Conducting Interviews for Reality TV, True Crime and Documentaries
Posted on: Nov 28, 2023
Whether you’re making a reality series or a documentary feature, interviewing effectively is a crucial skill for any producer or director.
Interview bites are central to most nonfiction narratives. They’re used to document the unique point of view (POV) of the interview subjects and infuse emotion and humanity into the story. Above all, they serve as a constant reminder to the audience that the stories we’re telling are real.
Candid, dynamic and emotionally genuine interviews elevate every project, making the final cut compelling, rather than merely serviceable. But achieving this isn’t simple. Conducting a great nonfiction interview requires warmth, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, compassion, tact, flexibility, thoroughness and savvy.
As a producer or director, you need to be committed to the story you’re telling. That being said, recognizing that the person you’re interviewing may have a very different opinion of the events you’re documenting is key. Being aware of this tension, plus being open to hearing their POV and knowing when and how to push into potentially uncomfortable territory, will help you shoot the best possible interview.
Sound like a tall order? It is. But don’t worry, you can hone your interviewing skills through observation, experience and by remembering a few key principles.
Create a Supportive Atmosphere
Your interviewees might be nervous, particularly if they’ve never been in front of a camera before. Your job is to create a relaxed, authentic, focused and professional atmosphere. Here’s how:
- Email an appearance release and a sheet of interview tips (for example, “Don’t wear white!”) a week in advance so they can look it over and ask any questions before they arrive.
- Inform them if there will or won’t be a makeup or hair person, and if they’ll have a green room space where they can wait before sitting down.
- Set a call time between 30-60 minutes before the interview starts. This gives your interviewee time to arrive and relax, and allows you time to assess their appearance, adjust lighting and mic them up correctly.
- Have water, snacks, a clean restroom and a private waiting area available.
- Get a signed appearance release before the interview begins. There’s no guarantee that your subject is going to be happy with what they’ve said when it’s over.
- Always treat the person you’re interviewing with respect, the way you’d want to be treated—but better. Your goal should be to make sure the interviewee feels like they’re on the same team as you. This will pay off down the line when you need to reconnect with them for additional audio or follow-ups.
No matter how stressed you feel or how tight your schedule is, remember that efficiency and professionalism don’t cost a thing.
Do Your Homework
The quickest way to lose an interviewee’s trust is by being unprepared. Knowing as much as you can about who you’re interviewing is essential for gaining and maintaining trust. If you’re shooting a reality show, watch all the footage your talent has been in, and that you understand their feelings about what has happened.
For documentaries and other nonfiction narratives, if you’re talking to a police detective or a murder victim’s family, you should read everything you can find on the case and crime you’ll be discussing. With academics or pop culture experts, familiarize yourself with their books and accomplishments so you can tailor your questions to their areas of expertise.
No one likes being asked random questions outside their experience by someone who hasn’t done their homework. That can ruin your interview instantly.
Shaping The Interview’s Flow
Although your list of interview questions should be both thorough and highly focused, you also need to remain flexible. No matter how important it is to have thought of every question, you need to know when to skip a question, move on and potentially return to it later. Here are a few tips:
- Get The Broad Strokes: This is particularly important in reality shows like Vanderpump Rules. Starting out with a question like, “Can you tell me the whole story of how Stassi ended up throwing a pie in your face?” allows your subject to recount the entire story as they see it, which will help their energy and make them feel empowered.
- Focus on Goals: Questions like, “What was your goal going into the drinks meeting with Stassi?” help your interviewee narrate the event you’re discussing in the present tense and the first person, which brings the audience into their experience.
- Make Sure the Audio is Useable: In other words, make sure the answer has enough spoken words that an editor can use what’s been said without needing your question as an explanation. “Yes” and “No,” or “I hate her” aren’t usable. A usable response is: “Stassi always thinks she’s right about everything. That’s why I hate her.”
- Follow Up: If an answer is short or vague, ask another question to get more sound on the topic. Focusing on feelings is good here (especially in a reality show or soap). “How did it make you feel when you realized Stassi had thrown a pie in your face?” “Have you ever had a pie thrown in your face?”
- Know When You’ve Got It: Often, you’ll have four questions, and when your interviewee answers the first one, they’ve answered the other three. Knowing that and understanding how your audio will cut together in the edit (even while you’re sitting in the interviewer’s chair) is key to getting all the content you need without exhausting your subject.
Respect and Navigate Sensitive Topics
In order to maintain the integrity of the process and your independence as a producer, it’s highly inadvisable to give any interviewee questions in advance, although generally discussing what you’re going to cover is fine.
As producers, we’d love for every question to be answered as candidly as possible, but we always need to be prepared for an interviewee to reject a question or to refuse to speak on a topic. When compiling your questions, be aware and respectful of any trauma interviewees have endured, whether it’s a family member who was murdered or a breakup. You never want to disrespect someone’s boundaries, regardless of the type of show you’re working on.
On reality series in particular, talent can be controlling of how they want to be perceived. They might try to shape the interview by avoiding important issues that need to be addressed on camera. As a producer, you need to be prepared for this and remain cordial and calm.
If someone says they won’t answer something, don’t engage in an argument. Move on and come back to the topic later, in a different way. They might be willing to discuss the issue later on. If they’re not, discuss with them why they don’t want to talk about a specific incident. This can help them and the audience, understand the troubling dynamic at play.
Remember that no sound bite, no matter how sensational, is worth creating a hostile environment where an interviewee feels attacked. The goal should be thorough, candid, energized and human interviews full of usable bites that bring your story to life.
To achieve this, you need to infuse the interview process with energy, candor and integrity.
Kellen Hertz has over 15 years of experience as a writer/producer and co-EP on shows ranging from Vanderpump Rules (BRAVO) to MTV’s Made and Netflix’s How to Become … series. She is interested in new opportunities.
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