Skip to main content

Doc U Recap: Directing for Documentary: The Interview

By KJ Relth

I'm not a journalist. I don't have a catalogue of questions. I come in and I don't have any questions at all. You have to assess the situation instantly. You have to find the right tone instantly because you have fifty minutes and that's that.
Werner Herzog

For the final Doc U seminar of 2011, members of the documentary community gathered on Monday, December 19 at Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater for a conversation on the art of the interview. The theater was decked out for the holidays, making us all thankful to be inside a toasty movie house instead of waiting in long lines at department stores. With the house close to capacity, everyone hunkered down for a serious and in-depth conversation on how best to get a subject to say what they mean in a way that works for a story.

Moderated by director/producer/writer Lisa Leeman (One Lucky Elephant; Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trunga), the panel consisted of directors Kirby Dick (Outrage; This Film is Not Yet Rated), Ondi Timoner (Dig!; We Live in Public), and David Weissman (The Cockettes; We Were Here) discussing their varied experiences conducting interviews for their documentary projects.

Lisa got the ball rolling by asking if anyone had their own unique philosophies about interviewing. The biggest takeaway from the panelist's responses was the importance of making this interaction a conversation. Having a series of questions with no flow or exchange won't get you anywhere—as Ondi said, "Let them feel your humanity." Most of the panelists were pretty against the idea of pre-interviewing, with David insisting that it "kills the freshness" of someone's recollection of a story.

Each director on the panel had their own amazing stories to tell, most of them involving either unintentional or planned deception—that is, deception "of sorts." Kirby insisted that "interviews in a bar are a great idea," seemingly due to the inevitable loosening up that follows alcohol consumption. Ondi had to hide her project's true nature to get an interview with a cult leader. When an interview subject refused to tell her traumatic story of being attacked by an elephant, Lisa's invitation to have the husband tell the story ultimately ended in the woman opening up to the cameras.

The clips each director brought with them provided perfect examples of the techniques each director gave name to. Ondi's clip from Join Us showed formally-involved cult members opening up to Ondi's camera, making this interview moment seem as natural as it would without the camera's presence. She then waltzes right into the cult leader's home, allowing him to tell his story without any preplanned intentions of her own. Kirby's clip from This Film is Not Yet Rated depicted a less-conventional interview style - an animated reenactment of a phone interview Kirby had with the head of the MPAA, which due to California law could not be recorded without her express permission. David's love for talking heads—and the fact that he keeps his camera right next to his face when he's interviewing—made his subject vulnerable yet relatable in his clip from the upcoming We Were Here.

The Q&A with the audience ended with a particularly pointed question about the ethics behind obtaining an interview from someone. How far is too far?, one audience member asked. "Each filmmaker has to determine their own ethics," David answered. "Thinking about the ethics is absolutely essential. It's central to what we do."

After the panel had wrapped up the Q&A, the guests and panelists met on the outside patio to continue the conversation over wine and treats. The chilly night was warmed by the inspiration everyone felt after the stimulating panel, and there was certainly a lot to digest.

Thanks to everyone who made Monday night a huge success. We'll see you at our next Doc U in late January!


Doc U is the International Documentary Association's series of educational seminars and workshops for aspiring and experienced documentary filmmakers. Taught by artists and industry experts, participants receive vital training and insight on various topics including: fundraising, distribution, licensing, marketing, and business tactics.



Special support provided by:

Los Angeles County Arts Commission HFPA AXIS PRO IMAX
HBO Archives Indie Printing


Members and Supporters of IDA