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Interview Questions for Documentary

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Greg BallInterview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 21, 2014 at 2:08:24 pm

We're shooting an interview for an international client. It's for a documentary they are producing.
They sent us 12 pages (single spaced) of interview questions. I all of my years I've never seen that many questions for an interview! Also the subject who answering the questions is 98 years old and hard of hearing.

What would you thnk would be a reasonable amount of questions for a 3 hour interview? I'm thinking 20 questions max. Any thoughts or suggestions?


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Jeff BreuerRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 21, 2014 at 2:22:59 pm

Is it three hours with setup and everything? If it's just for the interview, I hope the guy gets a couple breaks. My Grandfather is 93, I know that would be a lot for him. I hope the paper they sent you is more of a list of questions to choose from than anything else. The number of questions you can ask varies on a lot of things, in particular how long winded the interviewer is. Again, if he is anything like my Grandfather, you are going to have a tough time getting through five questions in three hours. You also need to account for followup questions. That is a big thing for me. An interview is always a discovery and you need to leave some room to follow up on some of those mysteries.

If the client sent you that long laundry list of questions, it might be best to have them prioritize them for you and just grind through as many as you can in the time you have.

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Greg BallRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 21, 2014 at 4:51:18 pm

Hi Jeff,

Thanks. No that was 3 hours just for the interview, excluding set-up time. No they wanted EVERY question asked and answered. The interviewee is also hard of hearing. I've asked the client to proritize and he went from 12 pages to 10 pages. Many questions are about there or 4 sentences. It's just crazy to think tat a hard of hearing 98 year old expert can answer this many questions.

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Todd TerryRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 21, 2014 at 5:17:49 pm
Last Edited By Todd Terry on Jul 21, 2014 at 5:19:25 pm

Well I think you have to ask yourself (and decide) if you are taking any sort of field producer's role in this project, or the client considers you just a "do what we ask" hired gun that is not looking for any creative input.

If it's the latter... ask their questions, get the answers as best you can, move on, and cash the check.

But if they are expecting a more active role from you as a field producer... then yes, a dozen pages of questions is asinine.

In a previous life I was a television news reporter for quite a few years (people who know me in my present baseball-cap-and-Hawaiian-shirt life find it hard to believe I used to have a closet full of Brooks Brothers suits, but it's true). It doesn't take doing that very long before realizing you can't go in with a long set of prepared questions and expect to get good television. An interview is a conversation, a flowing living thing where one answer might completely derail all your subsequent planned questions and spark a set of completely new ones. It's a journey, and one where you don't know the destination when you begin... it's one you have to travel and find out where it goes. Unless you are talking about something like a legal deposition where you have to ask questions "A" through "J" and have to ask them in that order and in that exact wording, then that's certainly no way to conduct an interview.

But I'm sure you know that.

In my opinion, the king of the on-camera interview... Dateline NBC's Keith Morrison. He's so brilliant, crafting questions that turn even tough interviews into soundbite machines (he's an unbelievably good writer, too).

I also feel for ya with the hard-of-hearing issue. Our city is/was home to Wernher von Braun's German rocket team. Those old guys are dying off fast (of those left, I think the average age is about 100), and people are always coming in to interview them while they can. We've shot a few for outside producers. I remember one gal from California who came in to interview one of them, Ernst Stuhlinger. Poor old Dr. Stuhlinger was deaf as a post by then, and this reporter had a soft thin little mousy voice. He couldn't understand a word she said. She would ask these long complicated questions, and he'd lean in and in his thick German accent say "I don't understand." She'd ask again, not louder, but rephrasing the question. I was just a hired shooter but I finally took the reporter aside and told her "It's not that the doesn't comprehend the question... this guy put men on the moon. He just can't HEAR you." I don't think she ever quite got it, though.


Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

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Greg BallRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 21, 2014 at 5:33:45 pm

Thanks Todd. Yep, I've done lots of interviews that really turn into conversations.

The Ernst Stuhlinger interview you described is exactly the scenario I was up against.

The guy we're interviewing obviously couldn't hear my questions. But wouldn't say so. I was trying to speak quite loudly. I think he was relying partially on reading my lips. So when I had a long multi sentenced question, he couldn't read my lips becuase I was looking down at the question. He couldn't paraphrase my questions into his answer. The guy is a genius otherwise.

I got the fact that he couldn't hear...but honestly I've counted about 200 questions with multiple questions within those questions. So we're talking about 4-500 questions. I would think that even with answering 5-10 questions an hour, we'd be looking at 3-5 full days of interview

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Jeff BreuerRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 21, 2014 at 7:25:30 pm

Greg, in terms of prioritizing the questions, I know it is going to be tough to get the client to trim his questions down further. What would be great is if he could highlight the burning questions, or at least rate the importance of a question from 1-5. There is a good chance you will be in the position of what can realistically be accomplished and have to make a judgement call on what questions cannot be asked. That might help make the difference in the edit when some starts screaming, "We need to shoot another interview!"


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Mark SuszkoRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 21, 2014 at 7:42:16 pm

Why can't you put the questions on index cards, and hand them to the guy, one at a time, then take them away, and roll?

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Nick GriffinRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 21, 2014 at 9:09:46 pm

[Todd Terry] " An interview is a conversation, a flowing living thing where one answer might completely derail all your subsequent planned questions and spark a set of completely new ones."

That's exactly how I work and I do several of these a year. AND... the first few questions are just to get the interviewee talking. Then a conversation. Be sure to begin with a) stating that your voice is never heard, b) explaining that because it will be heavily edited there will be a lot of redundancy in the questions and, c) explaining that because it will be edited things like "as I said before" and the like can't be used because in the edit we may or may not have heard something before.

Now, the real problem. You said 94?? That's going to be tough and yes will probably take more than 3 hours. A LOT more. You're going to burn a LOT of tape/disk space/ drive space.

I have a few people in Europe who, by trade, are engineers and think that they are helping by providing questions. Ask for TOPICS, not specific questions. And ten pages? People who've never worked with interviews and interview footage tend to have little to no idea how the process works and what can and can't realistically be done.

I think Mark's idea of putting the questions on cards is, as usual, very smart. But be sure to use big enough, dark enough type on big enough cards so that a 94 year old can READ them.

Good luck. I believe that we all think you're going to need it.

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Ned MillerRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 22, 2014 at 12:40:20 am

My first thought was that you hit 4 when you told your printer to print the attachment. How could they send out so many questions? I thought only the Dr. Phil Show did that...

I shot about 30 of the Steven Spielberg Holocaust testimonials for a project called Shoah and we did have over 3 hour interviews with people in their 90's. But hey, 90 is the new 70! I found it was best to do them as early in the morning as possible and keep the key light as low in intensity as possible. Frequent breaks, let them take a nap. You should prioritize the questions in case they poop out but what I found surprising is that they can't tell you what they had for breakfast or the name of their grand kids but they have almost a total recall from 70 years ago, although they get the stories mixed up.

Some are sprightly and will be able to do it but I have found at that age they don't get the concept of incorporating the question within the answer. As an option I think you should mic yourself, just in case the editor needs your voice to set up their answer.

Please let us know how it went. BTW, on one Spielberg gig they called me at the last minute on a Sunday morning and said a man in his 90's was in a hospice bed in his son's house and finally agreed to talk about his experience as a partisan in the woods. He was on a ventilator so could only do a few words at a time. It was a 90 minute drive and they said he may die before I got there and to steel myself that he may die on camera while I was rolling. I did it and it was worth it!

Ned Miller
Chicago Videographer

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Greg BallRe: Interview Questions for Documentary
by on Jul 22, 2014 at 2:02:10 am

Thanks everyone. The interview was shot last week. We got through about 4 pages. The client is considering another day of shooting. That's what prompted this thread.

To Mark's suggestion about index cards, it's a great idea, however there are about 300 questions in total. The client has very little budget, so he couldnt spring for a day of pre-production from my end. Our crew traveled 3 hours and stayed overnight in a local hotel. So there was not a budget for us to wait around for him to nap. The interview surround the subject's expertise. It required top notch questions and answers. it wasn't emotional, it was factual.

This interview will be combined with other interviews to form the documentary. So the viewers can't hear my questions.

The reshoot is what I'm concerned with. The client still wants all of the questions asked. I just don't think it's possible. That's why I'm asking for suggestions.

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