At the 2010 Japan Writers Conference last month, I gave a presentation on interviewing creative subjects. It was based on what I have learned over nearly a decade of journalism in which I have often interviewed authors, actors, movie directors and other creative people.
Many of these people are celebrities, but I never approach my task as a “celebrity interview.” Instead, I focus meeting a “creative subject” whose work – a book, a movie, or a collection of art – I now have the chance to discuss with them. I believe it is much more interesting to learn about what they were thinking as they made their creations, and how they went about doing it, and what they hope to accomplish, than to pry into their sex lives or gush over their designer clothing.
I find “celebrity” journalism boring. But “creative subjects” fascinate me.
But because they are often celebrities, many of these people have been interviewed dozens or hundreds of times before, and they are tired of it. They have stock answers to all the predictable questions. If those are the only questions you ask, you’ll wind up with a bunch of quotes that many of your readers will have seen before, which will make for an unexciting article.
To get new answers, you must ask new questions. And that takes research.
In the part of my presentation shown in the video below, I describe some of the ways you can do pre-interview research on the Internet. Check YouTube for interviews the person has already done. Follow your subject on Twitter. See what Wikipedia and Imdb have to say, but double-check what you find there.
This sort of preparation improved the results of my interviews with the actors Bob Amaral, Christian Bale, Rachel Nichols and Marlon Wayans. Watch the video to hear how.
Look beyond their usual field
You can sometimes get a new angle on a creative person’s work by asking about things they have done slightly outside of their usual field.
If you are interviewing a movie actor, have they also done work on the stage? Have they done voices for animation? If you’re interviewing a painter, sculptor or architect, have they ever worked on stage or movie sets? Has your movie director also done TV ads or music videos? Has your musician ever worked on a soundtrack for a movie or video game? Did your novelist have a cameo role in a screen adaptation of their work?
Look for these things in your research, and then turn them into specific questions.
In the video below, I describe how this worked for me when I interviewed novelist Nicholas Sparks.
Write questions like an English major
Apply the tools of literary criticism and analysis to your reading or viewing of the subject’s work. Look for recurring themes, watch for stylistic patterns, and observe how plots are structured and characters are revealed. Then, turn those observations into questions.
Creative subjects love it when you show that you are ready, willing and able to intelligently discuss their work. This helps get them more enthusiastic about the interview, so that they will open up more than they might have, and possibly tell you something new.
In a previous entry, which you can read here, I described how I used this technique when interviewing Sylvester Stallone about the last Rambo movie. In the video below, I describe how it worked when I interviewed director Scott Derrickson about his remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
Ask questions like an English teacher
Like many native English speakers who live in Japan, I first came here to work as a language teacher. It was often a challenge to get students to speak in class. Two bits of jargon I often heard at school were TTT (teacher talking time) and STT (student talking time). We teachers were supposed to minimize TTT and maximize STT.
Some of the ways in which teachers get students to talk can also be used by an interviewer to get a subject to talk. Watch the below video to find out more.
Prepare questions, but not a script
A list of questions is indispensable for a good interview, but the list shouldn’t control the interview. To keep your subject feeling relaxed and open, you should use the list as a guideline to nudge the flow of an otherwise natural-seeming conversation.
There are many ways to order the questions on your list, but it helps to think about one of following three patterns:
Long, then short
Easy, then tough
Vital, then weird
Watch the video below to hear me elaborate on that.