The fourth annual Japan Writers Conference will be held Oct. 10-11 in Tokyo, with about 30 writers from various genres and media giving presentations on the technical, artistic and business aspects of their careers.
One of them will be me. I’m going to give a talk on “Interviewing Creative Subjects,” based on my own experience of interviewing novelists, actors, artists, movie directors and other creative people for newspaper features stories.
Sometimes you’ll be the first to discover a creative person, but in many cases the people you will interview have been interviewed before – especially movie people. They tend to have answered the same old questions a thousand times, and they have a supply of canned answers ready to go.
But these are not the questions you want to ask, or the answers you want to get.
If you ask new questions, you will get new answers.
Then you can use those answers to write an article that contains quotes and information that your readers haven’t seen before.
Two years ago I did an interview with Sylvester Stallone that illustrates at least three of the points I will make in my JWC presentation.
1. Look for themes in the work
The topic of the interview was the fourth movie in Stallone’s Rambo series, which was about to open in Japan. I attended a screening of the film before the interview. (Seeing, reading or listening to your subject’s latest movie, book or album is the minimum starting point of the preparation you should do.) I was put off by the unrelenting violence, and I was shocked to see that footage of real violence was mixed in. The movie takes place in Burma (or Myanmar) and one of the real-life clips showed a Japanese journalist named Kenji Nagai being shot to death by government forces.
At first, I couldn’t think of any questions that I would enjoy asking Stallone – who directed and cowrote the film, as well as starring in it – but my preparation for the interview also included going to the video store and renting the three previous Rambo movies to see if any patterns emerged. I realized that the new film was far more cynical than its predecessors. In the first movie, Rambo uses violence to justifiably (if extravagantly) defend himself against corrupt police who are persecuting him. It’s tragic, but at least the guilty pay for their sins. In the next two movies, Rambo uses violence to make the world a better place, by rescuing forgotten American prisoners in Vietnam or helping to liberate Afghan villagers from Soviet invaders. But in the new movie, Rambo’s violence accomplishes nothing. The world is left at least as badly off as it was before, and the few surviving characters are all a lot less happy at the end.
So, I asked Stallone if this reflected an evolution in his worldview. He gave me an earful about how, “As you get older you get more cynical.” He expanded on that bleak theme with some eloquence.
2. Ask the hard questions – softly
I went into the interview thinking that his inclusion of Nagai’s death was tasteless and offensive. But I would have gotten nowhere in the interview if I had asked, “Why did you do such a tasteless and offense thing?”
Instead, I mentioned that I recognized this particular scene from among the real-life footage he used, and then I asked how he hoped, or expected, that Japanese audiences would react to it.
I was trying to sound curious rather than hostile. This approach worked. Stallone seemed quite happy to answer the question, perhaps because he knew he was talking to someone who had paid close enough attention to his film to notice this detail, or perhaps because he was eager to discuss it and I had presented myself as someone who was ready to listen to his answer. I showed him that I was looking for an explanation rather than an argument, and he gave me an answer I could use in my story.
If your interview subject made a creative (or even political) choice that you disagree with, don’t pick a fight. Simply state what they did and then ask a neutral question that requires them to explain themselves, such as: “What were you trying to accomplish by doing that?” “What went into that decision?” “How do you anticipate (or hope) that people will respond?”
Interview subjects are likelier to open up and explain themselves to you if they think you are an understanding observer rather than an argumentative adversary.
3. An interview is not a review
Reviewing is good training for interviewing, because it gets you in the habit of analyzing creative works. But while a review is about what you think, an interview is about what the creator thinks. You should be more concerned with drawing out his or her ideas than with justifying your own.
If I had simply reviewed the 2008 “Rambo,” I would have been harsh. But my job as an interviewer was to get Stallone to explain himself, and then to pass those explanations on in ways that would be interesting and informative to readers.
Of course, a certain degree of description is unavoidable, and I began my article by calling “the fourth film in the series…the most violent, horrific and cynical yet.” I think that counts as fair warning to the type of moviegoer who would be put off by such fare, and I think it is a characterization that even Stallone would readily agree with. But beyond that, most of my article reports what he told me about his ideas – ideas that my questions showed him I was ready to listen to.
“Rambo” will probably never make my list of all time favorite movies. It’s too close to reality in its horror. But after eliciting Stallone’s explanation of the philosophy behind it, I can now say that I understand and respect what he was trying to do.
And those are insights that I was able to pass along to my readers.
For more in this vein, come to my JWC presentation at 10 a.m. on Oct. 11 (it’s a Monday, but a national holiday). A map to the campus venue in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, appears below. It is next to Ekoda Station on the Seibu Ikebukuro train line, and not far from Shin Ekoda Station on the Oedo subway line. Be aware that the main gate will be closed, and visitors will have to follow the signs to a gate on the south side. For more info, visit www.japanwritersconference.org or follow JapanWritersCon on Twitter.