The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

The interview technique that can get you an Emmy nomination

I like making films about difficult people.

It’s not a conscious decision and something I go looking for, but it’s worked out that the people who have done amazing things (and also some awful things) are challenging in some way.

They push against convention and often are seen as trouble.

When making films with these kinds of people, I developed an interview technique that relies on empathising with your interviewee - and asking tough questions.

My concern was that they would get angry and refuse to answer any more questions or simply get up and walk out.

But, I discovered something different.

When someone is in the chair, they see that as their opportunity to defend themselves and present their reasons for behaving how they do. They have no idea at that moment how you will use that material, and there’s no reason they should. (By the way, this isn’t about misrepresenting them - it’s just that the editing process should not concern them. But it should concern you).

I had the very difficult language teacher Michel Thomas in front of me, and I nervously thought I’d try a new approach.

He’d been involved in many arguments with institutions who might have been able to promote his ideas - if he had been less arrogant and defensive. I wanted him to express what he really felt about the authorities who rejected his ideas.

I had gone round in circles asking him what he thought about them, how he felt he was treated. I got nowhere. Then I decided to confront him.

Q: ”These people say you are impossible to work with the failure is all your fault. They say you are arrogant and you won’t listen to anyone else’s opinion”.

He then got angry, but in a controlled way, attacked his accusers. “These people know nothing…”.

Great TV.

I tried it with the science historian, who was attempting to investigate a Leonardo Da Vinci hidden in the Hall of the 500 in Florence, but had so upset the authorities that they rejected his application.

Q: Isn’t the reason you have been rejected because you are seen as rude, demanding and arrogant?

A: (Pointing at me). How dare they say that. Those people are idiots, and they know nothing etc. etc.

Another great moment.

The point is that if you want someone to express a strong opinion, you have to ask them a question that will create that emotion, not ask them about the argument.

And, because they see the interview as a chance to defend themselves, they will not walk out or refuse to answer.

When I asked the Italian historian the questions, the crew asked me how I let him treat me like that. They misunderstood that he wasn‘t being rude to me (although he was jabbing a finger at me at the time). Instead, he was attacking the position I was holding.

I also used exactly this technique, when I was making my feature documentary about the Titanic with a lovely, but very confrontational historian. I regularly challenged him about his behaviour - and got great TV moments.

Another quick example about what interviewees want from their encounter.

I was shooting a documentary, and my Assistant Producer wanted to ask some questions. She got to a point where the subject became emotional, and there were some tears. At that point, she stopped asking those questions and moved on.

She felt uncomfortable and didn’t wait in silence (which would have been a good choice - to see where it led) or ask more probing questions.

But she didn’t realise that the interviewee wanted to be there. He was using this as an opportunity to present how he felt. If he wanted to stop, he would have asked us to stop, or we would have been sensitive enough to do so.

I re-did the interview the next day.

I hope that helps. I’d love to know how you feel about it as an approach, and whether you’d be comfortable doing the same.

I, of course, have discussed this with my students. It’s why I think of The Doc Fix as the complete course. As well as narrative techniques, I’ll share any of my experiences to help a particular student breakthrough and become the best writer and director I can help them become.

Do fill out an application if you want to know more.