How To Handle Tough Interview Situations

This is the fifth post in a series I am writing on lessons learned in documentary camera work while attending the Maine Media Workshops. Be sure to catch up on the other four articles:

In this post I want to continue looking at the topic of interviews and briefly examine two types of difficult interview situations and how to handle each.

Tough Interview Situation #1 - Subjects who want to completely take over the interview

At some point you will encounter an interview subject who will start to ramble for minutes and minutes, sometimes going way off topic. Several years ago when shooting a promotional video on HDV tape, I had one subject who almost filled up a full 60-minute tape with answers to only two or three questions. 

Your skills as both a conversationalist and a listener really come into play here. You have to give your subject the freedom to say what he/she wants to say. Otherwise you run the risk of challenging them on camera, which can damage the trust relationship that you have worked to build. You have to demonstrate an interest in their perspective, and then work in the questions you planned and try to guide the subject back on track. However, be open to the possibility that your subject may bring up a topic that you hadn't before considered, but would be a good avenue to pursue.

Tough Interview Situation #2 - Subjects who don't feel prepared to share

This is the polar opposite of situation #1. These subjects seem to freeze up when on camera. They start and stop, start and stop. They can't quite seem to get the words out the way they want to say them. The main cause of this is a lack of comfort. You have to do your part before and during the interview to help your subject feel relaxed, comfortable, and confident. If you are meeting your subject for the first time on set with all of the lights on, and your crew standing there, it can be intimidating. Meet your subject without the lights; without the camera. However, even with that preparation, your subject still may stumble through the first part of the interview. Be patient. Allow them to warm up. The first 20 minutes of the interview may be unusable in your final cut, but it will be worth it if your subject finally feels more comfortable and more open to sharing.

In what kind of tough interviews situations have you found yourself? Feel free to share your experiences and your solutions in the Comments section.