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Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 6 Tips for Getting Your Subject to Open Up on Camera

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 6 Tips for Getting Your Subject to Open Up on Camera

In “112 Weddings,” Doug Block revisits the many couples whose wedding videos he shot over the past two decades and finds himself learning about what makes marriage a success. Block manages to get his subjects to open up about sensitive subjects like depression, infidelity and divorce while frankly discussing the highs and lows and middle ground of married life. Below he provides tips on how to get documentary subjects to reveal themselves on camera.

Any advice I give for getting interview subjects to open up on camera comes with a caveat. On my own films I almost always work as a one-person crew, which inherently makes for a more casual atmosphere and greater intimacy (it also means my addled brain must juggle camera, sound, producing and interviewing duties all at once!). Nevertheless, the following tips will largely apply to most documentary interview situations. They’re not rules, just observations and lessons learned that have served me well over the years.

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1. Beware of pre-interviewing.

It’s not fun to have an interview subject tell you a fascinating story or share a profound insight ​beforehand, ​leaving you to​ spend the actual interview trying to recapture the magic. ​When I first contact a subject​, ​naturally I explain​ what ​t​he film ​is about ​and how the​y​’ll fit in, but only enough​ ​to get them on board and agree to be interviewed. ​Even once I’m in the room with them and setting up, I talk about anything ​and everything ​else until the ​interview begins.​ The first time is invariably the freshest and best​, so do your utmost to save it for when the camera is rolling​.

​2​. ​R​elax.

For me, the goal of any interview is to make the subject feel comfortable enough to let their hair down and talk freely. To get him or her loose and relaxed, I’ll joke around, make fun of myself, tell stories — whatever I can do to make it seem like the interview is no big fucking deal. The same goes for myself – I need to be relaxed, as well. I try to focus on enjoying the conversation and learning new things rather than dwelling on how critical it might be to the film.

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​3​. Don’t anticipate the answers.  ​

Documentaries really can’t be pre-scripted. ​​Even if you’re in the middle of editing and think you know exactly what you need a subject to say, don’t try to force feed an answer. I do my homework and come with a long written list of questions that I keep close at hand. But, much like with actors, the preparation is all so that I can be totally in the moment when the interview starts. And then….

​4​. Listen.  

Listen closely​, l​isten fully​ a​nd go where the conversation leads​ you​. ​This approach​ ​may take more work in editing but it ​will​ give you a wealth of​ great ​sound bites, I ​assure you.​ Don’t be afraid of silence, either. I often allow a subject to finish what they’re saying and simply leave things hanging. They’ll usually get uncomfortable and fill in the silence with more chatter. Even if they don’t, you’ll sometimes get an interesting expression on their face.

​5. Embrace evasiveness.

When someone evades a question it’s often more revealing than anything they might say.  Pauses, awkward silences, grimaces and body language comprise a major part of the cinematic vocabulary, and makes the audience work to fill in what’s left unsaid.  With “112 Weddings” I had my wedding couples sit side-by-side and filmed them mainly in a two-shot. What they didn’t say was poignant, often funny and endlessly fascinating. And spoke volumes about their relationship.

6. Be authentic.  

Don’t try to come off as more knowledgeable or expert than you are. In fact, I sometimes like to do the exact opposite. I’ve found ignorance is often a very effective place to come from as an interviewer (and comes alarmingly easily for me). That said, it’s important that your subjects trust you, and trust that your film will be a good one. Before the interview, send them links to your previous films, or at least some of your more glowing reviews.  Let them feel they’re in good hands, that you won’t make them look bad or get cheap laughs at their expense. And then protect them in the edit room. With that trust comes great responsibility, so don’t abuse your position of power. 

Doug Block is a New York-based documentary filmmaker who has won increasing international recognition as a master of the autobiographical film form. In addition to “112 Weddings,” his features include “The Kids Grow Up,”  and “51 Birch Street.” He is also the founder and co-host of The D-Word, the online community and discussion forum for documentary filmmakers worldwide.

“112 Weddings” screened at festivals around the world, premiered on HBO in June 2014 and is currently available on iTunes, DVD and other digital platforms.

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