The Art of the Interview

Over the last ten years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people on video for a wide variety of projects – documentaries, art films, personal projects, and corporate video shoots. I don’t believe I ever received any instruction on how to interview – as a cameraperson, I simply found myself in the position of conducting interviews again and again.

I suppose it’s a skill taught in journalism school, though the aim there is usually primarily informational – to gather data with attribution, to build an argument and support a thesis. But the video interview has the potential to be something else – a portrait of a person in the act of storytelling.

Though we consume the content of interviews all the time – on the tv news, on the radio, in the newspaper, online – in every form of media we come across in our day – I’ve found that most people consider them essentially mysterious, and more than a little bit scary. Like the apocryphal aboriginal villagers who are scared that their soul will be stolen by a camera, a remarkable percentage of the people I interview initially react with fear – they sense powerful magic, and the possibility that something essential will be taken from them, beyond their control, and it freaks them out.

And in a way, they’re right. Something intangible and powerful does happen in a good interview. Often it’s experienced in a trancelike state – there is arcane equipment involved, cameras with sparkling lenses and bright lights, and of course the incredibly rare experience of holding the undivided attention of one or two impeccably avid listeners, carefully absorbing your every word. Sometimes it feels more like therapy than anything else.

A bad interview can likewise be traumatic, and it in some cases letting your guard down, being yourself and speaking your truth CAN be decidedly ill-advised. The stakes are high, as is evident with every new iteration of a reality tv show that is edited to twist characters into caricatures of themselves.

Occasionally a filmmaker or journalist gains a reputation for their skill as an interviewer – Errol Morris is the best example of a documentarian artist/interviewer, and of course there’s Barbara Walters on tv, and Ira Glass on the radio. But I never hear the act of interviewing itself being discussed as an art form, which I firmly believe it is.

A good interviewer, like a good film director, is mostly invisible in their influence over what happens in front of the camera – but they can be identified by the brilliance that shines through their subjects. I hesitate to take credit for an amazing interview – the content absolutely belongs to the interviewee – but I do feel some authorship, as a medium or a vessel, helping midwife the story into expression.

There’s something shamanic and highly ritualized about it, and as Walter Benjamin pointed out, art was born out of spiritual ritual – it only became something separately commodified quite recently in its history.

Of course, interviews are key features in the works of art we call “documentary films” – but except with a filmmaker like Errol Morris, they’re usually thought of as raw materials, building blocks of the greater work which is treated as a work of collage and montage. In fact, there’s a kind of uneasiness around relying too heavily on interviews, a film that is too reliant on “talking heads” is often derided in cinematic circles, as though it’s too close to a work of journalism rather than a work of art. Maybe this uneasiness is directly related to the fact of the interview being co-created with the interviewee, a work of shared authorship – rather than more exclusively under the control of the filmmaker / interviewer.

So, this is something I want to explore further – the interview as freestanding work of art, a shared ritual of empathic storytelling, emotional catharsis and reflective portraiture. The interview has been understood as a skill, a craft, and a trade – what would it mean to treat it as an art unto itself?

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