INTERVIEW TIPS FOR WRITERS
By Elizabeth Bardsley
Many 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 well-conducted and properly recorded interview can also expedite the annotation process and minimize the concerns of legal counsel. Chances are that you were provided with source material by the producer that motivated you to accept this project in the first place. Whether it was a book or a compilation of research materials, you were probably left with unanswered questions; those are the questions to ask your interview subjects. Make a step sheet of key points you want to cover during the interviews. I know it sounds simplistic, but I also know that you won't be sorry.
I suggest a bit of your own research too [just remember to keep a list of your research materials!]. Jump online and see what else you can find about the story and any of the individuals that you'll be speaking to or meeting with. The more knowledgeable you are, the more comfortable the interviewees will tend to be.
In addition to your questions about the actual story, consider making yourself a list of background questions to ask your subject. From your research, you likely know a bit about these people and the area they live in. You could expand upon that with some basic questions that may help get your subjects talking and give you a chance to know them better. Again, a step sheet may keep you on track.
Presumably your producer has already spoken to the people you are going to interview and will make an initial introduction to set the call or the actual meeting.
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 have spoken with caution against starting the interviews with questions about the big event [i.e.: whatever reason the story was sold as a basis for a screenplay]. Instead, try getting these people to tell you a bit about themselves - listen to their anecdotal stories. 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 to use any of this early interview material for your script, it is a means to get your subject(s) settled into a comfortable zone with you.
Let the subject(s) talk. Do not step on their responses. Let them finish their sentences and thoughts. 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 the writer who spends the interview talking about themselves. [You'd be surprised!]