Friday, January 15, 2010

On Interviewing

So, over here, Justine Larbalestier gives tips on how to interview an author.  I remember reading (late one night at a webpage I can't find anymore) a really brilliant (similar in point but funnier in delivery) rant by Terry Pratchett on the same subject.  I guess that authors, seeing as they write, are more than happy to write about how to interview them.

Before I got into theatre reviewing (as my not-job), I did some theatre writing, which involved interviewing a bunch of theatre people.  Some of the people I interviewed intimidated the hell out of me -- you know, because they were famous and I loved their work.  (Or, in some cases, because they were famous and I didn't love their work.)  So, being the Type-A totally anal individual that I am, I planned and prepped like crazy.  And, in the process, I learned some things about interviewing, which (seeing as the topic has been brought to mind), I feel inclined to share.

1.  Justine L. over there says to research your subject.  I think that's good advice, but you do need a back-up plan.  Look, maybe authors (again, being all wordy) will be happy to ramble on at length no matter what question you ask them, but you get an actor in front of your tape recorder, and it's fairly likely that half your questions are going to miss.  (And by "miss," I mean, give you nothing worth reading and no opening for a follow-up.)  Man, there is nothing like that feeling you get when you craft the perfect question -- specifically suited to this particular actor and this particular role, and you get a one-syllable answer.  And what you've got to do then is have a completely different line of inquiry ready to go.  And when that one fails, have yet another line of inquiry ready.  I would approach every interview with two lists of questions -- the list of questions unique to the actor I'm talking to, and the "cut-and-paste interview question collection" -- 6 pages of generic questions I could ask any actor (or director, or set designer...) when I need to change direction.  And it surprised the hell out of me when a generic question (which I thought was pretty stupid to begin with) got a "hit" with an actor who had been giving me nothing with the questions I'd created just for him.

2.  By the way, that's how I started looking at it -- did the question "hit" or "miss."  And you could get a good solid interview with one or two "hits" if you had the good sense to listen to the answer and follow it up.  The goal here isn't to show off your brilliant question-writing abilities -- it's to get something out of the subject that's worth reading.  So keep poking around until you get a "hit," then put down your notes and run with it.

3.  Get your subject excited about something.  It's there; it may be hiding, but there's something that lights up your interviewee.  I had one interview where, after the interview, I confessed that I'm actually a lawyer.  He ignited like he hadn't at any point in the interview -- "I just entertain people," he said, "you help create social change."  If I'd had any sense at all, I would've put the recorder back on and started talking about theatre's ability to effect change.  That's just where he was that day, and that's where I would've gotten the best stuff.

4.  My favorite interview -- not that I've conducted, but that I've read -- is an interview that ran in Entertainment Weekly about 8 years ago with actor/director Kenneth Branagh, and the  interviewer asked Branagh if he wouldn't mind directing her.  So she whips out a passage from Henry V, starts reading it, and he immediately interrupts and starts giving her notes.  It's an insanely brilliant interview because rather than asking him to explain how he directs Shakespeare or how he approaches the text, she gets him to do it.  In an extremely short period of time, we learn his respect for the text, the depth of his understanding, and the way he combines the multitude of factors which motivate a character into his interpretation of a single couplet -- additionally, we see how he guides an actor AND (bonus) learn something about the passage in question.  Absolutely stunning.  I'm not suggesting the technique works with every interview (or even most interviews), but I always keep "get them to show rather than tell" in the back of my mind as the ultimate goal. 

5.  Of course, to make an interview like that one really sing, the interviewer has to have the ability to actually describe what Branagh was doing, rather than just transcribe what he's saying.  And there's a lesson in that, too -- and one I'm not seeing mentioned enough.  Coming up with decent questions and typing up the answers isn't the entire job of an interviewer, and you're lying to yourself if you think it is.  I did a couple dozen interviews, and -- with each one -- there was a lot more work after I'd transcribed the tape.  What do you print?  What do you edit out?  Which interviews read better as a transcript?  Which as an article?  Every interview leaves me with an impression of the actor -- a feeling about who or what he is -- how do I best convey it?  (Or, if it's a negative impression and I'm writing a puff piece, how do I best hide it?)  Look, when you post or publish an interview, you're still posting or publishing a writing -- it's something to be read.  And no matter how good the raw material that you use to create that writing, you're not going to get anywhere if you don't write it well


gcmoss said...

Soooooo??? Do you have a copy of this brilliant interview? I would love to read it!

nzforme said...

'fraid not. It was 18 years ago. (Did I say 8? That's what I get for posting after midnight.) Long lost -- but, damn, that I remember it after so long is a tribute to the writing.

Lori said...

This was an absolutely lovely post! Loved it! I learned to interview on-the-job, so to speak, when I worked for a newspaper. I would love to have read that interview with Brannagh (a favorite actor of mine, anyway). That interviewer knew what she was doing. You did a great job with these points; really good advice.