Interviewing the Interviewers
Posted Nov 13, 2009

One of the elements of traditional wedding and event videography that made it an easy target for its detractors, at least in the early days, was the infamous wedding reception interview. It played into the worst stereotypes of the old school videographer: the sweaty guy with the bulky equipment shoving microphones and blinding lights in the faces of unsuspecting guests who wanted nothing more than to finish their dinners in peace. Part of the problem was the equipment: You couldn’t do the job without the bulk or the light in those days, and you couldn’t put in a hard day’s work with that kind of gear without working up a major sweat. But the bigger problem was strategic: The reception was always a less-than-opportune time to do interviews, partly because being asked to improvise a few wise words for the bride and groom was annoying to all but the most attention-starved, and partly because the joyful frenzy of a typical wedding reception didn’t provide the most conducive circumstances for getting reflective, compelling responses—the sort of thing poet William Wordsworth described as “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Of course, the first and most common solution videographers found for the bad rep associated with interviews was to stop doing them. The decline of the guest interview went hand in hand with the unobtrusiveness movement in wedding video, the retreat into the shadows that inspired the closest thing to a Hippocratic oath videographers have ever taken: “You won’t even know I’m there.”

But the problem with the unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall approach is that in the absence of any more substantial connection to the event or the people involved, the objective, fly-on-the-wall stance leaves very little room for storytelling. After a while, most weddings start to look and play out the same from that remote spot on the wall.

In novels and feature films, there are two types of stories that can work equally well, depending on the particular strengths of the teller and the tale: plot-driven and character-driven. In the world of wedding videography—and its more story-oriented offspring, wedding filmmaking—we don’t have that kind of flexibility. The plot doesn’t change substantially from event to event, so the real story flows from the characters. It’s these characters’ personalities and their individual and shared experiences that give the event its real meaning, dimension, and uniqueness and will drive the film you make of it—that is, if you find a way to bring those characters to the forefront of your film through their own words and unique gestures.

Enter the modern-day wedding and event filmmaker’s interview. In the contemporary approach, interviews are done the day of the wedding, the day of the rehearsal, or in-studio or on-location before or after the event. The time or locale may vary, but it happens anywhere but the reception dinner table and always in an environment where the filmmaker has some control over the circumstances of the interview and can apply his or her own expertise in these scenarios to get results that serve as more than sound bites or filler—something more personal, revealing, and unique than the tired “You’ll always be my little girl” clichés. I spoke with four leading wedding and event filmmakers who have established their personal styles and reputations in the industry largely based on the compelling, revealing, funny, and moving stories they collect in their interviews with the key players in their events and the seamless and powerful ways they incorporate these interviews into the films they produce. The panel assembled for this article includes 2008 EventDV 25 honoree and Wedding Bee blogger William Gaff of Virginia-based HumanStory (www.humanstoryfilms.com); WedFACTION award-winning producer Kristen Turick of New York-based Artifact Documentaries (www.artifactdocumentaries.com); and two Boston-area standouts, 2009 WEVA Expo speaker Whit Wales of Whit Wales Wedding Films (www.walesfilms.com) and WEVA Hall of Famer, 2006 EventDV 25 honoree, and venerable video historian Hal Slifer of Hal Slifer Video (www.biographystories.com). Those are our interviewees; here come the questions.

How Did You Get Into Interviewing?
As with any other element of developing a unique style in this field, becoming an interviewing event filmmaker is part vision, part practice, part figuring out what you’re good at, and part carving out a distinctive niche in your market with the films you produce. As a videomaking pioneer in the Greater Boston market, Hal Slifer has been producing interview-driven “video histories” for a quarter-century, incorporating multiple generations of voices and characters into the concept, love story, and “legacy biography” films he screens at bar mitzvahs, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and other later-in- life events through interviews he conducts in his Newton, Mass., studio or other off-site (that is, non-event venue) locations. “It seems that everyone has a ‘history script’ playing inside their heads,” Slifer says, “and everyone loves to talk about their life.”

For Whit Wales (below), adding interviews was a matter of looking at his ever-evolving working style a few years back and discovering that he now had room for the interviewing element that he’d adopted and abandoned in his first wedding season when he “didn’t know any better.” Specifically, his return to interviewing happened when he realized that the time he spent with the family on the rehearsal day could easily lend itself to interviews. “As I did more destination weddings I found myself film- ing and then photographing more rehearsals as part of a wedding weekend. If I’m going to be present a day before the wedding, I thought, why not put me to work filming/ documenting the thoughts and emotions surrounding the event and the moments that had led up to it? I simply expanded this idea to set up time before the rehearsal to engage with the couple and their families, and it has evolved from there.”

Whit Wales, speaking at WEVA Expo 2009

For Kristen Turick, incorporating interviews was something she and her husband (and primary shooter) pursued as a way of making their films feel more like documentaries. “For our second wedding, we pitched the idea of doing a formal interview after the wedding. This interview would capture thoughts about the wedding day and the history of the couple’s lives together before they wed. It would then be woven into the film to tell a more complete story about one of the most momentous moments in their lives.” Several years on, she says, “the interviews have helped mold our documentary style. They add a genuine, honest, and real feel to our documentaries that would never be there if we didn’t include them.” Shooting these types of interviews and incorporating them into their documentary films, Turick says, enables her to work in the style of her primary influences and inspirations: documentarians Ira Glass, Morgan Spurlock, and … William Gaff.

Debbie and Bill's Opening Sequence from Artifact Documentaries on Vimeo.

Gaff says he simply brought his love for “interview-driven documentaries for both radio and film” with him when he started doing wedding films. “There is something about the honest and intimate quality of interviews that draw me into a story. I have been pulled into stories on subjects that I would have otherwise had no interest in because of the rhythms and nuances of a firsthand account told by someone with a deep emotional connection to the subject matter. While I had edited them for years,” he continues, “my first attempt at preparing for and conducting interviews was when I started working on a biography for my parents. When someone suggested I try shooting a wedding, I immediately wanted to incorporate some biographical storytelling element as an added layer to the films. While initial attempts were far from perfect, I really felt I was on to something special.”

Leaning in- an excerpt from Kristen's interview from William Gaff on Vimeo.

Who Do You Interview, When, Where, and For How Long?
Hal Slifer (below) may just have the most comprehensive interview program of anyone in the business. He uses interviews in all the types of personal event productions he does—love stories, concepts, biographies—and varies the number, type, and length, as well as how he goes about mixing them with event footage and humorous feature film clips, based on the type of film he’s creating. (For a more extensive explanation of Hal Slifer’s interview process and technique, see the sidebar, “A Few Minutes With Hal Slifer.”)

Video historian Hal Slifer

When producing a 40- to 60-minute “legacy biography” video that will be delivered after the event rather than presented during it, Slifer interviews not only the bride and groom (or the honoree in a bar or bat mitzvah or elder birthday celebration) but an assortment of family members. For a wedding- or event-day presentation, he sticks to the bride and groom only for a wedding, the bar or bat mitzvah child and parents for a mitzvah, and the honoree plus spouse and children for a birthday or retirement production. He conducts all interviews away from the event venue, prior to the event, either in front of a green screen in his studio (which allows his editors to add photographs to the backdrop), or—as in most love-story productions—some scenic location that has special meaning to the bride and groom.

“Many of our larger projects will have us interview 15–25 people beyond the immediate family,” Slifer says. “When this happens, not everyone will be able to make a major statement on the video. I learned quickly, in my career, that everyone must make the final cut or they get upset with our company. The people we interview have taken a half day off from work, bought a new suit, had their hair done, and expect lots of ‘air time.’ Many people get lost on the editing floor, so we have come up with a great formula. We tell people that we will produce an ‘A’ video and a ‘B’ video. The ‘A’ production is a short, entertaining sound-bite version and the ‘B’ version is a video of everything that everyone said. This way if someone watches the ‘A’ video and only sees two sentences of his 30-minute interview, he’ll know that the rest of his interview will still be seen by the honoree” in the “B” version.

Gaff usually does his interviews the day of the wedding, but he carefully manages his time to make sure the entire story can be covered in the array of interviews done that day. “We usually do about 6–10 interviews,” Gaff says. “The choice is made by the client and me, and is based upon their wishes and the needs of the story. We do a loose schedule depending on when we anticipate the subjects’ availabilities are throughout the day. If the interviews are done on the wedding day, we spend 10–15 minutes with each person. If they’re done in advance, they run from 20–60 minutes in length. Any more than that seems to tire people out.”

“We try not to disrupt the events of the day, so most of our ‘on-the-fly’ interviews happen before the ceremony takes place,” Turick says. “If we can, we’ll try to get an interview with the bride and groom and close friends and relatives, asking our couples in advance who wouldn’t mind being interviewed. Depending on how events unfold, we’ll try to grab as many interviews as we can throughout the day, setting them up as time and locations permit. Most times, these happen while we’re shooting the couple getting ready for the day. However, the nature of a live event, timing issues, logistics, and an overall flurry of activity make it difficult to grab great interviews. Sometimes they get interrupted and there’s often a lot of background noise, so it’s also hard to get clear audio at times. For this reason, we’ve started bringing along an audio engineer to ensure the best quality sound. We like to do formal interviews a couple weeks after the wedding in the couple’s home, as it is comfortable for them and it also adds a sense of nostalgia as they watch their film again and again throughout their lives.” These formal interviews, she says, may run 2 hours or longer.

How Do You Get Them Talking?
As Slifer has explained in his seminars and articles over the years, one of the great advantages of presenting interview-driven love stories at events is that it helps guests who may come from the bride’s side of the aisle get to know the groom (and vice versa), so they feel a more genuine connection to the couple they’ve come to celebrate. Helping the audience feel a real connection to a real person is one great advantage of incorporating interviews into a wedding film, but it’s not something you get simply by rolling the camera and saying “Talk to me.” As the interviewer and producer, you need to establish that connection first and engender the sort of trust that will bring out revealing and compelling stories. The stories and emotions come next; the sound bites simply follow.

The first step with any interviewee is creating a comfortable environment where your subjects feel like they can open up. Prescreening on both sides should help with that; if your work involves a lot of interviews and your prospective clients don’t want to talk on-screen (or in voice over), maybe they shouldn’t be booking you. But even a client who’s fully onboard with the process may need a certain amount of warm-up to feel at ease. “Each client has their comfort zone,” says Wales. “Some want nothing to do with speaking before the camera and sometimes you are a prisoner of your own success because clients see the work and say, ‘Oh, I could never be that articulate. I could never do that.’ I think it’s important to set the bar low. No expectations. I always say, ‘If this is not compelling, I’m happy to simply put the full interviews in a separate menu.’ Ultimately, I tell them, ‘These words will be important to you,’ and I believe that to be the case.”

“I tell my interviewees not to worry about the session, as I will only be asking them brief questions,” Slifer says. “Once they come to the studio we have a conversation outside the actual interview area. We casually talk about how they know the person being honored for the video. This way I get to hear what they might want to talk about. Once it’s time for the interview, I excuse myself by saying I have to go upstairs to change a tape. I tell them where the bathroom is and offer them something to drink. This way they can compose themselves before the big interview. Once the interview starts, on camera, I let them talk about anything and everything. They’ve been obsessing about this for a week or two and they have all sorts of information and long stories they want to tell. I let them go on nonstop for three to six minutes. None of this ever makes the final video, yet it allows them to get it out, and also gives me more information to home in on with my questions.”

Gaff (below) eschews the off-camera pre-interview in favor of a gradual on-camera easing in. “It’s all about easing them into storytelling mode as quickly as possible,” he says. “I start rolling right away while already engaged in conversation. They’re often not even aware we are recording. I let them know that we edit their interview and that they will not be on camera in the final production for long periods of time, making them look and sound awkward. Once people are allowed to get into their natural storytelling mode, the stories and emotions tend to flow a little better.”

2008 EventDV 25 honoree and Wedding Bee blogger William Gaff

There are a number of things that shooter/interviewers can do to make their subjects more comfortable, Gaff says. “During the interview we go through great efforts to ensure they are put at ease. An important part of this is giving them a sense of how the interview is being used. Another important part is de-emphasizing the presence of the tools we are using by not constantly fiddling with the camera, mics, or lights.”

Turick follows a similar approach. “We don’t do a pre-interview or send them questions as we prefer to get something that’s not rehearsed and more about the emotion,” she says. “The only thing we ask is that they try to be themselves and not worry about making their comments perfect. These interviews are conducted more like a conversation so that we can get the most genuine responses.”

While generally one to downplay the role of trendy gear in capturing meaningful stories in wedding films, Wales acknowledges that the Canon 5D Mark II comes in especially handy when he’s warming up an interview subject. “To wake them up, I’ll use my 5D not only to film but also to take some still shots. I think photography helps to grab people’s attention. Very often, it focuses them and gets them past that first hurdle of concern about you and the lens. When we take photos, we engage in a more direct dialogue with the subject, whereas when the film camera sits there flat—as it does so often in an interview situation—the immediacy can be drained out of the situation.”

Do You Go In With a List of Questions?
As with any other type of interviewing, it’s important to arrive at an interview well-prepared, whether you’re the interviewer or interviewee. But by and large, event filmmakers aren’t doing hard-hitting investigative reporting or coming in with a set agenda of must-cover topics. You’re simply trying to get your subjects to talk about themselves and their families in ways that will preserve the stories that are most worth preserving. But you’re also trying to create films worth watching, and at least to some degree that means applying your own expertise to draw out the stories you need to make that happen. Wales says he goes into an interview with a list of general questions, but he is always ready to let an interview take its own course. “The generalized nature of the questions allows for character to be revealed and contrasted” when integrating material from multiple interviews that may cover similar topics. “I discourage preparation; it simply raises the stakes and expectations for the person being filmed. I want the couple to feel as relaxed as possible and see this time as a confirming of our relationship on the wedding day.” (For a full list of Wales’ sample questions that he brings to an interview, see the sidebar, “16 Questions: The Whit Wales Interview Outline.”)

“Doing your homework ahead of time always makes for a much better interview,” Gaff says. “Our interviewees know of the topics ahead of time but are not given a list of questions. Such lists do not actually exist. It’s never about the questions, only the answers,” he explains. “This is an important point. You can almost always attribute a shallow, clichéd film to the fact that the interviewer came in with a list of questions. You want honest stories, not answers to questions. There’s a big difference.”

For Turick and Artifact Documentaries, the approach differs somewhat between on-the-fly interviews conducted on the wedding day and the more formal interviews she and her husband do after the fact. “We do always ask certain questions. How did they meet? What was the proposal like? When did they fall in love? We ask all these questions to gather insight into their personalities and get sound bites for the story that will form the backbone of their film. We like to do our formal interviews after the wedding, so that we can ask questions directly related to the day that can help put the puzzle together.”

Slifer says that for him, the prepared questions come in after the initial, open-ended 3- to 6-minute opening segment where he rolls the camera and the interviewees just talk. “Once they finish their rap, I know I’m ready to ask the questions I will need to make the production work. I am editing the info inside my mind as I talk to different people and I know what I need to let each interview segue into the next sound bite from another person.”

Turick adds that prepared questions should never get in the way of an interview that’s digging deep and bringing out strong emotions on its own. “I say let the emotion flow! You never know what you’re going to get, and it may be much better than any question we could ask. It can also lead you to discover new things about the couple and lead to asking further questions that may play into your story.”

Do You Ever Script Your Interviews or Interview for the Edit?
Like any element that takes you incrementally away from the straight-cuts, old-school wedding document, adding interviews means you have to look at your productions more subjectively, divine or construct a storyline from the events and the characters in your film, and assemble the building blocks of those stories in a way that will work on-screen. The challenge is that you’re not working with scripted or staged material, which means those pieces might not fall into place as neatly as you might like. I’ve encountered one very successful and accomplished wedding filmmaker in an online forum who says she “scripts” all her interviews from the rudiments of the story the bride and groom give her to make them work effectively and as part of a cohesive whole when she produces her film. How tempting is it to lead or direct your interviewees to certain talking points or turns of phrase that you know will add punch, drama, continuity, or seamlessness to your work?

“My bridal couples trust me,” Slifer says. “Usually, they’ve seen my work at another wedding or on the internet and want to have an experience like the wedding they were at. When the bridal couple comes to my office for their interview I show them footage of a ‘Wedding at the Wedding’ [same-day edit] where the audience is applauding and watching a production at a reception. I tell them I’m going to produce a video for them that will give their guests the same experience.

The bridal couple begins to feel comfortable with my direction and is ready for me to help guide them through the process, even if it means having them say a line again in a little different version because I asked them to. They want the production to be great and they trust my judgment.”

Gaff is opposed to any degree of scripting. “You may as well write it for them. This never works. You can say (and truly mean) something like, ‘I don’t fully understand that. Can you explain that to me again in another way?’ In my experience, [telling them what to say or how to say it] only results in flat, clichéd answers.”

Turick (below) agrees. “We’re slightly purists in that, shooting documentary style, we don’t interrupt an on-the-fly interview to get just the right phrasing. Our intent is to document the day as it happens, not to direct it. My job as an editor is to work those sound bites in the right way, to make them feel true and real. Our style relies heavily on capturing the events as they unfold and scripting interviews would lose some of the genuine, honest quality that we are able to portray in our films.”

Documentarian Kristen Turick

My Couples Don’t Finish Each Other’s Sentences; How Do You Get Yours to Finish Each Other’s Stories?
One of the coolest techniques used in interview-driven wedding films is the presentation of a single story in multiple voices, where the bride and groom or other enlisted storytellers are essentially building the same narrative in seamless succession. It’s easier said than done, of course, and if you try too hard to shoehorn your edit into this sort of approach, you risk producing the sort of formulaic, clichéd, or inauthentic filmmaking that Gaff warns against. The most obvious and common way to get the bride and groom to tell the same story separately is, of course, to interview them separately. And this approach has other advantages from a storytelling perspective, beyond the obvious he said/she said synergy. “With the bride and groom, it’s critical to separate them,” Wales says. “That’s part of the fun, adds a little bit of tension, uncertainty, and an opportunity to test one’s affirmation of the upcoming marital relationship. What is he/she saying about me? What am I saying about him or her? Very often the questions serve to ground couples and they comment to me that having engaged in this type of chat on the rehearsal day allows them to be much more prepared mentally for the wedding day.” But the idea that they’re contributing to a single storyline, Wales says, should be clear from the first time the couple sees his work. “The portfolio/samples clue them in. I’m basically trying to create a single narrative thread from multiple points of view.”

“Our ‘day-of’ interviews with the bride and groom are done separately primarily for logistical reasons,” Turick says. “But we also love the raw emotion that happens early on in the day, and find that interviewing the couple separately gives us insight into their individual personalities that we can then use in the documentary to help the viewer get to know them better. The exception to this is our formal interviews (conducted a couple of weeks after the wedding) in which we interview the bride and groom together. Where they can feed off each other recalling events of the day, how they met, and so on—this is also where a lot of the humor starts to come into play.”

Wales says it’s important to listen for the threads of the stories coming together as the interviews progress; by doing so you can help build connections in the storylines without necessarily forcing them. “It’s important to listen carefully, and if the bride raises an issue, a moment, make sure and follow up with the groom. If other family members are involved, build that moment into the thread.”

How Do You Pick the Stories and Sound Bites You Use and Weave Your Raw Interview Elements into Your Films?
In the just-published Last Night at Twisted River, in one of the defining lines of his long and storied career, novelist John Irving writes, “A writer’s job [is] imagining, truly, a whole story ... because real-life stories [are] never whole, never complete in the way that novels [can] be.”

Likewise, it’s a documentary filmmaker’s job, arguably, to give a story, however fragmented or diffuse, a sense of “wholeness” by matching up its essential elements in a way that’s true to the life stories being told but more cohesively assembled than the way they initially unfolded or came out in the interviews. The matching and connecting are ultimately the editor’s job; a key point in the interview-to-story-to-film process is when you start listening to your interviews to see how they’ll ultimately fit together. For Hal Slifer, this process often starts during the interviews themselves, when he begins to hear how the film will come together. “Luckily I have a good memory, and as I get involved with the different people I interview I start a theme, in my mind, of the finished story,” he says. “I let people tell me anything and everything, yet at the end of the interview I will go back and get the five or six essential sound bites that I know will flow with the other sound bites that are running in the script, in my mind.”

“I listen for themes and stories that can be used in the final edit,” Gaff says. “More often, though, I’m listening for the unique and real comments and observations of each person. I’m never sure how they will fit together until the edit, but because the interview is a discovery process, I am shaping a picture in my mind and refining it as we go along.

“There are ‘A-ha!’ moments during the interview where I think, ‘I know that will work/connect,’ but I don’t worry about trying to create or shape a result,” Gaff continues. “I simply have faith that if I can allow people to be comfortable and honestly address intimate and emotional issues openly, good things will come from that.”

Bill Gaff interviewing

But not everyone is going to see clear storylines emerging—particularly storylines that can be intermingled effectively with all the other elements of a wedding video—in their first forays into interviewing. Trusting too much in the process isn’t necessarily a good idea when you’re new to it. “If you haven’t done a great deal of interviewing couples before,” Wales cautions, “I would suggest lowering expectations for yourself as well. Better to keep things simple and then let growth evolve rather than overreaching with the first effort that may stymie further inquiry in the form. What I love about the medium is that it can be forgiving: You can solve a lot with shrewd editing and more importantly, you have close to immediate feedback on what you’ve just filmed to be able to learn from each shoot.” 

And on the editing end, there is a lot to learn. After all, you’re not just piecing together interviews. With productions created to capture not just the interviews but the wedding or event itself, you’re potentially mixing interview clips, voice overs, live footage and audio from the day, a soundtrack, and more—a potentially overwhelming challenge. The key, to Gaff, is to deal with the audio elements first. “Once I have the interview stringout done, I will do what is called a ‘radio edit,’ where I only worry about interviews, significant natural sound, and music. Not the visuals. This gives you a better idea of content, flow, and feel. It’s too easy for the music to overpower the story, but when you have a good balance, it’s truly amazing.”

Another important element of balance is found in varying the length and rhythm of the sound bites you use. “I like to think that I’m building a series of sound bites that create a longer sentence,” Wales says. “But I do try to vary the length of the phrases. And when a moment of breath or extended phrasing is called for, I like to push what I consider the limit of comfort with how long a thought might go on. It makes me a little nervous when I do it; I, as the viewer, don’t know how and if this is going to end tightly or nicely.

Vantage Point Custom Films' Laura Moses, being interviewed by Whit Wales

But I like that suspense. And from an aesthetic point of view,” he continues, “I don’t bind myself to the soundtrack. By separating the words and the story, I’m not held to the music.” For Turick, the length or cadence of an interview bite is all about context. “It really depends on how the interview is being used at a particular moment. Sometimes the story needs to breathe and we need to see the couple, so we might hang on the interview for a bit in order to see facial expressions and mannerisms that contribute to us getting to know the couple. If I’m putting footage over an interview segment that doesn’t have underlying music, we’ll generally let the shots hang longer as it feels more comfortable for the viewer. But in any case,” she continues, “the interviews and the music never dictate our decisions. We go through an extraordinarily long music selection process, and will often replace songs two or three times as the edit comes together until everything feels just right and we feel that the entire story is a cohesive whole. The interviews fit in the same way. Sometimes, what might, at first, sound like a great moment in an interview, ultimately doesn’t fit with anything else we’re cutting. If it distracts from the flow of the story, as good as it may be, we think it’s best to leave it out of the documentary. But the couple always has all the interview on another DVD we provide them.”

A still from a formal interview by Kristen Turick

What Are the Most Challenging Interview Situations You Face, and How Do You Deal With Them?
At times, all the preparation, warm-up, and experience in the world aren’t going to make an interview run smoothly or play out well in the final edit. You’ll have interviewees who, for all your best efforts, won’t open up or aren’t inclined to catchy or compelling turns of phrase. Others will simply stop after a particular remark or anecdote and say, “Don’t use that.” All manner of other challenging interview situations may arise. What situations are out there looming, in terms of the foreseeable unforeseen, and how should they be handled?

“Bridal couples are fine to work with and there are never any issues with them, as they both are into my productions,” Slifer says. “I have had times when the Bar Mitzvah boy has a melt- down because his mom is sitting in the room telling him to say the line again—so now I don’t have moms in the room with the Bar Mitzvah boy anymore. To get around a Bar or Bat Mitzvah meltdown, I tell the parents to allow their child to have the school day off or at least half of the day off and to take them out to lunch so the child is feeling special and in a good mood by the time they come to my studio,” Slifer continues. “On a side note, I always have a parent in the room when I interview a Bat Mitzvah girl, and I never place a wireless mic on a bride or a Bat Mitzvah girl, as someone could say I touched them inappropriately. I always have the groom or parent put the mic on a bride or a Bat Mitzvah girl, as someone could say I touched them inappropriately. I always have the groom or parent put the mic on a bride or young girl. I charge my interviews by the hour, so if a child is having a meltdown, it’s on the clock, and the parents are aware of my investment fees. When I have three or more different Bar Mitzvah interviews lined up, I set aside time so that I can have my own, off-camera meltdown at the end of the day.” 

Often, the problem is camera-shyness, a more general reticence with the interview process, or the simple reality that eloquent storytelling isn’t a particular subject’s forte. “Most of our couples come to us because they like the interviews and would like them incorporated into their film,” Turick says. “So at least with our formal interviews, we never have issues with the bride and groom not giving us anything good to work with. However, if an impromptu interview doesn’t seem to be revealing much or the subject just felt uncomfortable, then we might cut the interview short and see what we can do with it in post. More often than not, though, it’s not their discomfort that’s the issue, it’s the natural tendency of people wanting to respond with one- or two-word answers that makes it challenging. We do try to coach them to repeat the question in their answers, but they often get so swept up in the excitement that they forget. Regardless, we still almost always get something that we can work with in post.”

“The few times in which interviews have not been in the primary edit,” Wales says, “it’s been due to linguistic issues that would have placed the struggle of language over content. Ultimately, this would have overshadowed the wedding video itself. Ironically, I think that in 30 years, to look back at one’s grandparents—whom one may or may not have known and now have access to only through a wedding video—what a mind-blower it will be to see that two generations earlier, they were struggling with the English language and were so direct in their assessments about success and goodness.”

The important thing, Wales maintains, is to find the “good” interview in the “bad” one, because every interviewee, however ineloquent, is a character in your character-driven story. “Even a ‘non-character’ is a character,” Wales says. “Sometimes all the more so. The medium of film or video is extremely delicate and unforgiving to anything disingenuous. It amplifies it a thousand times. But it also rewards generously that which is real. We can watch it for days. It’s not what’s being said, but how it’s being said, and if that isn’t your point of view in this process, I think you’re missing out.”

Sidebar: How Do You Shoot and Light Your Interviews?
As you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t an article about the technical aspects of shooting interviews. There are plenty of good resources on this topic; a great place to start is an instructional DVD I reviewed in 2007, Doug Jensen’s How to Setup, Light, & Shoot Great-Looking Interviews. It sells for only $40; provides great tips on key topics such as interviewee positioning and three-point lighting, as well as insight on why these things are important; and is available from www.vortexmedia.com.

Of course, what Jensen’s DVD doesn’t tell you is how William Gaff, Hal Slifer, Kristen Turick, and Whit Wales set up, light, and shoot their interviews (or how they get clear, strong audio, which is crucial), and how they attune the tech side of their interviewing to their respective filmmaking styles.

Hal Slifer interviewing

Here’s a quick rundown from each of them:

William Gaff: I just do straight, film-style, single-camera shooting. I use natural available light or simple off-camera light that looks as natural as possible. I don’t use multi-camera, overstylized looks, or editing gimmicks. All of those things remove the honest connection between the viewer and the subject.

Hal Slifer: I use one camera and separate soft light box. I have a monitor that I’m looking at during the interview, and I show the interviewees what they look like, on the monitor, before we start shooting. I don’t get that involved with two cameras, as most of my productions are headshots edited with many photos of the story that the person is voicing over. As for what I use in the final edit, the ratio is roughly one-third talking head shot and two-thirds images over their voice.

Kristen Turick: Jeff, my husband and partner, is our main shooter. As a director of photography and cameraman for nearly 20 years, he has shot and lit many interviews, so he shoots our formal interviews, which might be lit with anywhere from three to five lights in order to strike a nice balance between the lighting of the subjects and creating a mood. For these formal interviews, which we like to do in the couple’s home, the bride and groom are always mic’d with wireless lavalieres and shot with two cameras—one wide, one tight. For on-the-fly (day-of) interviews, we scope out a good place where we can get nice light and often have some activity going on in the background. For example, in one of our films we interviewed the maid of honor while the bride was having photos taken in the background. This was a great play, in that we were able to get sound bites talking about how gorgeous the bride looked, while in the background the bride was having the photo shoot of her life. We usually just use a shotgun mic on these.

Whit Wales: I shoot most of my interviews single-cam. I frame left and right but not talking to each other. I look for window light. I focus on foreground close-up primacy, long end of the lens, distance, and depth of field. I pop out the subject in the foreground with a lovely bokeh background. I shoot for a natural, tasteful, balanced, non-studio look.

Sidebar: A Few Minutes With Hal Slifer
For productions that we produce that are shown at an event such as a Wedding at a Wedding, A Bar Mitzvah History or a birthday or retirement party, we realize we have a limited time element to showing the video. Usually these videos are shown towards the end of dinner and need to be no shorter than 8 minutes yet no longer than 15 minutes. These types of videos are produced to entertain the guests different than a Biography Video that can be 40–60 minutes long that is produced for the private enjoyment of family members. Knowing that we have a time constraint, we usually only interview the bride and groom, The Bar Mitzvah boy and his parents or just the honoree of a birthday or retirement and their mate and children.

Our interviews are based on time, money, and the location of the interview. For our bridal interviews we want to get a history of how they met. At first we used to take them on location to a beautiful park or where they first met yet this was time consuming. We realized that the audience enjoys hearing their story yet they do not have to see them on location. Instead of a four-hour shoot, we brought it down to a one-hour shoot. The location, at my office with a backdrop, is not creative, but we edit in many photographs as the bride and groom voiceover their history to make the production enjoyable. At first, when we decided to interview the bridal couple at the studio and not on location, we thought this would hurt the quality of the production, yet the audience did not care as long as the story was enjoyable and the photographs, and funny Hollywood movie clips, showcased the love between the bride and groom.

Before the interview session, I have the bride and groom tell me how they met. Once I hear the story I then tell them what I heard and what was the highlight of the story. This way we can take away all of the extraneous parts and go after what the audience wants to hear. I give the bridal couple a few minutes to discuss their stories as I want them to have some time to themselves. I usually tell them I have to set up some equipment as an excuse to give then time to relax and digest what they are going to say.

Once they come to my greenscreen room, I interview them privately and ask each of them the same questions that I have gathered from their conversations.

Most of the videos I show at events include funny movie scenes and television clips that correspond to the story of the wedding, Bar Mitzvah, or retirement party. I will help the interviewee stage their lines so the funny clip will fit the story.

When we produce a Biography Story that will become a longer family heirloom, we do not script the interviewee as much as we do when we are preparing an event video.

For those types of videos, we interview anyone and everyone that is part of the family and friends of the person whose life we are producing. We have a prescripting session with the person who is paying the bill to find out what type of budget they have for us to create their family masterpiece. If they are on a tight budget we do less interviews with people at our office; if they have a large budget we will interview everyone on their list at whatever location they like, usually at a home or a rented hotel room.

Many times the production is a surprise for the birthday or anniversary couple and we try and interview the honoree by telling them it’s for someone else’s family history that a family member won at a church auction or company outing. We once did a large production for an accountant who was retiring and we told him his interview was part of a larger product where we were interviewing many accountants as a mentoring program for new accountants. We sprinkled in many questions about accounting and just enough questions about his life and history so that he was not aware we were really producing a surprise video of his life for his family.

For the Biography Story, we ask the paying client what questions should we ask and also what questions should we stay away from. Our basic questions deal with the following chapters of one's life:

  • Parents of the honoree and their history
  • Where the honoree was born and his childhood
  • High school and college
  • Meeting and getting married
  • Raising a family
  • Business and community
  • Travel and friends
  • Looking back on one’s life
  • We are given a list of people to interview and which chapters that person can talk to.

    —Hal Slifer

    16 Questions: The Whit Wales Interview Outline
    Here are the questions I provide to couple and parents, Not much to them, really.

    For the couple:

    1. How are you feeling now—the day before the wedding?
    2. When did you first meet? What did you first think of each other?
    3. What was the moment when you thought your relationship was something special?
    4. When did you know that it was for a lifetime?
    5. What do you most value about...? What special qualities, characteristics?
    6. What should the world know about...?
    7. How are you different? How are you alike?
    8. What do you hope for in this marriage?
    9. What do you want to say to the future?
    10. What do you want to say to your parents?

    For the parents:

    1. How are you feeling at this moment?
    2. What was … like as a small child?
    3. What qualities do you most appreciate in …?
    4. When did you perceive that their relationship was different?
    5. What do you like most about your future child in-law?
    6. What advice—based on your experiences—would you offer to …?
    7. What are your hopes for … as a couple?
    8. Finish the sentence, "On the day _______ was born..."

    —Whit Wales

    Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and programming director of EventDV-TV.