A Nice Chat: How I Keep Interviews Comfortable

"The more genuine interest and care you show in an interview, the better your films will be. We all want to feel seen and heard, and an interview is a perfect place make that happen. "

Remember the first few months of the pandemic where we were all watching Tiger King? (how was that only 4 months ago!)

The story of these larger-than-life people was told through a series of interviews. We heard directly from Carol Baskin and Joe Exotic as they shared their opinions on each other, and lead us through a wild first-hand account of their story.

Watching this series, I kept getting distracted thinking about how the filmmakers gained access to such a unique story, and how they might have approached interviewing these colourful people.

Although I don't know for certain, I would imagine that getting the people comfortable speaking their mind in the interview was an important part of making this documentary a success. They had to delve into these people's worlds and prove that they could be trusted to represent their side of the story.

I can't speak for the producers of Tiger King, but in my experience, one of the best first steps in helping your interviewees feel at ease is by showing up as a genuine person who wants to actually listen and hear all about their story.

An interview setup of lights, camera, and microphone, with an empty chair in an atrium building

An interview setup from a client project my partner Myles and I filmed in early 2019.

To date, I've conducted a bit over 150 interviews. Through this experience, I've learned a few things about working with people in a way that establishes genuine trust. This not only helps my interviewees feel heard and respected, but helps me paint a more fair and accurate picture of their story, and who they are as a person.

I'd like to share a few tips on how I conduct interviews and how I create an inviting experience for interviewees:

  • Talk to your interview subject before the interview: Get to know more about who they are, and what their story is. This will help you ask more relevant questions during the actual interview. It's also a nice courtesy to your interviewee to help them get comfortable with you and know what to expect in the interview.

  • Plan your questions in advance, but use them as a guideline: I always go into an interview with a set list of questions I plan on asking. However, as I talk with an interviewee, I will often change and adjust the questions on the fly as the conversation unfolds. Just like in a real conversation, listen to your interviewee first, and be prepared to ask questions that go deeper into an answer they give. This allows for discovery of new information and emotion that can elevate your story. This also helps the interviewee understand that you are there to tell their story and helps them feel listened to and heard.

  • Don't give your interviewee the questions in advance: I've found that when you send the planned questions to your interviewee before the interview, they will prepare and memorize answers to the questions. This isn't ideal because rehearsed and pre-planned answers usually sound stilted and robotic on-camera. Off the cuff answers typically sound a lot more genuine and heartfelt than a pre-planned response. If your interviewee is uncomfortable not having a list beforehand, I will usually get on a call with them to discuss what I would like to talk about, where I see the conversation going, and discuss any boundaries in the subject matter.

  • Keep it Conversational: It's very hard to answer question after question in an interview with little follow-up or reaction from the interviewer. An interview can feel one-sided, but responding to your interviewee's answers in a genuine, human way, can go a long way. Sometimes I will remark on my own personal experience or ask follow up questions just to make it feel more like a "normal" conversation. So long as you don't overlap with their answers for audio purposes, this is a great way to put your interviewee at ease and will lead to more animated, genuine responses.

  • Pause before you respond: I like to leave a little bit of a pause after the interviewee answers a question before I respond or continue with the interview. This not only leaves space for editing, but gives the interviewee space to make any last comments or thoughts.

  • Keep things Comfortable: Interview rooms can get really hot, especially when the lights have been on for a while. Keep this in mind, as your interviewee sits in the "hot seat". Give them a glass of water, and don't drag on the interview for a really long time. I find that after about an hour of conversation, people usually need a break!

  • Respect: Above all else, treat your interviewees with respect. They are coming to you with their own personal stories and experiences. They're giving up an hour or more of their time to be in your film. Whether you agree with their point of view or not, give them the space and courtesy to tell their own story and beliefs.

By following these guidelines, I've noticed that the takeaway sound-bytes from my interviews have gotten stronger. And, more importantly, I feel better connected to the people in my films. I'm able to understand their stories better because I've created the space to have a real conversation. The more genuine interest and care you show in an interview, the better your films will be. We all want to feel seen and heard, and an interview is a perfect place make that happen.

Happy Creating,

P.S. If, like me, you're still fascinated with the behind the scenes story of Tiger King, I found this fun video for you 😉