Since launching the Musicbed Community, we have interviewed dozens and dozens of filmmakers and artists from all around the world. We’ve flown to Paris. We’ve Skyped to South Africa. We’ve GChatted to Spain. And during all that time, we’d like to think we’ve not only gotten better at interviewing people, but that we’ve learned a few practical lessons along the way. We’ve written them down here.
Before we get into it, though, just a quick note about why we’re so into interviewing in the first place. It boils down to this: We think what other people have to say is oftentimes a lot more interesting than what we have to say. Given the choice between talking about what we know about filmmaking and hearing what Eliot Rausch knows about filmmaking…well, the better option seems pretty obvious. We interview because we’re curious, because talking to amazing people opens up our minds, surprises us, challenges us — and honestly, it’s usually a lot of fun.
The types of interviews we lean toward (and so, the types of interviews the lessons below are relevant to) are usually a bit more rambly, the kind that take twists and turns, that unfold, that linger a little longer on a subject than people otherwise might. In other words — they’re conversations. And while there is certainly a time and place for a more straightforward Q&A kind of interview, that’s not the type of thing we get very excited about.
Here’s everything we know about interviewing.
“A story in its purest form is somebody saying this happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing…one thing following another.…The Power of the anecdote is so great. No matter how boring the material is, if it’s in story form, there’s suspense in it: It feels like something’s going to happen.” — Ira Glass
It’s weird how this happens, but sometimes when you sit down for an interview, you can suddenly become someone else. You become Larry King or Ira Glass. You ask the types of questions you think those guys would ask, and you pretend to be interested in the things you think those guys would be interested in. And what happens then is pretty devastating: The interview gets really, really boring. Have confidence! Be yourself! It’s only when you ask the questions you’re actually interested in that you’ll get interesting answers. If you don’t care where somebody grew up, don’t ask. If you don’t care what it felt like when the person won an Academy Award, don’t bring it up. Be yourself and an interesting conversation will follow.
This goes along with being yourself. Before we interview someone, we don’t overprepare. We don’t learn every little fact about someone’s life and work. We learn just enough about the person to want to learn more. We learn just enough to ask intelligent questions, but not so much that we already know the answers.
A great way to kill the energy of an interview is to already know what you want to hear. Be open to surprises! Surprises are what conversations are all about.
For example, before we talked to character-building master David Corbett, we’d only read the introduction to his book, just enough to guide the conversation and keep us asking questions. See the result here.
Great interviews happen when the people you’re interviewing feel confident, when they feel like they’re saying intelligent things and you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say. In some of our best interviews, we hardly ask any questions at all. Maybe four or five questions total over the course of an hour. A good interview/conversation should roll like a boulder, with you just course-correcting here or there to keep the thing on track. A bad conversation is like you trying to push a boulder up a hill. Zero momentum. A lot of times this lack of momentum comes from your subjects not feeling confident about what they have to say. They answer in a word or two. They, “Don’t know.” Suddenly you find yourself doing most of the talking, trying to put words in your subjects’ mouths, and leaving with nothing.
Go out of your way to make your subjects feel smart. Ask them easy questions at first (we usually spend a good five minutes talking about where the subjects are from) and be very interested in their answers. Affirm them. Just simple enthusiasm for their responses can go a long way to opening them up, making them feel comfortable — “No way! You’re from Long Beach?! I grew up in Long Beach!” or “You know, I never thought of it like that.” or “You know what, that’s a really good point.” The better your subjects feel about themselves, the better your conversations will go.
“I developed a style of interviewing where I tried not to say anything in the interview. I tried to say very, very few things… If possible, nothing.” — Errol Morris, Film Director
An interview usually doesn’t feel complete unless you “go there.” Readers or viewers can feel this too, even if they’re unaware of what exactly is missing. For us, “going there” means not ending an interview until we’ve dug around for The Big Idea. Usually this happens toward the very end of the interview, and it’s basically us just wondering right along with the subject: “What does this all mean?” “What are the implications of what you’ve just said?” It’s this moment when the conversation zooms out a little bit and we talk about filmmaking as a whole, or (further out) creativity as a whole, or (way far out) humanity.
We dig around for The Big Idea and we keep digging until we find it. Without this moment, an interview can feel like a random series of observations, scenes, recollections, ideas — which, while great, are usually unsatisfying without a moment of clarity.
Our conversation with Eliot Rausch was a great example of this. The conversation moves from the particulars of Eliot’s story to ideas about intuition versus competency and finally to the true meaning of creative purity. A slow and steady zooming out. Same is true for our film on Adam Taylor. He begins by telling a very granular story and shows how it has defined his entire world.
There is a natural human tendency to fill silences, to keep conversations moving forward, to do anything necessary to keep things from getting awkward. When you’re interviewing someone, silence can feel particularly devastating. It’s tempting to immediately step in, ask another question, make a comment — move things forward. But this is the wrong thing to do. After someone has answered a question, let her answer hang for just a few seconds too long.
Let the silence linger. What usually happens is the subject speaks up again. She fills the awkward silence, and she fills it by reaching a little bit deeper into her answer, saying something she might not have otherwise said. Be patient. Wait for those moments. Often the thing a subject fills the silence with is a unique and much more personal observation than her initial response.
We love how Philip Bloom opened up in our interview with him in 'Making Room'.
Finally, and very practically, make sure you schedule plenty of time for your interviews. If you want to get down to the good stuff, if you want to hunt around for The Big Ideas, if you want the conversation to twist and turn like a good story should, then you’re going to need more than 20 minutes. Oftentimes the very best things we hear from people come at the very end of the conversation, right at the one-hour mark.
It takes time for people to get comfortable, for the conversation to find its form. You can’t rush it. When we schedule interviews, we always block off at least 45 minutes, but we usually end up talking for well over an hour. Give yourself plenty of time.
For an example of this, check out our interview with TruMVMNT. It wasn’t until the very end of the interview that Wes told us he’d survived cancer during college. It changed the whole conversation.
So there you go. That’s pretty much everything we know about interviewing. It’s not rocket science, but it is an art. If you have some wisdom of your own to share, please share it below. We’d love to hear what you’ve learned.