We Want Answers

Karen Everett June 14, 2011

Last month one of my story consulting clients flew across the country so I could interview her for her personal documentary. We knew we would use parts of the interview as the film’s chief storytelling voice, so eliciting answers we could use as narration in post-production was particularly important.

Preparing for the interview, I employed two effective techniques that I want to share with you here. One comes from PBS producer Jon Else, a co-producer for the award-winning Eyes on the Prize series. The second is my own invention, having helped hundreds of filmmakers shape their documentaries and knowing exactly the kind of interview statements needed to craft a well-structured film.

The first technique involves how you start your inquiry. As you ask the obvious questions about your character’s story or your authority’s area of expertise, phrase your questions in a way that avoids “yes” or “no” answers. You also want to avoid one-word answers that make no sense without the question.

For example, avoid asking a question like, “Why did John abandon the project?” You might get an answer like, “Because he was burned out.” Obviously you can’t use a line that begins with “because” (unless you write narration to set it up).

You’ll get more set up information if phrase your question with a two or three word preface such as “tell me” or “explain to me.” For example, “Tell me why he abandoned the project.” Can you see how that sentence invites the viewer to not only say John’s name, but give the background information needed so the answer stands on its on as a complete thought?

Another effective phrase you can use to preface your inquiries is “describe.” For example, “Describe his state of mind when he decided to abandon the project.” Or, “Describe the dilemma he faced.”

To make the interview feel more conversational, add your own experience, opinions or statement of fact before asking the question. Do some of the talking yourself.

For example, in my interview with my filmmaker client, I wanted to ask a question that evoked the inciting incident that sparked her quest. I said, “I’m going skydiving on Sunday for my 50th birthday. I’m bringing three friends and I’m really excited about it! Your experience jumping out of plane was a little different. Tell me about your mother pushing you into it.” (Notice that I left out the word “skydiving” making it more likely that she will use the word in her answer.)

After you conduct 90 percent of your interview using techniques designed to get full-bodied answers, it’s time to switch gears. You’ve already gotten the meaty, thoughtful answers you need to make sense of your film’s story or material. Now you want to elicit powerful one-liners that you can use to set up your film’s major plot points or intellectual points.

Tell your interviewee that you’re going to ask a series of fill-in-the-blank questions. You want the first answer that pops into their head. What you’ll get are single sentence responses that you can use as on-screen introductions to topics that then transition to voiceover. The voiceover answers will come from earlier parts of the interview, or possibly from pick-up interviews conducted at a later date.

Here are some examples from my interview with my story consulting client designed to get at three important structural concepts:

1. Protagonist’s statement of desire

2. Protagonist’s statement of transformation

3. Central question

I told her that I wanted her to repeat the following sentences and fill in the blank. (Her film was about her quest to solve a public policy issue.) Here are the “starter sentences”:

“I wanted....”

“My goal was to...”

“My intention was to find...”

If you are interviewing a character who is NOT the protagonist, you would modify the phrases to something like:

“John’s goal was to...”

Next, to evoke one-liners that describe a character transformation, ask your interviewee to fill in the blank about the film’s protagonist. (Or about themselves, if it’s a personal documentary). Again, here are some examples from my recent interview with my filmmaker, who was also the film’s protagonist.

“In terms of my personality shift, I used to be ______, and now I’m _________.”

“In the end, I realized that...”

“In terms of my search, ultimately I came to the conclusion that...”

Note that in post-production, the editor might only use the last part of these powerful, set-up sentences.

If you are making a character-driven documentary, you can also anticipate the plot points and set up a line to introduce each of them, such as:

John decided to team up with Audrey because…

John flew to Saigon in order to…

If you’re making a topic-based documentary, structured around ideas rather than a protagonist’s quest, consider ending your interview with fill-in-the-blank sentences designed to set up the film’s major intellectual concepts. You can even pit your interviewees against one another. Here are some examples:

My contention with Daniel Pink is...

The biggest reason Sam’s plan is doomed to failure is because...

Finally, if your essay-style film is structured around a central question, see if you can get your experts to state the question succinctly. Ask you experts to fill in the blanks to these sentences in regards to your film’s topic:

The most important question we can ask ourselves is...

The key question...

The fundamental inquiry is...

Armed with these answers, you’ll be able to set up various sections of your film with expressive, on-camera, one-line zingers. If you’ve already conducted your interviews and don’t have the budget for reshoots, try to get at some of these one-liners through an audio only recording

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