Learn how to find the best interview subjects, what they should wear, and how to set-up the interview itself

The heart and soul of the documentary is the interview. It's an opportunity for people to express their opinions, share their knowledge and inform the audience. As a documentary filmmaker, the quality of your story hinges on your ability to make your subject comfortable, know the right questions to ask, how to know whether an answer will work for the edit, and ultimately get to the truth.

The Purpose of the Interview
When you set out to find and interview subjects, there are three primary objectives: to capture sound bites, to prove a point and to further the story

Sound bites - Sound bites are short, concise answers with a beginning, middle and end that can be easily intercut with other sound bites to prove a point and further the story. The best interview subjects know how to speak in sound bites. Even if your subject is unfamiliar with the interview process, you can still guide them to speak in complete thoughts and keep their answers concise.

To prove a point- You choose interview subjects because they bring factual, emotional, historical or experiential-based thoughts to the film. Make sure each answer serves a purpose to either work towards or against your hypothesis.

To move the story forward - Each subject and each sound bite should push the story forward by adding new information, a new perspective or new drama. As you craft questions and conduct the interview, always push for responses that both differ from your previous subjects and serve to propel the story forward.

Finding Qualified Subjects
Shooting a good interview always begins with finding the best subject. Your goal is to find people who not only have the knowledge and experience to contribute to your story, but can do so in a compelling way on camera.

Always research your subject and ask how they could contribute to the film:

  • What is their area of expertise and do they contribute legitimacy and authenticity to the material? For example, interviewing the general of the Army adds credibility to what he says. Although he provide the same information as a high school teacher, his title and position vets the information.
  • Do they have unique experiences that provide a perspective unique the them? Has someone undergone a traumatic experience, seen something or lived through an event? Does their commentary provide an inside perspective on an incident or situation the audience wouldn't be able to personally experience? If so, can you verify their experiences and use footage and materials to further support their interview visually?
  • Is this person good on camera? Once you've shot a few interviews, it becomes apparent that some people are better on camera than others. Look for charismatic personalities with a strong screen presence who can speak in sound bites and with honesty and authority.

When producing a commercial film, interviewing celebrities, politicians and other public figures can increase the market value of the movie. Once a couple high-profile people agree to be a part of your film, it will become significantly easier to attract other high-profile names. No one wants to the first, but once the project starts to gain momentum, no one wants to be left out.

Generally, resist providing a copy of the questions to a subject in advance. The goal of the interview is spontaneity and honesty. If a potential subject asks me for a list of questions, I usually provide a list of topics I’d like to cover, and not specific questions. Providing broad brush strokes give the potential subject a framework of what you plan on covering in the interview without enabling them to overly prepare answers, which usually leads to canned, pre-meditated answers.

Ideally, your subject should wear neutral colors - they will always look best on screen.

When you shoot an interview, what your subject wears has a significant impact on the quality of the interview. Follow these tips when speaking to your subject about the clothes they will wear:

  • Determine whether the interview is stand-up or sit-down. Many times, you’ll never see your subject’s pants, so only worry about the shirt they are wearing
  • Avoid black or white fabrics. Although this is less of a problem with today’s digital cameras, black and white can both present exposure problems. If your subject is wearing black, then by exposing for your subject’s flesh tones, their shirt will appear completely black, devoid of any detail. Conversely, properly exposing a dark-skinned subject with a white shirt may cause the shirt to overexpose to white. In either case, the visual information will be lost. This can be extremely problematic if the final video is being compressed for the web – dark and black regions of the frame are the first to be overly compressed, which will turn a black, underexposed shirt into a mess of compression artifacts. Ideally, ask your subject to wear neutral tones – beige, maroons, greens and blues.
  • Avoid strong patterns such as stripes or tweed. If these images are viewed on a standard definition monitor, they can create a distracting moire pattern.

Also be careful of copy written logos or images. It’s a good idea to bring black and grey gaffer’s tape to cover any logos at the last minute. It’s better to be prepared than to face a big premium from the errors and omissions insurance company.

If you’re shooting your interview against a green screen, ask your subject to avoid wearing any green clothing. Although most blues will be OK, it may be a good idea to avoid colors in the blue-green range in case the green screen isn’t evenly lit.

The Chair
You may not think the chair in which your subject sits is a big deal, but it is key in ensuring your subject is properly framed and doesn’t move throughout the interview. Provide a straight-backed chair with no arms and no wheels for your subject. Although other furniture such as couches or reclines may be more comfortable, they won’t look as good on camera.

Release Forms
Always have your interview subject sign a release form which gives you permission to use the person’s image and voice in your movie. Many distributors will require proof that each subject provided permission before they will distribute the movie.

It’s a good idea to have your subject sign the release form before beginning the interview. If the subject doesn't like the results of the interview, walks out or changes his mind, you still have permission to use the interview.


Additional MaterialResources and suggested reading