Directing Documentary – Episode 1 | The Interview

As Hidden Woods continues to grow and evolve, we seem to be leaning even harder on our roots in documentary style work. Commercial film production is still draped over the skeleton of story, and I’ve always held that there’s enough stories to be heard that are already out there. We just need to point our cameras and listen.

Though that sounds nice, there’s a ton more that goes into creating documentary-style commercial content. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but that’s the niche that Hidden Woods has really sunk our teeth into. Over the next few weeks I’ll be breaking down a bit of what goes into this style of filmmaking. 

Episode 1: The Interview

I wanted to start this off with the part of directing that I’m drawn to the most. Dave will laugh that I’ll look for any excuse to talk to someone, but interviews still call to me more than any other aspect of the job. There’s something so intimate and unique about sitting across from someone for an interview. It can be like therapy. It can also be like pulling teeth. Most importantly, it can make or break your project.  

The best piece of advice I’ve heard about interviews is that the best content will always come from when your subject comes to realize something they previously did not recognize, while on camera. Let’s talk about how to get there.

Former Senator Ken Salazar shows us how much a cowboy hat and bolo tie can add to an interview

I want to get started by throwing out some the ‘standard’ interview tropes (of which we have leaned on hundreds of times). Seated. Head in the upper right or left third of the frame. MCU and a 2nd angle CU. NPR-style introduction. Three point lighting. First talk about the subject at hand, then maybe tell an emotional story of a personal experience with said subject. “Is there anything else you’d like to say?”

These are all great fundamentals, and as I mentioned, fundamentals that we use all the time. But the real fun starts when you get to toss those somewhat by the wayside. Let’s stick a wide angle lens on and go handheld right in close. How about we don’t interrupt their work on a farm while we speak to them. Plunk our subject on a stool? How about leaning out of the drivers seat of an old ’79 Ford. You always want your subject to feel comfortable… unless you don’t. Sometimes you want subjects to ask themselves questions they haven’t before.

Kelly Pettyjohn repotting plants mid-interview

When I interviewed Robbie Balenger for our Nadamoo spot, I recognized a couple things off the bat. I knew very little about running, he knew a whole lot, and he was a bit wary to get in front of the camera. So we had a beer about it. Robbie took some time to warm up- often people feel like they have to instantly come up with answers that are profound. We took a few questions to shake the nerves out. It wasn’t until we got Robbie in the same mental state as he is when he’s running that the answers really started to flow. As I had him walk me through the logistical, physical, and emotional side of a run, Robbie started talking with such familiarity that the cameras and lights began to slip away. It was when he was able to speak from his heart, effortlessly and honestly this time around, when we started to strike gold.

It’s important to not just ask questions, but to guide the emotional state that the answers will come from. I often ask people to imagine themselves somewhere else, or to try to remember how the felt at a moment in the past. Finding the emotions associated with an experience will guide more honest answers- less of an analysis and more of a true relaying of the experience.

Robbie Balenger interviewed in his home – plenty of negative space, in close, and handheld

I draw inspiration from other interviewers. Everyone develops their style, their flow, their relationship with subjects. Anna Sale, host of the excellent podcast ‘Death, Sex, & Money’ is one of the best of the best. As you could guess by the name, the podcast focuses on topics that aren’t often popular dinner table conversations. In the episode ‘A Dirty Cop Comes Clean’, she interviews a former police officer who slowly sank into the throws of corruption. She fearlessly, but not aggressively, asks direct questions to the subject. “Did you think you deserved the extra cash you were taking?” “When was the first time you took money that wasn’t yours?” But it’s the follow up questions that really paint the picture. After her subject details his experience holding onto his first $100 of dirty money in the top of his locker for many months, she asks if he ended up spending it. Then, she asks, “do you remember what you bought?” I strive to be this nimble and adaptive in an interview. His answer is a perfect example of a quick realization that he perhaps hadn’t thought before. @2:51 below, though the whole clip is worth checking out.

I love her purely logistical questions too- “how did you carry all the money around?” “where did you keep it all?”. What a way to create the story from the purely human aspect of things, developing the profound from the mundane. Amazing. 

Finally, you have to listen. Seems like a no brainer, but when you’re running through the shot list for the afternoon and wondering if someone is picking up the catering for lunch, it’s easy to lose sight of it. Listening allows you to ask those follow up questions, to guide the interview back on subject, and to learn. Your subject can also tell right away if you check out, losing the rapport you’ve worked to build up. The subject needs to have someone to hear them, to give meaning to their words. 

An interview will often provide the skeleton to your piece. Don’t undervalue them.