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Filming Authentic Conversations: How I Approach Interviews

Part and parcel of my role as a documentary storyteller is to reveal the meaningful thoughts and opinions of people relevant to the story being told. A key act in this endeavour is the interview – an element that is all too familiar to the documentary format.

Depending on the duration of the production (which can range from a few hours to a few months), the time I have with prospective interviewees varies greatly, though the task is always the same: to have an authentic conversation with the interviewee and help them bring across their thoughts succinctly and accurately onscreen.

Unlike a normal conversation, I perceive the process of an interview as starting from a disadvantageous point. There are lights, cameras, perhaps even a crew to oversee the process – and yet in the centre of it all is this supposedly intimate conversation that I am having with the interviewee; someone who might only be meeting me for the first time and now feels obligated to share his/her thoughts with me on camera. The unfamiliar environment rattles some more than others, but it is truly daunting for those who are aware of the key implication of participating in such a process – the granting to me of the rights to use his/her voice and likeness for the final video of which they will never have control over.

On the surface, it seems unreasonable to expect someone to share what they truly think on camera, especially in such conditions. The age of social media and perhaps even the social fabric of the Singapore society has also conditioned us to keep our thoughts to ourselves for fear of being divisive or disturbing the peace.

Simply put, there is much work that is needs to be done before a true and honest conversation can really happen.

Acknowledging this was very empowering for me as a documentary storyteller. In my previous article, I said that I always strive to do justice to stories told, and that involves honouring the trust given to me by the interviewees to not misconstrue their statements and to respect the intent of their content. It is seldom comforting for interviewees to hear me say that, so I often translate that belief into action. This is usually done in two stages – before and during the interview.

In the minutes, days, or weeks prior to an interview, I carry out an informal ‘on-boarding process’. My previous foray in the hospitality industry had taught me well in welcoming guests to new and unfamiliar experiences, and so I am often prepared with a concise and pleasant spiel that covers the general aspects of what the experience is about for the interviewee. Most important than the content of that spiel is the manner in which it is delivered. Once again, tapping into my hospitality past, I noticed that I often lower my head slightly, give a bright smile on my face, and use hand gestures to literally paint a guide of what is to occur. Obviously, this does not transform what might otherwise be a shy interviewee into a confident spokesperson – but when I serve as a comforting guide to bring them through the process, it goes a long way in helping them relax their defences.

This first stage is important to establish the attitude that would be conducive to the conducting of the interview, though little can be done for the reaction when the interviewee sees the set. Few have experienced being in the hot seat – and it can literally get quite hot some times with the surround of bright lights, a crew huddled up in a small place, and the fans and air-conditioning turned off to limit potential noise disturbances that might be picked up. With that, the interview begins.

In this second stage, my role is clear. The act of an interview is a turn-based format, and I am always the one to start. I begin by asking a question, usually one aimed at a low-hanging fruit to begin what I hope will be a meaningful conversation that just so happens to be recorded.

I am well-prepared, usually preparing a list of 3-5 questions based on research done prior to the interview, but I hardly ever use them. I often find it rewarding to throw away the script, if you will, and use cues that the interviewee gives me during his/her responses to my initial questions. If I listen earnestly, the questions I formulate on the spot would always result in a more meaningful response – this is because the quality of my questions are the strongest evidence to show the interviewee that I appreciate, empathise and even understand what he/she is contributing on camera. Sometimes I do not, but the effort in trying is palpable, and that is often rewarded with them opening up to me on camera.

When done right, something intimate occurs. The interview becomes less of a process to simply capture spoken dialogue visually, but more of a process of self-discovery – for my questions become stronger and more relevant to why they were sitting across me in the first place. Responses like, “I have never thought about it like that before” or “nobody has ever asked me that question before” are perhaps the greatest reward that I have experienced as an interviewer – for in the process of capturing content for a project, I have also had the opportunity to see my interviewees grow in front of the camera. You cannot script those moments – and the emotions from such moments pierce through the camera to the heart of the audience.

Interviews are, to me, a fundamental aspect of documentary filmmaking. Whether it is used in the final product or not, it must occur in order for the documentary to be made. What I have realised from conducting over 80 interviews since my first documentary in 2015 is that my belief of what documentary storytelling is has enabled me to transform interviews from routine processes into opportunities to capture moments of self-discovery and enlightenment on camera. It is truly a privilege.