Interview Tips for Writers

by Elizabeth Bardsley © 2004, 2008

Most fact-based or fact-inspired screenplays are derived, in some part, from interviews with individuals whose rights have been optioned in connection with the project. These interviews can provide personal stories and the essential emotional elements needed to bring docudramas to life. In addition to helping the writer flesh out the story and layer emotional richness into a screenplay, a properly recorded and well-conducted interview can also expedite the annotation process and calm the concerns of legal counsel. With that in mind, as someone who has overseen the annotations of more than one hundred and fifty docudramas, I offer the following tips for conducting recorded, in-person interviews.

Recording Devices:

There are two basic types of audio recording devices – digital voice recorders and cassette tape recorders.

Digital voice recorders can truly be a writer’s best friend. With these sleek little machines you can transfer your interviews to your computer with a USB cable for your future use and email them directly to us for transcription. Today, digital voice recorders start as low as twenty dollars. In our office, we are currently using Olympus VN-960PC Digital Voice Recorders, which holds up to sixteen hours of recording time.

Audio cassette recorders include the option of standard or micro cassettes. These were once the least expensive choice, but there appear to be fewer audio cassette recorders on the market today.

If you choose to use micro cassettes, the 60-minute tapes provide better quality recordings. Standard size cassettes all seem to provide the same quality of recording. After you have finished recording on both sides of any audio tape, take a moment to pop out both of the plastic tabs to prevent reuse of the tape.

Although our office has transitioned to using digital devices, I used an analog recorder for standard size cassettes for many years. When going this route, I recommend standard size cassettes over micro cassettes. It has been my experience that these machines and the tapes they use are less problematic. I had a GE model 3-5072 on my desk for years to conduct telephonic recorded interviews – it was not attractive, but it never failed me.

No matter your choice in recorders, my advice is to go into any office supply or electronics store and look at the machines – hit the buttons a few times and see what feels comfortable to you.

Whatever recording device you decide on, don’t forget batteries. Head out for your research trip with fresh batteries in the machine and an extra set in your pack.

A voice activation feature on your recorder, will tend to distort the recording. Instead, buy an external microphone. Radio Shack sells a model that works with most recorders for about ten dollars. Be certain to take your recorder with you to the store and try the mic jack in your machine before you make the purchase.

A Quick Sound Check:

Before your interview, check your equipment to make certain it is working. Put the machine in a spot similar to where you expect to have it during your interview and take a seat where you plan to sit. Push record and do the old “test, one, two, three” in the tone that you intend to use during the interview. Stop, rewind and hit play. Can you hear yourself clearly? Try it a few times. Get comfortable with the feel of the buttons. Before you do your interview, you should be as comfortable working your recorder as you are with the keyboard on your computer.

Initial Contact With Your Subject:

Most likely your producer has already spoken to the people you are going to interview. Ask the producer to make the initial introduction, which can easily be done by a conference call. Call the interviewees by yourself later and take a few minutes to tell them a little bit about you and to develop some familiarity with these people prior to actually meeting them.

One writer told me that he makes a point to take the interviewees to dinner the night before he intends to start interviewing, and I think that that is a fabulous idea. It gives everyone a chance to become comfortable with one another and to explain about the interviewing and recording process. This is also the perfect opportunity to encourage the subjects to ask whatever questions they may have about you before the interviews begin. Do stress the need to speak clearly and to not speak over others for the purpose of the recording.

Preparing For Your Interview:

Chances are that you were provided with source material by the producer that induced you to accept this project in the first place. Whether it was a book, newspaper articles, or a video tape, you were probably left with unanswered questions after you reviewed it and those are usually great questions to ask your interview subject. You may have already had a story meeting too – is there a softer, human-interest side that the creative executive feels is lacking from the initial story? Make a step sheet of key points you want to cover to keep you on track. I know it sounds simplistic, but I also know that you won’t be sorry.

Do a bit of your own research too. Jump online and see what you can find about the story and any of the individuals you intend to interview. The more knowledgeable you are, the more comfortable the interviewees will tend to be.

In addition to your questions about the actual story, make yourself a list of back story questions to ask your subject. From your research materials you know a bit about these people and the area they live in and you should expand on that. Some basic questions will help to get your subjects talking and give you a chance to know them better. Again, a step sheet of questions will keep you on track.

Determine Your Interview Location:

Avoid conducting your interviews in a restaurant, bar, while eating a meal, while in an automobile, or in any location where there is background noise. Eliminate any possible distractions to the interview such as children, pets or cell phones.

First Things First:

As soon as you turn the machine on and see those little wheels turning or the recording light on, do the following:

  • Identify yourself
  • Identify the interviewee.
  • State the date and the project that the interview pertains to.
  • Ask and receive permission from the interviewee to record the conversation.

    BOB SMITH: This is Bob Smith, S-M-I-T-H, and I am
    interviewing Jane Doe, D-O-E, on September 24, 2007,
    in regard to a project called “Interview Tips for Writers.” Jane, do I have your permission to record this interview?

    JANE DOE: Yes, you do.

    BOB SMITH: Thank you Jane. Now, I’d like to start with some questions about you… how long have you lived here
    in Burbank?

Your Interview:

Most people want to be helpful and tell you as much as possible. After all, that is what the producers have paid them for. However, it is up to you, as the writer, to structure the interview in such a way that you will obtain the most honest and accurate insight into events. Focus, focus, focus and maintain control of the interview.

Several writers I spoke with cautioned against starting the interviews with questions about the big event [i.e.: whatever reason the story was sold as a movie]. Instead, ask these people questions about their lives and get to know them a bit. Listen to their anecdotal stories. Look at whatever these people are willing to share with you – home movies, photo albums, newspaper clippings, correspondence, et cetera. Stay focused and attentive, no matter what. These people are giving you a glimpse into their lives and want to know that you not only care about the story, but that you also care about them. While you may decide not use any of this early interview material for your script, it is a means to let your subject settle into a comfortable zone with you.

Let the subject talk. Do not step on their responses. Let them finish their thoughts and sentences. Don’t lay out a situation for them and then ask them if that is how it happened – listen to their recollections, to their story. And whatever you do – don’t be one of those writers who spends the interview talking about themselves. [You’d be surprised!]

After Your Interview:

Many times the individuals you interview will request a copy of the interview tapes or digital audio files and/or the transcripts of the interviews. Check with your producer and their legal counsel before you commit to providing anything.

Lastly, when you get back from your research trip put your tapes and any research materials you may have gathered in a safe place. If you used a digital voice recorder, transfer the files onto your computer’s hard drive immediately. As an additional precaution, burn the files onto CD. Remember that there is always the possibility that you may have to turn over your tapes or audio files, and any material gathered during the research stage, before your screenplay is produced.