Part two of SCC’s 20-year service awards was finally completed last Monday. I don’t feel the need to go through too much of the technical pros and cons of this project, because I feel most of the problems I had came from the production phase. I can sum those problems up in a short list: 1) Don’t shoot in front of a window, 2) Don’t listen to the client when he says he doesn’t want it done in H.D. 3) Bring a boom mic or extra lapel for those times when your interviewee wants to bring a buddy. I’d rather reflect on an aspect of this project that’s harder to see in the finished piece – building rapport with the subjects, and how to handle difficult subjects. To that end, allow me to tell you a story:
Mary* was scheduled for an interview one afternoon, but couldn’t make it. She rescheduled, but I found out in the meantime that she was somewhat nervous to sit down in front of the camera. Luckily, I knew and had worked with her before, so when the time came for the interview, I made sure that the camera was out of her direct line of sight. Before long, she was relaxed and had forgotten that the camera was even there. We had a good talk, and she answered all my questions very candidly. When our time was up, I think we both left the room feeling good. If anything, I was surprised by how much Mary had opened up and disclosed to me.
Apparently, after she had time to think and reflect about our conversation, Mary decided that she wasn’t comfortable with the interview. I had asked questions about her coworkers, her experiences working for the company, and any other topic that happened to come up in our conversation. She talked with her coworkers who were also interviewed, and learned they had been asked the same things about her and her boss. Mary didn’t know we were making tribute videos for her and her boss, so (I think) the targeted questioning made her suspicious and she complained to her boss and my boss. Luckily, my boss is a very smart lady and she was able to ease Mary’s concerns for the time being. But that didn’t stop Mary or a few of her coworkers from being quite suspicious of me for two months! Every Mary or her coworkers brought it up, I reminded them that I was the only person to see her interview, and that I would take care of her image. Of course, when we unveiled the videos last fall (Mary’s was unveiled Monday), all her fears went away. Mary and her coworkers even joked with me about the ordeal after the show.
At the time, Mary’s interview was a source of considerable stress for me. What I learned as a producer and interviewer is that things aren’t always what they seem with people. I didn’t know it at the time I interviewed her, but there were some factors in Mary’s life that should’ve changed the wording of some of my questions. I’ve known Mary for years, so I assumed that I had everything I needed to know to interview her. I shouldn’t have made that assumption. In the future, I should research which topics are “off-limits” to my subjects if those topics don’t have much to do with my film.
Another thing I learned through this process was the importance of making people feel that they can trust you. I told my subjects that they were welcome to say anything on camera they wanted; but I also promised them that I would be the only person to see their interview in its entirety and that I would not do anything with the video that would be perceived as embarrassing to them. With this approach, I was able to get true, genuine responses from people. I am still completely surprised by the honesty some people showed, and I feel a strong sense of responsibility to them because of that. It’s really humbling, actually.
Ultimately, I think good interviewing comes down to rapport and responsibility. There will always be subjects who are inherently distrustful of the camera. But if you can talk to someone as a friend, and let them know that you care about their image, too, you’ll be able to go a long way with your interview.