerful tool for filmmakers to explore and capture stories. By speaking with sources, you can gain insight into their experiences that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to document. Not only does this help inform your narrative – it also provides a platform for individuals to share their stories in an intimate manner.

This is why documentary interviewing is often preferred over other forms of research. It allows filmmakers to capture candid footage that is both engaging and impactful. With the right strategies and techniques, you can create compelling stories that will resonate with your audience.

Planning for the interview

Before you conduct a documentary interview, it’s important to plan ahead. This includes researching your subjects and setting up a conducive environment for the conversation. You should also consider how long you want the interview to last – typically, most interviews last between 30 minutes to an hour.

Once you’ve established a timeline, it’s time to create an outline for the interview. This should include key topics that you want to discuss and specific questions that will elicit meaningful responses from your subjects. Be sure to prepare for follow-up questions as well so that you can dig deeper into the stories being told.

Finally, it’s important to create a comfortable atmosphere for the interview. This includes setting up a quiet space with adequate lighting and ensuring your subjects are at ease. If possible, you should also provide snacks and refreshments to help keep them energized throughout the process.

Once you have everything in place, you’re ready for the interview!

Strategies & Techniques:

Establish Rapport

Establishing a rapport with your subject is one of the most important steps in any documentary interview. This involves engaging in casual conversation, actively listening to their responses and expressing empathy and understanding for their story.

Building trust and creating an open environment helps ensure that your source feels comfortable enough to share their authentic experiences throughout your interview process. It is important to create a comfortable atmosphere before beginning the interview, as it will help your subjects feel at ease and willing to open up.

Take time to chat with them beforehand and build a connection that you can use during the actual interview.

Ask Open-ended Questions

Asking open-ended questions is an important tool to encourage your sources to provide detailed and thoughtful responses. These types of questions are designed to facilitate a natural conversation by allowing the source to expand on their answers. When interviewing your subject, avoid yes/no questions. Instead, ask open-ended questions that will lead to more in-depth answers and provide you with crucial information for your documentary.

Avoid asking yes/no or “leading” questions that could potentially bias or influence the outcome of your interview. Instead, use prompts such as “tell me more about” or “how did that make you feel?” This will help ensure that your source feels comfortable enough to provide honest and detailed answers.

When conducting the interview, ask open-ended questions that will allow your source to provide more in-depth answers. These types of questions help encourage thoughtful responses and can uncover unique stories and insights about your subject’s life or experiences.

During the interview, avoid asking yes/no questions as these can limit the scope of their responses. Instead, focus on open-ended questions that will enable your subject to provide more detailed answers.

Follow the Conversation

The most successful documentary interviews are often the result of following the natural flow of conversation. When your source is answering a question, take time to listen carefully and allow them to finish their thought before you move on to the next one. If they share something that’s worth exploring further, dig deeper into that topic by asking follow-up questions.

Allow the conversation to flow naturally and don’t be afraid to switch topics if something interesting comes up during the interview. You should also consider asking questions that will draw out more personal responses from your source, such as “How did that make you feel?” or “What did you learn from the experience?” This will help you capture valuable footage and draw out more meaningful stories from your subjects.

Additionally, be aware of any nonverbal cues that your subject is giving off. This could include body language, facial expressions or changes in their vocal tone. By noticing these details, you can then adjust your questions accordingly and follow the conversation wherever it takes you.

Capture Visuals

Documentary interviews are often accompanied by visuals such as photos, video clips or artwork. This is an important part of the process that can help to further illustrate your subject’s story and provide context for viewers.

Documentary interviewing is not just about capturing sound. Utilize visuals whenever possible, as they can add a powerful layer of expression to the interview and help paint a more vivid picture for your audience.

Be sure to ask your subject for any visuals or documents that may be relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. This could include family photos, old letters or other memorabilia that can provide context and help bring their stories to life. Be sure to capture as many visuals as possible, as this will make your documentary interviewing process much more effective.

When conducting your interview, use visuals to capture details about your source’s life and experiences. Ask them about old photos, videos or other items that they still have from their past. This will help to bring your interview to life and create a more memorable viewing experience for viewers.

Listen & Engage

Documentary interviewing is not a one-way conversation. It’s important to actively listen to your source and engage with them throughout the process. This includes responding to their answers, asking follow-up questions and expressing interest in their story.

You should also be aware of any nonverbal cues that your subject is giving off. This could include body language, facial expressions or changes in their vocal tone. By noticing these details, you can then adjust your questions accordingly and follow the conversation wherever it takes you.

By actively listening to your source and engaging in the conversation, you are more likely to capture a unique story that will resonate with viewers. It is also important to be aware of any cultural, social or political contexts that could influence the story being told. This will help you create an unbiased documentary that accurately captures the subject’s experience.

As you’re conducting the interview, actively listen to your subject’s responses and stay engaged with the conversation. This will help you stay on track and ensure that you don’t miss any important points.

This means taking time to reflect on their responses, asking follow-up questions and providing support when necessary. Showing genuine interest in their story will create a comfortable atmosphere and encourage your subject to open up even more during the interview.

Respect Boundaries

Documentary interviews can sometimes be emotionally difficult for your subject. It is important to remain respectful of their boundaries and ensure that they feel comfortable throughout the process.

Be mindful of how and when you ask questions, as some topics may be too sensitive or difficult for the subject to discuss. If they don’t feel comfortable talking about a certain issue, it is important to respect their wishes and move on to another topic.

It is also important to be aware of any cultural, social or political contexts that could influence the story being told. This will help you create an unbiased documentary that accurately captures the subject’s experience.

Before beginning the interview process, be sure to explain what your project is about and why it’s important to tell this particular story. This will help set expectations and give your source a better understanding of what to expect from the interview.

Remember to be conscious of your subject’s comfort level throughout the interview and respect any boundaries they set. If something makes them uncomfortable, move on to a different topic or end the interview early if necessary.

You should also clearly communicate with your sources about what will happen with their footage and how it will be used. This will help build trust between you and your source, which is integral for a successful documentary interview.

By respecting your subject’s boundaries and creating a safe environment for them to share their stories, you will be able to capture more honest and meaningful answers. This will ultimately lead to a successful documentary interview that viewers will find engaging and informative.

By following these strategies and techniques, you can set yourself up for success when it comes to documentary interviewing. Documentaries rely heavily on interviews, so it’s important to ensure that each one is conducted with care and thoughtfulness. With practice, you will be able to capture stories in an authentic way that will resonate with your audience.

The art of documentary interviewing is an ever-evolving process that can take time to master. However, by staying informed of the latest interviewing techniques and honing your skills, you can ensure that each interview contributes positively to your project’s overall success.

Meanwhile, check out our works to get more inspiration.

Tips on building trust with your sources before, during, and after the interview

  • Take the time to get to know your source before the interview. Develop a rapport with them and try to find out as much as you can about their story. This will help to build trust and make your source more comfortable during the interview process.
  • Ask permission before recording or taking pictures of your source. Make sure they are aware that they can stop the interview at any time if they feel uncomfortable.
  • Allow your source to explain their story in their own words, without interruption or judgement. This will help create a safe environment and a more meaningful exchange of ideas.
  • Show genuine interest in your source’s story and respond thoughtfully to what they have to say. Give them the space to express themselves without feeling like they are being judged or rushed.
  • After the interview, take the time to thank your source for their time and follow up with them to let them know how you plan to use the footage or photos. This will help create a sense of trust that will benefit both parties in the long run.
  • Demonstrate that you understand the source’s perspective
  • Maintain an open attitude and encourage honest conversations
  • Provide feedback when needed, but be careful to not interrupt or criticize their story
  • Listen attentively to everything they have to say without judgement.
  • Follow up with your source after the interview is complete and share any feedback or insights
  • Explain the purpose of your documentary and how their story is relevant to it
  • Show respect for their time and effort by thanking them for participating in the interview.
  • Remain open and honest throughout the process, even if some topics are difficult to discuss. This will help create a safe space for your source to share their story without feeling uncomfortable.
  • Be aware of any potential triggers and take steps to ensure that your source is comfortable before proceeding with the interview.
  • Follow up after the interview is complete, ensuring that all footage or photos are used responsibly and in accordance with your source’s wishes.
  • If possible, offer to share the final product with them once it is completed. This will help to build trust and demonstrate your respect for them as a source.
  • Give your source the chance to review any footage or photos that you plan on using. This will give them an opportunity to provide feedback and ensure that their story is accurately portrayed.

By taking these steps, you can build a trusting relationship with your source that will lead to a successful documentary interview. This trust and goodwill will also be beneficial when it comes time to working together on future projects.

Examples of successful Documentary Interviewing:

  • The Academy Award Winning Documentary “Free Solo” follows climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to climb El Capitan, a massive rock formation in Yosemite National Park. In the film, the filmmakers take time to develop a trusting relationship with Honnold before beginning any interviews. This allows them to capture intimate moments of him preparing for his ascent as well as his inner thoughts and fears before his historic climb.
  • In the critically acclaimed documentary “Man on Wire,” director James Marsh follows Philippe Petit, a high-wire artist who famously walked across the Twin Towers in 1974. Before beginning any interviews, Marsh spends significant time getting to know Petit and establishing a rapport with him. This allows him to capture an honest and authentic portrayal of Petit’s unique story.
  • The HBO series “The Jinx” follows Robert Durst, a real estate heir who had been accused of multiple murders. Throughout the series, filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling take great care in interacting with Durst in order to maintain a trusting relationship. This allows them to capture moments of Durst that he may not have willingly shared with anyone else.

Why work with C&I Studios?

C&I Studios has a wealth of experience in documentary interviewing and storytelling. Our team is dedicated to creating compelling, informative content that speaks to viewers on an emotional level.

We understand the importance of building trust with our sources and strive to create a safe environment for them to tell their stories. We also have access to the latest technology and resources, which helps us to capture the highest quality footage.

If you need help creating a documentary, C&I Studios is here to guide you every step of the way. From pre-interview preparation and interviewing techniques to editing and post-production services, we have the expertise to make sure your documentary project turns out just as you envisioned it.

Contact us today to discuss how C&I Studios can help bring your documentary interview project to life. We look forward to helping you tell the story that only you can tell.

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