While a recording device can make a subject feel uncomfortable, documentary filmmakers face the hurdle of an even more unsettling presence – a camera. From expert interviews, to person-on-the-street interviews and in-depth, long term character interviews – whenever a filmmaker sets up to speak one-on-one with a subject, they only have a moment or two to set the tone, create an environment and control what the interview will look like, before the camera starts rolling.

Katie Galloway, co-director of Better This World, told the story of the FBI’s prosecution of two young activists, Bradley Crowder and David McKay, for domestic terrorism through interviews with the accused, their families, the FBI and observational footage. Scott Thurman, director of The Revisionaries, exposed the process of textbook revision in Texas through Creationist Don McLeroy’s campaign for re-election to the state’s Board of Education. Both directors shared some of their tips for making the most out of the time spent with a subject when the camera isn’t on: the pre-interview.

When you’re doing an interview with someone who may perceive you as a documentarian “against them” in some way, how do you go about connecting with them and breaking down that barrier?

Katie Galloway: Meeting with someone face to face beforehand can work wonders in terms of humanizing the filmmaker (and the subject!) and diminishing the sense of threat. This isn’t always possible or desirable but it can in many cases be a fruitful approach.

Scott Thurman: People can sense whether you’re interested in their perspectives or you’re trying to fulfill a preconceived notion… [While filming The Revisionaries] I would go to these board meetings and wait until a board member had talked to everyone. I wanted to be the last person – I would even sometimes walk them to their car, just to show them that I was in it for the long haul, to differentiate myself from the news media that was there that day.

What do you do if your subject says or alludes to something you’re hoping to address or have on film, before you’re filming?

Galloway: I always try to talk about things other than what I want to shoot. I use [pre-interview] time to chat and make subjects feel comfortable. It’s generally a bad idea to cover any territory you want to film because delivery often flattens out the second time and the subject might say “as I told you earlier,” or “as I mentioned before.” If they jump into such material before we’re rolling, I am pretty straightforward with them – “Wait! Not yet! We have to shoot that…it’s too good or important…”

Thurman: I learned that it’s all about anticipation with observational footage. You’ve gotta be there to capture it when it’s happening… Have a wireless mic. I learned to just roll on everything – even when I’m running around and my cameras pointing at the ground – I’d have the audio rolling and that audio could be used creatively.

Many of the best tips for pre-interviews are just as useful during the interview:

Thurman: Don’t be so set on a fixed style – at first I wanted my film to be all observational footage, but as I got into the political aspects, it became so dense that it needed expository information… There’s a method I picked up from something Errol Morris once said: Wait, after the persons stopped talking a while, like several minutes. Don’t even try to get ready for the next shot, just look at them, like you’re waiting for the end of their response, and people are compelled to keep talking.

Galloway: Allow for uncomfortable silences. Some of the best stuff comes when the director/interviewer waits and is patient.

Don’t think you need to be an expert to conduct the interview. Too many people get “in the weeds” – forgetting that they are delivering to a lay audience. My mentor Ofra Bikel often used to begin her incredible interviews with “Tell me a story…”

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POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 400 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.