The great paradox of interviewing is that it’s not so much about the interview itself, but actually much more about what you’ve done before you begin. In the film world we often have extremes. On one hand, Albert Maysles forged a style of documentary filmmaking called direct cinema. In his mind the use of interviews has the potential to dilute the purity and authenticity of film. He believes in minimizing directorial manipulation, and therefore, he conducts no interviews and writes no scripts—an observational approach that requires much trust between the director and characters. On the other hand, Errol Morris helped devise the interrotron, a two way device between the director and character that helps craft more authentic first-person interviews. For Morris’ last film, he conducted over 30 hours of interviews.
Both Maysles and Morris have created masterpieces, won countless accolades, and shaped the culture of film in profound ways. And both of their approaches are vastly different. So which style is correct? Both of them. They’ve fashioned approaches that fit their personalities and styles of filmmaking.
While much of what is discussed below applies directly to the medium of film, my hope is that these principles can cross over into written, audio, and photographic stories as well.
I believe, practically, that I fall somewhere in between these two. Without a doubt, I believe in developing such a trust between the character and myself that the camera slowly begins to melt away over time. Authentic, raw, candid moments—I believe—are typically more powerful and real than the simple gathering of information in an interview. However, I also feel that the craft of the interview can bring awareness to a situation that the characters might not have recognized. Often an interview is the only way to retrieve certain information that cannot be gathered in a candid context.
In my experience, both authentic candid moments, and deep, layered interviews begin and end with trust.
As filmmakers and storytellers who are trying to honor Jesus, both in the means to the end and the end result itself, we must hold each person’s story with such great care and respect that we do not fumble it. Essentially, we must attempt to step into their shoes and realize that the story the Lord has woven through their lives is sacred—for it is their witness, it is their pulse, it is part of their pain from darkness to light. Their stories illuminate their deepest fears and greatest victories in Christ. It is essential that we realize this.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Galatians 6:9-10
As followers of Christ, there is a mandate on our lives to empathize with one another and to do good to everyone, especially those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. How do we expect to fulfill this mandate in Scripture if we lack the time, effort, and sensitivity to walk alongside those who are courageous enough to go on camera and share their stories? It may sound harsh, but we are exploiting the characters in our films for our own gain if we lack the essence of Galatians 6.
Functionally, before I ever film a person for a more textured documentary, I spend time with them. I get to know them, pray for them, and encourage them. I treat them to coffee or meals. I become a genuine friend. And it’s only when there is a certain level of trust and mutual respect, that I pick up a camera and hit record. A strong interview may depend solely on this developmental time, and as difficult as it may be, a strong interview may also depend on when you’re willing to put the camera down and be a friend.
For the films we create with The Austin Stone Story Team, it’s absolutely essential that we arrive at the interview with this solid ground as a foundation. In preparation for this article, I asked my friend Adam what we did well or what mistakes we made in the process of creating “Brooklyn’s Bridge,” a short documentary about his family’s struggle to make sense of the passing of their first daughter, Brooklyn. Adam responded by stating his appreciation for the friendship we formed in the process of this film. He said that by the time we sat down for an interview with him and his wife, it felt like he was having a conversation about the most difficult details of their lives with a good friend, and not just a filmmaker.
If you want a powerful interview, take the time to encourage, listen, build trust, and be a friend.
In Part II of The Art of Interviewing we’ll talk more about the practicals of interview.
Feature image by Nijalon Dunn