Sei sulla pagina 1di 9

Asking Probing Interview questions:

Simply adapt to your subject

Okay, youre ready to begin videotaping your documentary and have a long list of both experts
and citizens with a stake in the issue. Now you job as either host or interviewer is to ask the right
questions so that you get compelling responses that will support the storyline of your production.
Heres some solid advice that will work whether your interview subject is a scientist telling you
about pollution or a housewife expressing her concerns about the impacts on her family.
First, remember that the basic foundations of any interview are establishing the essentials of the
story - setting, characters, conflict-resolution, overcoming challenges, fear-confidence and
personal discovery. From that list, focus on the 6-Ws of any story What, When, Where, Why,
Who, and hoW. The secret to asking revealing questions is to ask about the subjects feelings
and emotions and to ask the subject to tell you a story full of details. These details should be
rich in what we cant see on the video stuff we wouldnt know unless you told us. Theres a big
difference betweenI closed the discharge pipe or, We stop contaminating the river with
300 gallons a day of toxic waste that contained class A carcinogens. So with that said, here are
some possible questions to adapt to your interviews. Dont barrage your subject with all of them
simply pick and choose the exact ones that best fit the person and their slant on the story.
One final piece of advice before the questions begin and the camera rolls. Remain flexible during
your interview and let the person being interviewed go where they want. Pay attention to their
emotions as the story unfolds and when you see new information appear that deserves attention,
shift gears and refocus your questions on the heart of the story.

What happened here ( again, pre-empt with

tell me a story aboutwhat happened?
1. What was your involvement in this and why?
2. What doubts did you have about your role in what happened?
3. What secrets did you know that might have made a difference on how things turned out?
4. What mistakes did you make that might have affected this issue?
5. What special technique did you use to help and why?
6. What have you learned that others might not know about this issue?
7. What made you feel good about your role in this issue?

8. What was your greatest weakness that contributed to the way things turned out?
9. What was your greatest strength that made a difference in the outcome?
10. What weaknesses in others affected the outcome?
11. What strengths in others made a difference and how?
12. What was the happiest moment of this entire event? (and why)
13. What was the scariest moment? (and why)
14. What was the saddest or most disappointing moment? (and why)
15. What was the funniest moment and why?
16. What would your parents say if they had been part of this and why?
17. What would you have done differently if you could and why?

When relative to history, setting, place and events

through storytelling
1. Tell me a story about the history of this place.
2. Tell me a story about your parents or grandparents impacts here.
3. Tell me about any previous encounters you had with this place or issue.
4. Tell me about your past experience in these kinds of issues.
5. When did this issue begin and when will it end?
6. When did you first see or hear about this issue tell me the whole story of what happened?
7. Tell me about the time of year, weather, temperature and conditions that impacted what

Where place, location, stand, quarry

1. Where is this place or event located in the state and whats the country like?
2. Why is this place special? Do you have an emotional connection? Explain why.
3. Where is this place or event located relative to other important features nearby?

4. Where was the (pollution) coming from and why?

5. Where was it headed for and with what impact?
6. Where did you come from to get here and where do you return to when you leave?
7. Where did you work before you came here and where might you go next?
Why did you do this?
1. Why did you get involved in this issue?
2. Why did you use the technique?
3. Why didnt you use a less or more risky method?
4. Why did you pass on getting more involved?
5. Why didnt you wait longer before getting involved?
6. Why did you wait so long before getting involved?
7. Why did you wait so long before giving up?
Who others past, present, future
1. Who was with you when this event happened?
2. Who do you wish was with you and why?
3. Who do you wish had not been there and why?
4. Who else has faced this challenge before?
5. Who helped contribute to your success and how?
6. Who can you blame for messing things up?
hoW details of the story
1. How have you changed as a scientist-person in the past 5 years?
2. How does this event or issue affect the quality of your life?
3. How does this issue or event compare to similar ones in your life?

4. How did it make you feel when realized your role in this event?
5. How does your family feel about your role in this?
6. How will you enjoy your accomplishments in this issue?
7. How will you preserve the memories of this event?
8. How do you feel at the end of the day working on this issue/event?
9. How do you think others see you as a professional?
10. How do you see yourself?
11. How do you want others to see you as a professional?

Interview Techniques for documentary filmmakers

For those who work as documentary filmmakers you undoubtedly have thought
about the importance of asking well thought out questions that not only provide you
with the information youre looking for but also questions that help develop trust
and rapport with your subjects.
Lights Film School sent me to the Vancouver International Film Festival last month
and I attended a 4 day filmmakers workshop. One of the workshops dealt with
interview questions specifically. The interesting part was that the panel for this
seminar consisted of a Journalist, a Psychologists and an Attorney. All of these
people spend a lot of time in their day to day activities developing relationships with
their subjects and clients and therefore must constantly think about how to ask
questions that help their subjects open up.
Below are a few points to consider the next time youre planning interview
questions for your documentary.
1. Dont start with the cameras rolling
Start instead with building trust. Discuss unrelated issues to help open up to the
subject. A few preliminary interviews without a crew or cameras may also be
necessary to help develop a friendship. In the end, youre building a relationship
and any relationship that has any weight to it is equal in its contributions. If you
enter their home and force them to tell you their story without giving anything back,
its hardly conducive to building a balanced relationship and this will show in your
final footage.
When you do show up with your crew and cameras, get your subject familiar to the
lights and the camera but dont start running footage until you can see that they
are comfortable with the people and the equipment around them.

2. Start by getting the basics

Ask questions about family history, their personal background, their educational
background etc. This allows them a few easy questions to get started.
3. Ask permission based questions
When you get to asking more difficult questions consider asking permission based
questions. You can start these questions with phrases like
Im going to push you today if thats okay?
Do you mind if I ask you some uncomfortable questions?
4. Dont always fill in their pauses
When youre interviewing someone you may feel like you want to rescue them
from a pause. However, its not always beneficial to fill in these pauses. Give your
subjects time to think and explain themselves. This is where you often go beyond
the basics and get access to deeper and more personal information. Watch a Werner
Herzog documentary to see this technique in action. He uses it all of the time and it
adds for some of the best interview responses.
5. Put your subjects in touch with pain or their hopes and dreams
If youre looking for passionate testimonial then touch on the emotional buttons of
pain and joy. However, if youre not sincerely interested in the responses the subject
will sense that and will withhold information. You must be genuinely interested in
your subject for them to open up to you.
6. Use other peoples labels
If your subject is talking about their wife whose name is Amanda and hes referring
to her as Amanda then you should use those work markers as well. Dont refer to
her as his wife if he is referring to her as Amanda.
7. Ask questions in the same sensory metaphor
People often speak in sensory metaphors. The three types are
For example
Youre running away from the truth
Lets go forward on this one
Were heading in different directions
Look me up when youre in town
Im down in the dumps
8. Empathy
If people are reluctant to give you information you must think about empathy. What
would you do if you were in their situation? What things would make you talk?
Because only when you understand this can you unlock the key to that information.
Again, often talking about yourself and similar experiences can help reduce the
chances that they will think youre judging them negatively.

9. Ask open ended questions rather than leading questions

Leading questions get your subjects to answer in yes or no responses. However,
youre often looking for much more in depth information. Therefore you need to ask
open ended questions. These questions often start with why or how.
Alternatively they may be phrased as:
Can you tell me more about that?
I am not sure I understand
10. Repeat their words if you want more information
If you feel youve almost unlocked a goldmine of information but your subject stops,
you might consider using the last word in their sentence to prompt them to
For example, your subject may end their statement about being fired by their
employer of 20 years by saying its just not fair. Youre next questions could
simply be fair?
This simple question will allow them to continue speaking in more depth about the
issue at hand.
Good luck with your documentary interviews!

The Art of the Documentary Interview

Eliciting a Story from Your Interviewee
by Anthony Q. Artis
Interviews are a staple of documentary projects. Interviews seem simple enough to
the novice docmaker You simply point a camera at some interesting person, pop
off a few questions, and they will elegantly tell their personal life story with
emotion, depth, concise detail and in logical order. The reality is that a good
interview involving personal subject matter requires some careful thought, planning,
social skills and even a dose of psychology. A great interview is a lesson in the art of
eliciting a story from your interviewee. Not just any story, but their story. Told in
their own words, but in a manner that is focused, engaging, and has a clear
beginning, middle and end.
Brainstorm & Write Out Your Questions
How will you actually get your subject to talk about or explain the topic at hand?
Dont just wing it the day of your interview. Think about and write out your
questions in a logical order. If you have thoroughly researched your subject, this
part is easy. I recommend brainstorming and writing down every question that
anyone might possibly want to know about your subject or the topic, then going
back to identify the questions that most pertain to the goal(s) of your interview.
Once youve identified the key questions, put them in a logical order that will help
your subject narrate a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

These questions are now your map to guide your subject through a successful
interview. However, dont stay married to them, because you really want your
subject to be free to tell you the story in their mind. These written questions are just
to help you keep things focused in the right direction if the interview gets too far
away from your goals or skips over vital parts of the story at hand.
The Questions
The type of questions you ask will largely determine the quality and depth of your
interview. Avoid asking leading questions or questions that can be answered with a
simple yes or no. Remember, you want your subject to paint the picture, not just
color in your preconceived lines.
Leading questions are okay as follow-ups to your main questions, especially when
your questions will remain in the edited piece. But be careful they dont undermine
your intention of having the subject tell you what they have to say in full glorious
detail. Questions that begin with words such as how, why, where, and what will elicit
the stronger more in-depth answers from your subject. While questions that begin
with words such as: did, are, will and was, will likely get you short, general, one and
twoword answers the interview kiss of death.
Lay Out the Ground Rules
On interview day, remind your subject of the focus of your interview and
approximately how long the interview is going to be. Be mindful of any time
constraints theyve laid out, especially if they are V.I.P.s. When a major government
official, CEO, or celebrity grants you 15 minutes of their time, they very often have
no-nonsense handlers that watch the clock and pull them away promptly at the
agreed upon time.
Try to be forthright and honest about your approach and what is expected of the
subject in terms of answers and candidness. If there are sensitive or very personal
issues at hand, discuss how those issues will be treated and why its important for
them to share it with the audience. Remember these are real people you are asking
to publicly open up about painful memories, hopes and dreams, traumatic events,
personal secrets, private shames, embarrassments, ambitions, and family business.
They need to trust you. And you need to respect that trust.
If complete spontaneity is not necessary for your interview, you might even tell your
subject a few of the specific questions you will be asking ahead of time to allow
them time to think of how they will answer. The more they know in advance the less
likely they are to be nervous. Just before the interview starts, you want to give your
subject some basic instructions that will help them relax and, more importantly,

keep you from pulling out your hair in the editing room.
Also, dont forget to ask your subject and everyone else in the room to turn off their
cell phones. Above all, dont forget to turn off your own cell phone, or you could be
in for a very embarrassing interruption I know. If your subject does not turn off
their phone and they take a call keep the camera rolling. You never know what you
might capture in that little human moment an angry tirade to a lawyer, a tender
moment with their kid, a big deal going down, good news, bad news drama.
Warm Em Up
Start off with a few softball questions to get your subject warmed up. Remember,
you are trying to get your subject to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Make sure your questions logically lead them through each part and build up to the
main issue.
Warm-up questions should be easy factual questions about the persons general
background as it relates to the topic something that doesnt touch on anything
too emotional or deep. (That will come later. Ramp up to the heart of the matter by
covering some background questions that will lay out the context for the main topic.
If you were interviewing someone that survived a plane crash, you would want to
first establish the airport they left from, where they were flying to, why they took
the trip, what airline, on and on, leading up to the emotional moment of going
down. Be sensitive when dealing with emotional subjects.
The Interview
Okay, heres where we get to the heart of the interview process your questions
and conversation with your subject. Everything youve done up to this point
lighting, setting mics, framing, etc., will all have been for naught if you dont handle
your questioning properly.
It is now up to you and you alone to elicit your subjects funniest anecdotes, most
painful memories, long held secrets, detailed explanations, candid opinions in
other words, to elicit the story in a way that your audience will find compelling,
whether your interviewee is talking about their first knockout or their last insurance
seminar. But how does one actually do this? Browbeat them? Trick them? Ask them
for the real scoop? No, to all of the above. You simply have a real and candid
conversation with them. Its a little like a first date, only with notes and more to the
point. You employ many of the exact same social skills and gradually probing
questions to consciously lead your subject to relax, trust you, reveal themselves and
tell their own story and forget about the camera and lights.

The Soap Box Question

Once youve exhausted all your questions, I strongly suggest you give your subject
a soapbox question. Essentially, youre going to ask them, Is there anything else
we didnt cover or anything that youd like to say to people about [the topic]? This
is their chance to get up on their soapbox and deliver an opinion or commentary
about any aspect of the topic they want to speak on.
I have found that the soapbox question is often the most passionate part of the
interview with the best quotes. Sometimes it will even lead to a whole new segment
of the interview and a new even more candid conversation once youve struck a
chord with that person.
Even with a great set of well thought questions, you are inevitably leading the
conversation from your perspective. Your subject will probably still have at least one
or two things theyd like to say that they think is important or may have been
missed in earlier conversation. And ultimately, their perspective is what you really
want to capture. The soapbox question also provides an opportunity for them to
further explain any answer that they gave earlier that they feel was unclear or
Before You Call a Wrap
The wrap out is the last step of production where you pack up everything and tie up
any loose ends. Before you officially instruct your crew to wrap, you want to make
sure that you got all the coverage that youll need to edit. Do you need any reaction
shots? How about an establishing shot of the location? Did something come up in
the interview that suggests a cutaway or B-roll shot? Take a moment, check your
shot list and notes, then take a moment to think it through before you give the okay
to wrap. If it is, call it a day. Thank everyone profusely, especially your subject. Tell
them how you will follow up when the project is complete. Leave the place exactly
as you found it or even better. Check all of your gear. Go home and begin the real
work of editing your interview.