23 April 2008

Old School Documentarian Interview

Snip from the 2006 edition of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook. The authors interviewed 111 industry professionals, among them Michael Apted. He echoes a common theme from the book: originality is the most important element to any good documentary. Or story, for that matter.

Q - What does the term "documentary" mean to you?

Michael - That's a very important question these days with the rise of reality TV. One of the hazards these days is that, reality is perceived by some people as documentary. If reality goes down the toilet as it surely will, as all things are cyclical, will documentaries go down the toilet with them? So it's nearly impossible to define what a documentary is. But I suppose I'd call it the observation of real life in a non-interventional way. It's important to see the difference with reality, which is at its heart, contrived. Some of it is very successful and illuminating, but it's contrived to put people into situations and see what they do. A documentary has them in a natural setting.

Q - What advice would you give a documentary filmmaker about choosing their subject matter?

Michael - The great thing about documentaries is that it's totally democratized. At very little cost you can go out and shoot, cut and finish a documentary. Before, it was a whole huge investment deal. That's the good news and the bad news. There are a lot of terrible films made because they don't think it through. "Let's make a film about my grandmother, " and off they go and do it. I think the important thing is not the choice of subject - it's your approach to it. Before you approach your documentary, you should figure out a very elementary structure to see what and where you want to go with the idea. The excitement of a documentary is that it's a real thing happening in front of you - you aren't working with a script in a way one does in fiction. But my advice would be to plot out a story so that it does have some purpose to it. Just don't go out there and shoot a ton of stuff on a subject and then hope you or someone else can come in and make sense of it. While it's much easier to make a documentary, it's much harder to get them seen. So if you want that to happen, you have to be doubly thoughtful about what it is.

Q - What advice would you give to new documentary filmmakers on the topic of interviewing subjects?

Michael - I've found that the best way to interview people is not to be very well prepared. You know what the subject is and you know what is going on, but to run through a list of questions is usually deadly. The only way to interview someone is to have a conversation with them and listen to what they say. This is best if you want something emotional and intimate. If you want the facts and you need it done crisply and cleanly, then of course, go in as crisp as you can. For all interviews, don't say very much. There's nothing worse than an interviewer who has diarrhea of the mouth. Keep the questions short and don't be afraid of silence. Sometimes silence is your best weapon. People will want to fill a silence and when they do, maybe they will come up with something for you. And don't go through the interview with them beforehand, as you only get it fresh and interesting once. If you blow that by driving in a car or having a cup of coffee with them while planning it out, you're dead. You'll wish that you'd been filming that time in the car or at coffee because you will never be able to capture that moment again.

Q - Is it difficult to be objective with subjects that you've been following for a long time?

Michael -You can't be objective. The word objective is bizarre. It means going in and being cold and formal with an interview in a documentary. That's not the way to do it at all. You have to build trust with the person. They have to know they're safe with you. You have to be emotionally involved. You need to be subjective. That's not to say you do whatever they want to do or agree with whatever they say. My point again is that you have to know what you are after. You have to know what your end result is even if it is a circuitous route to getting to it. If objective means distant and cold - forget it. If objective means being even-handed and fair minded, that's another thing and sometimes even that is irrelevant. If you are making a very passionate film about what you think is an injustice then you don't want to be even handed. But you have to be honest at least with the people you deal with. Then the way you approach them depends on what you are doing. If you want anything emotional or revealing then you have to be very much at one with your subject so you will give them the confidence to be open with you.

Q - Are there any differences when you interview children?

Michael - I find the best thing with children is not to patronize them. Treat them like adults. Once you start putting on funny voices or talking down to them, kids resent that.

Q - What advice would you give to new filmmakers on ethics?

Michael - It's a private matter. I don't think you can legislate for it. You have to be honorable. You have to tell people what you're going to do and do it. Don't cross any line to them. Don't lie to them. Don't deceive them. You might think I'm going to have to do something because it's very important that I get some statement out here and t may have to misrepresent it. Maybe you do, but it's a question of your personal ethics. I love arguing with people that documentary is a pure form whereas narrative films are contrived. But every edit you make is a judgment. Making a documentary film is full of judgment calls and therefore full of ethical calls as well. And I don't think doing something like paying people compromises things necessarily. I paid people on the Up films because it's a business and someone is trying to make money out of it and therefore why shouldn't they. If people are only doing it for money or they're being paid a lot to say something then there may be a strong ethical breach. Then you're buying information. But if you're paying people for their time or the exposure they have to deal with, there's a difference between those two things.

Q - To what extent should a filmmaker be thinking about their audience?

Michael -Always. We are in the business of entertainment. And too many documentaries show no thought of some end result. You have to make it for people. You are trying to communicate something. You don't patronize the audience. You don't confuse the audience. Pay attention to their needs. Know who your audience is so you can talk the right language to them. You're never making it for yourself.

Q - What are the common mistakes that you see new documentary filmmakers make?

Michael - The structure issue. The thought that all you have to do is shoot a lot of material and somehow the story will emerge. It's true with experienced documentarians as well. And it's become more endemic with the relative cheapness of stock and digital. Have some sense of the structure and the end product in your mind.
Maybe examining a provocative theory like Stanley Kubrick suffering from autism as a youngster is an original approach for our documentary about his obsession with Napoleon.

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