Writers, Here is How Not to Interview an Acclaimed Director

Writers, Here is How Not to Interview an Acclaimed Director

I spent the
night before my interview with Drake Doremus, director of the Sundance hit “Like
Crazy” and the upcoming “Breathe In,” brainstorming questions and making sure I
didn’t sound like a 20 year-old college kid. 

The thing is, I
am a 20 year old college kid. I had never really interviewed anyone “big” before and was too fixated
on whether or not I would ask Felicity Jones, the star of “Breathe In,” who would also be there, if she wanted
to take a selfie with me to focus on my questions.

Unfortunately, I didn’t
actually consider the proper ways to plan my talk with an acclaimed
director. I guess it’s important to note that I first started interning for Indiewire in late January and had previously interned at the Miami Herald while in high school. At New York University, where I am currently a student, I only had to do a couple of interviews for an NYU publication, but those were mostly with students, random people on the streets and faculty. Nothing too ambitious or intimidating.

Still I had told my boss, who has called me a strong writer, that I was a fan of Doremus’ “Like Crazy,” which won the Grand Prize at Sundance in 2011. Not exactly one to make us interns go on coffee runs or pick up laundry, he generously offered me the opportunity to interview Doremus, who was in New York promoting “Breathe In.” Of course, I jumped at the chance — without any real concerns or hesitations — and assured him I was up to the job. I was a pro (sort of).

Nevertheless, when I got to
the Cohen Media Group office in midtown, where I was going to have my 15 interview with Doremus, I started to get nervous. So nervous that I became chatty. A little too chatty. I began a
conversation with an Italian journalist, a woman probably not much older than
myself who works freelance for a bunch of publications, and was also waiting to speak with Doremus. She spoke about
interviewing Paolo
Sorrentino (director of The Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film “The Great Beauty”), while
I bit my cuticles and contemplated bolting. How could I compete?

Anyway,
I finally got my time with Doremus. And he was pretty cool. He was wearing plaid,
sporting some cool facial hair and looked like every kid I go to school with — I thought we would get along swimmingly, maybe we’d even be friends.

We
were led into a small theater where I immediately commented on how “cool” the armchairs with cup-holders looked. Everything seemed cool to me, but what was I talking about? Then I began my questioning, doing my best to limit my “ums” and “likes.” I’m a professional now.

I started off by asking Doremus about how “Breathe In” came into being. The story follows an 18 year-old exchange student, Sophie (Felicity Jones), who moves to a suburb of New York and lives with an American family, where she falls for the outcast patriarch (Guy Pearce). It’s Drake’s second film that tackles a complicated romance between two individuals.

Doremus spoke about how he likes to take on subjects that relate to his own life, how he began working on the film right after “Like Crazy” and how the role was “made for Felicity.” So far, so good.

In a panic, right before the interview I had called my dad, a business professional who seems to know how grownups are supposed to behave, looking for some guidance. He advised me to be conversational, always smile and most importantly, make the interview subject feel comfortable.

I thought I was doing a good job, after all, Doremus seemed to really like when I asked him about how it must sometimes be difficult improvising dialogue —  something he had his actors do in both of his films — considering that people often talk in non-sequiturs and go on tangents. I could tell he especially liked my question about why both of his films have ambiguous, open-ended conclusions.

“I’m glad you brought that up, I didn’t realize I do that,” Doremus said, smiling. I won. Doremus and I were on our way to becoming BFFs. My dad was going to be so proud. 

But things went downhill from there.

I checked my recorder, mid-conversation. Note to reader: Don’t ever check your recorder mid-conversation. An interview is like a family dinner and you can’t check your phone until it’s over. But since I did, I happened to notice that we were less than five minutes into our conversation and I was out of questions.  

I then remembered to ask him about his upcoming project “Equals,” a sci-fi romance. Yes, I thought. I was back on track. I asked him if Felicity would appear in that film too and, well — Doremus, it’s not your fault. It was my job to check IMDB and see that Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart had already been cast as leads. It’s something that everyone should do instinctively before conducting an interview, but somehow, it just hadn’t occurred to me.

After the slip, I hardly knew what else to ask and I’m pretty sure Doremus noticed. At one point, I just babbled on about my personal relationship with the film. I caught myself saying “I really didn’t understand…” about a scene that I had thought was completely improvised where Lauren, the daughter of the Guy Pearce’s character, hits Sophie. Turns out it wasn’t improvised. It was always in the script. I know nothing. 

You have to understand that Doremus had been doing back-to-back interviews all day. The guy who went in before me took up the full 15 minutes and I didn’t want to leave until I had at least 10 full minutes. 

So I proceeded to humiliate myself by asking what he watched on TV, justifying the question by saying “it seems to be the thing film directors are doing lately.” 

Doremus told me he liked “soaps like ‘Homeland’ and ‘House of Cards'” and I agreed those are great ones. They key to any stable relationship is communication and I was failing you, Doremus. I had nothing else to say. I was stalling.

As we hit the nine minute mark, I realized it was probably best I wrapped up before I appeared any more unprofessional, and this is where I made the most fatal flaw. As I was about to stand up, I told Doremus that I didn’t have much else to say and asked if there was any subject matter he’d specifically like to talk about. I, the person who was supposed to be steering the conversation, became a backseat passenger. No one was driving the car.

He politely said he had nothing specific to talk about and it was over. I finished and I had failed. We shook hands and I thanked him and said goodbye to what I had hoped would be a blossoming friendship. 

As I walked out, the organizers and press people in the office gave me funny looks. One woman even said, “that was fast.” I nodded and left, embarrassed, but hopefully wiser. 

“Breathe In” will be released on Friday, March 28 in NYC and will open in Los Angeles and San Francisco on April 4.

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Comments

Kyle R Hammitt

There's a great vid of director Darren Aronofsky overcoming his nerves and interviewing Clint Eastwood. I tried to include the URL but it wouldn't let me. It's in the Tribeca Talks series. Hope this might help in the future.

Greg Cwik

I've done stuff like this, too. You're what, 21? 22? If you weren't making trivial mistakes I'd be more confused. In grad school I was told I was a piss-poor interviewer because this happened to me all the time, but the piece I turned in always worked, so who cares? I'm not sure writing a piece about it and posting it was helpful, though.

Richard von Busack

I've been doing this for about 35 years–it gets easier. Sometimes you get subjects who aren't very talkative, and sometimes you get them we're they're tired and hostile. One was out and out mean, another kept drawing on a pad when I was talking to him–both were directors I liked, too. The important thing has been stressed around here–get out, if it's going badly or the conversation dies. The talent could use a little time off, and it doesn't damn matter what the publicist thinks. Make a list of questions on a piece of paper and consult it–there's nothing rude about that. And while I enjoyed reading this, I'd really advise you, for the sake of your career, not to do this kind of piece focussing on your nerves twice. –

Smeep

To anyone critiquing this article it's called GONZO/NEW JOURNALISM. Spice it up a bit more next time. Do some crazy things. Allude to more personal/embarrassing things about yourself that could make us judge you (which in the end will just make us like you more.) That would make this piece stronger.

mikefilmguy

I've done hundreds of interviews – with the interviewee on camera – and your last question is one that I ask everyone – there is nothing wrong with letting the interviewee drive the car (!), but I would make it more specific – "is there anything you always/never get asked ? Is there something that we didn't talk about that you want to mention ?" I would say their answer is, more often than not, the key to the piece.

Robert Maier

As a "film school teacher" I deal with hundreds of inexperienced people taking their first bold steps into something over their heads. You do it. You make painful mistakes. That's how you learn. No problem there. Oh, and it's imperative to ignore the arm chair snarks who are so compelled to tear down anyone who actually tries something the first time.

belle

I've been a journalist for 10 years – don't think I've ever used the full time allocated for an interview (I'm print, we tend to gt through it a little quicker) and wrapping up an interview with asking if there is anything else they would like to add is absolutely fine, sometimes that's when you get the best stuff. PR people always look at you funny, that's just what they look like.

marc

good for you for being honest, self-critical, and having a bit of fun with it all. you did fine and will do better next time.

Frank Provasek

Don't fear ending an interview after 5 minutes, even if you are allowed 15. Thank them for being concise and giving such interesting insights for your readers. If someone asks why the interview was so short, explain that a good interviewer would only need 5 minutes with God to find out everything people want to know. Good luck.

VL

So if I understood correctly this article was not about the interview but about one little step (or misstep) in your jornalistic career. Loved the comments calling the article a 'Selfie' and that perhaps this should be a genre onto itself. Good for you for putting it all out there, for being honest, humble, goofy, and transparent (the self-deprecating I could do without, but then it wouldn't be comedic would it?). On another note I, not being your typical IndieWire reader, identified very much so with "called my father for advice", I hope all of your readers have a parent or two they feel they can reach out when heeding advice.

Greg

I think you did fine–had you not written this piece, I doubt anyone would've noticed from the published piece. The most important thing was to be familiar with his work and have questions prepped in advance, and you did both of those.

KeepOn

You're onto something…it's all about you and your feelings, not stale old boring journalism…now all you have to do is pick between Fox or MSNBC

James S.

I think "calm down, you're fine" is probably the best advice here; "Nobody cares about you, this article is a waste of time" is most certainly the worst. Some people…

Dennis Harvey

When you get older and more experienced you will realize (hopefully) that the least interesting element in any interview–at least to readers–is you, what you were thinking at the time, how you prepared, etc. This would have been a good student paper, and it's probably useful to any aspiring journalists who read Indiewire. But otherwise I'm not sure why it's here, except maybe to throw a bone to an intern. You wrote a selfie.

Skippy

Read other interviews with a variety of people and get a sense of which ones are good and which ones are not, and how the conversations are shaped. Learn from others.

Three End

The problem with your in-person interview is the same as your problem with this printed one. It isn't supposed to be about you. No one cares about Eric blahblah. Honestly, most people don't even care about Drake Doremus. But if you get something interesting, you can give them a reason to care. Otherwise, like this piece, it is just a complete waste of time.

sammijo

At least you're being honest. Don't let Indiewire take that away from you. (Looking at you Nigel M Smith, Tabloid Headline Writer who interviewed Ethan Hawke at SXSW…)

pepe

it was probably the least annoying interview he did all day.

keep your chin up.

elise

Yikes! Calm down, you're fine.

dv8

Fake it until you make it, but never admit it!!!

Emerson

Good shit Eric!!

OSM

This story was seriously adorable, revelatory about both writer and subject, mature in its humility, and a vastly more interesting read than a "successful" interview. Well done.

Mark Bell

As you get more experience with interviews, these sort of things will become second nature to the point where you don't even think about them, but always remember that it is indeed a conversation, and like any conversation, it's usually not one person going through their list of questions. As the interview goes along, truly listen to what answers are being given, and you'll find the natural flow to the conversation, and often find yourself down more interesting roads than what you initially planned. This will not always be the case, some people are more reluctant to talk, or are more burned out by the process of a lengthy press day and are only interested in hitting their talking points and getting out of there, but those cases are more rare than what you might assume. It's a conversation, remember that. Oh, and that you are to act professionally, which means there's really only one choice when it comes to whether to ask if the interviewee will pose for a picture with you; you don't ask.

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