Mastering the pre-interview

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Mastering the pre interview 

I can’t believe I’m up to episode 6 of the ‘How to make a documentary series.’ Time really does fly when you’re making movies! 

 

This post is all about pre interviews – I’ll be breaking down what they are, how to conduct one and why I think they’re so helpful for developing your documentary film. 

Let’s get straight in! 

First up, what is a pre-interview? 

A pre-interview is an essential step towards crafting a well-told, engaging film story.  And it’s exactly what it sounds like, it’s an interview you do with someone before you ‘officially’ interview them. They’re beneficial because it  allows you to familiarise yourself with the interviewee’s story – and it also helps them become more comfortable with you (and your crew if you invite them along). Which will will make for a far better interview when it’s time to roll camera for your actual film. 

Here’s a curious tidbit to get you going: there are actually two types of pre-interviews. 

The first type is all about research. Loyal readers will know I’m a big fan of research and this passion really comes into its own during the pre-interview phase. Research based pre-interviews are an excellent avenue to get familiar with an expert in your film’s subject matter.  They might be a working professional in the area or someone with a relative lived experience – you really can pre-interview anyone who is relevant to your project. Anything (or anyone) goes. 

The second type of pre-interview is a little more like a casting exercise. Because it's all about testing the waters to assess if that expert can sing on screen and connect with your audience. 

I recommend keeping things casual to begin – suggest chatting over a cup of coffee, on the phone or via a video meeting platform like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. A flashy camera and recording device can make a participant feel uncomfortable or on edge, so don’t put them under the spotlight too quickly. 

These types of pre interviews are an excellent way to get a feel for your subject’s mannerism and the way they express themselves.  Go with your gut when it comes to these things – as a filmmaker, you’ll likely know when you find someone who will shine in your documentary. 

And don’t lose heart if the person you’re pre-interviewing doesn’t quite have that je ne sais quoi you were looking for. That’s exactly what this activity is for! Finding the right on-screen talent for your film. Providing they’re a genuine expert in you film’s subject area, they’ll no doubt help you to expand your own knowledge in the topic area.

I’ve had 45 minute conversations with subjects that have taught me more about a particular topic than a whole month of research could. 

Mission successful! 

What if I’m keen to unpack my gear and conduct my pre-interview with the cameras rolling? 

If you have a willing and ready interviewee, then go for it. But always be guided by the person you’re interviewing – if they’d prefer to start casually without an intimidating red recording light, honour that and leave your gear packed away until it’s time for the actual shoot day. 

However, if you are in a position when you can roll camera during the pre-interview phase, then you’ve just scored some incredible bonus content that you can weave through your proof of concept video, teaser or even the documentary itself if the quality is high enough.  

I’ve been fortunate to capture many pre-interviews on camera and the footage rarely just ends up stored on a drive somewhere or on the cutting room floor. You’ll always find a way to utilise it. 

In fact, one pre-interview Mike and I captured several years ago with the awe-inspiring (and Mike’s now mentor) Dr MR Rajagopal, actually spawned a feature film unto itself. 

We originally met with Raj for a completely different project – but his story was so captivating we knew we needed to do more with it. And the biopic about his life Hippocratic: 18 experiments in gently shaking the world was born. 

How many subjects should you pre-interview? 

Well, how much time have you got and how many stories do you want to share? You can conduct as few or as many pre-interviews as you feel is necessary.  Just be respectful of people time and be sure to explain what you intend to do with the interview.  For example, don’t tell someone they’ll be staring in your film as a ‘carrot’ to secure time with them if you’re not really intending to cast them in a major role.  Manage expectations.  People will prefer you’re clear about what you want to do with the interview and how you’ll use what they share with you. 

Something about this phase that I love is the ‘networking effect’ – I can’t count how many times I’ve organised a pre-interview, only to have the subject mention another person to me that I simply must speak with. And as a result I’ve had people feature in my film who’d I’d never even known about during the initial development period. 

What’s more, some of the folks I’ve pre-interviewed have even connected me with potential funders who have gone on to sponsor my films. All in all? Never underestimate the power of the pre-interview and always try to establish a strong rapport with the person you’re speaking with. 

You never know what – or who – they might know. 

Key tips for conducting the pre interview 

Interviewing is a fine art – even the pre-interview kind. Here are a few key tips to keep top of mind before you meet with your subject, cameras present or not. 

1. Make them feel comfortable 

The word ‘interview’ makes most people want to duck for cover. Reassure your subject that there are no mistakes or ‘right’ answers and let them know that they have plenty of time to get their point across. 

2. Let them know what you’re hoping to get out of the conversation 

Set up clear expectations for your subject. Particularly if you’re filming the interview so they know how long their answers should be, where they should look and how to go beyond a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Also praise goes a long way – it will make the interviewee feel much more comfortable and relaxed. Be encouraging and tell them that they’re doing a great job.

3. Be flexible  

While you should definitely come prepared with a few key questions, don’t be afraid to go off script if the conversation veers down an interesting but unexpected direction. Be sure to listen carefully to your subject’s answers and pursue questions that come to you in the moment. If the person you’re interviewing struggles to answer a particular question, move on. Listen for what your subject truly wants to talk about and go from there. 

4. Avoid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses 

Which means you need to avoid asking questions that might result in a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. You need your subject to speak at length and with passion so always ask open-ended questions. 

ie, rather than asking  ‘did you like that film?’ ask, ‘What was it about the film that resonated with you?' 
or instead of 'Were you planning on becoming a Doctor?' ask, 'What drew you to medicine?' 

Feeling more confident about pre-interviews? 

I hope this blog has helped you understand the importance of the pre-interview and how they can assist you when it comes to crafting your impactful documentary. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how to take your idea for a film and turn it into a ready for release motion picture, be sure to subscribe to the Moonshine Moonshot series. 

Each Tuesday, Mike Hill and I unpack a key are of documentary filmmaking and next week we’ve sharing the five key things you need in order to create a wining proposal that you can use to pitch for funding. 

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